Dream becomes reality for Scottish manga creator

British comic books of yesteryear inspire prolific Kyushu author


It sits in a place of beauty, incongruously bordered between Japanese stone art and a vivid blue ink painting: “2000 A.D.,” a classic British comic book from the 1980s. The apocalypse orange cover shrieks “Revenge of the Warlock” but — muted by a plastic overlay to protect its condition — the sci-fi work somehow blends effortlessly with its serene Asian backdrop.

As a Scotsman living in Kumamoto, its owner, Sean Michael Wilson, comic book creator, appreciates the harmonious mismatch.

Wilson dreamed of creating comics ever since he first peeled back the cover of Pat Mills’ and Kevin O’Neill’s classic. It was just days before his 12th birthday, and he keeps the comic in his home now to acknowledge that initial inspiration. In an serendipitous twist, one of Wilson’s main publishers is Top Shelf, the same company that produces “2000 A.D.”

“I’m from a generation of British people where almost all boys and girls read comic books. It’s not really the case now, in Britain, but growing up in the late ’70s, early ’80s, everyone read comic books, and my friends and I decided that we wanted to be comic book creators.”

Wilson emphasizes the word “creators” as the comic book tradition in Britain varies slightly from that of Japan, where most manga springs from the creation of the visual artist. In Britain and the United States, the writer typically holds the reins of creativity, teaming with an artist to frame his dream into ink reality.

Almost 30 years later, Wilson’s own dream firmly frames reality. As author of 14 comic books in less than seven years, Wilson credits a driving will toward action for his success. “The main thing is you shouldn’t doubt yourself and think, ‘I’ll start doing this when I get really good.’ It seems the main thing that holds people back is self doubt. Just start doing it. Write a book, make a film, write a poem, create a painting, just to start doing you get better by doing.”

Wilson started his own doing as soon as he fell in love with comics. From the age of 12, he wrote and drew his own books, and by the time he was 18, he knew what he did not want from life: “I was always focused on artistic things, and not trying to build a career. I was influenced at 18 by Franz Kafka, who never made an effort to make a living as a writer. He said in his diaries it was a more pure form of writing, because you could be free of financial constraints.”

From the late ’80s to the mid-’90s, Wilson focused on writing poetry and short stories, publishing five booklets of poetry while he was a student at Glasgow Caledonian University and then at Edinburgh University, where he took degrees in sociology and psychology.

Graduating in 1995, he realized his attitudes toward writing and work had changed thanks to the influence of Scottish writer Grant Morrison; he turned again toward creating comic books, but also looked for a way to unite the artistic and financial strands.

“I tried filmmaking first. I did a film course in my late 20s, and one of my ideas was chosen in the film course to be made into a documentary film. As luck would have it, one of the main TV stations in Britain, Channel 4, was looking for independent films on roughly that topic, so we sent it in to the production company and they commissioned us to make it into a full-length half-hour film for television.”

That first documentary, “New Mod Generation,” aired in 2000 on British TV, and led to more work in the film industry.

Wilson also found time to nurture his dream. “I was always reading comic books, as I had not given up being a fan and admiring the form.”

Wilson lived in London, working in the film industry until he was 33 years old, assisting on social, political and cultural documentaries. But the constraints of the film world began to enclose him. “I felt it was more like working on a building site than working on creating something. It takes two songs on a big film to get through all the credits, because it takes a whole village to make it.”

Using one of the ideas he had created on the side, a full length comic titled “Angel of the Woods,” Wilson submitted 30 to 40 pages of script, with accompanying drawings by Jorge Heufemann, an Argentine artist he met on a comic book website, to the English Arts Council, along with their grant application form.

Much to Wilson’s surprise, the council awarded him several thousand dollars. The grant funded his will to do: “I had to organize the comic book all myself, so in a way it was a crash course in the comic book industry. I worked with a designer on what the cover would look like and all the layouts. I had to contact the distributor myself, Diamond from America, work with the printer, a well-known company for independent books in Canada. So I had to learn the whole process of comic book production. It threw me in at the deep end, but I ended up being relatively good at working out those bits and bobs.”

“Angel of the Woods” was published in late 2003, and its success encouraged Wilson to seek out the biggest comic book industry in the world, Japan.

Keeping with Wilson’s new goal to combine the artistic with making a living, he moved to the land of manga in 2004. He chose Kumamoto since it is exactly the same land size as his native Edinburgh and also shares the same feudal formation of a town surrounding a castle.

Wilson quickly set about working on his next publication, editing the compilation “Manga Mover,” a collection of mature manga stories in English, including one of his own works, “Chimpira.”

Projects poured in, and Wilson has published widely since then, across a variety of genres, from adaptations of the classics (Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”) to comic book documentaries (“Iraq: Operation Corporate Takeover”), original books in English (“The Story of Lee,” to be released later this month) to books in Japanese (“Yuki-Onna”).

Wilson’s breadth speaks of his drive to do, and he admits, “my main concern is the project, how to best get it done, not as quickly as possible but as good as possible.” Wilson prefers to follow the ideas that interest him, and his wide range of work reflects his wide range of interests.

His daily schedule is currently dictated by all aspects of production. “In comic books, everything starts from the script, even the visuals start from the writer’s mind. The writer describes the dialogue, writes the actual speech balloons, the captions, and works out visually what takes place on each page, and then on each panel within each page. It is a collaborative medium, and the artist sometimes contributes ideas, but everything starts with the writer’s script.”

Even with the completion of a script, however, Wilson’s work is only half finished. General editing, working with the artist through pencil sketches to ink drafts, tweaking dialogue and facial expressions, in addition to the promotional aspect that goes along with any kind of published writing, Wilson also keeps busy speaking about manga and comic books throughout America, Europe and Japan.

With the publication this year of “AX: Alternative Manga” — a collection of indie-style Japanese comics — Wilson also found a chance to introduce English audiences to gekiga, the manga equivalent of graphic novels.

” ‘AX’ was very important, the first large book, at 400 pages, to show independent, alternative-style adult manga in English. I was very lucky to be the person to steer that through.”

“AX” was recently named one of the top books of 2010 from Publishers Weekly — not in a special comic book category, but across all published works.

With the January publication in the U.S. of “Hagakure, The Manga Edition,” which is selling well in Japan, and the December release of his original “The Story of Lee,” Wilson looks forward to more success. Next year looks to be just as busy, with new manga due out from another of his main publishers, Kodansha, and another volume of “AX” to start production.

Even Wilson cannot say where his ideas and drive to do will lead him next, but he knows it will be in the comic book world.

“Creating a comic book takes two, three people, in a tight unit with very little technical things needed, basically, just a pen and a paper. If you have some wild idea with a comic book, all it involves is the paper and pen and a computer, but to try that wild idea on film takes $10,000,000.

“The financial constraints in film are also a constraint on your imagination. With comic books, the financial constraints are much less, and even though the financial rewards are less, too, I’ve always chosen the artistic route over the financial.”

For more information, visit Sean Wilson’s blog