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How to Become a Manga or Anime Artist

Manga and anime are bigger than ever. Many thousands of people flood into manga and anime conventions across North America every year. Thousands more buy manga books and watch anime movies and TV shows.

Clearly, there's something about the Japanese drawing and storytelling style that has wide appeal for people of all ages. And many of those who love anime and manga wonder if they could make a living creating it themselves.

The short answer is that there are few opportunities to break into the field. But that shouldn't stop you from developing your artistic and storytelling skills. With perseverance, you can get paid for your artistic abilities, even if it's not necessarily creating manga and anime.

"Anime and manga are incredibly popular," says Jim Zubkavich. He's an artist and project manager with UDON, in Toronto. It's an art collective that publishes comics, manga and art books.

"Manga are easily the most popular comics in the world, selling many times over what North American or European comics do," says Zubkavich. "By extension, the anime market is also massive, encompassing many huge franchises and permeating Asian [culture] and now as a larger global pop culture.

"As an example, the bestselling comic in North America at this point sells just north of 100,000 copies per month," Zubkavich adds. "That's a top-end benchmark of strong sales in the current North American comic market. The bestselling manga in Japan right now had a first printing of 3.2 million copies, and that doesn't even count sales of that same title worldwide in other languages. Manga is huge."

Manga and anime have been available in North America for a long time, but they have really caught fire within the last eight to 10 years, says Zubkavich. They have become part of the mainstream culture.

Zubkavich offers these four main reasons for the growth and popularity of manga and anime:

Manga is incredibly diverse: The stories cover a huge variety of age groups, genres, lengths and subject matters, so it's easy for many different types of readers to find manga that appeals to them. The most popular stories involve diverse casts of teen or young adult characters on long-running adventures, giving that age group a bunch of characters they can empathize with and feel empowered by. Beyond that, there are anime and manga that involve history, sports, horror, romance, comedy and just about every other genre imaginable, for young or old, boys or girls.

Manga has a distinctive look: Manga and anime are easy to recognize and the general look is relatively easy to emulate in art, but hard to master. The deceptively simple look of many anime characters makes them iconic, appealing and a common subject for art students to practice drawing. Many of the characters have very strong visual traits that separate them from each other and make them easy for artists to draw from.

Manga is relatively cheap, but rich in content: The fact that manga is usually published in thick, 100-page volumes and priced around $10 to $15 means that readers get a solid amount of content for a decent price. They're a good value for a person's entertainment dollar compared to other comics or full-color books.

Anime is an extension of manga: The animation that grows out of manga is just as recognizable as the popular titles they draw stories from and the two feed off of each other's audiences. Once you have a manga selling millions of units, pushing that title in to animation, video games and other entertainment media is a natural progression. The art style carries over to all kinds of different media.

Most North American distributors of manga and anime simply produce translations of material created by Japanese artists and authors. But a few North American companies are publishing material created here in North America. This is referred to as OEL (original English language) manga.

"There are artists who are creating homegrown manga or illustrating anime-style and making a living at it, but they're few and far between," says Zubkavich. "It's not a basket you'd want to put all your eggs into, that's for sure.

"Tastes are fickle and you need to be adaptable to stay ahead of the art curve," Zubkavich adds. "Beyond just looking like manga, the most successful artists have brought something of themselves in to the art (just as all artists should) so it's not just a pale imitation."

One rare example of a North American artist finding success in manga is Svetlana Chmakova. She grew up in Russia and immigrated to Canada at age 16. She's a manga artist who created a popular manga called Dramacon. Her current series, Nightschool, recently hit the New York Times Manga Bestseller List with its fourth volume.

What was it about manga that first appealed to her? "The expressiveness of the characters, the stories unfolding on the pages... and the extensive library of symbols to get across the mood of any given scene -- mood tones, sweat drops, symbol of the popping vein, etc.," says Chmakova. "I also loved the fact that it was black and white -- I always had a weak spot for that."

Chmakova offers the following advice for aspiring manga artists: "Make a web comic and maintain a regular schedule! Also, finish several short stories -- they are excellent practice for everything ever in comicking."

Chmakova finished her high school diploma in Canada and then completed a classical animation diploma. She says it's a good idea to get formal arts training.

"I think it's very, very helpful," says Chmakova. "I've seen people do great things without it, but I've seen way more that struggle.

"The trick is to get the right kind of art education, though. For example, fine arts programs tend to fall short on actual practical how-to of creating sequential art, so be careful with those. I've found animation courses teach skills that translate very well to comics -- storyboarding, layout, character design, etc. And life-drawing, of course -- it's essential."

