In late March, a wave of discussion took over Twitter’s comics community on the topic of using manga- and anime-inspired art styles while in art school. Many reported being discouraged from taking influence from some of their favorite cartoonists, comics, and shows, only to be pointed towards more “appropriate” (i.e., European) styles.
Comics Bulletin hosted a roundtable for three artists–Dee Boro, Yssa Badiola, and Gabriela Gutiérrez–to discuss their experiences with this phenomenon.
Comics Bulletin: Let’s talk generally. Japanese comics are as varied as Western comics, but it’s undeniable that there’s a certain Western understanding of “what manga looks like.” What was your experience as an art student influenced by manga, and in turn, impacted by that Western understanding?
Dee Boro: As a kid in high school, a lot of my base understanding unfortunately came from those how-to books. That merged with whatever styles I had picked up before anime and shaped something vaguely unique, but I don’t think I really worked on picking things apart stylistically until I got my first art school rejection letter. All for the better I guess!
Yssa Badiola: Same! I bought my first How to Draw Manga books in, like, fifth grade, but I was watching anime on Kids WB and Fox Kids since I was seven, so my history and identity is deeply embedded in anime and manga. People often just complimented my art as “good” until I had to do my final project for AP Art. My teacher shut me down about my anime style the first two weeks, haha. I had to go through the rest of the year trying “realistic” or “observational” art and what felt like trying to deny my own self. Once I got into art school, I think it was in the middle of this subtle shift in attitude about manga/anime. So many people liked it, so teachers couldn’t deny its existence, and a lot more of these people started introducing others to the broad spectrum of manga and anime. Overall, it was my peers that made me feel more accepted and vice-versa.
(Editor’s Note: You can check out Yssa’s senior thesis reel here.)
Gabriela Gutiérrez: Yeah, like Dee and Yssa, what got me started were cartoons, anime and those How to Draw Manga books too, haha. Actually, it’s thanks to those that I started to take art seriously! But I think learning about internet-driven communities–like DeviantART, Twitter and Tumblr–and becoming involved with them at a young age really helped shape my art style and get a better understanding of what I wanted to do. I do remember having my high school art teacher telling me to draw more realistically–but I never really listened to her. Oops. I guess the idea of anime & manga being seen as lesser forms of art already bothered me back then.
When I entered university–here in Chile, the process for accessing higher education is taking a global exam, and according to the score you get, you apply to your school and career of choice–I did get worried, though. On one side, I decided to study visual/fine arts because I wanted to learn more things besides drawing and I knew that me drawing in a manga-like style would be frowned upon considering I was about to enter the “academic” art circles. Yikes! So I was constantly forcing myself to not hide the fact that I was deeply influenced by manga, but putting it aside for most of the projects I had to do.
At least here in Chile–people associate manga and anime with kid’s cartoons. The first anime broadcasted on TV in the 80s were series like Heidi, and later, Sailor Moon, DBZ and others. If we add the the image of the otaku–the stereotype of the teen who’s a hardcore fan that’s often seen as a novelty by older generations, not unlike emo kids–they either make this connection or associate it directly with hentai. So there’s this general perception of anime and everything related to it as either something light and childish, something you need to grow out of, or just “the weird cartoons from Asia”.
Going back to putting my style aside for certain projects– deep down, I guess I was scared. Surprisingly, as the years passed and we had more freedom for our projects, teachers didn’t really dismiss me for my influences. I guess what I came across the most was “learn your fundamentals first” and “know why you’re doing what you’re doing”. The circle wasn’t as restricted as I imagined it was! I still struggled a lot though, hahaha. The times I did get dismissed for drawing manga by teachers, though–support from classmates and peers was fundamental when it came to gathering the confidence to make what I truly wanted to make.
I think those perceptions I mentioned earlier are one of the main reasons manga-influenced work is looked down upon inside the art circles. Of course–the scene is slowly changing. Younger generations who have grown up in a globalized, internet-driven culture have been key to opening minds and to letting the inclusion of today’s “popular media” inside the “fine/high arts” spaces
Dee: I think the association with childishness (particularly
adolescence?) is a pretty real point, especially since it’s a style that new artists pick up the most frequently. Of course anime/manga isn’t just for children or teens, but it’s definitely a part of the disapproval. In the US, this is probably why it’s looked down upon more than other cartoon styles, even though new artists almost universally go through the same beginning hurdles in creating (people who copy Marvel/DC comic looks, for example).
