Sean Michael Wilson is from Edinburgh but now lives in Japan where he creates comics. You can read his blog here. Bella tracked him down to ask him a few questions.
Bella: Can you explain to people who don’t know anything what manga is?
Sean: Basically, manga is the name for comic books in Japan. There are certain differences in the kinds of stories told, or the way they are told, or the styles in which they are drawn. The manga industry is very big in Japan – sales are much more than in the UK or even than the USA. And it has a lot more appreciation as an art form, and a lot more adult readers. The common idea about comic books in Scotland and the whole of the UK is that they are for kids, which – lets settle this right now – has always been incorrect. They are just a form, like film or song, that can come out with stories at any level. Some that kids will like, others that adults will like. Saying comic books are for kids is like say music is for kids because nursery rhymes exist. It’s a daft idea, at that’s that. So in Japan is common for people in their 20′s, 30′, 40′s to read manga.
Especially in the last 15 years manga has become very popular in English translated versions published by big American companies (but also in France Italy, Germay etc). It’s become a youth subcultures – reading manga, and also watching anime (animation) and doing cosplay (dressing up like Japanese manga/anime characters). One of the best things about that is that its brought a lot of females readers, so that comics are not just a male dominated thing. My own comics/manga, that I write myself, are the more sophisticated ones, mature style manga that appeals to adult readers – which does not mean pornography! It means they have complex stories on themes that would interest adults, not kids.
Bella: How did you end up in Japan? How long have you been living there? Have you been there all across the last few years, the crisis of Fukushima, earthquake etc?
Sean: I’ve been here for a few years now and yes i was here on the day the earthquake and tsunami hit. Of course that was very dramatic. There’s been two charity comic books made in reaction, and I’ve contributed stories to both of them. All money made from the sales of the books goes to relief efforts in the Tohoku/Fukushima areas. One is mostly British creators THE SPIRIT OF HOPE and the other is mostly US creators – AFTERSHOCK.
Bella: What were your first comic book influences / inspirations?
Sean: Like most kids in Scotland at that time I grew up reading comics. It was Whizzer and Chips and Victor, ones like that at the start. Then I got into 2000AD It was 2000AD that plunged me into a deep love of comics – like it did for so many others. Then even more mature comics, like Warrior and Escape. Alan Moore has deeply influenced me. Not just the quality of his stories, but also his attitude of wanting to do work that matters to you personally, with a high level of sophistication and social value.
Q4. I know your work is very different from Marvel and DC etc but what do people like yourself, Grant Morrison, Alan Grant, Mark Millar have in common? Is it like snooker, Scotland produces a great crop of people from an unholy wasted youth? What are the visual influences that inform this Scottish comic scene?
- The ‘unholy wasted youth’ thing is a key factor I think. Not that I’m saying all those lads and me had wasted youths. It’s a theory of mine that one of the reasons that Britain in general produces so much creative work in lots of different fields is because of the social fabric. We had and in some ways still do have a very wasteful capitalist based class system that squeezes some people into jobs that doesn’t allow them to express their potential. Various people rebel against that to want to express themselves in more individualistic ways – rock n roll, painting, graffitti, film making, etc. Comic books is one of those areas. Inequality sometimes produces subversive creativity! Another issue is that Scottish society (and, again, all the UK) has a very violent and macho side to it. There’s a lot of bullying, both verbal and physical. People who are odd in some way get slagged off a lot. There’s too much tendency to quickly turn to violence to sort problems out. Even if most of the time you go out for a drink there is no actual violence, there is often an air of tension, of insecurity about what might kick off, or what that bunch of kids on the corner might do as you walk past. There’s a few ways of dealing with this – you can become ‘tough’ yourself (or make out you are); or you can put your head in the sand and pretend its not happening; or you can try to create a different thing in some way – something in contrast to the life you see around you and don’t like. So, it seems to me that a lot of creativity also comes from people who make that third choice. I don’t know if this applies to Grant Morrison, Alan Grant, Mark Millar at all, but I can see it in my own life. Grant has had a lot of influence on me – both in terms of his intelligent approach to comics, but also he influenced me to get into magick and we share a love of 60′s music and style. One time in the Edinburgh Film Theatre, when he was doing a talk about his comics, and I was in the audience – he interrupted the question I was asking him to say to me: “You’ve got a cool haircut, by the way”. Nice!
