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Interview: Felipe Smith

Creator of Peepo Choo and MBQ


Felipe Smith

Felipe Smith

© Deb Aoki

Japanese manga has been published all over the world, and as a result, its unique artistic and storytelling style has inspired comics creators from many countries, including the U.S. But for the most part, this love affair with Japanese comics has been one-sided. While many Western comics fans read, enjoy and are influenced by Japanese comics, there haven't been too many Western comics or comics creators that have reached the same level of exposure and success in Japan.

This is what makes Felipe Smith and his comic Peepo Choo so unique in the world of manga. Smith is a Jamaican /Argentine /American comics creator who was given the rare opportunity to draw a monthly series for Kodansha's Morning Magazine, one of the top seinen (men's) manga magazines in Japan.

At the time, Smith had already created MBQ for TokyoPop, a three-volume series about an aspiring comics creator and a screenwriter eking out a life in L.A. while working at a burger joint. But even that didn't quite prepare Smith for the challenges he faced to get his work published in Japan.

But persevere he did, and Smith recently released the third and final volume of Peepo Choo in Japan. Vertical picked up the license to publish Peepo Choo in English in the States, and released the first volume in time for Smith's visit to San Diego Comic-Con 2010.

I spoke with Smith that weekend, and we talked about the Iron Man marathon of manga he had to endure to get published in Morning, the culture clashes between American comics fans and manga fans, his impressions of life in Tokyo, and dealing with some of the misunderstandings that some critics have about his comics.


Q: Welcome back to San Diego Comic-Con! Some congratulations are in order here — You've completed Peepo Choo, your first comics series in Japan, and the first volume was published in English by Vertical. But on top of all that, correct me if I'm wrong, but you're the first American to have your own series serialized in a major Japanese manga magazine, or at least the first American to draw more than just one-shot stories. If I understand the story correctly, you got the offer to do the Peepo Choo while you were at Comic-Con a few years ago?

Felipe Smith: Well, actually I was offered the opportunity to submit thumbnails. The way the process works in Japan, editors look at thumbnails first to see if this looks like something that could keep going on a series and be interesting. The first time I talked to the person who would later be my editor, he just asked me what kind of story I'd want to write if I was writing for a Japanese audience.

I told him I wasn't really interested in writing for a Japanese audience, I wanted to write for a global audience. I wanted to write something that a Japanese person, as well as American, as well as Argentine, Jamaican, or anybody could pick up and get something from this story and enjoy it. And I think he liked that idea. I gave him the premise of Peepo Choo and he said, 'Okay, that sounds interesting, start doing thumbnails.' Once I gave them a batch of thumbnails that he thought were up to par, he said, 'Okay, let's do this thing.'

When I started doing the thumbnails, I was in L.A.. Then when they got to a point where he wanted to sit down personally with me, one-on-one to discuss them, I went to Tokyo for ten days. When I got there, he looked at them and just said, 'Okay, do them all over again.'

Q: Really?

Felipe Smith: Yeah.

Q: Did he say why?

Felipe Smith: Yeah, he gave me a couple of pointers, like how to pace things. He'd say 'You need something more interesting in here, you need another element.' A lot of times, editors will push you in a certain direction but they won't tell you what to do. Some editors will definitely tell you, 'Put this in here.' It depends on the editor's style.

For some artists, that's not really that cool because you want to do your own stuff, you don't want people really telling you how to do your story. But In this case, he just said, 'You need something really interesting here, and probably this character might have something to do with that.' So he was guiding me in a certain direction but really giving me the freedom to decide what it was I was going to do.

Basically, he gave me two days to do 40 thumbnails. I was in this room that they rented for me. It was really close to the publisher's offices. My editor told me, 'Okay, go back there to work, and if you have any questions, call me whenever you want. You can call me at night or if I'm at the office really late.'

So that first day, I was just stressed out. I didn't know what to do because I had redone the thumbnails a couple times by then. I was in a room with no Internet, no phone. The message was clear, just draw and don't do anything else.

Then came the second day. It was already 11 at night, I still hadn't done anything and our meeting was the next day. So I called my editor up, and he was still there at the office.

I went to the office, and I told him 'I need a little help. Where can I go from here?' He told me, 'You know, it's a little more simple than you think. What you have here is good; you just have to find a different angle for it.'

He's a really good editor. Sometimes, an editor's job is more than just looking over your pages and editing panels. A lot of times, they're your motivator; they're the people that pick you up when you really don't know where to go. So it's a big job. A lot of these editors stay at their jobs until pretty late at night. Some are in the office until 3 in the morning. In Japan, a lot of people focus on their work 100%.

I asked my editor, 'Do all Japanese artists just pump out 40 thumbnails a night? Are you all just monsters of productivity?' He just smiled and said, 'Don't worry, just do as much as you can. We'll talk about it tomorrow.'

But the way things are set up there, if I didn't come up with something that was good enough in those ten days, then I would've blown my chances to work over there. So when he told me that, I thought, 'No way, I have to do this.'

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