Sean Michael Wilson: The Past, Present and Future

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
Sean Michael Wilson has recently produced three very different but highly compelling books to join his 14 other graphic novels. His work in comics spans the past (samurai culture in medieval Japan), the present (family life in contemporary Hong Kong) and the future (an anthology of contemporary alternative manga). As you'll see in this interview, Sean is a really thoughtful creator who has some interesting insights into comics, the Arts, and the life of an expatriate.

Jason Sacks: Your three best-known books -- AX, The Story of Lee and Hagakure -- are dramatically different from each other. What made you choose to work on such different projects?

Sean Wilson: That is a bit of a problem for me, in one way. Because most comic book creators consider about making characters that people recognize and that can carry across many books. Something that becomes a trademark. For me I have always just followed IDEAS, and that takes me into a whole range of things. I've done these three different books as you say. One is historical, the other contemporary, the other was as an editor of an alternative manga collection. Plus I've done documentary-style books, autobiographical, even an erotic one. So, to put it negatively, I seem to be all over the shop! And that probably is harmful for my career, since most people like to hook you into one clear style and say 'he does that stuff'. It helps marketing wise. One the other hand, the main reason I did all those different books is because they all seemed interesting to me. I was just following interesting ideas, in whatever area. So, in that way I am open and have a chance to explore. If someone was being complimentary they might say it shows that I have many skills/talents, which I can work on various different things. But I don't see it as a question of skill or talent. Anyway, there are many things I still don't know or don't do well in comic books. It's more a question of having the will to do something creative on a subject that seems interesting. Then just giving it a bloody good bash – that's the main thing.

I'm reminded now of something Quentin Crisp once said, something like: 'Young actors say they want to try many roles in order to explore various projects. But what they really mean is that they will take anything they can get!' In truth there has been an aspect of that too in what I've done so far. So, it's been a mix of what was interesting for me, plus what I could get commissions for within that range of interests. By the way, Quentin thing goes on to say that once an actor becomes famous they then begin to say: 'Now I enjoy focusing on specific character studies. By which they mean THEMSELVES.' So, it might well be that in the future all my books will be about ME!

Sacks: How do you feel your work on these three books reflect your personal view of the world?

Wilson: Despite the variety they all reflect my, perhaps foolish, tendency to place artistic above financial concerns; of enjoying the more mature themes in whatever creative form; of being on a mission to show that comics are not just for kids; and on a wider level of standing up for individuality against conformity. But, above all, they reflect my concern for looking cool in bars in Japan when I say that I am a 'manga-saka', and the adoring reactions of "Sugoi!!!" (Wow, great!). He he…

Sacks: As a Scottish writer, what special insights do you feel you bring to the world of the samurai (in Hagakure) or modern Hong Kong (in The Story of Lee)?

Wilson: Oh, I am not sure me being Scottish has had much influence. Although, the original translator and advisor for Hagakure, William Scott Wilson, and I share the same name. As an American he is from a Scottish/Irish background, and proud of it. So that helped us click. I suppose that the old clan system of Scotland could be seen as having some similarities to the 'clan' basis of Edo era Japan, and around the same time too. In terms of there being a clan situated in a specific location - like the MacDonald of Glencoe in the Highlands or the Hosokawa of Higo in Southern Japan. With various warriors who owed their allegiance to the head of the clan. But I don't think the specific rules by which they lived their lives, as set out in Hagakure for the Japanese aspect, were all that similar, were they? Someone educate me on it please. Anyway, I have never lived under a clan system, being a modern globe trotting Scot!

Though, me being from a Celtic culture that tends to emphasize directness, conflict, openness has a big effect on my living in Japan, which tends to focus on indirectness, avoidance of conflict and keeping things close to your chest. So that has led to quite a lot of cultural misunderstandings in dealing with this East Asian culture I live in. So, that kind of experience would have gone into how and why I wrote The Story of Lee, with its cross-cultural relationship. Well, I came up with quite a lot there, for starting off saying there was no connection!

Sacks: How did you develop the obvious empathy you felt for the settings of these two books?

Wilson: Well, that seems to be one of my strong points, that I can empathize easily and deeply. Or anyway, that's what I've been told. It never occurred to me before people started mentioning that on past work. This is an interesting aspect of such interviews, that it starts me thinking more about HOW and WHY I do what I do. Since for the most part I am not analyzing my creative work, I am DOING it, based on feeling and already unconscious processes and habit. Do you know the quote from director and actor Peter Ustinov? He said, half-jokingly: '…the interesting thing about interviews is that you often find out – for the first time – just what it is you think about something.'. but that is you mean the characters. If you mean the physical settings, then Hagakure is set in Saga, which is the next prefecture up from where I live, so clearly I am going to have some understanding of it. The Story of Lee is set in Hong Kong. I have always had an interest in that place somehow, since I was a kid. I went there several times during the year I was writing SOL, and really got to like it, especially places like Llama Island. Writing about a place is, of course, one good way of feeling close to it, feeling you have made something out of your interaction with that place. It's like a marker of your own experience, of that time in your life.

