Chinese born Australian Queenie Chan is a manga producing machine. I had the opportunity to question her about her creative process, what it’s like working with editors, and the indie manga scene. You can check out some of her work at her website here. Go out and purchase “House of Odd” her latest work and collaboration with Dean Koontz, and keep an eye out for a prose-comic hybrid comic “Small Shen” she is doing with Kylie Chan, due at the end of 2012 Thank you again to Queenie Chan for being a pleasure to interview!
So first things first, I always start off with asking when you first had an interest in comics and if there was one in particular that inspired you?
My earliest comic was the Japanese children’s manga Doraemon. It wasn’t the first comic I read, but it was the one that stuck most strongly in my mind. After that, I moved from Hong Kong to Australia and didn’t get much of a chance to read any more, but on one of my trips back to Hong Kong, a cousin introduced me to “Dragonball Z”, which was very popular at the time. I was in my early tees, and that hooked me… I was on a mad-reading spree after that!
Apart from that, there’s also “Black Jack”, by Tezuka Osamu, which I read in my mid-teens. It was a manga about a surgeon, and that really opened my mind to the possibilities of what comics can do. My mind was expanded by that manga.
Did you have much exposure to American comics at all?
Not until I started working professionally as a manga artist for TOKYOPOP. Truth is, there isn’t much American comics in Australia. It’s kinda gosh-darn American… to be honest, and so people don’t have the same enthusiasm for it. Ofcourse, there’s a reasonable number of superhero fans in Australia, but I find that at conventions, people are generally more open-minded to other kinds of comic art.
I must say I started with the Sandman and Transmetropolitan of the Vertigo line, and was madly in love with it. I love that line… well, at least the earlier series like Sandman, etc. That was my first introduction to American comics, and since then I’ve mostly read indies. Not a lot, but the good stuff is fantastic.
Is there an Indie Manga scene?
Oh yes. It’s absolutely huge. A lot of the stuff there doesn’t get translated, but there’s a sizeable art scene to the more “mainstream” manga stuff. It may take a while to explain since you have to know how the “mainstream” side of the Japanese manga industry works, but I’ll try and simplify it. Basically there’s scores of major magazines that are put out by the major publishers, and they pretty much form the genres, styles and demographics that make up the best-selling bulk of manga.
Then there’s the smaller, more arty magazines that put out with that’s nothing like the mainstream, and they’ve always been around. The most famous is probably “Garo”, which I think is still around. They can put out some pretty strange stuff. Some artists that are considered “indie” can sometimes make a leap into a mainstream, just by sheer ability. The guy that I think of the most is Usamaru Furuya, who is just plain off-beat.
And then there’s also the doujinshi scene, where scores of amateur artists draw and sell fan-comics. That’s HUGGGGE.
In 2003, I saw a notice on the Internet about a company called TOKYOPOP looking for international submissions. This was really unusual (I didn’t know that at first), but that’s how I submitted my work to them. I actually knew about TOKYOPOP from the first Rising Stars of Manga competition they held, but couldn’t enter it because I wasn’t an American. But when they opened their office to all submissions, I jumped at the chance.
What did you send in?
I sent in some samples of my art, and just a cover letter. They politely replied to me and said send a proper submission next time… which was kind of them, since I didn’t know anything. I then jumped online, found out how to write some kind of workable submission, and sent them my first submission, which was for “A Chinese Ghost Story”. They said they liked my art but wanted something more “girl” oriented, so after some more submissions, it melded and eventually became “The Dreaming”. Basically, they asked me to draw a “haunted school” story.
How is it working with somebody else on your own creative process?
Hmm, actually, I’ve never had to work much with editors on my work. Mostly they just give me art feedback, and when I was working on “The Dreaming”, my editor Carol went over plot points with me and sometimes made suggestions, but they weren’t major changes. If there were plot changes it would be major, but so far I’ve not been in a situation where I’ve had to make big changes. It’s a good thing, since it gives me confidence in what I do. I don’t mind making minor changes to my work, since I understand that getting published means compromising your vision to some extent. Since it’s small, I don’t mind.
How does your creative process work then, do you draw first then write, or have an outline and fill in dialogue as you go?
I’ve done everything in-between. I started off just doing pages, and making the story up as I go. This was a disaster since I started off with good plots that went on forever, and that I couldn’t finished. Then I created the ending of my stories, and then just drew the whole thing and filled in the dialogue later. I found this was not a good idea either, since sometimes I draw word balloons too small, and other times I have no idea what to put in the balloons afterwards. Eventually, when I started working professionally, I found my editors demanded the whole thing scripted outright. So that’s how I’ve been working since. Outline first, then script, then draw.
I know with manga, they are often scanlated and put online for others to read for free, how do you feel about this as somebody who creates manga?
I wish it wouldn’t happen the way it does, but I also understand that sometimes it can be good advertising for a manga if it’s done right. I think it’s wrong to tar all the pirates with the same “you’re stealing” brush – certainly piracy exists because there’s a gap in the market, and they’re filling a need. Considering how long manga piracy’s been around, and how robust it seems to be, I’ll have to say that there’s a BIG demand for instant, online manga. The publishers aren’t providing for that gap. That’s all it comes down. So someone else is filling it.
If the publishers ever figure out this online thing, they can offer several volumes online for free, and then sell manga volumes digitally. Considering how many people are now conditioned to read manga online, I think there’s a big market in it. Teenagers have to be able to have a way to shop online easily though. Adults have credit cards and paypal, but teens don’t. I can think of launching something akin to an iTunes store gift-card system for online payment, but only Apple has managed that so far.
Well, I already self-publish on the net… I have a bunch of short stories on my website under the “online manga and comics” section. I don’t really sell my work very much, since anthologies can be a really, really difficult sell. We’re also at the beginning of the e-book revolution, and there’s half a dozen formats scattered across a bunch of different platforms, so even when it comes to e-book format, it’s hard to know which one to launch your e-book in.
Eventually… we’ll all figure it out.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists and writers, or any advice that has pulled you through some tough times?
Sure. Apart from the usual “perseverence” thing, I’ll also have to add that there’s no such thing as “breaking into the industry” anymore these days. Anyone can get an online platform and self-publish, and gone are the days where you have to get paid for your work to be called a “manga-artist”. Ofcourse it’ll be nice if you’re paid, but getting into the industry is easy – staying in it is hard. I think of drawing manga as a journey rather than a destination, and even now, I fluctuate out of paid work and unpaid work. So if you’re trying to get to drawing manga professionally, the best thing you can do is to draw a bunch of FINISHED work on your own, since it’ll show the publishers you are self-motivated and capable of finishing work. Regardless of the level of the work, that’s the most valuable thing to a publisher: someone who FINISHES their work, ON-TIME.