INTERVIEW: Adam Warren
Manga in the Mainstream
By Jason Thompson

Last issue, Adam Warren talked about how he discovered manga and developed his own comic version of the classic anime Dirty Pair. Our interview resumes as the talented writer-artist talks about his work as writer/cover artist on Gen 13, and the fate of the American comics market...

"A friend of mine in Japan put it together. It was an actual honest-to-god dojin published by one of the dojin publishers. It was a lot of fun. It actually sold reasonably well, I'm told. But I should say for the record, it's not my sketchbook, which is an unfortunate misnomer on the cover. All that follows is either commercial stuff or commissions I did for people. I have to explain that, because of the large bondage section. I don't sit at home sketching, okay? I don't sketch for pleasure, as it were.

--Warren on his dojinshi, Adam Warren's Sketchbook (1996)

PULP: Has your work been translated? Do you have some fans in Japan? Because I've seen your dojinshi.

Adam Warren: There's a small import market, because that's how it gets into the country, from Manga no Mori [Takashi Oshiguchi's famous comics store in Shinjuku]. Apparently a small cadre of manga fans actually follow American stuff through import, not through the translated stuff, because my versions actually can't appear in Japan. Our contract doesn't cover that.

P: How did you start working on Gen 13?

AW: Sarah Becker, the editor of Gen 13 back in the day--also the same Sarah Becker from The Real World, first season--had seen my stuff on Dirty Pair, and I ended up doing some pin-ups for WildStorm for the occasional book, and then she lined me up for Gen 13 Bootleg, the short-lived series that had kind of alternative artists and writers on Gen 13 stories. That was where I got the "Grunge: The Movie," thing, which made a pretty good impression on WildStorm, and pretty much everything else has preceded from that.

P: It seems that with Gen 13 and Titans: Elseworlds, your star has sort of ascended over the world of superheroes, so to speak.

AW: Well, that is true....I do follow some American superhero stuff, but mainly stuff written by Brits. Because the best writers in comics are either in the UK or they're named Brian. [laughs] So I read Planetary, whatever Grant Morrison's writing, that kind of deal. So yeah, I'm not a huge fan of the genre per se, seeing that it's had a strangehold on the medium forever, but it can be fun. It's kind of my own take on it. Like in Gen 13, it dawned on me that I've written nine or ten issues at this point, and there's no costumes yet. I was like, "Hmm. Maybe you need costumes in superhero comics? I should look into that."

P: I suppose you could say that the fact that your art has been received so well is a sign of how manga and anime have become the mainstream within American superhero comics.

AW: That's pretty much true. Certainly you're a lot more accepted at higher levels now than used to be the case. Back in the day when I first was showing stuff at conventions in the mid-eighties, it was completely alien and freakish to a lot of the editors. Not to all of them, but many would just freak out. Like, "Oh, it‘s that Speed Racer stuff." Or my personal favorite line, not said to me personally: somebody approached a Marvel editor, and they told her, "Well, we already have manga. We have Akira. We don't need any more." D'oh! It's much better accepted at higher levels now, given that manga-influenced artists have been on some of the top books in comics, but on the other hand, in some quarters it's still reviled. You tend to not grasp that, but every now and then if you check online stuff, you'll hear fulminating tirades about "that manga crap being shoved down our throats, I hate it, man!" There are some people who are pissed off at just having to see it.

P: So do you think that the wave started with American already-mainstream artists showing a manga influence, or with "manga-style" artists suddenly getting good gigs?

AW: Hmm...that's a tough one. That's a real tough one. It certainly got a lot more mainstream exposure when big-name guys like Joe Madureira [became known]. He kind of came up as a more mainstream artist, and sort of had a bit of a manga influence, and probably had better exposure. I'm arguably one of the better known manga-style people and I didn't start getting mainstream jobs until relatively recently. So I don't know. Maybe if I'd done more superheroes, it would've helped. Or, as someone else explained to me, "If you'd done serious comics about scantily clad babes killing people, you might have made out better." Ahh, I see, the satirical element of the Dirty Pair has only hurt me! I could have been in the Bad Girl market way back when! [laughs]

P: All your material is fairly humorous, even though it's often really, really black humor. Would you ever be interested in doing a story that's more, how shall I say it without saying more serious? [laughs]

AW: Well, when I'm doing "straight" material, most of which hasn't been seen, it's really, really harsh. Even my humorous material has undertones that are kind of unpleasant, but without the humor, it gets too harsh for a lot of people.... It's always been kind of like a reverse catharsis for me. I was clinically depressed for a good chunk of the first couple of years on Dirty Pair, and you can't tell that from the writing. It's kind of light and fluffy compared to what was going on in my life at the time.

P: Do you think the term "American manga" has any meaning any more? What does it mean today? How deep has it soaked into American comics?

AW: God only knows. I never use the term, because I've never liked it.

P: In an old Animerica interview, you said, "I don't try to draw like manga, which is implied by manga style. I'm heavily manga-influenced."

AW: Yeah, that's more accurate. I mean, that's the dominant influence, probably. Most of the American influences are much more obscure: the Steve Rude, the Jack Kirby, the Mike Golden stuff is much harder to see than the "toothy mouths taken from 3x3 Eyes guy."

P: Oh yeah, he loves the canines.

