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Sonia Leong Takes Romeo & Juliet to Tokyo

A comics interview article by: Terry Hooper
Sonia Leong has a new book out through Metro Media –an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Manga? Shakespeare? You may well wonder whether the world has gone mad –but once you learn more about Sonia, her past, present and future work it will all make sense. Promise.

But before starting the interview, here are some details from her official bio:

"I'm a professional illustrator specialising in the Anime/Manga style and comic artwork. My entry to Tokyopop's first UK Rising Stars of Manga competition earned 2nd place and was featured in the official anthology. Other competition achievements include Winner in NEO Magazine's 2005 Manga Competition and judging for the International Manga and Anime Festival (IMAF), which has a US$85,000 prize fund. My work appears in the British movie, Popcorn, directed by Darren Paul Fisher…

I'm a core member of Sweatdrop Studios, the leading UK comic collaborative. My works with Sweatdrop include Murder on the Dancefloor (appearing in the first UK-produced manga anthology, Sugardrops), Once Upon a Time, and Cyborg Butterfly.

I work in a variety of mediums, including watercolour, pen & ink, screentone, alcohol colour markers, pencils and computer software."

Terry Hooper (TH): I know you were born in Malaysia and later moved to Thailand --did your interest in comics start there?

Sonia Leong (SL): Pretty much. In Malaysia, getting hold of English comics like Rupert the Bear and the Beano wasn't too difficult. American Archie comic digests were quite popular too. When I moved to Thailand, I went to an international school, so I had a few friends who were Japanese and they lent me their manga comics, but even if it weren't for them I would have come across them anyway - Japanese style was and still is all the rage in Thailand.

TH: What was the first Manga comic you saw and read and remember fondly?

SL: As mentioned, it was English and American comics to start, but the first Manga I remember was Magic Knights Rayearth by CLAMP in a battered old Nakayoshi magazine.

TH: When did you start drawing [not comics] and did you get much encouragement from your parents?

SL: I was drawing horses when I was 4 and comics of talking animals when I was 8. I wasn't discouraged as such by my parents, they were happy for me to have fun with it as a hobby. But that's all they thought it would be.

TH: You later attended the Bangkok Patana School [British International School] so was art part of your study there --I know when you later attended Warwick University in the UK you received an Economics & Politics BSc Hons so nothing comic related there!

SL: I used to enjoy art, until Year 9 /Key Stage 3 knocked all the fun in it out. A year of aping Picasso and designing shoes completely turned me off studying art. That did make my art teacher cry, particularly when I got an A in my final exam for drawing a realistic self portrait. As you know, arts and electives gradually have to get narrowed down in studies, so I went from art, music and drama, to music and drama, and then finally just drama. My sketches, music and acting were merely hobbies whilst I was studying for a "real" job. As I was good at most academic subjects, I went for a degree with a good mix of science, maths and literature with a good earning potential. Clinical, yes.

TH: I guess I need to ask at which point in your life did you discover comics and did this spark the thought of drawing them yourself?

SL: I was about eight, and drawing anthropomorphic cartoon strips. But that was just for fun. Later on, during my International Baccalaureate diploma (just before I went to uni) my sketches started being more much project focused, with specific storylines and comic layout. Probably because I was a huge fan of fantasy epic fiction, and wanted to make a story of my own - that naturally evolved into artwork, and then into comics. That's when I really started taking it a bit more seriously and wanted to self publish something, anything.

TH: When did your first published work appear --I know you came 2nd in the Tokyo Pop UK Rising Stars Of Manga competition --that strip featuring in the official anthology and you won Neo Magazine's 2005 Manga competition; were these the first published works and if so what were they about?

SL: It was in Sugardrops (2004), the UK's first manga anthology. Published by Sweatdrop Studios, it was also the first work by them with an ISBN in perfect bound format. Sweatdrop produce a series of anthologies around a central theme - Sugardrops was "cute". My chapter was Murder on the Dancefloor, a parody on anime clichés based around a catgirl dance competition.

