Manga Artists: The Pinnacle of Creative Insanity and Work Ethic
Chances are you’ve heard of ‘manga’ before. Possibly from me. It’s a huge obsession of mine.
Essentially, they’re Japanese comics. They are illustrated in black-and-white, with the occasional colour page.
But rather than elaborating further on what they are, I’m going to explain to you how they’re made.
Manga is released in Japan episodically - in weekly or monthly magazines.
These aren't the sort of magazines we're used to in the West. They're huge.
The most popular of these is called ‘Weekly Shōnen Jump’ – it releases an issue every week, on average about 48 weeks of the year.
At any one point, it is the place of serialisation for over 10 different manga. Some of these have been going for over 15 years, some for a few months.
To create manga, you generally require two main jobs to be fulfilled – the story needs to be written and the art needs to be drawn. Sometimes these are done by two different people, but more often than not the artist and author are one and the same (and both will be used interchangeably here on out).
For the artists of Shōnen Jump, the typical demand is that they must produce around 17-18 A4 pages of drawings per chapter. While these artists do have assistants, they have to produce a standalone draft on their own before they can commit to inking and fleshing out the drawings fully with their team. Each week, pretty much all year.
So let’s pause for a second here – immediately this is a gruelling schedule: within the week you have to write a chapter, get it edited and approved, draft the artwork, get that edited and approved, then produce the final copy. And that’s assuming nothing goes wrong – no final pages get damaged, no arguments over editing etc.
And many of these authors keep this pace up for years, sometimes decades. A series that ended in the last year – Naruto – ran for over 15 years. The author of the series - Masashi Kishimoto – is only now taking his honeymoon with his wife. They were married over ten years ago.
He has expressed plans to start a new series again very soon.
The longest someone has done this? 40 years. A manga called 'Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Kōen-mae Hashutsujo'. It started in 1976, and ended September this year.
Aside from the insane work-ethic, from a story-building perspective this is also madness.
Every week, whatever you’ve written – that’s locked in – it’s out there, it’s published, done. You can only edit what’s in front of you. Certainly author’s and screenwriters often start writing a story with the overarching plot points already decided, but they always go back and edit! Imagine trying to write a book, or a story or a screenplay or anything where whatever you wrote the first week was locked in forever. That’s a terrifying prospect, especially if you plan to build a series over years.
And lets not forget – most of the time, the author and artist are one and the same – they’re doing two jobs.
So this is all pretty hardcore already yes? It doesn’t stop there.
We haven't talked about the competition yet.
In Shōnen Jump, every week there is a public 'ranking' of the chapters.
Though other factors affect the rankings, for the most part they are based on popularity polls taken from readers every week.
Each week, your work is directly compared with every other author and artist in that magazine. And, by nature of being manga artists in Shōnen Jump, they're all really really good.
Now, naturally, in any system of ranking some series have to be at the bottom.
Simply put; if your series is at the bottom end of the ranking for too long (usually a month or two) it gets cancelled. You’re out of the game.
And it’s hardly a level playing field either. If you’re just beginning your story, every series you’re competing with has already been established. Some of the stories you’re competing with have been going for years and years and have supporting animation programs, movies, merchandise, video games, music etc. Shōnen Jump does take this into account to some extent, but they will brutally end a series if it's no longer popular.
Case in point: Recently, a series that was very popular in its early years called Bleach (a manga about death gods battling it out), was ended. The series had run for over 15 years, but had been steadily declining in popularity over the last few. The author was right in the middle of the last part of the story when the editorial staff at Shōnen Jump essentially informed him that he had 4 weeks to wrap up everything as his series was being cancelled.
4 weeks worth of notice to finish a story that had been built for 15 years. Brutal.
So let’s pause again. Not only do you have this insane work schedule where you’re working two jobs almost every week of the year, but you have this public ranking of your work against the other authors hanging over your head every week. If your story has a lapse or a slow few months, then you could be in big trouble.
This, for most artists, sounds like hell.
It's not exactly easier on you if your series does become a huge success either.
If it is a big success, then Shōnen Jump might ask you to do a huge two-page colour spread to promote your manga that week. Animation studios might ask you to write a TV-only story-line for your manga. If you get an animated movie they’re going to want you to design a whole new set of characters. There might be requests for TV interviews, appearances at conventions etc etc.
Every week, I check the rankings in Shōnen Jump to see which series is ahead. Forget any sport you know and keep up with – it frankly pales in comparison to this.
For me, this is the ultimate competition. These people compete with stories and art in an artistic medium whose limits have yet to be fully explored, trying to win week by week the hearts and minds of the Japanese public by creating the greatest possible manga they can. They are pushing the limits of their work capacity week on week.
You like football? Cool..... have you tried looking at the Shōnen Jump rankings? It's like a weekly artistic-writing-super-sprint-marathon-story-off.
Granted what I’ve described above is the highest bar of hardcore-ness that exists in the manga industry. There are magazines which release monthly, which is a less gruelling schedule, and weekly magazines with less of a demand for content. There are probably around a hundred or so manga artists in Japan that work this way.
But these rare few are incredible. They are prodigies, geniuses, and work so hard it's almost inhuman.
I struggle to think of a creative profession that is half as demanding as being a manga artist... or any profession generally for that matter.
We’ve all heard of the 10,000 hour rule.
Well, for most manga artists, they spent their youth drawing. They had racked up those hours before they even attempted serialisation.
For manga, that’s merely the requirement for stepping onto the playing field.
Even if they're brilliant artists, it can take years and years trying to get serialised.
And even then, their first few attempts at a series might flop with the public.
To rise to the top in the manga world is truly a phenomenal feat.
In every manga page, you know that there have been thousands of hours, an obnoxious amount of work and grind poured into it. You know the insane conditions that story and art was written in.
And when it all comes together right, it creates a body of work which is truly unlike anything else out there in any medium.
I've barely even scratched the surface of the world of manga, and I'll definitely be writing more about it soon.
In the meantime however, if anything I've written has piqued your interest into thinking "hey I'm interested in learning more about manga and maybe reading some" I can recommend nothing better to satisfy these two urges than the manga Bakuman.
It is a manga about two young Japanese boys who...want to become manga artists. It's about finding your way in life generally, the prices of pursuing dreams.... it's a manga about making manga.
It's got fantastic art, and provides a great insight into the manga industry while having a compelling narrative.
If you're yet to be convinced, never fear, I haven't even talked about the most popular manga yet...