Sacks: Hagakure: the Code of the Samurai is a very unique book, as it's basically a book of philosophy in comics form. How did you approach creating it?

Art by Chie Kutsuwada

Wilson: An aspect of 'post-modern' approach to history is to include the mistakes and the prejudices of the era, without modernizing them or 'correcting' them according to our modern ideals. It involves the idea that the mistakes and prejudices are as interesting as anything else. They reveal a lot about the mind set and culture of the time under consideration. Anyway, who are we to be so arrogant as to say 'now WE know what's best, THAT era was full of daft ideas' etc. There will be plenty things we take as normal and good now that future generations will look back at in horror or amusement. For instance the tendency in some public places in Japan, like trains stations, to make little booths for people to smoke in. In the future people might say 'Huh?, they actual spent public money making rooms for people to go and poison themselves in? – that's mad!' So, the kind of approach to this historical subject is to show it in a way that is close the original. So, for interest, in Hagakure there is a scene of a 5 year old boy being made to chop off the head of a cute little dog, to practice kaishaku (ritual beheading). That would seem a monstrous thing to us now! But Yamamoto, the sensei in the book, mentions it within the context of a skill in beheading being a very admirable thing for a samurai to have.

Sacks: What were some of the challenges you faced in translating these classic stories into comics form?

Wilson: The normal aspect for such adaptations is how to visualize the text without losing its meaning. Or the meaning, message, effect, etc that you think the original author was putting over. Which for such old historical books as Hagakure is not necessarily clear or without contention. In the other book that I have already written for Kodansha International (KI), that is now almost finished art wise (by Michiru Morikawa) the story was set over the 80's and 90's, so that is a bit easier. That's called 'Yakuza Moon' (out Feb 2011 in Japan, June in the USA). But in any case, it's a dynamic between making an interesting visual version, and accurately conveying the original story. Unless you set out to make a 're-imagining' of that original, in which case you can move quite far off from the original. But in the case of the KI books we need to keep close to the original. So the key problem was how to come up with those interesting visuals, in terms of specific panels, whole pages and scenes across several pages. With Hagakure that was not so difficult, as each bite is told in specific anecdotes by Yamamoto to his young student Tsuramoto. So all I had to do was select which ones I thought would lend themselves to such comic book versions and get on with writing the script for each. As I am used to this kind of adaptation (I have done 10, so far, for various publishers), it comes quite naturally to me now. You pick up a feeling for it. But the one I am writing now is far harder, as it's a book that had NO stories in it at all – its all philosophy or martial arts techniques. I was really not sure how I would get on with visualising that. But I'm on the last chapter now, and somehow the ideas came up when they were needed – 'Cometh the hour, cometh the man' perhaps?

Sacks: Did you feel any trepidation about presenting these important and classic stories in comics?

Wilson: None at all. That's is one of my 'blind strengths' – I am ok to take on these things with confidence that I can do it, based partly on not letting myself get neurotic about all the reasons why I maybe should not! This is a serious point, as, in my experience, the main thing stopping most people doing that book or film they have planned for years, or whatever the art form, is self-doubt. But just getting on with it is a key thing. What you make might be pretty weak, but it's better than having done bugger all. At least you defeated your own self doubt. Oh, I just realised that this attitude in very much in line with what Hagakure says a samurai should be like! One of the lines is: "A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death." But, if you read the after word to the book, by William Scott Wilson (my 'Uncle Bill', though we are not actually family), you will see that there is more to that point than meets the eye. It has an underlying philosophy behind it. Anyway, I think with Bill and my editor at KI, Barry Lancet, guiding me with their knowledge that I can confidently state that the KI historical manga are faithful versions of these classics. I think even specialist scholars would be quite impressed. As to the specific point about doing them as comics – no trepidation, comics can do any kind of story. It's words and pictures, the only things it can't do are sing and dance.

Sacks: How did writing this book affect your appreciation of Japanese history?

Wilson: So far I have written 2 books set in Meiji era Japan, and 2 in Edo era. Quite simply I have learned a lot in the process, and that's great. I've stepped forward.

Sacks: Is the order of the lessons important?

Wilson: The anecdote order is not especially significant. But you readers ordering the book is!

Sacks: Looks like this book is selling pretty well in Japan; is this book intended for audiences on both sides of the Pacific?

Wilson: KI was set up in 1963 to publish the wider Kodansha family books in English. So although the books are also for sale in Japan they are mostly made with North America in mind, as that is obviously the biggest English speaking market. Not in terms of the content as such, for my part anyway. When I am writing it I am not thinking 'Will some guy in Minneapolis get this point?' Also, as I am British, then I have contacts in the UK which can help promote it there. Like Paul Gravett's excellent COMICA events, where the book will officially launch in the UK. (A note to my dear American friends: please don't call it just 'England'. It's called the UK, or Britain. 10 million Celtic people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland start to cry when you call the whole place only 'England'.)