NEO Magazine comp - Power Trip a 5 page short about life and video-gaming.
RSOM - Fatal Connection - a dark story about two sisters set in historical Japan.

TH: Whereas Emma Vieceli works on the computer you do use traditional instruments such as pens and ink. What other tools do you use and which do you prefer?

SL: For comic pages, I generally pencil in pink lead on paper, ink with either fineliners or dip pens on paper, then scan and add lettering and shading digitally. However I use both digital and traditional media - it just depends on the nature of the work and what the client wants. And within those mediums, I employ different methods as well. I've done comics entirely digitally, and entirely traditionally, be they black and white or colour.

TH: Pink lead pencils? That is a new one on me! Do you use the computer for any drawing or layout work and the final art pages--is it as satisfying as the smell of India ink or ink smudged fingers?!

SL: I generally prefer inking by hand, as when I ink digitally I become too much of a perfectionist. I tend to use digital inking when the work is likely to be printed in large format, or if there is a lot of detail involved. I don't like smudged fingers though.

TH: You also like water colour work as a medium -do you get to use this in any of your Manga work or does digi-colouring get used?

SL: Watercolour is rare from me these days. Colour Markers is my preferred traditional colour medium. I use both in near equal quantities. Sometimes clients want to keep an original, so I'll do it on paper, with ink, colour pencils, watercolours or markers. Others, it may be a client the other side of the world wanting a slick looking mascot. Then I use Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator and ftp them the finished file. Whatever is appropriate. Flexibility is the key to how I've been able to survive!

TH: Let's say you get an idea or script; how do you go about the creative process -thumbnails/breakdowns and then straight into the art chores? I'm curious if you ever outline a strip but then change something during the drawing process because you think it will work better?

SL: When I am the one writing, I start off with the message, the moral. Then I think of a situation that would highlight this message. Then I create the rough outline, when then gets made into a full script. I divide the script into chapters, scenes and pages and start thumbnailing. Once I've thumbnailed each chapter (or if it's shorter than 40 pages, the whole thing), then I start pencilling, inking etc. I change and tweaks things whenever I need to, until I start inking.

TH: Let me ask you a question that might seem stupid to you but, why draw Manga? What attracted you to Manga rather than Western stylised art?

SL: Actually, it just came out that way. Whenever I tried to draw people, even when I was younger, they had that sort of manga look to them. And I think it's just prettier!

TH: I noted at the Bristol Comic Expo that there was some discussion about Manga purists. In effect, their arguement is that "if it ain't drawn by a Japanese artist it aint Manga!" But even I know that a lot of non-Japanese draw Manga! The question is, does it matter whether you are Japanese or not?

SL: The counter argument is that if a Japanese artist draws a superhero comic for Marvel, would his stuff be automatically Manga? And because I'm ethnically Chinese, is my stuff supposed to be called Manhua, even though my style is much more Japanese-looking? I think it's rubbish. A lot of people can't tell I'm not Japanese from looking at my work.

Manga has a distinct look, if an artist can capture that, his/her work should be considered Manga. But in the end, it's mainly for the benefit of consumers and bookstores to identify a category - if I had to describe my style of comicking in one word, I would say Manga. Really, manga is KOMIKKUSU is comics.

TH: If I recall rightly, when you visited Japan there was no negative reaction to your being non-Japanese Manga artists -how good was your reception there and did it differ to other Manga orientated events you've gone to outside Japan?

SL: I didn't go to Japan for promoting my work, my publisher did.

TH: Oops! My bad recall! Sorry. Did she tell you what the reaction was there?

SL: She said that they were initially sceptical, thinking that our work would look too western, but the moment they saw samples, they were fine. Other places I've been to (US, Germany) it's never been an issue, they got over the whole manga purist thing a little while ago.

