Confessions Of A Failed Manga Artist


I’ve always wanted to be a good drawer.  Sadly, I failed utterly.  This is partly because of a lack of raw talent, and partly because I simply don’t have the artistic temperament.  Meaning, I don’t have the patience for the practice and the attention-to-detail that great– even mediocre– art requires.

Which reminds me, I have a theory here (don’t I always?)…

I suspect that one reason artists (including musicians) are so often over-eaters, smokers, pot-heads, or drunkards (no offense) is to help make the tedium of all that pains-taking, detail-oriented, often lonesome work bearable.  I know for myself, though I love writing and can’t imagine being fulfilled without dedicating at least some part of each week to it, I find that– however active my mind is– the actual physical process of writing bores my body terribly.

I start getting fidgety.  My body starts wanting to munch or move or do something– anything– besides remain seated in that blasted chair.  I try not to snack (writing is such a sedentary job that I don’t need any more help in getting fat), but I have gone through phases where I tried smoking or drinking to help entertain my body while my mind worked, but (luckily for me) I could never get over my repugnance to smoking, and drinking– much to my chagrin actually– far from improving my creativity, only made me sleepy, thus backfiring totally as a productive crutch.

But back to the artistic temperament…  The true artist seems capable of going about his or her detail-heavy labors for hours… day after day after day.

Which leads me to another issue pinging around in my over-anxious mind…  And this one relates to writing as well as to drawing… The act of spending all that time doodling or making poetry or telling little stories… sometimes it can feel so self-centered, so narcissistic.  Perhaps if I were a super-successful artist, I could make the argument… “But look at all the joy I bring into people’s lives!  Of course my time spent aggrandizing my own experiences, opinions, and moods through my art is worth it!  Of course it’s meaningful!”

Then again, maybe it’s all just self-centered crap.  Maybe society is no better off with me on the team.  Maybe I’m deadweight.  Maybe I need to trail away from the herd and lighten its burdens.  I don’t want to be a net-taker.  I want to be a net-giver.  Or at least… in the ballpark of evensies.

The book which has led me down this dark alley is Sonia Leong’s The Complete Guide To Drawing Manga.  But my bout of self-loathing is not really Ms. Leong’s fault (I blame my mother for not breast-feeding me, of course).

Leong’s guide is completely adequate for what it means to be.  Which is.. the first book someone reads who wants to draw some manga-style art of their own.  However, to be rewarding, it truly must be the FIRST art book someone reads, for it starts with the very basics of representing the human form.  And, indeed, most of the book centers on the human form (it is, after all, the most important component of most comic book panels).

Leong reassures all of us bad artists by telling us that “I was awful when I started,” but “the more I drew, the more I improved.”  I totally buy this, for I’m a big supporter of the “10,000 hours” theory of success… whatever you spend 10,000 hours doing… you’re going to become an expert at.  By the way, I did the math, and that works out to practicing two hours a day, most every day, for fourteen years.  So basically, if you’ve just started trying your hand (ha, ha) at drawing, then you best eat all your veggies and take care of yourself if you ever want to have an exhibit of your own.

I applaud one of Leong’s motivations for writing her guide (I assume there were multiple motivations, including financial… nothing wrong with that).  Apparently, she has always felt the pinch of not having anyone to teach her proper manga when she started out.  As it was, she had to learn everything, as they say, the hard way.  “If this book helps you get more things right and avoid bad habits or costly mistakes, then I will have succeeded.” 

 As a self-taught man, myself– and as someone who seems incapable of learning a lesson in any other fashion EXCEPT the hard way– I’m in touch with this altruistic motivation.  Unlike most deeds of self-appointed do-gooders, this is altruism I can trust– for in a way it’s like giving your self something… helping the next generation to avoid your mistakes is as close as we can come to going back and re-living our lives smarter and better, knowing then what we know now.  Self-serving gifts are honest gifts.

I think these types of beginner-level, how-to books are good to an extent, but what it boils down to– what all art, what all endeavor boils down to– is just puttin’ in the time.  Dedication.  As someone once said, self-discipline is the path to every goal.