Zubkavich says learning to draw in a manga and anime style is an extension of learning how to draw and paint well in general, then adapting those skills to the particular style.

"I think one of the biggest mistakes would-be manga artists make is that they focus exclusively on copying their favorite anime/manga artists rather than getting a solid grounding in art basics (perspective drawing, volume construction, figure drawing, shape recognition, color theory, etc.) and then developing their art in whatever style they choose," says Zubkavich.

"In short, get some classic art training in art, animation or illustration and then branch those skills out in to anime/manga. Getting to a professional level, just as with any art training, requires a lot of hard work, critique and practice."

Even though manga and anime are hugely popular, Frederik Schodt says it's a tough time for manga and anime companies. This is mainly due to the current economic recession.

Schodt is the author of several books about manga and anime, including Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics.

Another reason that it's a tough time for manga and anime companies is that there are a lot of unauthorized translations of manga and anime available on the Internet.

"You have an irony in the sense that the Internet has really helped grow the base of fans but it is also... contributing to a severe recession right now in the industry," says Schodt.

There is some resistance to OEL manga and anime among some fans who feel that only Japanese-created work is authentic.

"Making an actual paid occupation as an artist working in a manga/anime style is quite difficult nowadays," says Zubkavich. "Fans and the industry tend to be quite loyal to Japanese artists and consider most outsiders working in the style to be 'hobbyists' rather than genuine.

"There's a definite cultural and business barrier associated with it and an artist getting past that needs to have art that is as good as, if not better than, what's being produced by their Japanese peers," Zubkavich adds.

"Even then, that artwork will probably only be used in North America and Europe. There are almost no artists outside of Japan creating anime-style art used in Japan."

Schodt says there's a bigger barrier than the cultural one. It's economic.

"I think the larger problem is [that] the artists in North America, whether they want to create anime or manga, they're competing with this huge developed market that exists in Japan, which can be imported and translated," says Schodt.

"It's cheaper for companies to bring in material from Japan than it is to commission new material here, and also the artists who are trying to create in a manga or anime style, they're competing with people from Japan who are born and raised in that culture."

Obviously, these are not insurmountable barriers. Chmakova's success is proof of that. But they're a good reason to not focus your efforts too narrowly. Use your love of manga and anime to inspire yourself to develop your artistic abilities. Then keep your eyes open for all kinds of possibilities, including those outside of the manga and anime worlds.

"I often tell young people who are interested in getting into the business that actually the best thing they can do is to learn how to draw," says Schodt.

"Study drawing in particular and [don't] focus so much on becoming a manga or anime artist, but to become a good artist, and then there might be all kinds of possibilities that would open up in North America."

Opportunities include graphic novels, animations for websites, commercial art, illustrations and animations for advertising companies, and so on.

"There's probably more opportunity now to make a living as an artist than ever before, I think, in the broad sense," says Schodt.

"We're inundated with imagery today," Schodt adds. "Major commercial websites, animation companies, advertising companies -- they all need good artists and people with ideas are always in demand."

Despite the challenges, it is possible to make a living as an anime or manga artist. The UDON studio where Zubkavich manages client projects has been around for 10 years. The studio's team of artists works almost exclusively in an anime/manga style.

"It took years for us to build up a solid group of professional artists who could deliver consistently and longer still for us to slowly break in to the Japanese market and start working with video game and publishing companies on any kind of even footing," says Zubkavich.

"Even then, we're not expanding our staff rapidly. We only bring on a few new artists per year at best, focusing instead on making sure our current crew is busy and pushing their skills along."

Chmakova says manga artists such as herself deal with a number of challenges. "Just the typical freelancer woes -- inconsistent job flow, no health benefits, crushing deadlines," she says. "You have to play it smart, save up during the good times, spend wisely and maybe have a back-up job during the bad seasons."

Whether or not you make money with your manga and anime shouldn't stop you from doing what you love, of course. It costs nothing to publish your work online. You can find an audience who will appreciate your work. That appreciative audience will include fellow artists and storytellers such as Chmakova.

"I hope for more stories that come from the people who grew up here, in this culture," says Chmakova.

"Stories about everything and anything -- high school comedy, historical fiction, office romances, NASCAR drama, etc. There's no limit for special effects budgets or such. Comics can do anything, go anywhere -- therefore they should! I want to read all those stories. I hope people will make them."


Animation World Network
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How to Draw Manga and Anime
A teaching site with info on how to draw specific characters

Anime News Network
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