Drawn to manga

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 January, 2011, 12:00am

Comic books, Sean Michael Wilson says, are most definitely not just kids' stuff. The only professional British manga writer working in Japan, Wilson has faced the criticism that comics are something you should grow out of before you are out of your teens - and has a riposte ready.

'The idea of 'growing out of it' is a very British perspective, but there is absolutely no reason why anyone should grow out of comics,' the 40-year-old says. 'That's like saying we should grow out of music because we liked Hickory Dickory Dock as a child, or growing out of movies. Comics have different levels of sophistication for different age groups. This is as good an art form as any other.'

Wilson's passion for comics stems from a childhood in Edinburgh before the arrival of computer games, and he can still recall the day he saw the cover of the classic British comic 2000AD on the shelf of his local newsagent. 'Reading it, it really hit me. It was significantly different to traditional British comics and it was just great. I fell deeply in love with it and I'm here now because of that moment.'

Home today is Kumamoto, where Wilson arrived in 2004 after studying sociology and psychology in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and completing a teacher training course in London. Angel of the Woods was his first work and, after submitting the script to the English Arts Council, he was awarded a grant to see the project through. Published before he left Britain, the story gave him the impetus to travel to the land that invented the manga art form.

In the seven years since arriving, 14 of his books have appeared as manga or comic books and another one is due out in the new year. This latest tale - The Story of Lee - is set in Hong Kong and is a cross-cultural romance between a British man and a Chinese woman, who is torn by a generational conflict with her father, who is from mainland China.

Wilson hopes the book will be as well received as his most recent work, Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai, The Manga Edition, which went to a second print run three months after first going on sale. 'Hagakure was my adaptation of a historical Japanese text about samurai, but The Story of Lee is ... from my own original idea and set in contemporary Hong Kong,' Wilson says.

The artist for both 'mature-style' manga is Chie Kutsuwada, but 'The Story of Lee is the story of a romance but also that of a woman caught between the constraints of family life and her desire to escape from Hong Kong to London, her dream city.'

Wilson says people are often surprised at how much research goes into writing manga. 'The script for The Story of Lee ran to about 20,000 words - that's more than a university degree thesis - and the research done could be roughly similar too.

'I travelled to Hong Kong seven times to take photos of many real places, including Lamma Island, Shek O, Chai Wan, Central and the Page One bookshop. Many of these photos were used for pictures in the book, so readers will be able to spot real places,' he says.

'I also took the advice of people I met on the Hong Kong website Alive Not Dead, as to aspects of the culture of the city and I chose to set it in Chai Wan, rather than the more famous tourist spots. This gives it that greater feeling of authenticity and several real Chai Wan places are featured in the book, such as Ken's Cafe and Chai Wan Park.

'It also matches Lee's feeling of being stuck in a middle-of-nowhere type place, so I made an effort to have this book connect to the way Hong Kong actually is.'

The book is the first in a planned trilogy revolving around Lee, her father and boyfriend Matt; Wilson promises plenty of twists and turns in the remaining books.

Wilson has also edited a collection of manga titled Ax, and has heard suggestions that it might be shortlisted for the Eisner Awards, the comic industry's equivalent of the Oscars. Publishers Weekly listed the title in its 'Best Books of 2010'.

Kumamoto is a long way from Edinburgh - although Wilson calls it the 'Aberdeen of Japan', and chose to live there because he had lived in big cities and wanted to return to a city similar in scale to Edinburgh - but he says he has succeeded in this Japanese discipline thanks to his inability to be realistic.

'I would say I've always been foolishly unrealistic. There are those who assure themselves that a thing cannot be done, but that barrier instead gives me energy to achieve that thing. And it has worked out moderately well for me so far,' he says.

'I've never suffered from self-doubt and, if you want to put it in positive terms, then I have simply pursued something for which I had a very deep love as a work of art, as a profession.

'My talent as a writer is another issue altogether, but the key is the wanting to do something and then the will to do that thing.'