I like the comment of “know why you’re doing what you’re doing” though! I think that’s the most important thing regardless of the style you’re drawn to.
CB: Are there any memories of your school experience that stand out to you in this regard?
Dee: I remember going to a few art schools and being met with a grimace, but I also feel that it wasn’t entirely the anime style’s fault–I could have used more structure beforehand, for example. Whether the schools should have been the ones to teach that in the first place is debatable. Since the community college I eventually went to focused more on technicalities and software rather than style, I didn’t actually get much friction aside from rejections from bigger schools.
Yssa: There were instances that were subtler to pick up on. Manga and anime is viewed as a pop or niche culture in art, so in the vein of “art history” it’s never brought up. My history of animation class only had one lesson out of twelve dedicated to Japan and Asia, as a whole. Animation teachers only used western animation as examples to their lessons; no one used anime as a viable, acceptable form of study. Like, the idea of manga or anime feels so vastly familiar and understood by many, yet at the same time, many others don’t know how to approach it, sell it, or understand it. Because of that, it was this weird, understood concept that you should stay silent if you want to bring up anime or manga. Because no one ever talked about it! No one knew the first step in trying to break down anime.
The flipside of that coin is my experiences with my comics department. Full of wonderful people and teachers. We studied and dissected a variety of different kinds of comics, kind of like a pillar of the comic world to introduce us to the main concepts behind what makes comics “comics”, and one of them is always a manga. Usually Osamu Tezuka’s more mature works. The comics classes are what made me realize that there’s a group of people that can be passionate about everything, including manga, and that can appreciate it just as much on an academic level. They were the teachers who openly let their students say “I draw manga” and there wasn’t any shame in it.
Dee: Yssa’s comment on comics and manga is really good! Especially since western comics have noticeably picked up storytelling cues that manga have been doing for years. It’s interesting how the bias seems to be a little bigger towards an anime look when this is the case.
Gabriela: Yeah! It’s so great when you find teachers who appreciate the value of manga inside the academy! I keep thinking of how Scott McCloud addresses manga so positively in Understanding Comics; those kind of encounters are so reassuring. It’s also really nice noticing how today’s cartoons like Steven Universe present clear anime influences, too!
Regarding the question–a lot of my classmates talk about how they started making art because of anime, but later on “grew out of it”. And there’s this general joke inside my school about how it’s full of anime-influenced artists who somehow got their dreams destroyed when they entered. The fact that so many people seemed to “give up” (which is different from trying new things and getting out of your comfort zone in order to learn!) made me really sad for some reason, haha.
A more specific anecdote is from the time I was a TA for an experimental animation class. I was talking to the teacher (an artist in his 30’s-40’s) about how it bothered me when people told me that I should stop drawing “anime.” (My style isn’t all that much like anime–deeply influenced, yes, but as I said before, when people aren’t very familiar to anime and manga, they tend to classify anything reminding of it under the same category.) And he asked, with zero malice, “but have you ever thought that if more than one person has told you that, they may actually be right?”. I still think about this a lot, and I’m still a bit angry at the world because I can’t understand what’s wrong with having manga and anime influences. Is it because I’m chilean and have never been in Japan? But why is it different than influences from european art? Or western pop culture? Why is it less acceptable?
Yssa: Ugh, god, that’s the worst part! If multiple people tell you “no” while you’re saying “yes”, then it just makes you even more confused! The joke of how anime-influenced artists get their dreams destroyed when they enter art school is painfully relatable–and probably not even a joke at all, haha. It’s feels so elitist to have these animation people tell you that American/European cartoon style is okay, but god forbid you have an anime influence. They’re all cartoons!
Dee: For that matter, modern european/western cartoons are getting more influenced by japanese cartoons/animation by the day! And vice-versa, I could say. But the cultural bias is interesting… as if western/european is better simply because it’s western/european? And that’s a lot to unpack there.
