Sean Michael Wilson is a manga and comics writer who grew up in Edinburgh, and made the move to Japan where he has made it big in the manga world. He is the writer of a number of successful manga including ‘Yakuza Moon’ and ‘Hagakure’. He is the editor of the Harvey Award nominated anthology ‘AX: Alternative Manga’. We got in touch to ask him about his experiences as an international writer and editor. Here he discusses his work, and also announces a very exciting opportunity for Scotland based artists. Read on!
What comics did you grow up reading, and what has influenced you work most?
Like most kids in Scotland and the rest of the UK I grew up reading comics as a matter of course. It was Whizzer and Chips and Victor, ones like that at the start. Then, like a whole generation, I got the 2000AD benders! It was 2000AD that plunged me into the deep well of comics that I am yet to crawl back out of. And I don’t want to, there are many great wonders in it. But I also quickly got into even more mature comics, like Warrior and Escape. Interest in Superheroes was only a short concern for me, because the more indie stuff seemed so much more vital and moving. Of course Alan Moore, and also Eddie Campbell, Grant Morrison, Harvey Pekar, Joe Sacco. This is nothing new but Moore has deeply influenced me, as with many others. Not so much that you can see it in my writing, but in the stance of wanting to do work that matters to you, that has a high level of sophistication. The love of the medium as an artistic form of expression and exploration. Cheers big Al!
What was the draw of Japan for a Scottish born comic creator? How important is where you live and where you come from in making comics?
The draw of Japan is still a mystery to me in one way, although in another way it’s very simple: the lovely women! I came here with a Japanese girlfriend and settled. Apart from that I also thought it would be useful to be in Japan to make an effort to get into working in the manga industry. Which has proven to be the case, through giving it a good go in approaching editors and publishers here, and a bit of luck. But I often need to make it clear that I’m not an expert in manga, or in fact such a big fan. That sounds odd coming from someone who lives in Japan, works with Japanese artists and publishers everyday, and is the editor of one of the most respected manga anthologies yet to come out (AX), but its true! I’m too busy actually getting on with MAKING my books to have time to become an expert about manga in general. Paul Gravett is an expert. Ryan Holmsberg (who did the Ax bio section for us) is an expert. The only area of manga I am knowledgable in is the gekiga type, the mature, indie style. And even that is mostly because the Ax Japan editor, Asakawa-san, has told me about it.
YAKUZA MOON manga edition, art by Michiru Morikawa
What do you think of the current state of comics culture in Scotland? How can we encourage a comics culture more like that in Japan, where manga is read by most everyone?
Actually its somewhat of a myth to say that everyone here reads manga. Much like its a myth that Japan is a really hi-tech country – I would say that Britain is more hi-tech, in terms of everyday things (for instance on Japanese TV they still often simply hold up some jazzed up bit of cardboard to illustrate some facts or events – when’s the last time you saw that in CGI mad British TV?). Likewise, there is still a feeling amongst some in Japan that manga a bit of a low grade thing. Yes, adults read them far, far more than in Britain,and the level of respect and pervasiveness is much higher – but it hasn’t totally escaped that ‘kids’ stuff’ image either. I am not sure if it’s desirable for Scotland to have a comics culture more like Japan. That would require wide scale changes that would not all be positive. But we should definitely have more adults reading comics, and more kids too!
How to do that is a complicated thing, ne? I’ve heard that the main problem might be reluctance on the part of retailers and publishers to give the necessary investment of money and space. However, if there were enough customers they would do it. You know what capitalism is like – it will sell any old crap that makes money: cigarettes, booze, pills, even comics! The hard economic fact is that comics in Scotland/UK just don’t sell as much as they used to. So companies that need to make money can’t afford to give them much time.
So, on the wider level its really an economic problem inherent in the capitalist system. In a different social system comics would flourish far more, I think. Since their artistic and entertainment value is recognised by enough people – just not enough to make much profit! – that they WOULD be given more attention if the profit aspect was not such a dominating thing.
