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The power of imagination

Interview with
MARK CRILLEY

by Smoky Man

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Mark Crilley is the incredible talent behind AKIKO, the acclaimed series published by Sirius Entertainment since 1995. His comic book is one of the best reading in the market today by mixing childlike wonder and all-age contest - reminding classics like Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland - with sophisticated storytelling techniques and a clear drawing style.
The comic has also been serialized as a successful line of children's books by Random House.
More info about Mark Crilley and Akiko at:
http://www.geocities.com/athens/olympus/6912/ [Crilley's homepage]
http://www.comicsworthreading.com/comics/akiko.html [Akiko Fan Site]

 

AKIKO IN COMICLAND
FREEDOM OF COMICS

AKIKO IN COMICLAND

When did you get the first idea for Akiko? Is it true the whole thing started when you stayed in Japan? And did you get any influences by mangas?

The idea for Akiko was born when I was teaching English in Japan in 1992.
It was really just something to make my classes more interesting for me and my students. I created one page at a time, generally one per week, and took them into class for the students to read and learn from. With Akiko I had an eye towards creating something publishable, so I wasn't really tailoring it to English instruction, just trying to tell a good story. It went over quite well. I often wonder if any of my former students have ever come across an Akiko book in Japan and said, "Hey, I remember this!"

I must confess I didn't really become a fan of manga while living in Japan, and even today I am woefully ignorant of manga and -- to tell the truth -- comics in general! I do have a pretty good familiarity with the animation of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, though even that I acquired after returning from Japan rather than before.

Your Akiko book is often defined as "Alice in Wonderland" meets "Star Wars". Do you think it is a good description?

Akiko is indeed modelled after classic children's tales such as Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz. In the tradition of those two stories I chose a little girl as my lead character, and put a little sci-fi twist on the Wonderland/Oz idea by sending her off into outerspace. 'Star Wars' is a huge influence on me as well, so summing up my series as The Wizard of Oz (or Alice in Wonderland) meets Star Wars is an apt description.

Which is your definition of Akiko?

Well, from my point of view it's nothing more than a big blank canvas upon which I can play round with all sorts of ideas, and draw almost any sort of creatures or scenery I feel like drawing. Akiko, for better or worse, is me, and all the things that interest me.

Can you describe your Akiko's Crew, giving us details about their original concept and their peculiarities?

AKIKO: Akiko is the sort of 'everygirl' of the series. She's a little timid in some situations, very brave in others. She tends to play the part of 'mother' for the other characters, stopping them from bickering among themselves.

MR. BEEBA: Mr. Beeba is my parody of the academic, the sort of person who uses knowledge as a tool for impressing people, not enlightening them. His heart is in the right place, though, and he is a steadfast friend for Spuckler in spite of all their squabbles.

SPUCKLER: Spuckler is often compared to Han Solo, but he's not nearly as clever or selfish as that. He is just the opposite of Beeba: all body and action rather than intellect and caution. He sees the world as very black and white, good and bad; he gets frustrated when people try to make things 'too complicated'.

GAX: Gax is Spuckler's robot, and as such is the 'butler' character, a servant who seems to know he is smarter than his own master. He is usually very obsequious, but occasionally stands up to Spuckler and puts him in his place.

POOG: Poog is the mysterious sage character. He is the most deliberately underdeveloped of the characters, I want him to remain thoroughly inscrutable, so I give out very little information about him, and in fact know almost nothing about him myself.

In her first adventures Akiko went to the planet Smoo enlisted by the planet's King Froptoppit to find his missing son, the Prince. It is an overturn of the traditional fables where the Prince has to save the lady in danger. Was it a way to characterize your little girl as a "strong" character, or what?

It was indeed originally intended to be a reversal of the typical fairy tale, but I soon drifted from that idea and the whole Prince-rescuing plot became little more than a pretext for a long and obstacle-packed journey. I wanted Akiko to start out as quite weak, but have her acquire strength over time.

Poog is a very mysterious creature. Will you revel his secrets in the future or do you think mystery is the essence of the character?

As I suggested earlier, I feel that the less said about Poog the better. I may reveal a bit more in the future, but not much.

In Akiko there are a lot of inventions, strange monsters, bizarre character names, wonderful places … and everything fits very well in the storytelling. It's a real pleasure to escape the real world going in your dreamland. How do you work on the creation of a story arc? Do you write a full script or you go directly to thumbnail the story and then put the dialogue?