CB: This one’s specifically for you, Yssa. Industry professional @tigrisparty wrote up an excellent thread about how these negative attitudes are really collateral damage of anti-Asian racism, and artist Vivian Ng specifically noted that she and other Asian artists were uniquely impacted when it came to manga and stereotypes. Does that resonate with the things you experienced?
Yssa: Oh, yes, haha. I mentioned it in passing in a previous question–manga and anime are core tenets of my identity at this point. I think part of that is because I accepted this stereotype idea that if you were Asian, you liked anime/manga. Of course, that wasn’t always the case. I grew up in a diverse town and chances were, you were gonna meet at least five Asians who didn’t care, hahaha.
The thing is, your ethnicity doesn’t ever leave you and neither do these stereotypes when you move away. No one is generally surprised when I say I like anime, but I haven’t had an experience where I was called out on it…because I’ve had years of experience of trying to cover it up. No cel-shading, paint the humans all rendered-like. It’s okay if the eyes are big, as long as you show you have a basic understanding of “human realism.” When anime starts crossing over into a “Disney” aesthetic, how anime is it? And doesn’t a Disney aesthetic have crossover with anime? Is it worth it? Are you worth it?
These were questions I asked myself frequently and had conversations with my friends about all the time. Overall, it was this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I wasn’t good enough unless I covered it up. My art style has evolved over the years naturally, but now I can’t be sure whether I could call it manga. It’s how “art style” should naturally evolve, as some teachers would say, but now even I’m looking at eastern anime and manga artists and thinking, “I spent so much time worrying about my presentation to the western world that I missed out on doing other cool things.”
CB: How has this impacted you guys since leaving art school? Are you ‘in recovery’ from those experiences or did it put you off those influences permanently?
Dee: The rejections kinda messed me up for a long time and I beat myself up over not having a more acceptable style. In the end, I don’t think I ever really stopped incorporating anime influences in spite of
that doubt, because I enjoyed it and kept a lot of those influences. Before anime, my style was mostly influenced by stuff like Kirby and Dexter’s Lab. In thinking it was “better” than the anime I had picked up (even though both of these have an “anime” influence as well), I went back to it. But in the end, I just merged the two and that–coupled with some life drawing classes–helped me get to a comfortable place. I think my style is still pretty “anime” to people, but I can embrace that a little better now.
Yssa: Aww, I think that’s good to embrace it, Dee! What I like about today is this changing notion of the value of anime. Haha, face it: part of it is that Western businesses didn’t know how to sell anime and manga, but now that there’s a viable market for it, more people know about it. Art school is such a small bubble, but being in the world and the internet made me realize that their limited opinions of manga don’t really matter. I’m fortunate enough to work in Rooster Teeth Animation, an animation division that produces a western anime, RWBY. Everyone there speaks highly of anime. If I’m recovering, I think it’s the best way to recover, hahaha.
(Editor’s Note: Here’s Yssa’s most up-to-date demo reel!)
Gabriela: Yeah, I agree so much! Art school is a really small bubble, but thankfully because of the internet and globalization, things are slowly changing. It’s so heartbreaking to see how many peers have been discouraged by the academy just because they’re influenced by manga (and, to be honest, I was really shocked when I saw so many people inside art schools in the US telling similar experiences!). I’m currently preparing for my thesis exam, and well, one thing I regret is not having been more stubborn and fighting earlier, haha. While I’m immensely grateful that I had the chance to explore other things and incorporate them into my work, during these last four years I felt the constant need to apologize or make up for the fact that my drawing style is heavily influenced by manga and anime. (Because of my own insecurities too, not only because of the environment). But I’m happy I eventually took the step and gathered the courage to proudly let my influences show themselves in my drawings 🙂
Yssa: That’s so awesome, Gabriela!!! <3
Dee: I can relate to apologizing Gabriela, I did it for a while too. But it’s great you pushed through! It’s pretty encouraging to hear both your stories.
You can follow Dee, Yssa, and Gabriela on Twitter at @beedeeboro, @dearbassy, and @nuditosciegos, respectively.