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Interview with manga artist Nana Li

Interview with manga artist Nana Li
Thursday 10th December 2009 by C. Freeman
Manga artist Nana Li, who has just published her first book, an adaptation of Twelfth Night, visited Brooke Weston recently. She spoke at both assemblies and also showed Year 8 English students some tricks of the trade, giving them tips on drawing manga faces.
Here she explains how she became a graphic illustrator:

'I was born in China, moved to Sweden at three years old, then came to the UK four years ago. I started being very fascinated with manga when I was about 15 but I always thought it would be a hobby. My parents are engineers and I wanted to travel so I got into Imperial College London to study biomedical engineering.

'After coming to London I met some people who were making a living out of being manga artists and that's when I thought “wow, it's actually possible to do that!”. I was tempted to give it a go as well. It was a difficult decision to make however. You're swapping academia, something that's relatively secure for something less certain by far. I got in touch with a publisher in London before I finished my degree and was fortunate enough to be given the chance to illustrate 'Twelfth Night' as soon as my degree was finished. It was a good time to swap. If I had a secure job with monthly pay it would have been an even more difficult decision.

'Drawing Twelfth Night took me seven months and it was more than a full time job. Drawing takes a lot of time and it's a 200 page graphic novel. Seven months might sound like a lot of time but it's not when you start breaking it down. This publisher had very short turnarounds so I had to work very quickly but it was okay. It was my first professional job and I think once you have your foot in the door it's easier to pick up more assignments in the future.

'It's completely Shakespearean with the original dialogue that's been cut down to fit into a graphic novel. You might think it's completely different, manga coming from Japan and Shakespeare being so British, but if you think about it Shakespeare was supposed to be seen as a play on stage so there was a visual element to it. Nowadays when you study it in school there's a lot of reading and you have to work very hard to see it. Manga can be very expressive and fun, so it really brings the comedy and dramatic elements alive. Manga is also quite cinematic in the way a story is told. People have been making movies of Shakespeare plays for ages so manga, when you think about it, is really not that different.

'The script the publishers gave me was already broken down into pages but I could be a bit flexible. If I wanted to put a dialogue bubble onto another page I could do that, as long as I end up with 193 pages in the end. This publisher left all the graphics and planning up to me. What I got was just the script and the dialogue, no stage direction or anything so I designed the characters, plotted it out and came up with ideas for what they should be doing while they were having their dialogues. I enjoyed the creative freedom.

'It's challenging partly because it's Shakespeare. In one part Malvolio has a long monologue where he's talking to himself for five pages! If you have two people talking you can cut between them but with just one person talking to himself I was driving myself crazy trying to think of what to draw. I went abstract. He's speculating about whether Lady Olivia loves him or not and his own grandeur, so I went all out. I drew him in space and had flowers and stars shooting out everywhere. That's the great thing about manga, you can really play with abstraction and make things fun to read; a monologue might be quite dry otherwise, but if you have visuals to take you through it you don't even think of it as being a monologue.

'I've done some shorter stories before, around 20 pages for a competition, but this is my first graphic novel. When you're working on it, all these loose pages and digital files it doesn't feel like it's real, then suddenly it's there! For me the excitement wasn't just holding the finished book, it was meeting people who had read it. It was quite amazing, because you're there in your room drawing, all alone for seven months, no-one's reading it and you just think no-one's ever going to read it. Then suddenly everywhere I go people are saying 'I saw your book in the bookshop' or 'I read it. The book has had positive reviews so far. Because it's Shakespeare, it's not new in an original sense but people have been saying that it's been a fun new take on it.

'I use traditional pencil and ink methods. I use dip pens but then I do toning on the computer which a lot of people do now. If you look at the book it's got grey shaded tones in it and there's a program for doing that but it's the only thing I do on the computer. More and more people are doing things digitally nowadays due to the convenience. I have some friends who do everything on the computer but I like the working with pencils and ink.

'It's kind of a way of life once you start drawing a comic, you need to do it every day. Once you start focussing on bringing the story out you don't focus on your own mind-set any more. My favourite characters were actually the comedy characters, Toby, Sir Andrew, those plotting against Malvolio. I had a lot of fun drawing the comedy parts because you can really turn up the volume on everything; the expressions, the gesturing and with Twelfth Night being a comedy, I felt that was where I could really capture the tone of the story.

'At the moment I've just started collaborating with a friend. He has written a graphic novel so I am working closely with him to draw it. That will probably occupy me for the next year and we're hoping to find a publisher. It's quite difficult making a living as a comic artist. You often have to create your own projects which you pitch to publishers. Despite the difficulties I believe that the art path is definitely the right one for me. Whether I'll be working in comics, illustrations or something else in ten year's time remains to be seen.

'Apart from running workshops like the ones I've done here at Brooke Weston I also take commissions and do portrait drawings at events. When I'm out and about I take a sketchbook with me everywhere, To observe and really take things in from life is a great way to improve your drawing. Also, you'll never have to wait another moment of your life because there's always something can do if you have a sketchbook around.

'I teach people how to draw manga, but once you get further down the line you realise that drawing manga is just about learning how to draw, period. In the beginning I would copy what I thought was manga but with time I realised that in order to be good at manga you just need to be able to draw. People tell me that manga hands are difficult to draw for instance, but hands are difficult to draw in any style whether it's realistic or not.

'The thing that I tend to relate more to manga nowadays is the story-telling. In general, it tends to be more spaced out and character-driven compared to that in a lot of Western comics. And that's also why I believe some manga stories have such a strong impact on readers. You simply form a stronger relationship with the characters in the stories.

'There's also something in the line quality of manga, which is part of what attracted me to the art style in the first place. Many of my favourite mangas are characterised by delicate lines and a definite minimalism. When you have very little in there you can really emphasise what is important. For instance, Hollywood action movies tend to be characterised by their over-usage of expensive explosions which, crudely speaking, means that if you want to emphasise something, you need an even bigger explosion! Manga can be very sparse but whatever is in there is usually in there for a reason, it's something that you want to emphasise. For example, some manga styles are characterised by big eyes whereas the other features are very simple. Eyes are the windows to the soul and the most expressive element of any face, so emphasising them to make the storytelling easier makes sense. Also they're just plain darn pretty to draw!

'For those who are just starting to learn to draw manga, I started out with copying my favourite artists and that's a good way to get a feel for the style and line quality. However, you can only go so far with just copying. At some point you will have to learn proper anatomy. That's when you become free to be able to draw what you like. There are many 'how to draw manga' books out there now which have a lot of helpful tips for beginner artists, but in the end learning how to draw, period, is the important thing. And by that I mean learning how to think three-dimensionally on paper, how to capture form, composition, light… There's really no way to cheat around it.

'This is the first school I've been to and I was asked to talk about my career and how I ended up where I am now. If anyone was confused by my speed-talk, I was just trying to tell people it's OK if you don't know what you want to do, if you change your mind. The important thing is to be out there, try things and do things.'

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