INTERVIEW: Paul Pope
When it comes to Westerners learning How to Draw Manga, the difference between Paul Pope and the other ninety-and-nine suggests the same gap separating the monk who studies for five years at the Shaolin Temple and the guy who merely checks out Game of Death on a two-night rental. As you will see from his interview, Pope, who had already attracted critical acclaim in the early nineties for his self-published comics Sin Titulo and The Ballad of Dr. Richardson, spent the second half of the decade on contract to manga publisher Kodansha, learning the spirit of the business--and the struggles amidst the overpressured world of editor-driven comics as mass media.
Pope was groomed first for Afternoon, the monthly that originally ran Dark Horse Comics titles Blade of the Immortal and Gunsmith Cats, and then for its much bigger Kodansha brother Morning, the weekly home of PULP editors' favorite Division Chief Kosaku Shima. In the end, Pope was published in neither, and has returned both to America and self-publishing and acclaimed work for DC/Vertigo and Dark Horse.
Note: This is a significantly longer version of the interview that appeared in the print version of PULP August 2001.
POPE: I wanted to get this story out about manga. I feel that a lot of the interesting stuff that I'm doing, that's coming from Japanese comics, that's got that manga fusion, it's kind of missing people, so I'm really happy to be talking with someone who's looking at this stuff and talking about it, you know?
PULP: I guess this would be a good place to start--correcting people's impressions about what "manga" is.
POPE: I should say what manga isn't. Manga isn't comics; it isn't big-eyed; it isn't this Americanized thing that people are taking--any manga artist that uses that big-eyed cliché, and for people to think that's the mechanics of manga--it isn't. I would begin by saying that. But to say it in the positive sense, I would say that manga is an attempt--it's a lot of things, because it's a huge art form--but I would say that the best manga attempts to recreate the psychological state of a character. So it's the character driving the narrative rather than the story driving the character.
PULP: So you think that manga at its best is character-driven.
POPE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, when I was working at Kodansha, they always said, "We don't care what the story's about--just give us a character that we care about; give us a personality that we want to look at, that we want to identify with, that we want to understand. And that was really the thing that they were always driving home. Everybody knows about this notion: "Oh, in manga, that's why the eyes are so big--you can see deep into a character's soul." I think, though, what they're really trying to articulate is that manga readers want the experience of another person's life, and they want the experience of another person's psyche. That's a big difference, because--for example, I'm a big fan of Ikegami's Spider-Man. And one of the manga people had told me that Marvel had tried to repackage the original Steve Ditko Spider-Man and sell it for publication in Japan. They said, "It's a great concept, we like the idea, we like the name, we like the costume--but, y'know, one of these pages would be told in twenty pages in manga." And I think that's the difference right there--manga will take a simple story idea, but they will give it more of a cinematic approach I'm getting ahead of myself, but it's so exciting to be talking about this stuff. Let me go back a moment--let me put a cap on this, real fast.
When I was working for Kodansha, the joke was always, "A bad comic is where you have a panel where Superman jumps through a window, and the caption says "Superman jumps through a window," and he's saying, "I'm jumping through the window," and there's a sound effect that says, "JUMP." [LAUGH] Or you can imagine three panels: 1.) he's jumping through the window, 2.) he's landing on the ground, 3.) he says, "I've done it"--or something like that. I really have a sense from what I learned from manga, is that, rather than try to tell and directly tell the story where Superman is jumping through the window, that the best manga will try to give you the experience of jumping through the window--the tactile sensations, the speed of it, the rush of it--catch all the different moments in-between the three panels that an American comic might use to tell the story.
PULP: Well, I think it's interesting that you bring up the example of Spider-Man, because Peter Parker was supposed to be more of a "typical teenager," seeming to have the experiences of life that you characterize as being emblematic of manga. But are you saying that the conventions of American comics work against that type of expression?
POPE: Ah actually, I don't think so. I think--I think--Again, let's talk about the best manga. We'll let people identify whatever that might be for them. There's great manga, and there's great comics, and let's just assume that they're different. I think the best manga is character-driven. Take, for example, Lone Wolf And Cub. A great concept, a great story. It doesn't matter that it's about a samurai. It doesn't matter that it's about a father and son so much. It doesn't matter, the setting so much, or the way that they look. You know what I mean? It's about the personalities that are coming through the stories. The stories seem very medieval in a sense, like The Cantebury Tales. He goes on a journey, and hears these various people's stories in these character sketches.
When I was working at Kodansha, they'd always want to reduce things to the most basic elements of character. You'd tell them, "I have this story " and you'd start telling them all of these plot elements, and they'd say, "We don't care--just show us the drawing of the character." "This story is about a young girl, who's doing XYZ," or "This story is about a young man, who's an honest young man in a place where everyone's corrupt." You know what I mean? That's what they wanted to see. They wanted to see these characters.
And then, on top of that, you might have some sort of façade to make it more interesting, based on whatever people are interested in right now--you know, maybe this year it's going to be golfing, because of Tiger Woods. Or maybe this year, ships are popular because of Titanic. I will say that one thing they did really well in manga was to capitalize on topical trends, because the artists are trained to work so quickly. If there was some movie that was really popular, the editors would say, "Make your manga so that people would want to see it as a movie."
PULP: They keep their ear to the ground, and see what's going on in society, as befits a mass medium. I feel that comics in this country aren't created, let alone sold or marketed, as if they expect them to be a mass medium. It's odd; DC is owned by a company that almost literally has all the money in the world now [LAUGHS], AOL-Time Warner. If anybody would have the resources to try promoting and publishing comics on the scale of a Kodansha or Shogakukan or Shueisha, they would. But they haven't.
POPE: It's interesting that the inertia that happens in Japanese corporations hasn't worked against the art of manga, because it's such a strong money-making device that there's room to do such things as--in my own experience--bring forty foreigners over to create manga--let's put them through grad school for manga, and if any of them make any money for us, great, but if not, we're making enough money from other things that we have room for R&D.
PULP: As far as I know, Kodansha, of all the major publishers of manga, has experimented the most with foreign artists.
POPE: Yeah, I think so, I think so. The flip side might be that they're very reluctant to do any reprints of material that's been a proven success in other countries. You know, a case in point is Spawn. They didn't want to do Spawn as a reprint. They didn't want to do X-Men as a reprint. They didn't want to do any of this beautiful stuff from Europe as a reprint.
PULP: Is that because they prefer to develop their own artists?
POPE: Yeah, it's a pride issue. They would say, "We're one of the oldest, most venerable traditions in Japanese publishing, stretching back to the 1600s"--or whenever it may be-- "We published Mishima; why should we reprint Moebius?" When you really got down to it, there was a sense of cultural prejudice. The guy who finally fired me was a replacement for the guy who hired me. And his attitude was, basically, "If we're going to put all this time and money into an artist, let's make it a Japanese artist, not an American." And I really can't blame him for that, because it's a different culture, a different nation, a different set of concerns--and it was a different senior editor.
PULP: Of course; well, it just isn't an immigrant-oriented society, when you come down to it.
POPE: It's a homogenous society. But a country like Belgium is the same--they're so small, and they're surrounded by other cultures, other languages, other people with different histories, that there's a really strong sense of a close-knit identity; you know, "We're Japanese." But also, to look at themselves, they have to see themselves as part of a cultural framework, where, because they're so small, they're always seeing themselves in relation to other countries--particularly, the U.S. and China. And it's an interesting thing, you know, because you have a sort of creative friction there that is very good. When you get a Japanese "genius," you get a genius--you don't just get someone who's talented. Because there's so many pressure to conform that--
PULP: --a genius in Japan had to assert themselves against greater odds?