Short of a social revolution there are only two ways for comics to thrive more in a still capitalist UK: more customers want them; or the price of making them becomes much less (because of some technological development). How do we achieve the first? By promoting comics even more, making good comics, and ones that can appeal to a wide range of people. The second one keeps threatening to happen, via digital comics, but it’s not really here yet, is it?
What are the challenges of being a writer, and what are the specific challenges of being one of only a few Scottish creators to find success there?
The biggest challenge of being a comic book writer is making money (oh, back to bloody capitalism – it gets everywhere!). Most people who get into the habit of creative work have no shortage of ideas or desire. The shortage is in money and time. So, if you can manage to wrangle yourself into a situation where you have enough money to spend a large amount of time writing then the next set of problems begins (but also the fun). Then the challenges are to do something interesting to yourself (and hopefully others), and which has the mark of your personality and concerns upon it. Also to learn (does anyone ever master them? – certainly not me) the norms and processes of storytelling. Perhaps lastly to come up with some habits of working that allow you to actually write, rather than spend most of the time on Facebook and Twitter. The fun and meaningful part is what makes it worthwhile, of course.
About being Scottish – well, I’m the only Scottish comic book writer in Japan, the only British one indeed. Unless someone wants to come and join me? I have a spare room! Its a disadvantage in that I need to learn Japanese, of course, which is still a daily struggle for me, since I’m not very good at languages. It’s an advantage in that of course its very unusual, so I can get some extra attention from Japanese publishers, being presumably the only Scotsman who has ever actually turned up at their office! Also it means that UK and US publishers often ask me to do something for them in Japan, since I’ve become known as being active here. But it’s not an achievement to be the only British one here, its not like a prize I won. I’m just the only one in the room!
What kinds of work are you developing at the moment?
I’m working on a 200 page book about American left wing activist Michael Albert and his vision of an alternative to capitalism, thats for a NY publisher. Then I’m working on 2 more historical manga books, in the vein of HAGAKURE that already came out with Kodansha. And the next Gekiga manga book I’m editing for Top Shelf is almost finished – CIGARETTE GIRL by Masahiko Matsumoto (the colleague of esteemed gekiga creator Yoshihiro Tatsumi).
I’m also doing 3 stories that feature Edinburgh in some way (and one recently that featured Glasgow). Firstly, volume 2 of my book my NY publisher NBM is set mostly in Edinburgh – THE STORY OF LEE. volume 1 was set in Hong Kong, where the characters met and a place I visited several times. But they move together to Edinburgh, so i get a chance to feature many places I love or had contact with in my home town, and people too. I find that a big kick, to mix fiction with real experience.
STORY OF LEE, art by Chie Kutsuwada
Then, there is my childhood autobiography book, I’m working on now with a Swedish artist, Hanna Stromberg – ONCE UPON A TIME IN MORNINGSIDE. It’s set totally in the areas i used to play as a kid around the Cluny and Astlie Ainslie’s areas of Morningside. It’s a very open, personal, poetic take on some of my actual childhood experiences and feelings, with an adult ‘ghost me’ observing them and adding ‘pretentious’ comments! The structure of the book is that there is a 6 page scene from my life when i was around 7 to 12 years old and then on page 7 an adult ghost me casts some present day reflections on the scene. It’s a bit of an experiment for me – the 6 page scene is constructed consciously, crafted and made to flow together. But when i get to page 7 then I just write whatever flows out of me at that moment, a stream of consciousness reflection. And hope that something meaningfully related comes out. It has so far, but it might on the next one! Anyway, that will come out next year from a nice publisher.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN MORNINGSIDE, art Hanna Stromberg
So, then the third Edinburgh one is something that I want to make some special note of here, and invite submissions for. Its a story called CONWAY, and is a ‘smart gangster’ story (is that even a genre? – it is now!) It mixes Scottish, Irish and London cultural aspects, with inter-generational conflict and yer actual gangster action. It’s about 150 pages long, and i will submit it to various publishers. Plus film producers, as I’m thinking of it as a potential film project too (in fact an LA company emailed me yesterday to say they wanted to see the script. Only problem is I ain’t finished it yet!). So, I am looking for a Scottish artist to work with me on it. Anyone interested can email me here to discuss it more: firstname.lastname@example.org