TH: Do you think that Manga produced by UK artists has a future outside of the UK --and can it compete in, say, the mainstream Japanese Manga market?

SL: Korea and China have done it, so I see no reason why the UK can't. We just need to build up our experience and expertise so that more artists can match the calibre of Eastern artists, that's all.

TH: You regularly present Manga workshops and your work has featured internationally in several Manga related publications, websites and at events so I'm guessing that you must really love Manga and think it has a future. I'm sure you get people who just draw Manga for fun coming up to talk to you but what about those who want to make a living drawing Manga? Do you see potential stars of the future -and can Manga support more creators?

SL: There is tons of room in the industry for more manga artists, I truly think that there is huge potential for people who can illustrate in this style. It's a rapidly growing industry, the UK is still way behind many other countries, it can only get better. But just like any other creative industry, it's a lot of hard work for not too much money until you become well known and make a hit, so common sense is still needed!

TH: For Metro Media you have just drawn an adaptation of a Shakespearean classic Romeo & Juliet; can you tell us a bit about this -is it set in the past or a futuristic-set version?

SL: Set in modern day Tokyo between two warring Yakuza families, Romeo is a J-rock star and Juliet is a Shibuya fashionista. The Tokyo setting adds vibrancy and teenage rebellion amidst traditional ties of duty and family honour.

TH: Anything else planned for Metro Media?

SL: Not at liberty to say exactly what, but I am keen to work with them again.

TH: You seem to be into so many things from singing classical opera and J-pop, oriental cooking, fashion, acting and more --including collecting weapons! So how do you manage to fit this all in??

SL: By not sleeping. Actually no, by multi-tasking - you can sing whilst you work/cook and dress fashionably.

TH: The no sleeping thing –bad idea. I tried that for 20 years and went nuts. Now, you're described as a core member of Sweatdrop Studios -can you tell me about this and your involvement in the Studio?

SL: Sweatdrop Studios is a UK-based independent publisher and producer of original manga comics. We are a comic collaborative promoting and printing the works of our members. There are 21 members in the group and among them are 9 admin members who deal with the boring bits. I am one of the admin.

Our work covers a wide range of subjects to suit different tastes, all our comics can be bought from our webstore. Outside of comics, Sweatdrop gets asked to help with the running of events, workshops, and to work with larger publishers to produce manga-related work (such as card games, how-to-draw books).

TH: My next question is simply this: any words or comments to readers who might be interested in Manga and curious about your Manga work in particular --big sell time!

SL: If you are interested in finding out more about my work, your first port of call is my official website, www.fyredrake.net - it has plenty of my illustration work online and a full list of my publications and where to buy them from. My website also lists all the events I'm working at, so if you'd like to come to one of my workshops or have a chat, please do.

TH: Any future projects we've not touch on here that you might be excited about and we can look out for in 2007/2008?

SL: Aya.Takeo is one of my latest projects, and is a free, full-colour webcomic out every Sunday. It's a sci-fi, intergalactic romance - please check it out at www.ayatakeo.com
Also, my very first comic series with Sweatdrop, Once Upon a Time... will be made into a volume later this year. The series is a collection of stories about a group of school friends who learn about life's lessons.

TH: So, we'll be seeing more Sonia Leong Manga in future but do you think you'd ever decide to move to Japan and live and draw?

SL: I love Japan, but I love the UK also - and what would I do about my cat, Tiggy?

TH: A cat lover –so you have to be a nice person! Sonia, my sincere thanks for taking the time to answer these questions and I hope the readers decide to try your books!

SL: You are most welcome.

Anyone wanting to contact Sonia regarding private commissions, offers of work, etc.? Here are the details you need:

SONIA LEONG - manga artist & illustrator
Sweatdrop Studios

Email: sonia@fyredrake.net
Sweatdrop Studios website: www.sweatdrop.com
Personal Website: www.fyredrake.net

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