AW: Yeah, that's where I got that from. When I draw people yelling, they've got exaggerated tooth structures. It's manga-influenced, but it's not an attempt to be manga "style." I mean, I could make my work look exactly like a manga artist, I could do a perfect imitation, and what would be the point of that exactly? It happens here that people say [whines], "He's not manga enough!" or "His stuff's not manga!" Well, of course it's not. I'm American. What the hell. What kind of goal is it to pretend you're from another culture? "Look, it's a perfect imitation of a bad Japanese artist! Golly!" I just do my own thing. I never call it manga, though, or manga-style. I mean, the term manga is just an English linguistic construct, but we're not getting into that whole kettle of fish. What really annoys me is when people use it as a value judgment, like, "Well, if his storytelling was better, it'd be manga." No, there's plenty of manga with hideous storytelling. Bad manga is still manga, guys. But whatever.

P: Do you think that a lot of Americans are attracted to drawing in "manga style" simply because it looks easy to do? I mean, you've studied at the Kubert School, you're a classically trained artist, what do you think?

AW: I don't know about the "easy" part. What always amazes me is that some of my artist friends who are quote-realistic-unquote, people who are capable of incredible feats of art that are totally beyond my comprehension--I can't paint, my realistic drawing skills are limited at best--but often when they attempt the "manga" approach, or "anime" character design, it all goes to hell. It's kind of amazing. But anyway, jumping back to the question, it's just that for a lot of us--it's certainly the case with me--the character design of Dokite (Tsukasa Dokite was the original Dirty Pair designer) and Takahashi, et al, it just really appeals to you. And you really want to draw that way. I don't know if it's so much the easy part, as just something that you just love the look of it, and you want to do it yourself.

There's no explanation for it, the whole thing about the big eyes taken from Disney, that's the Tezuka root. Well, that's ironic because I despise Disney. So to a lot of people it just looks really cool, and you really want to draw it. And actually, that's a big influx of people wanting to do comics at the moment. Because comics are a dying medium, but on the other hand, there's a big influx now of younger people. Because if you're into anime and/or manga, and you want to draw it, your options are kind of limited. Are you gonna go study animation and end up in-betweening at Hanna-Barbera? That's not very thrilling. But if you want to do your own kind of manga-type thing, you still can! In comics! So most of the new people I see getting into comics are anime-influenced. They just love drawing in that style and they want to continue doing so.

P: Of course, one of the other appealing things about manga to the American comic book market is the dream of the huge popularity of Japanese comic books in their homeland.

AW: Oh. That's true. Actually, I'm not sure how many people getting into it are even aware of that, though. And the sort of depressing thing, at least from what I've heard, is that the manga market is contracting. Still, even if it implodes to 1/25th of its current size, it'll still be larger than the American comics field ever was, so it's not as if the field's in danger. But still, it's kind of disconcerting to hear that.

P: I think manga's contribution to the dream is, "My work will be read by everyone! Read on train stations!"

AW: Yeah, read by salarymen! On the train! The whole nine yards. I'd kind of forgotten about this, but way, way back in the day, when I was first getting into it, my big plan was to move to California, get some deal going on there, and then I was gonna go to Japan. [laughs] Be a manga artist in Japan. I clued in pretty rapidly, within a couple of months, that that was not a valid lifestyle approach.

P: Did you ever try Kodansha's sort of Star Search program they were doing in the mid-nineties?

AW: Yeah, I did see it, but I did not get into it. I mean, they were explicitly not looking for anything that looked at manga. So I was like, "Well, whatever." Plus I'd already gotten over the "Oh, would that I could be published in Japan!" thing, which during the era of Japanophilia had occurred to a lot of fans and pros at the time. I've had stuff that was published in Japan, no full comics or anything, but it's interesting to be mentioned in Comickers [a monthly Japanese magazine about comics, aimed at fans and aspiring artists].

P: Do you have any idea what this quality is that causes people to have such an attraction and a love for that style?

AW: I have no idea why. It seems bizarre that something from an alien culture can appeal so much to an American, but there it is. Certainly, even manga I'm not particularly into holds much more cultural resonance for me than European comics, which I always found kind of cold and uninvolving.

P: You yourself have been an influence on artists. Chynna Clugston-Major says you are one of the reasons she draws manga-style.

AW: Oh! Damn. That's cool. I love her stuff. I really like the fact that she's not doing some fantasy, she's telling semi-autobiographical stuff in a really wonderful manner, using lots of imaginative storytelling devices. It's great.

P: One thing I find as the editor of Dragon Ball is that--of course I'm in the position to see this if I want to see it--but the tremendous amount of fan art that we get. It's all very anime-influenced, anime-looking stuff. It makes me wonder if this is going to be absorbed as the "style" on the back of their minds for these young people, just in the way that this Kirby/Romita superhero style was absorbed by people in the seventies and early eighties.

AW: That certainly seems likely. I'm curious what that's going to mean long-term. More long-term in the world of commercial art than in comics per se, because a lot of them just don't read comics. I don't think they're gonna pick them up later on, either. The fact is that there's more good comics probably than at any time ever, but there's also more crap than ever out there too. There's a stupendous amount of products out there, and discriminating [among them] is in some ways even harder than back when there were fewer good comics.