Back in July, I interviewed Mark Crilley, the creator of Akiko and, more recently, the four-volume graphic novel series Miki Falls, for this PWCW article. Mark was so interesting that I really wanted to run the interview in full—so here it is.
UPDATE: I finally got the pictures in at a reasonable size. Enjoy!
Mark Crilley: There’s a lot of different things going on in it. It actually originated with me thinking about the Grim Reaper. There are all these literary conventions—the Grim Reaper coming to your door and saying “The hour has arrived.” I drilled down to the basic concept: What if some aspect of human life was controlled and not spontaneous? I didn’t want to talk about death—what if love has died?
I thought that rather than introducing that at the outset of the story, I would have a main character who was not clued in and would have to uncover this world bit by bit. Once you get into that, there is a theme, and this may be an American theme, the primacy of the individual, going against all the odds and trusting her own instincts.
In the third book, there is also a theme of life decisions. In a lot of stories there are explosions and laser beams. In this book it’s the decisions that become the big climactic thing. Those are the sort of explosive moments in our lives, even if they don’t look that way. No one can see it because the decision process is going on in your head.
MC: Personally the thing I am most excited about is the layouts and the nuts and bolts, things that perhaps the casual reader is not aware of—they shouldn’t be aware of it, they should be pulled into the story. But as a comic storytelling geek, I have been amazed at how I have been able to reinvent my own approach to comic book storytelling.
It comes after a series, Akiko, that ran for 53 issues with virtually no layouts of the type you see in Miki Falls. It started with Japanese manga and seeing the way that they would break the figure out of the panel so that you could see the whole figure from head to toe and sort of unleash them from the panel and almost dominate the page. I started to incorporate that, and as I got into that it made me think that there are so many possibilities for panel shapes, panel-less pages, splitting them in two.
I’m so glad you used the word cinematic. So much of it is meant to be a like a good film. I suppose you could make an argument for it being equally inspired by American film as Japanese manga, because a lot of the moments are very cinematic.
MB: Which films in particular?
MC: My first series, Akiko, was inspired very much by Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz. I found that combining those two allowed me to spin an endless variety of stories.
As for specific filmmakers or films that influence this, I’m afraid I can’t pin it down to one. One filmmaking storytelling style that has influenced me a lot is Pixar and all the great Pixar films. There is a sense of never just setting it out there in the obvious way. When they set up a scene, if there is a more interesting way of doing it, they find that way. I was constantly, with the panels and the angles, [looking for] what is the most interesting, cinematic way that I can present this.
MB: How did you come up with that? Did you start with a script and figure out the art around it?
MC: The ideal goal I believe with comic book writing is to have the words and the pictures slowly rise up together. So I will start with a rough dialogue, just written on a scrap of paper. Then I will do a rough layout page of the sequence. I tend to work on three or four pages at a time, one sequence at a time, rather than writing the whole book in prose. As I do the rough layout and I start to incorporate the words, I find the words have to change to fit the layout I came up with. Then I find you have to tweak the pictures again to accommodate the words.
The preparatory work I did with this series far exceeds anything I did for any other project. Especially with the first 2½ books, a lot of the rough pages are insanely detailed and polished and fully toned. I certainly had never taken that much time before. The prep work was key, and I don’t think I could have told this story without having really experimented, trying different takes.
MB: So you were fine-tuning the script and the art at the same time?
MC: Yes. Jeff Smith has always argued in favor of whenever possible having the person who wrote it be the person who illustrated it. You would have to have two people in very close harmony to simulate that. If you are able to draw and write, you are gong to have a cohesive whole. I can’t speak for other comic book creators, but I am moving back and forth between words and pictures constantly.
One thing that really surprised me was learning about word balloon placement. Talk about a dull sounding nuts and bolts aspect, but I just became slightly obsessed with not allowing the reader the opportunity to ever become confused about which word balloon or which panel comes next. I wanted there to be an almost intuitive stream of word balloons that guided you through the page and you never would be yanked out of the story to wonder which panel is next.
MB: The way your story is told is not really a manga style; it’s mostly Miki’s internal monologue. How did you get into the head of a 17-year-old girl?