Sacks: The Story of Lee has some surprisingly intense and realistic touches to it – Lee's father's kind of a jerk at the beginning, and she suffers a major loss during the book. Did you try to make a traditional manga romance more naturalistic?

Wilson: I like the way you say "a major loss" without actually giving away the plot, he he. The thing is that I don't normally think in terms of manga when I'm writing. Sounds odd from someone who has is getting a reputation for doing manga related work. But I would say that my scripts are NOT manga at the stage of my writing process, they are just comic book stories in a more general sense. Then, as about half the artist's I normally work with are actual Japanese people, the story becomes manga at the art stage. As they will bring their own manga influences to bear in how they illustrate the script. I was told by Mike Collins, well known artist of superhero books like Superman, Wonder Woman, etc., that a script I wrote for him to draw was manga influenced, in terms of the pacing and focus on small visual details. So, maybe there is more there than I know. But I suspect that is because Mike was used to doing very frenetic paced superhero scripts. So he was pleasantly surprised that I would take several panels or even a whole page to go into some subtle expression or mood that might just be done in one panel or skipped altogether in the kind of American superhero scripts he was used to. But even then, I think that kind of pacing and subtlety has come from reading indie style US and UK comics, as much as manga. But to answer your question, rather than ramble on: yes I wanted SOL to be a realistic story. Realistic, with definite characters that we can follow over time, involving the normal drama of life.

Sacks: As the book begins, Lee seems a little estranged from her life. She's kind of coasting along without thinking much about it. Was it tough, as someone who seems to be pretty driven in his life, to write a character who seems so aimless?

Art by Chie Kutsuwada

Wilson: Am I driven? Oh, nice. Driven mental maybe. Well, my personality has become one that tends to focus and move forward, yes. But I was not like that when I was 16 or 23, I think. I was much more uncertain, unconfident and inwards looking. Then via certain techniques I learned from psychotherapy, magick and just life in general I become more focused, confident and happy within myself. But it's easy for me to remember what it was like when I was more like Lee, plus I see people around me now who are pretty aimless and have based Lee somewhat on them.

Sacks: One nice touch in this book is how much everyone loves the Arts, especially Lee who loves certain music and certain films. How did you approach fleshing out the characters?

Wilson: That is an example of Woody Allen's thing of trying to get things good in Art, because they don't work out so neatly in life. I always thought when I was a teenager that I could leave home and go to a place where everyone was artistic and intellectual, in a genuine sense of having a real curiosity and love of such things. I was in for a shock! Haven't found that place even yet! As, of course, most people don't have a deep interest in artistic or intellectual things. Lee, still has that fantasy of going to such a mythical place, and far away from HK, her father, and the little shop. We will see in volume 2 how she gets on with finding that (although a 25 page preview from stage has already come out in Best New Manga volume 2, with art by Yishan Li). Her personality comes from her grandmother, who she reads poery too. Although her dad is very straight and materialistic, there is a bit of a maverick aspect to her family, as we see in her Uncle, who is also very much in love with literature. It was a kick to include such things that I love in the book. Such as the music of 'The Clientele', who are a real band in Britain. The leader singer Alasdair and I went to Edinburgh University together. We used to get together in Café Florentine near the University to read poetry to each other and discuss our dreams for our music and writing. He and I just love the fact that our creative work is now intermixing, years later. It's a kick.

Sacks: I notice that Lee likes music and movies that aren't typical of a girl of her age. Has she always been an outsider in her life and family?

Wilson: That was something I was a bit unsure of. Of course most young people of her age in East Asia like J-pop, or K-pop, or modern 'RnB', or maybe hip hop. All of which I have very little time for. They are all OK – but when its comes to music and books 'OK' is not good enough. We need creative work that floors us! That's we can't believe the beauty and brains and style and cool of. 'OK' can kiss my arse. So, I felt that I had to give her a more unusual taste in music. Anyway, it reflects that's more maverick aspect to her personality, of feeling an outsider from her present situation. Plus it provides a connecting point to the British guy she meets, Matt. It's their shared taste in music and literature that first brings them together.

Sacks: How is AX doing? Planning a follow-up to it?

Wilson: AX has been very well received, there has been positive reviews and interviews left, right and centre. And that very pleasing for me, Asakawa-san and Top Shelf. We felt that the collection would be a big step forward in the range of mature manga that's available in English, and that is exactly how it's been received. Yokatta. Every time I check it I see new things in it. It's a collection that will become a milestone, I think. We plan to start putting volume 2 together in January 2011. Ganbaru! But before that the book of original gekiga creator Masahiko Matsumoto, will be coming out, called Cigarette girl. His first book translated into English, and another major step forward in having gekiga style work available.

AX: Alternative Manga is available now from Top Shelf Books.

Hagakure: the Manga Edition is available now in Japan (and in January in US) from Kodansha International.

The Story of Lee will be available in December from NBM Publishing.

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