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Location: Anaheim, California, United States

Regular contributor ("Carson City Limits" and other content) for Random Lengths (circulation 56,000) in San Pedro, CA, 2001-present. Manga reviewer: LA Alternative (circulation 150,000), 2005-2006. Some manga reviews also ran in NY Press around this time. Entertainment reporting: Music Connection (circulation 75,000), 1983-1906. Travel writing: Oakland Tribune (1998) and Life After 50 (2006). Other bylines: Goldmine, Star Hits, Los Angeles Reader, Los Angeles Times, Long Beach Press Telegram, Blade, BAM, Daily Breeze, LA Weekly. Specializations include community news reporting, writing reviews (book, theater, concert, film, music), copywriting, resumes, editing, travel writing, publicity, screenwriting, lecturing, and content development. Education: B. A. Theater Arts, UCLA. Post-grad work, Education, Chapman University.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Felipe Smith: “Surprise the Reader as Much as I Can”

American Manga Artist Interviewed on the Creation of MBQ

By Lyn Jensen

A few lines from this 2005 interview with manga artist Felipe Smith (MBQ, Peepo Choo) were published in my "Manga" column." What follows is the complete interview.

Q: Could you tell me a little bit more about the places in your MBQ manga and what they mean to you?

A: Omario, he lives in my apartment, which is in West LA. The In-and-Out Burger on Venice Blvd. next to the Blockbuster is actually the MBQ where Omario’s roommate works… [There’s] the LA River on Sepulveda which is the opening scene where Omario’s going to throw his gun out, then he decides not to because he needs the money for that gun. Then there’s Yuu Yuu’s Karaoke where his friend Brian works at, and where I used to work at--for three years.

Q: This book [MBQ vol. 1] is urban street Los Angeles. How did you come by that?

A: Basically it’s hard not to when you live in West LA, when your transportation is a bicycle, a skateboard, a bus. So pretty much the situations I see every single day, working at different jobs, restaurants, postal centers, and karaoke clubs. The most exciting thing to do when I tell a story is to tell my own personal experience.

Q: For MBQ, how did you develop the characters and experiences? Did you have real people in mind?

A: Some are actually real people, the name and the way they look… Brian, the Japanese-American who works in a karaoke bar, is a friend of mine. MBQ tells the story of how we first met, how we worked at karaoke bars in the same neighborhood… He raps in English and Japanese. … As [the series unfolds you see] the live shows he did on Sunset Blvd.

My roommate Jeff…He worked at Blockbuster, the Blockbuster right next door to MBQ [but] this story, because it’s about American culture … I wanted it to revolve around a fast food place.
Omario is based on me, he’d like to be who I am and what I’d never want to be [and] so Mario is not just Felipe. He wears my clothes, rides my bicycle, he has my roommate and a lot of the ways he thinks are the ways I think. [But] sometimes he makes choices I would never make.

Officer Finch is an actual police officer by the name of Finch… a retired New Jersey cop… Because the story takes place in LA, he’s an LAPD officer. Writing about characters I know, these stories as they unfold, they … write themselves. I know the way these characters think… Put a couple elements in there of fiction.

[Officer O’Malley is completely fictitious.] This book is for people who have an open mind, are ready to be surprised by things they’re not expecting in a book, because basically that’s what I want to do, surprise the reader as much as I can.

Q: You do a cops-and-crooks story in MBQ, but you don’t handle it the way such stories are usually handled, it’s more episodic, more an alternate way of storytelling. What made you decide on that type of structure?

A: Most stories and manga have one linear character and follow this one character’s story. I have six characters. They don’t live in the same place. They don’t know each other at times… I need to cover all their stories at the same time because as the story progresses, their paths start to merge.

Q: What type of process do you follow when you’re drawing?

A: Basically I do some sketching to get an idea of what kind of story I should tell. Then I script the story. Then I proceed to draw the actual pages. Then I do the screen tones, all the grays on the pages on the computer [using PhotoShop]. The drawing’s by hand. The tones are done on computer.

Q: How did you choose to do the manga style?