MC: Akiko was a fourth grade girl, so this is the second time I am doing this. It may be the boring answer, but I do believe on a certain level there are certain human commonalities that transcend men and women, and all I had to do was go back to my own memories of being a teenager and the incredible importance of all this stuff.
The scene where they are on the rooftop and he is breaking it off with her—boy or girl, there is absolutely nothing more heart-wrenching than having someone push you out of their life.
I want to tip my hat briefly to my editor, Susan Rich, who did pull me back a couple of times. There was one early draft of the first book where I had the girls sitting around the table, doing girly talk, about Hiro, the new boy. I think the original draft was to have this one girl say “Please let him join the gardening club! We are so in need of a hot guy in the gardening club,” and another says “Don’t waste your breath, hotties aren’t into gardening. It goes against the laws of nature.” Susan said, “Mark, you’re overdoing it.” It is helpful to have a woman and a great editor guiding me through the process.
MC: First of all, the Japanese love of the seasons is just key to understanding their whole culture, and once I decided to set the story in Japan, and incidentally the story could have been set anywhere really, I did want to do a kind of love letter to Japan with this project. I lived there for two years and my wife is Japanese. That was the key that unlocked the project in a way. I had the concept about the Deliverers, but I wasn’t excited about the idea yet. It was when I thought “Oh, hey, how about if I make this a manga project, it can be my love letter to Japan and try to capture all the things I love about Japan in one story,” and I suddenly was filled with energy. Once I had the Japan angle, then the seasonal structure occurred to me early on, and then it was a matter of seeing that spring was the season to start with, that things would get darker in autumn and darkest of all in winter. Once that occurred to me, it was like not only does it dovetail nicely with Japanese culture, but there’s also a natural story arc of going from innocence to the entanglements of summer when things warm up and get more complicated, then the story begins to get darker and colder and things appear at least to be spiraling toward death almost, at least the death of love. I don’t want to give anything away—everything hangs in the balance in the fourth book and things get quite wintry indeed.
I’m already thinking of my next project. I think it could be something I revisit in the future but there certainly won’t be book five hot on the heels. I proposed it as this four-book series, and one reviewer mentioned that he was pleased to know that this was going to be a story with a good solid beginning, middle, and end, and it wasn’t going to be strung out indefinitely.
MB: The art in Miki Falls is very unusual. How did you arrive at this style?
MC: As soon as I decided to do this as my manga project, I went on a crash course, a self-taught crusade to teach myself how to draw in this style. I went to my local bookstore and started pulling out volume after volume and found the volumes that appealed to me and started doing very direct copies and studies. When I started doing the pitch, and I started to head down the road of very obviously manga type style, my agent actually said “Mark, are you sure, do you want to lose your own approach so fully and disguise yourself so fully as a manga artist?” And I said, “Yeah, she’s right, why not make this a sort of hybrid that joins my sensibilities about art with my personal favorite aspects of manga art?” I think it’s fairly straightforward. This is not traditional manga, I’m not trying to do that, so please don’t judge it on that. It’s something new. I’ve always been, and this goes back to the cinematic aspect, very much in love with lighting and shadow and atmosphere and very much feeling like you’re really there. It’s a pencil-Photoshop combination process I have come up with that hopefully gives a sense of lighting, a sense of depth, a sense of subtlety and shadow that I would not have got with just pen and ink.
I have to say that I have always been a little bit puzzled as to why in American comics and probably Japanese comics as well we have created this idea of penciling and inking, and penciling is this prep thing that must be totally obliterated to make way for inking. When I studied art, I was told “Don’t erase all those pencil lines, that’s part of the beauty of drawing, you’re going to kill the life of your illustration if you do.” When you study art, when you study Rembrandt, Degas, they keep all the preparatory pencil [drawings], then when you come to comics, you’re supposed to lose it.
I use a black Prismacolor pencil to simulate the harder, darker ink lines. If you do just rough looking pencils, it would start looking a little loosy goosey. I felt I needed at least some harder, darker lines to hold it all, and I must say that the Photoshop tones are really a huge part of the effects that I am getting. When people describe it as “Crilley’s pencil illustrations,” that’s almost as if you saw a pen and ink and watercolor illustration and called it pen ane ink. The Photoshop effects I’m adding are a huge part of the final illustration.
