Conversation with Felipe Smith at MangaNEXT

Felipe Smith, mangaka of Peepo Choo was a guest at this year’s MangaNEXT. He is one of the few foreigners that have gotten a chance to work exclusively at Japan as a mangaka. Prior to that American readers may have known him from MBQ an OEL manga that was released from Tokyopop. I was able to interview him, with Brigid who wrote for Robot 6. Since Felipe spoke English fluently, it was quite easy to speak with him, and he ended up going on these great tangents. Below are notes from my interview and from his panel later.

What has been the most challenging aspect of going professional?

 Convincing editors to let me do what I want. Because to experience something different is going to be hard to accept.

Do you have a routine for outlining your stories? Is it on the spur of the moment, or would you talk with your editor on pitching ideas and storyboards?

It has also been a different experience in the United States and Japan. In the United States I was allowed free rein, since my editor liked a lot of my material. In Japan it is more of a joint effort, my editor and I sit down chapter by chapter… so it is a big battle. Going to Japan, my work from the states before doesn’t matter. I am technically not a new artist, but in Japan, I was treated as a 新人. So in Japan it depends on how much your work sells before your editor lets you go on your own.

Would you have any assistant helping with your projects?

Yes… One assistant for Peepo Choo. So you pay for your own assistant at about $100 a day. Now pay rate for a beginning mangaka is three times less. As a beginning mangaka, you’re just paying assistants, and royalties are what you would later earn. That why some manga series last for well over 10 years. You have to support your assistants and those are also artists who want to be in your spot. You need to feed yourself and in a Japanese shoebox apartment. Since I have to feed myself, inevitably I end up cooking for my assistant. I don’t use them for assisting me with cleaning, but that is usually part of their job. Time and money needed to be budgeted. “I have a futon under one desk,” so my assistant would work while I sleep and vice versa in an 11 to 12 hour work day. “Hardest part of this is dividing the work.” Now my [screen] tones are digital, so I can do a lot of the work myself. But the schedule of being a mangaka prevents you. I tried out seven assistants before choosing one. An assistant can also be testing you, like working slowly or doing something different.

What has been your inspiration?

I have a background in fine arts, so I would look at that and at other things.  Simon Bisley is an artist  that I have admired in high school, his comics had humor quite in your face, funny and crude. Also an Argentina comic known as Cazador that I have also enjoyed. I have been fortunate to meet all my art idols, yet as an artist I want to leave my mark and be known for my art, but I have learned that you can’t appease everyone. At this time, I have been wary of meeting artists that I have been inspired by, wary for how they would treat their fans. I try not to be like artists who would be bastards to fans though

Since 3/11 in Japan last year, how has it been as a foreigner living in Japan?

It has been the same… earthquakes happen all the time, so it is something to be of use to. I had gone to Japan for work. Lots of foreigners left. “Flyjjins.” Foreigners who stayed really liked where they are living. This event was a catalyst to get rid of lots of foreigners. My family was really worried, they called every day. Yet I was still working… but with an uncertainty as to what was happening. I did go to Los Angeles for two weeks to appease family. The main change from last year is that people realized what their situation was and natural disasters can happen at any moment.

Do you have any pets?

No pets. I like to play with friend’s pets though. Though being in Japan though can be the loneliest days of your life. I use to be a dog person as a kid, but too much responsibilities and no time.

Any more works that readers can expect?

I have been pitching plots for over two year. There are several projects, but can’t talk about it.

Now at his fan Q&A later, Felipe Smith spoke candidacy with audience. Here are my notes from that panel.

  • Felipe has always wanted to write for a global audience. Publishers in Japan want to work with talent from abroad. But they definitely do not want artwork or style or storytelling to mimic others.
  • Felipe spoke about the concepts of Honne (本音) and tatemae (建前).
  • Lots of details he has written in Peepo Choo  may have went over Japanese readers. So many reactions are interpreted differently. Even flipping the bird is meant differently.
  • Manga is a good medium to skim through without needing to read it much in depth.
  • Prior to going to Japan, as an artist he used Sharpies and pens. Now he uses Nix Pens, and G pen is quite a popular nib. He doesn’t use traditional tones, but digital ones.
  • He did the translation from the Japanese releases. Volume 3 is his own words in Japanese. He wrote Volume 1-2 with assistant, initially he wrote in English, but has to end up rewriting it into Japanese. He has 100% control over English script.
  • Reading has a longer tradition in Japanese. So when his book was published there was a poll for audience in the Japanese market, and there were mixed reviews of half and half. No one believe he was English, until he went on television.
  • Really can’t veer too much from the norm in storytelling.
  • When asked what characters he loved to draw in Peepo Choo. Smith responded with an answer of being unable to choose. He named practically everyone in the cast.
Felipe Smith's random sketch
Jody as an octopus doodle

There are definitely some more images of Felipe Smith at MangaNEXT check it out at Anime Diet’s Flickr here.

6 thoughts on “Conversation with Felipe Smith at MangaNEXT”

    1. That is always a good idea. Showing respect to fans, definitely an etiquette to being a known ‘mangaka.’

      I wrote those part in the paragraph thinking about people who like to study about Japanese culture, but honne and tatemae is inward and outward appearances. How do people look at you vs… how do you see yourself.. there’s a whole issue with how reserved Japanese acts, but this term is not synonymous with just Japanese culture.

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