Making a Living in Manga: Part 3

The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Manga Training Gap

Young Artists Draw Manga
Young Artists Draw Manga. © Christopher Hart

In Making a Living in Manga Part 1, I explained nine reasons why the manga-making economy in North America is broken. In Part 2, we discussed the issue of fan and creator perception of original English language (OEL) manga, and whether it was "Real" or "Fake" Manga.

Now in Part 3, we'll discuss the role that art school plays (or maybe how it doesn't do enough) to teach would-be manga artists how to draw comics, and how the training gap leaves them without the drawing, writing and business skills necessary to pay the bills. We'll also discuss apprenticeship opportunities (or the lack thereof) in N. America.

The comments you're seeing here were mostly from a wide-ranging discussion held on Twitter in May 2012, with additional comments sent to me via email. Read on, and see what this mix of fans, novices, pros had to say about the training gap for manga artists in America.


A frequently heard complaint from pros in the comics publishing business is how many portfolios and proposals cross their desk from aspiring manga creators who simply lack the skill, polish and experience to produce professional-level work.

Whether it's a lack of basic drawing skills, sloppy paneling and pacing, or lackluster storytelling, or a combination of these things, many novice creators, even ones that have completed four years of art school seem ill-equipped to make their dreams of a career in comics into a paying reality.

For example, for the past two years, Yen Press has put out an open call for new creators to submit a sample short story for their Talent Search. But in 2012, as in 2011, no 'winners' were announced. In the May 2012 issue of Yen Plus magazine, Yen Press Editor JuYoun Lee described what she had received in the 2012 Talent Search and why she found many entries lacking.

"Although I can see that a great deal of effort went into each page, sometimes just trying hard isn't enough.... Artwise, since this is a new talent search, the main thing we look for is potential for growth. One of the main aspects of that potential is whether or not the basics are there. Many of the submissions were too focused on the individual artist's style -- which is good to have, of course! -- but were lacking in fundamental skills."

This is not a new observation. Back in 2009 at a industry-only panel at Anime Expo, TokyoPop editor Lilian Diaz-Pryzbyl had this to say:

"I've been doing portfolio reviews for five years - some artists get the character design and storytelling, but they don't have the drawing skills to tell the story they have in their mind. The combination of drawing chops and having an understanding of how the story works is hard to find together in one creator."

Yamila Abraham, publisher of Yaoi Press had this to add about the quality of applicants that she's seeing cross her desk:

"Anyone touch on the 'How to Draw Manga' syndrome? It's hard to hire American artists to draw in the manga style. Their art work looks so dated. Those instruction books out there are teaching a manga style from 15 years ago. If you don't want to be called 'fake' manga you have to be contemporary with what artists are currently doing in Japan."


I have heard this complaint from many pros: that young creators think 'manga' means they don't have to know the basics. Copying your favorite manga artists is fine for starters, but if you don't know the fundamentals of design, composition, and figure drawing, how to render light, shadow and color, how to use different line widths to create texture and dimension, and how to tell a sequential story, your weaknesses will be apparent to any professional who reviews your work, and will ultimately stunt your creative growth.

Whether you go to art school, a four-year or two-year college or just go straight into the comics biz from high school, you need to know the basics before you can be taken seriously as a pro.

"That's certainly one of my complaints. Learn anatomy. Learn good acting. Learn storytelling."
- Lea Hernandez (@TheDivaLea), Comics/webcomics creator and illustrator, Rumble Girls (NBM Publishing)
"Figure drawing courses go a LONG way! Taking some lessons and learning to draw properly, not just manga, helps immensely!"
- Heather Skweres (@CandyAppleCat), Artist, toy collector, and photographer
"Hey, a lot of pro superhero comics artists can't draw perspective, background, or, y'know, feet. Art class for all!"
- Alex Decampi (@alexdecampi), Filmmaker, author
"Writing is THE most important part of the whole. If your art is so-so, but your writing shines, you're golden. Reversed, give up."
- Jon Krupp (@WEKM)
"I think sometimes what N. American creators miss is making characters that people love or hate and can relate to."
- Benu (@Benu), Anime podcaster and blogger, Anime Genesis
"One problem I've noticed among American 'manga' creators is that they tend to put artwork above interesting characters/storytelling. What I always loved about manga was the storytelling. The most successful creators tell great/interesting stories, even if they can't draw well (look at Rumiko Takahashi). Some good artists (Tanemura Arina) are popular at first, but become obscure when they fail to produce stories with good storytelling. Almost nobody talks about her manga anymore and instead she has artbooks."
- Jamie Lynn Lano (@jamieism), Expatriate American comics creator, now living in Japan, former assistant on the Tennis no Oujisama (Prince of Tennis) manga
"No slight to art school, but I taught myself more from drawing 100s of comics pages -- mainly DIRTY PAIR -- than I ever learned from any teacher. No art teacher could teach you more about inking than you'd learn from, say, the brutal DIY inking course in PEN & INK. The advantage of art school? I was able to work on comics pages fulltime, rather than trying to fit 'em in around a (non-art) work schedule."
- Adam Warren (@EmpoweredComic), Comics creator, Empowered (Dark Horse) and Dirty Pair (Dark Horse)