I try as much as I can to make the Akiko stories up as I go. I think up the basic plot, have an idea of where I want it to go and how it should end, and then just go, literally creating it one page at a time. I rarely know precisely what the characters are going to say until I'm working on the final art. It's a strange approach, but it keeps things fresh and spontaneous, and from a certain perspective more like life itself which can only be planned out to a certain extent.

And a big one: where do you get the ideas from?

Most of my influences are non-comic book influences: Star Wars, Monty Python, The Wizard of Oz. Ideas come from all over the place. I like to give a specific example. In the movie 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' a character nervously says, 'Any help you could give would be very... er... helpful!' I thought this was funny so I retooled it and had Mr. Beeba say in an entirely different context, 'I was just on the verge of a very insightful... er... insight.' I think most ideas are like this: basic concepts you've seen and enjoyed and are able to adapt to your own purposes.

Apart few colored appearances, Akiko has always been a b&w book. Is it only a way to make the production process easier or is it an artistic preference?

It was a decision made mainly because of cost limitations, but over the years I think Akiko's graytoned look has become such an important part of the series that I don't think I'd switch to color even if I could afford it. It is a nice thing to be able to do every once in a while, though.

Can tell us your comics influences? What about novels, films an so on ?

I am influenced by all sorts of comics, generally older stuff like 'Little Nemo' and 'Popeye'. 'Calvin & Hobbes' is also a big influence. More recently I am influenced by the work of my friends Stan Sakai, Jeff Smith, Linda Medley, and others.
Many of my influences are non-comic book influences: Star Wars, Monty Python, The Wizard of Oz. Even something like the architecture I saw on a visit to Thailand or India finds its way into the way I draw buildings in the comic book.

I read somewhere that you wrote the first Akiko's story without any idea of what was popular in the American market at that time. You said: "If I'd have known how trendy it was for comics to be "grim n' gritty" at that time, I don't know if I'd have had the guts to develop something so untrendy as Akiko." Today I think you are very happy with you "untrendy" decision, don't you? Which is your opinion on today market's state?

Of course I have no regrets about Akiko, especially since my 'untrendy' comic book idea has turned out ot be a very mainstream children's book series. I think if I put my mind to it I could do a comic book series that is more appealing to the majority of comic book readers, but I just don't have the energy to develop such a series right now.
I really don't know enough about the comic book industry to comment on its current state. Clearly there are very serious problems in sustaining the industry at even a fraction of its former size. I suppose I do know enough to know that there are no quick and simple solutions to the problem.

Akiko is an "all ages" comics appealing to a broad spectrum of readers: adults, kids, fantasy and sci- fi fans, children's book collectors. It is in the same direction of few other popular titles such as Linda Medley's Castle Waiting, Jeff Smith's Bone and Jill Thompson's Scary Godmother. Do you think the medium needs more diversity and more books like the ones I cited, don't you?

I think the more diversity the better for any artform, be it comics or pop music. What needs to happen with comics, though, is to get the comics into mainstream bookstores, ideally side-by-side with novelized versions of them. If someone looking for my Akiko books could find my Akiko comic books right next to them there's a very good chance they'd check out both.

In 1998 Entertainment Weekly Magazine inserts your name in their "100 Most Creative People in Entertainment" list. And you was the only comic creator named. How did you feel? Do you think comics need more consideration by the mass-media?

I have to make an important correction here. I was one of two comic book creators included in Entertainment Weekly's 1998 'It List'; the other was Acme Novelty Library creator Chris Ware. For me it was a great honor to be selected along with him, though I think his work is a far, far greater achievement than my own.
I think the media actually gives comic books a fair amount of attention, though of course it will never be as much as the industry wants. Unfortunately a TV news story about, say, a September-11th benefit comic book does not result in a stampede of people running out to the comic book shops. Akiko appearing in Entertainment Weekly did not result in a huge increase in Akiko sales. I think the problem of comic books not being sold in mainstream bookstores is the biggest obstacle to people buying them.

What comics do you currently read? Why?

I must confess I don't read many comic books. Oddly enough, I enjoy reading biographies from my local library more than anything else!
Maybe my life as a fantasy-creator drives me to embrace real-world biographical history when I'm "off duty"!
That being said, I definitely read all the comics by the old "Trilogy" gang: Jeff Smith, Linda Medley, Charles Vess, Stan Sakai and Jill Thompson. Those are in my opinion the finest comics on the market. They are great storytellers, each and every one of them. Another great comic book is Carla Speed McNeil's 'Finder'. Her work borders on genius; she deserves much more attention than she gets.