MB: What sort of promotion are you doing for the book?
MC: The promotions have been fairly minimal up till now. I get the feeling they want to get the books out there, all four of them, and at that point Harper may want to do something. I am always in full throttle promotion modem and beyond that, I love to visit schools and libraries. Once we get into the fall I will be back in the schools and libraries doing my presentation, which is sort of a live drawing demo, and giving kids and aspiring writers tips about storytelling and creating characters. That is something I am always doing that has a promotional aspect to it.
MB: Where do you feel the book is doing well?
MC: The libraries have really gotten behind it. I think the most enthusiastic supporters have been libraries. One of the things I was thinking about when I came up with this series was I wanted to do a manga project that librarians, teachers, parents could grab onto and say “This is safe for all age groups.” A lot of the Japanese manga that really look like they are for kids have some pretty racy stuff in them. Akiko, my previous series, came into an American comic book scene that was dominated by grim and violent stuff that seems so determined to prove that comics are not just for kids that they want to go to the opposite extreme. There is no reason why you can’t produce good all-ages comics. No one says “What age group is Calvin and Hobbes for?” it’s for everybody. Star Wars too. You don’t need coarse language, you don’t need adult scenes to make a story that adults can enjoy along with teenagers—even tweens, they say ages 12 and up. I hope you would agree that even an 11 or 12 year old wouldn’t find anything too terrible there. I thought certainly there was a need for a manga that can be handed off to younger kids without any fear whatsoever, and that’s what I set out to do at least on one level.
MB: Could you have done this comic ten years ago? Would the market have accepted it?
MC: I’ll come clean: I went into my local bookstore, and there were two shelves for the entire history of American comics and 12 shelves for manga. Whenever kids come up to me and said “Look at this drawing I made,” nine times out of ten it is in the manga style. For this generation, comics is manga. This is the language of this generation, and I’d better learn how to speak this language or I’ll never reach them.
Also just in terms of the skill level, I held myself to a much higher standard in terms of the human anatomy and the different things that I had always been winging it on. On this project, I said “No more of that. If you’re going to draw something, you look at what it really looks like. You try to do it justice.” And so that is definitely a sort of seriousness of purpose that I don’t think I had ten years ago. Not to say the comics I was doing ten years ago weren’t good; a lot of people I’m sure prefer them to Miki Falls. It depends on what their temperament is. But so much of this project has been informed by what I’ve gone through in the past ten years.
When I first did comics, I was single and I was in Japan, but I was not profoundly connected to Japan. it was after getting married, my wife being Japanese, that I got really connected to Japan in a very profound way. So this project is informed by that in a way that it wouldn’t have been even after we got married, by years of living in Japan and being accepted by her family, who were very welcoming.
MB: I noticed a lot of Japanese cultural references.
MC: That’s a huge part of this project for me. I started off by thinking I’m going to do my tribute to Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro, a lot of it was like that, but I got halfway through and I said why pay tribute to Miyazaki, why not pay tribute to what Miyazaki is paying tribute to, this beautiful, idyllic Japan? So I set out during trips to Japan with my sketchbook and went out in the winding streets and made drawings of these little shrines and such with the express purpose of getting them into Miki Falls.
In my pitch, I said, “This is going to be an idealized Japan that maybe doesn’t even exist any more. Let’s get away from the utilitarian and show the beautiful stuff.”
MB: You’re with HarperCollins, which is not a traditional manga publisher. Why is that?
MC: I’d love to claim that I targeted them, but really what it came down to was my agent, Marilee Heifetz, hand picking eight different publishers that she thought would be most suitable, and there was an amazing, exciting morning two or so years ago when five of the eight all wanted it, and they all made offers. And Susan Rich, I’ll never forget, began her e-mail by saying “I have fallen for Miki Falls,” it went on from there, showing so clearly how she just totally got it. And their offer was incredibly generous. Trying to guess, from their point of view, I expect they were looking to get into the manga market and I just came along and they said “This is what we want.”
All art ©2007 Mark Crilley.