A: I started reading actual manga from Japan [around 2002-2003]. If you look at books in Japan there’s a wide range of styles. There are so many ways of telling a story graphically. I’d say my style is a combination of things, I wouldn’t say it’s a manga style. I grew up reading European comics as well… Things I’ve seen out of real life in West LA influence and inform my style, a lot of real things, as the fashion of the people, what they’re wearing right now, streets, places, cars.

Q: Could you tell us more about your favorite manga and artists?

[He names Shama, Roku de Nahi Blues, Gorio, Tokyo Tribes—all in one way or another fight manga—and Psycho, nothing like the Hitchcock movie but about a detective with multiple personalities.]

Q: How did you get started in comics rather than in another kind of art?

A: I came to Los Angeles looking to find work as an animator. I worked three years in Chicago, in school and at an animation studio—stuff for kids, Disney kind of drawings… I wanted to tell stories for a more mature audience…

I was born in Akron, Ohio. Then at age 5 I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. I did all my schooling there. After graduating high school I moved to Chicago to go to … The Art Institute of Chicago. When I graduated from that school in 2000 I worked one more year doing animation in Chicago, then to Los Angeles…

I came out to LA after I saw a lot of Japanese animation… appealing to adults as well, film noir kind of animation. So I came to LA with the whole idea to do something like that with a studio. Do something new and not geared towards kids.

I went to a couple of studios and they said, “No, we don’t handle anything like that. There’s no room for this in animation.” A lot of studios told me that. They told me animation in the US is limited, style-wise. [They said] what I was doing was too complicated to animate. Having seen so many Japanese animations, I didn’t believe that was true. ...When you're fresh and looking for work the last thing you want to hear is that you're too complicated.... Basically they told me I had to draw a simpler drawing style--a waste, if you can draw a lot more detail.

[In 2004 he entered some contests including TokyoPop’s Rising Stars of Manga, which led to the company publishing his MBQ, a three-volume series.]

Q: You don’t retell the plot of your winning TokyoPop contest entry, a quirky short called “Manga,” in MBQ, but there’s an indirect reference in the throwing the gun away—or not. Why?

A: That one’s about Felipe Smith, this one’s about Omario. [The “Manga” one-shot is about “one person’s opinion.”]

Q: How would your drawings be different if they were just done in a regular cartoon style?

A: There isn’t really a difference between manga or cartoons or comics or graphic novels. They’re all forms of visual storytelling. It’s hard to look at a style and say if it’s manga or comics. I think it’s the storytelling. The pacing of the story is what makes the biggest difference. Manga obviously, being a thicker book, averages about 200 pages. There’s more time to tell a story.

I have a chase scene [in MBQ, vol. 1] that’s about 30 pages, a whole chapter. A regular comic is about 22 pages. My chase scene is 30 pages. It exceeds the normal page limit for a normal comic. Mine is a whole story, but it’s a chase scene story. That’s the difference between manga and comics. Comics are forced to limit themselves to what’s occurring in a page count. Manga, you’re a bit more free to be as you like. … I find manga in a lot of ways is very expressive visually. The expressions on the characters’ faces are very vivid sometimes. Backgrounds are drawn, really detailed, specifically like what kind of car, what kind of building. A lot of comics… a building is just a building. [In manga] it’s really important for the reader to look at and visualize this place.

Q: What about any previously published work?

A: The work I did before MBQ was very different style-wise. I did a lot of fantasy, a lot of sci-fi stuff [including Transformers role-playing books and toys]. I did some cover stuff for animation magazines in Europe, [animation] pin-up[s].

Q: How did being of diverse heritages, being raised in Argentina, with your father being from Jamaica, affect you?

A: When I came to the US I just saw different people of every shape, size, background, culture, and that’s one thing I really like about this country. That’s one of the things I depict [in MBQ], a variety of characters that [Los Angeles] has…

Q: Not many people can claim such vastly different backgrounds. Has there been any negative or downside to that in your experience?

A: Any kind of negativity that arises from differences, that’s something I don’t even want to deal with. [It] doesn’t make sense. It’s one of the things people deal with on a daily basis.


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