Bella: How does reading of comics differ in Japan? Your the first UK writer to have your content read from mobile phones?
Sean: I think I am. There might be some Marvel or Alan Moore stuff on the keitai (mobile phone) format in Japan, but I’m certainly the first one to actually turn up at the door of these keitai manga providers, and work out a deal with them directly. Not that I care much about being the only Scottish (or British) professional comic book creator in Japan, I just happen to be the only one! Actually I’d be happy if a few more came over, it would be better that way.
Bella: What’s the most exciting comics / graphic novels you can recommend coming out now?
Sean: Well, the British comic book scene is more alive now than it’s been for years – its an exciting time! Even though I’m happy to be in Japan and get a lot out of being here, in a way I feel bad missing out on some of the comic book events going on in the UK! There’s just been the ‘Thought Bubble’ festival in Leeds, Scotland has the Hi-Ex one in Inverness, and Comica in London is just brilliant. Dundee University has a MLitt in Comic studies now. There’s a whole bunch of high quality indie publishers like Blank Slate and Selfmadehero who are putting out some really great books. And Paul Gravett’s Escape publishing is starting up again. There’s great various anthologies like ‘Ink and Paper’, and ‘Solipsistic pop’, Strip magazine has just started and one just out called ‘ Nelson’. Though, i don’t think all this renewed energy has translated in a great increase in sales yet – so please check out some of these book and buy at least one! But of course please try out some of MY books too -
Bella: What do you miss about Scotland? What are your reflections about Scottish politics from Japan?
Sean: Up until recently I did not miss much. Japan takes a lot of getting used to, as the culture and the language are so different and, in some ways, difficult to learn. But in the last year or so I’ve found myself thinking about home a fair amount. I’ve been watching a lot of stuff like ‘Chewing the fat’ and ‘Still game’ and recently ‘Burnistoun’ a lot, to get a fix of Scotland. It keeps me sane here. I miss some Scottish food – simple things like bridies and stovies, and i’d love to get some Edinburgh chip shop brown sauce! I’ve been working on my childhood autobiography, called
On the other hand, if i went back to Scotland now, I know i would be annoyed at many things. As i said the high level of violence and acceptance of violence attitudes is a major problem. We should be deeply ashamed of that, and make big efforts to change it. I’m starting to work now with a Welsh university lecturer on a comic book about aspects of violence. A related issue is religious sectarianism, which appears to be getting worse again. I was brought up a Catholic and remember a fair amount of trouble along religious lines. But I listened to my grandfather’s stories about how much worse it was in the 30′s etc, and thought at least we’ve improved since then. But are we sliding back recently? The problem has to be seriously addressed – as in, bloody well do something about it!
Bella: Tell us about your latest work, telll us about: ‘Yakuza Moon:the manga edition’
Sean: Yakuza Moon (from the publisher Kodansha, art Michiru Morikawa) is a manga adaptation of the true story of Shoko Tendo – a heartrending and eye-opening account of her experiences growing up as the daughter of a Japanese gangster. She is labeled “the yakuza kid,” in school and even suffers from bullying and discrimination because of it. She has to cope with her father’s drunken rages at home, and then debt after he gets ill. She falls n with the ‘wrong crowd’ of young ‘yanki’ hooligans. Things get even worse as by eighteen she’s a drug addict, and throughout her twenties she’s in a series of abusive and violent relationships with gangsters. But in the end things improve, not like a fairy story since this is a true story - she begins to reevaluate her life an in an unconventional act of empowerment she gets tattooed from the base of her neck to the tips of her toes. A symbolic act of transformation which reflects her inner change towards a more balanced and positive life.
Also, I’ve recently written The Story of Lee (NBM Publications, art Chie Kutsuwada) about Lee, who lives in Hong Kong, and Matt, a Scottish guy she meets there. Their relationship develops, despite deep cultural differences and the disapproval of her father. And there is another contender for Lee’s heart, a Chinese young man, whose jealousy takes on twinges of xenophobia. It’s a well worn plot and situation which i chose deliberately, to see if i could do that type of story and still make it believable, give it some spice of its own.
Then there’s ‘AX: alternative manga’ (Top Shelf Productions), a 400 page collection I edited of mature, indie style Japanese manga – out in English for the first time. It was published last summer at the San Diego comic convention and was a big hit – it was selected as one of the ten best comic books of 2010 by Publishers Weekly,and nominated for a Harvey Award. Nice!