Ninjitsu, Non-Profits and Nachos with Mail Order Ninja's Josh Elder [Full]
The manga maestro sits down with us to talk shop.
If you cut Josh Elder, does he not bleed? Well, yes, but if you placed said blood under a microscope, you'd find that it's equal parts hemoglobins and graphic novels because comics are in his blood. After winning the 2005 Rising Stars of Manga contest, we published his terrific OEL manga series Mail Order Ninja. Now, the shinobi scribe is back, so we sat down with him to talk about plans to revive the series through Kickstarter, his non-profit charity Reading With Pictures and why manga is more American than you might think.
TOKYOPOP: Refresh us on what's happened in the story so far. What's going on at this point in the world of Mail Order Ninja?
Josh Elder: 10-year old Timmy McAllister and his mail order ninja, Jiro Yoshida, have successfully freed the town of Cherry Creek, IN from the well-manicured clutches of evil rich girl Felicity Dominique Huntington and her mail order ninja, Hakuuryu Nobunaga. Now it's back to the usual ninja hijinx (or ninjinx, if you will), including a visit to the San Diego Shinobi Con and a showdown with the 7 Deadly Fans!
TP: Tell us about the Kickstarter. What are you hoping to achieve with it and what motivated you to turn to crowdsourcing?
JE: We have a relatively modest threshold goal of $6k that will fund a reprint of almost all existing Mail Order Ninja content in a deluxe hardcover format, pay the artists who volunteered their skills to draw a Mail Order Ninja short story for charity back in 2010 and fund a BRAND NEW Mail Order Ninja short story with artist Tim Smith III called "Beware the 7 Deadly Fans." For every $5k we raise after that, we'll produce another new chapter in the Mail Order Ninja saga. I've lined up a crossover with Chris Giarrusso's G-Man and stories like "Mr. Yoshida Goes to Washington" where the Federal Trade Commission orders a nationwide ninja recall because the ninjas are considered a safety hazard.
As for why I went the crowdfunding route... I've been running successful campaigns on Kickstarter since 2010, with another big success earlier this year with The Graphic Textbook. So I'm quite comfortable in the crowdfunding world.
TP: The success of titles like Mail Order Ninja, Psy-Comm and Bizenghast has proven that OEL manga is something that readers want and can be commercially viable. How does it feel to be on the vanguard of American manga creators? What are your thoughts on the "can non-Japanese creators make 'manga'" debate?
JE: Readers respond to good material. It doesn't matter where its from. There's a certainly a strain of "Japanophilia" in manga fandom, but mostly it's just folks who dig stuff that's awesome. Japan just happens to have a surplus of awesome comics. I mean, depending on how you define it, I think Scott Pilgrim could reasonably be called American (well, Canadian) manga. Is it "authentic" manga? Not at all. Is it awesome and incredibly successful? Absolutely. The takeaway: awesomeness knows no borders.
TP: What are your influences - writers, illustrators, even sources outside the comics/manga world - when it comes to manga?
JE: Wow... there's almost too many to name. I'd say that Miyazaki is a huge one. He creates children's stories that resonate just as deeply with adults. I think Pixar does the same thing stateside. Bryan Lee O'Malley of Scott Pilgrim fame for the sheer density of his pages and the cleverness of his presentation. But probably the biggest influence on my creative output has always been the classic Looney Tunes shorts. I loved them when I was 5, and I love them now, but for entirely different reasons. Those writers and animators perfected "all ages" content where the stories just kept getting smarter the older you became. I've got Bugs and Daffy in my DNA!
TP: Were you an anime/manga fan growing up? What are some of your favorite titles?
JE: I'm going to date myself here, but the only anime/manga available in the States when I was growing up in the 80s was more adult/art-house material like Akira or Lone Wolf & Cub. I'm big fans of both series now, but they weren't even on my radar back then. So when TOKYOPOP, Viz and Dark Horse started bringing manga over by the truckload in the early aughts, it was a revelation. A few favorites - aside from the aforementioned Akira and Lone Wolf & Cub: Nausicaa, Planetes, Oishinbo, Pluto and Naruto
TP: What was it about the manga style that attracted you? What is it about Mail Order Ninja that makes it a good fit for that visual style?
JE: It was a mutual decision between the artist, Erich Owen, and myself. We were both manga fans and felt the contrast between two shounen styles - one more realistic and action-oriented for the ninja characters and the other more "big-eyed" and cartoonish for the kids - would give the book a distinct visual identity. And the fans seemed to agree!
TP: What advice would you give to an aspiring manga author or illustrator in today's climate?
JE: Launch a webcomic. Commit to turning out pages on a regular schedule. This will prove that you have talent and determination. Then head over to Kickstarter when you think you're ready to take things to the next level. Don't wait to be "discovered," take your work out into the world. Be an entrepreneur and own your destiny. If a publisher comes to you, that's great. Your goal should be to want a publishing partner, but not need one.
TP: What are your thoughts on the future of otakudom in America? Do you think anime/manga's big moment in America has passed or is it back on the rise?
JE: Everything always seems bigger and more important when its new and on the rise than when it's matured and leveled out. A lot more people are spending a lot more money on eBay today than they were 10 years ago, but eBay seems a lot less "important" now than it did then. that's because eBay won the battle. It became normal. Anime/manga did the same. It's as American as nachos.
TP: You, more than most, seem to have a deep-seated passion for comics and graphic novels. What is it about the medium that excites you?
JE: Movies and music happen to you. You're a passive participant. But you happen to a comic. When done right, comics are more immersive and more information dense than film. They're more engaging and efficient than prose. They're cheaper to produce and distribute than interactive media. There's so much untapped potential in this medium. I studied Film in school, but I've never wanted to do anything but work in comics.
TP: You must be buried in comics and manga. What are you reading and enjoying right now?
JE: The multiple bookcases I recently purchased can attest to that... Right now I'm getting back into Naruto after a few years away. I'm also loving Mark Waid's run on Daredevil, Drama by Raina Telgemeier and Empowered by Adam Warren. Plus a few dozen other titles I don't have room to mention here...
TP: Tell us about Reading with Pictures. Why do you think graphic novels make a good educational tool?
JE: Reading With Pictures is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that I founded back in 2009 to promote the use of comics in the classroom. We provide resources to educators and develop products like The Graphic Textbook for classroom use. You can check out this presentation I gave the 2010 CUSP Design Conference to get the full 411 on the organization and our reasons for believing that comics can be more engaging, more efficient and more effective than traditional educational resources.
TP: Apart from Mail Order Ninja, are there any other projects in the coming months that you can share with us?
JE: My work at iVerse and Reading With Pictures will be keeping me pretty busy for the foreseeable future, but I am working on a small side project with Jen Brazas of Mystic Revolution called Lumina: Celebrity Superheroine. It's something we've been developing for years, and its going to debut in short story form next year in The Graphic Textbook. Though I'm hoping that this Kickstarter is such a huge success that I'll be too busy working on new Mail Order Ninja stories to do anything else for a good long while!