In 2000, Akiko adventures have expanded in a ongoing series of young readers books that adapt the comics in a novel format [published by Random House]. How is this experience?

I am thoroughly enjoying the process of writing and illustrating these Akiko books, and they are resulting in Akiko being discovered by a much wider group of people. A novel is of course a bigger mouthful in terms of the sheer craft of writing. I really have to focus on getting things right and conjuring up scenes vividly in the 'mind's eye' of the reader. Plus Random House puts everything I do through two or three editorial passes, so there's just a general feeling of having to anticipate the sorts of questions editors and copy editors are going to ask. It's all very good for me as a writer.

Will you create, sooner or later, any original novel that explores other sides of the Akiko's world and crew?

Actually the fifth Akiko book, 'Akiko and the Intergalactic Zoo', is an original story that has never been told before; it features several new characters, and a whole planet that has never been mentioned in Akiko before! This book comes out in April of 2002.

Talking about other media, would you like to see an Akiko Animated Series? Are you interested in a project like this or do you prefer to stay concentrated on the comics and the novels where you can control the whole creative process?

Akiko has been optioned twice for development but unfortunately nothing concrete has come of it. I would be delighted to see Akiko in animated form but am happy to wait many years for it if necessary. I've always felt that I need to 'earn' a proper development deal by making Akiko a big success in its own right as either a comic book or a children's book.

Did you get any Italian proposal to publish your works?

There have been deals signed with publishers in Italy, Spain, and even China, but sadly none of these have reached the point of actually going to press. The Italian rights for the children's books have also been negotiated, and hopefully we'll be seeing an Italian edition of the first book within the next year or so. I believe the Italian rights for Akiko comic books are available at the moment, so who knows? [up]

FREEDOM OF COMICS

Some times ago Sirius published 32 Pages, a very strange one shot with the great subtitle "The darker side of a happy-go-lucky cartoonist". In that book there was some anomalous brief stories and drawings a lot different from your solar Akiko's stories. They had a strong touch of underground and a certain amount of rage and violence. When I read it I thought to Crumb. I like a lot the "Man attacked by his own neck tie" and the surreal "I only have eyes for you". Where did you get that stories from? Do you really have a "dark side"?

32 Pages is actually a sort of 'time capsule', since all of the work in that comic book was done in the fall and winter of 1995, in between signing on with Sirius to publish the graphic novel 'Akiko on the Planet Smoo' (which I wrote & illustrated in 1992-93) and the first issue of the Akiko series, which I did in early 1996.
It is the result of taking a little sketch pad with me into coffee shops and other such places and just doodling spontaneously. It certainly has a lot of Crumb influence in it (I saw the Crumb documentary around that time) as well as dozens of other random influences. I really didn't conceive of it as a unified whole; it is a bit more adult-oriented than Akiko, and just more random and 'stream of consciousness' in approach. I think it probably will remain a one shot, though you never know I guess!
My 'dark' side is still far lighter than the comic book industry in general!

Recently you measured yourself in the superhero genre, doing two stories for DC's Bizarro Comics, a wonderful volume with tons of alternative cartoonists at work on their favorite superheroes. You drew "Wonder Girl vs. Wonder Ton", about a crazy fly race and also wrote an hilarious "First Contact" with The Atom helping Wonder Woman to find her contact lenses. What do you like in superheroes?

To be honest these days I'm not particularly crazy about superheroes, but I do think the genre has been the receptacle for so much talent over the years there's no denying it's kind of the Louvre museum of American comics.

Which is your favorite one? Why?

My brothers and I read comics just as any other children did in the 70s. We were big DC kids. The Atom was always my favorite because I was fascinated with the idea of shrinking.

Would you like to repeat that experience, maybe doing a more "serious" story?

I would be delighted to work on a story for one of the big comic book companies, whether it be superheroes or otherwise. A serious story would be great, but I'm not picky!

Your dream project.

My dream project would be to be paid to travel all around the world and make a comic book series based on the experience. Hey, you said 'dream', now didn't you?

Name an artist or a writer you'd like to collaborate with.

It would be lots of fun to collaborate with Stan Sakai. If Jeff Smith wrote a story and thought I'd be a good one to illustrate it I'd do that in a heartbeat.

Which future do you imagine for comics?

I get the sense that it's destined to become something like, say, the classical music industry: an under-appreciated artform that survives because of a small number of dedicated enthusiasts. I'd love to see a rebirth in interest in comic books among mainstream Americans, but it's very hard to imagine that happening right now. [up]

All images © Mark Crilley


[december 2001]


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