Illustrator and comic book artist Mulele Jarvis came to Tokyo just as he reached adulthood. It was five years after he had first discovered manga near his home in San Francisco, at Kinokuniya Bookstore, next door to Japantown: “That’s where I found Katsuhiro Otomo’s ‘Akira.’ I was so impressed by it, I decided I wanted to create Japanese comics instead of American ones.”
A student at the San Francisco School of the Arts specializing in painting, Jarvis’s choice was not some fan-boy’s idle fantasy; he had been preparing for an artistic life since junior high, and he discovered his focus when he encountered “Akira.”
“Back then, in 1985-86, you had American superhero comics which were just starting to explore art in the real sense, infusing Picasso and other famous artists into comics. You also had underground works, but there didn’t seem to be any room for comics about real people in the mainstream, like in Japanese manga. I started reading so many realistic (manga) stories that manga truly expanded storytelling for me. At 15 or 16 years old, I decided, Japan is the only place I can do this style of comic, so I must go to Japan and learn from them.”
Jarvis graduated early by testing out of high school and began working part-time to save up money for Japan. He also dabbled in community college, but “basically, I wasn’t interested in university, either.”
His single-minded dedication to Japan eventually impressed his mother, and three years after he started his savings plan, she added her own sizable contribution: She sold their house and accompanied him. As Jarvis quips, “That’s the thing about running away from home. Always take your mother with you.”
Mother and son moved to Tokyo in 1991. Both have stayed for the duration, and Jarvis, now 41, sees clearly his own personal and artistic growth. “I came to Japan as a fan-boy with a passion for comics, expecting to claim manga as my own. But being here, I discovered a much larger world in Japanese culture. Not only have I found shodo (calligraphy) and suibokuga (ink wash painting), which I’ve fused into my own style of comic art,” he says.
“I’ve also grown up. I’m no longer a fan-boy with illusions of conquering the world. Through all the life processes that have happened to me over these past two decades, I’ve learned much about the human condition and now I find myself a humbler man who simply wants to tell life stories.”
His latest artistic endeavor, a 4.5-meter-long, traditional Japanese makimono (an ink and brush scroll, meant to be read horizontally while it is unrolled) distills what Jarvis has learned both about life and art in his original samurai epic titled “En.” He travels this month to the New York International Comic Book Convention, hoping to secure funding to make his newest artistic dream an ink and paper reality.
The painting style for “En” uses the Japanese fude brush, a technique Jarvis taught himself gradually: “Several years ago, I was asked by DC Comics to do an eight-page story for their online comic experiment, so I decided to create a story that took place in two different times with an alternate reality — the present and the samurai past. I wanted two different art styles, so I tried fude for the samurai part of the story. There was a huge reaction; everyone loved the fude brush work.”
Since 2008, Jarvis has specialized in this technique. “I have never taken lessons. I just imagine the page and think, ‘OK, that’s what I want it to look like and I just play with it until it looks like what I want.’ Fude is much freer, much lighter than conventional drawing. I am not worried so much about details, and it makes me happier after finishing a frame.”
It took time to forge his own artistic style, melding his painting background with manga. Immediately after coming to Japan — with only a year to intensively study the language — Jarvis enrolled in the Tokyo Animation School, graduating in two years. His mother had moved to Kyoto to pursue her own interests, and Jarvis explored all aspects of Japanese culture in Tokyo.
“I found myself in the early days looking for things that were purely Japanese, an interaction or some other experience. I tried to point out the differences between Western culture and Japanese. For the first six months I lived in a guest house (for foreigners), and every night we would share our experiences. Japanese culture is something that is sometimes stunning, in its ideas and its concepts.”
Working as an illustrator or teaching English on the side, Jarvis has built up many connections throughout his 20 years in the comic book world and the manga industry in both Japan and California. Layout and editing with Dark Horse Comics in the U.S., various freelance work for DC Comics, as an illustrator for English textbooks for language schools or a translator at Kodansha. These experiences led to his first original publication earlier this year, “Elbis and the Orphan Daughter of Time.” Jarvis credits “Elbis” for improving his personal narrative style, as it marks his first complete work without a writing partner.
Using a fude, Elbis grew out of a personally fascinating experience. “I was walking around Ikebukuro (in central Tokyo) late at night and I saw a circle of cats underneath a tree. They’re just looking at each other a few moments, and then they all walked away,” he recalls. “I asked a friend about it later, and she explained it’s a natural phenomenon that happens all over the world with cats, and no one knows why they do it.”
Focusing on the four-panel structure to “get a sense of story structure,” Jarvis refined the writing side of his creativity, eventually moving to a five-panel structure to tell the story of a jazz-loving cat and reluctant angel.
The period of writing the work also marked a time of personal growth, as Jarvis briefly returned to California, successfully emerged from an emotionally draining divorce, and re-established his artistic focus back in Japan.
With the completion of “En,” Jarvis brings together his creative melding of Japanese traditional styles within the modern manga form. “Emotionally, I’ve had a lot of things going on the last few years, but I am ready again to focus completely on my art and re-enter the competitive world of comics at the New York Expo.”
The idea for “En” came to Jarvis when he was looking at a classic makimono at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno. “I could only observe one section at a time, and whenever I turned my head to look at another part it was like the turning of the page. I realized I could use it as a time device and use that device to tell a comic story.” Jarvis immediately started drawing “En,” and later discovered that the late manga great Osamu Tezuka had also hoped to create an illustrated makimono 35 years ago, only to be turned down by his editors.
With his many contacts in Japan’s publishing world, Jarvis believes he knows the reason: “Manga in Japan is at a highly commercial level, and I think it is hard sometimes for publishers to go outside that box. One editor recently compared the industry in Japan to McDonald’s. He told me, ‘We make tasty, quick food and once you finish eating it, you forget it. Your art is like French food. For people who love French food, it’s wonderful, but if you have someone who expects McDonald’s and suddenly they get foie gras, it does not work.’ “
After spending 20 years discovering exactly what his art is, Jarvis was pleased with the sideways compliment: “I have a lot of confidence in my work now, and that is somewhat unusual for me. I really believe I’ve created something special.”
For more of Jarvis’s work, see www.mulele.com/redux/.