Manga is more than just a Japanese creation, it's a worldwide phenomenon. But for the most part, it's been Japanese manga by Japanese creators, Korean manhwa by Korean creators or manga-inspired stories by American / European creators.
Kasumi, the new shojo manga series from Del Rey Manga is one that can truly claim the "global manga" moniker, because it was co-created by an American writer, Surt Lim and a Japanese manga artist, Hirofumi Sugimoto, and was mostly done via Internet.
It's worth noting that Surt lives in San Jose, California and she doesn't speak much Japanese. Sugimoto-san lives and works in Yokohama, Japan and he doesn't speak much English. Thanks to an online Japanese-English translator, instant messenger, e-mail and the assistance of a bilingual translator based in Tokyo, these two manga-ka found each other, collaborated and created Kasumi, a shojo manga fantasy about a girl who gets transferred to an elite Japanese high school where she discovers that she and some of her classmates have special powers.
Surt is an effervescent, outgoing gal who just radiates enthusiasm for manga – but her radiance might also be attributed to her pregnancy. When I met with her, she was almost eight months along. With Kasumi due in late July and her first child due in August, Surt has two "babies" on the way this summer.
Armed with two laptop computers and a three-way IM conversation with Sugimoto-san in Japan, and Surt and I in San Jose, the three of us talked about Kasumi, cross-cultural creativity, and the unique challenges that come from having a Japanese shonen manga artist switch gears to create a shojo fantasy for American readers.
Q: There have been quite a few original English manga projects that have seen print over the past five years, but as far as I know, Kasumi is one of the very few Princess Ai is another) where an American writer has collaborated with a Japanese artist. Can you tell me a little bit about how this unusual project came about?
Surt: It started about 2 years ago. I was really into manga, and I had an idea that I wanted to turn into a story. I started by looking for an artist and I tried going to conventions and by looking online on deviantART and several other sites. I first tried to find an American artist, but I realized that because my story is so Japanese-centric, that a Japanese artist would better understand the style that I was looking for.
I then looked at several websites of Japanese artists and by chance, I came across Sugimoto-san's site. I sent out emails to several artists asking if they'd be interested in working with us, and Sugimoto-san was really interested, so that's how it started.
Q: How many artists did you approach for this project?
Surt: Hmm. A lot! (laughs) Over 20, at least.
Q: So from Sugimoto-san's point of view, this proposal must have come out of the blue! Did you have to overcome any skepticism on his part before he would agree to come on board with this project?
Surt: He didn't seem unsure when he first replied to us, but he later told us he felt a little skeptical. When we first sent out that email, we mentioned that we were from America and that we were creating an original English language manga. We also assured him that we would have a translator, so he wouldn't have to worry about the language barrier.
I gave him a translated summary of the story I had in mind, which was Hanabi, a josei manga story. He initially replied that he was interested and wanted to know more. So I gave him an overview of the project and what we wanted to do. It didn't take him that long to consider things; maybe it was a few days.
Q: When did you first approach him?
Surt: I think it was October 2006. We spent all of 2007 working on Hanabi and Kasumi.
Q: It's interesting that you two come from two different worlds, and didn't know each other at all, but quickly developed a kind of trust without ever meeting each other face-to-face. Was there something about his artwork that made you feel like he was the one?
Surt: I'd say that my husband Stanley was initially the one who had the most faith in Sugimoto's work. Kasumi is done in a shojo manga style, and if you look at Sugimoto-san's website, his other work is more like shonen manga style and more sci-fi, yakuza-type stories. (laughs) But my husband saw a lot of potential in Sugimoto-san's flexibility and his versatility. We knew by looking at Sugimoto's work that if anyone could do this, he could.
Q: Sugimoto-san, what was it about Surt's proposal that caught your eye?
Sugimoto: I received an email one day. It was a proposal, asking if I would be interested in doing the illustrations for a manga story. At the time, I was looking for something new and different to do, and I knew that English-language manga is read and enjoyed by people all over the world.
I read Surt's story and thought it could be really appealing to broad audience. I just kind of had a feeling that it would be a successful project. (smiles)
Q: So did Surt's story have a Japanese feel to it?
Sugimoto: Surt's story has a lot of action and also has a nice feeling to it. There are aspects of this story that are universally appealing, and it has themes that anyone can appreciate, whether they're from Japan or anywhere else.
GOING SHOJO WITH A SHONEN MANGA-KASurt: Initially when we tried to create a manga in the shojo style, it wasn’t easy as I had never created a manga before. I know what shojo style looks like, but how do you convey that to a male manga-ka who has never drawn a shojo manga before?
Surt: So we had to do a lot of research. He bought a lot of shojo manga, and I had to find pictures to show him what I wanted.
After giving him the overview, we worked together to create the characters. The hardest character to create was Kasumi (the lead female character) The next hardest was Ryuuki (the lead male character). Trying to get the right style, the right look was tricky.