This entry WAS going to be about drawing manga, but I started out on a crooked foot and went side-ways from there.  But before I end, let me at least point out some of the advice from the book I found most helpful or illuminating…

First off, all the advice in the book is worthy… but only in that “my first book on drawing” sort of way.  The advice is simple, golden, classic… skimming the surface of graphic art, but skimming it solidly.

Manga, as you probably know, is a Japanese style of comic book.  As Leong tells us, “manga is predominantly minimalist.”  It also maintains “a sense of cool.”  Manga’s girls (the main characters are almost always young) and boys (and manga does seem peopled largely not by men but by boys, man-boys, and even girly-boys) are all “pretty and cute.”  If you’re drawing manga characters that are NOT pretty and cute… you’re probably not drawing manga.

Additionally, the characters of manga have a certain look beyond just a minimalist presentation and lots of cutesy-cool.  One of the most important stylistic characteristics of manga art is that eyes are famously large, and they “showcase lots of shine.”  Perhaps they are large because, as Leong says, “large eyes are associated with youth and cuteness.”  I’m not sure how that tradition started, but large eyes are a DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC of manga.

Female noses are small and delicate.  Leong describes male noses as “angular” and “sharp,” but personally I’ve always considered the boy-noses pretty darn small and cute, too.  Then again, I come from a family full of what you might generously call “non-dainty” faces.  Both genders in manga — following the generally minimalist style– have very simplified mouths– almost symbols of mouths.

I did not realize til I read it from Leong, but the upper lip when drawn is tinted slightly DARKER than the lower lip.  I had always figured the lower lip would be more in shadow, but au contraire… the plane of the upper lip actually puts it in shadow.  Maybe there’s still hope for me if I keep picking-up little clues like this.

Lastly, when it comes to manga faces, I’ve found that with some manga artists, it isn’t always easy to distinguish– just from their faces– the cute-faced boys from the doll-faced girls.

I spoke of symbols just a paragraph or so back… Symbols, as in all comics, are prevalent in manga.  Comics are historically drawn in a sort of short-hand (a light-bulb for an idea;  marks radiating from the head to show surprise or strong emotion; even good old-fashioned  “$#*%” or the like to stand-in for profanity).  Maybe I’m just more accustomed to Western comics, but it seems to me that manga pushes the symbolism/sign thing even farther… and that’s one of the things I enjoy about it.  By now, I guess I’ve finally learned the most common symbols, but I used to enjoy reading manga and trying to figure out what this or that mark or image was supposed to symbolize or connote.

Leong calls this symbolism “visual grammar.”  Manga is extremely good at telling us a lot with a little.  Again… “minimalist” is a key concept here.  For instance, as Leong points out, in manga, you can almost always tell what a character is thinking or feeling just by the expression on the character’s face– all the more so once you learn all the “visual grammar” and symbolic clues.

Manga hair, like eyes, is shiny.  Lots of highlight for the girls especially.  Because of the “cool” element, everyone –even the boys– have hip ‘doos.  Not to mention cool clothes and svelte bods.

In the big picture (ha ha!), a manga artist aims to tell a story using, in Leong’s words, “dramatic close-ups, drawn-out pauses, and large splash images.” 

Because it can often take a surprising amount of panels to narrate a scene well, Leong advises the beginning manga artist to start small and “aim for a comic shorter than thirty pages.”  For, she adds sagely, “it is better to tell a few characters’ stories well than to stuff too many characters into a too small a space.”

And before beginning the serious drawings for your own manga story, Leong advises writing it all out first in word-form.  “Start with a sentence that summarizes your story, then expand it to a paragraph.”  Then, describe each chapter… then each scene in paragraph form.  From there, embark on the tough but rewarding work of writing each scene in what Leong calls “film-style script.”  Obviously, you can be making quick sketches along the way as you ponder it all out, but according to Leong, having a “script” before you start the serious drawings will save you much heartache.

All in all, it sounds like a lot of fun.  Maybe I’ll turn this blog into a manga-style adventure one day.  It may be the only way I ever get a svelte bod and cool clothes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s