Svetlana Chmakova had a lot to celebrate at the 2007 New York Anime Festival. The third and final volume of Dramacon, the shojo manga series from TokyoPop that propelled her to fame was released in early December. Yen Press was promoting her next series, Night School with huge banners in the lobby, autograph signings and panel appearances. And throughout the day, there were queues of fans waiting to get their books signed and a chance to chat with the friendly, low-key creator.
In just a few short years, Chmakova went from just another artist in Artists Alley to becoming one of the most popular manga creators in North America. In addition to being a bestselling title for TokyoPop, Dramacon garnered great reviews and was also nominated for several major industry awards, including the Eisner Awards and the Harvey Awards.
Pretty amazing stuff for a Russian-Canadian girl from Ontario. All in all, it seemed like a great time to catch up with Chmakova and chat with her about where she's been, where she's going, the origins of Dramacon and what she's got in store for readers next summer with her new series, Night School.
DRAMACON: MANGA DRAMA VS. REALITY
Q: First off, congratulations for completing and releasing the final volume of Dramacon! Let's start by talking a bit about Dramacon. What inspired you to create this story? Is it based on your real-life experiences at anime conventions?
Svetlana Chmakova: Yes and no. Like how the Dramacon idea came to me, I used to do conventions fairly regularly. At this one con, two years in a row I saw the same cosplayer. He was wearing the same costume. He was really striking so he really caught my eye. We didn't date or anything, we never even spoke. He doesn't even know who I am or anything, but the way writers' minds work, you just latch onto something like that and you build upon it. I thought, "What if this was a manga? And what if there was a manga character (who's not me)?" And that's how it happened.
It actually changed quite a bit from what I had planned initially, but I thought the story had a lot of potential. So when TokyoPop came around, I suggested this idea and they said, "Yeah, let's do that."
Q: So what was the original concept?
SC: It was originally about how a girl who meets a cosplayer, and there would be all kinds of obstacles and drama that they'd have to overcome.
Q: When you proposed to this story to TokyoPop, did you always think it would be a three-volume arc? Or did you think it would be a one-shot, or...?
SC: Well, the first volume needed to be self-contained, because they weren't sure if they wanted to commission the two other books, but it was left open-ended with potential to do more in case they decided to publish them later. So they read the first one, and they said, "Okay, let's do the other two as well." So you'll notice there's not much of a cliffhanger in book one, but in the second one, there's a real cliffhanger because I knew for sure that there would be a third book.
Q: One of the things that I thought was very striking about Dramacon was that includes incidents that seem like they could have been inspired by real events at an anime convention. You know, the messy neighbors at Artists Alley, the jealousies, the hotel roommates who drive you nuts and so on. How much of it came from your personal experiences, or from things that people have mentioned to you?
SC: I would like to point out very firmly that everything in the book is fictional. There are no real people and no real incidents! Now, I've do have a lot of experience doing cons. I've been doing the con circuit for a while, so I've seen and heard a lot. So the way I tried to write this book, I tried to take into account that it's real people at these cons, and what the environment is like. I try to write the story like how it would have happened; I tried to be as realistic as I could. But none of it is real! It never happened! (We both laugh)
OEL MANGA: FROM "THAT'S NOT MANGA" TO AWARDS AND RESPECT
Q: One scene that stuck out for me when I first read Dramacon was the scene when Christie and Bethany get confronted by a little boy who tells them that their work is "not manga," and they get into an argument about it. Was this a sentiment that you encountered during your con experiences, and has the attitude toward Original English Language (OEL) manga changed since you drew that scene?
SC. The attitude toward OEL manga has changed a lot. Actually a lot of people write in to me to say "Oh, I was a manga purist, but I read your book, or something like Fool's Gold, or Bizenghast and I really enjoyed it." Like they're saying that "It doesn't have to be Japanese to be good."
Now, that particular confrontation, I haven't heard of something like this ever happening at a con, but I have seen it a lot online in message boards. There, people have been quite venomous. It felt like it was dangerous to be an OEL manga artist, really. If you came into those message boards and said "Oh, I draw manga," they'd shoot back, "Oh no you don't!" Seriously, there'd be blow-ups.
So, I figured that the scene was very appropriate for Christie and Bethany to deal with. They're in the field, they're trying to draw what they think is manga, and there's an audience who thinks that it's not. This kind of thing is something that they'd have to deal with sooner or later.
Q: Dramacon was nominated for an Eisner Award, the comic industry's "Oscars," and it's been recognized by book and comic reviewers, librarians, etc. as an outstanding original manga series. Were you surprised to get this kind of attention and awards?
SC: I was very surprised! I wrote Dramacon Book 1 as a piece of fluff, basically. I just wanted to have fun with it. I obviously hoped that it would do well. Even just having it in the stores would have been more than enough for me, so anything beyond that was like, "What is happening here?"
When it started to sell well, and fans started to write in to say "I love this book," I thought, "Oh, that's nice. Thank you!" But I thought for sure nothing else would come of it. Then I got nominated for a Harvey Award, and then an Eisner, then I thought, "Whoah, who did they pay for this?" (laughs)(More on Page 2)