NEXT: Teachers Who Don't Get Manga, Students Who Don't Want to Learn the Basics


So how is it that many would-be manga artists end up trying to sell their stories to publishers without mastering the basics of drawing and graphic storytelling first?

Some place the blame on students who refuse to learn basic figure drawing because they think they don't need it to draw manga. Some cite art educators who are puzzled by manga aesthetics, or at worst, are downright hostile to their manga-loving students' efforts.

A must-read on this subject is "What Do I Do With These Anime Kids?" by Sean Mitchell Robinson, an essay by a Seattle high school art teacher/cartoonist who talked about this dysfunctional teacher/student dynamic, and ways he tried to bridge the divide.

"Art professor friend always complains about how so many students come in wanting to draw anime/manga and flat-out refuse to actually learn any of the drawing skills that they ostensibly came to university for. So many of them seem to think that the rules of drawing and art don't actually apply to manga/anime."
"I think it's a common problem, which isn't to say that educators not taking comics seriously isn't also an issue. I do think that's changing though, thanks to more and more comics peeps coming up and getting into positions in schools, etc."
- Jocelyne Allen (@brainvsbook), Manga translator, author, book reviewer
"This was me at a young age. It's this belief that the "classic" style taught didn't apply to me, and what I like to draw. And I've come across lots of young artists like this, watched them drop out of art classes within the first couple weeks. There's definitely a lesson to be learned in maturity about getting over yourself and letting someone teach you."
- Heather Skweres (@CandyAppleCat), Artist, toy collector, and photographer
"Once another art teacher mentioned trying to get his students to stop drawing manga. Me: Getting people to STOP drawing isn't your job. That said, many students take offense if you try to move them beyond pinups/character designs, to actual STORIES."
- Ben Towle (@ben_towle), comics creator / webcomics creator of Oyster War
"It doesn't help that art schools as of now aren't geared to guide these kids that want to draw OEL, me included."
- Karen (@ptlp), Comics creator at
"The challenge of art education is to steer students into working in and understanding different styles and methods. That's why art school is vital, your work goes on the wall and everybody critiques it, and you have to stand there and take it."
- Dave Merrill (@terebifunhouse), Comics/pop culture blogger TerebiFunhouse
"I know part of the problem with teaching baby me skills is that so many were openly hostile to what I liked to draw, instead of working with my interests, or at the very least not outright declaring them illegitimate and worthless. It's frustrating getting kids to draw outside their comfort zone, but I'm guessing there are better ways than telling 'em it's lame."
- Zoey Hogan (@caporushes), Comics creator,​


Many young artists don't realize that being a comics creator is more than just drawing pictures. It's also storytelling/writing + business savvy. Any working artist will tell you that drawing skills will only take you so far, if you can't sell yourself/your work, can't write well, or can't do things like prepare your work for print or manage your website. If you can't read a contract to figure out that you're getting screwed or not, that's not the fault of an 'evil and greedy' publisher or client. Ultimately, it's your fault for not knowing how to look out for your own best interests.

It's a shame that this kind of 'real world' education isn't included in all art school curricula. If art schools/colleges are serious about preparing their graduates to be professional artists, these should be required, not optional courses. If your art school/college doesn't teach you the skills to pay the bills, then it's in your best interest to seek out this knowledge for yourself.

"SVA has individual teachers that approach it, but it isn't part of the curriculum. That REALLY bothered/bothers me."
- Kasey Van Hise (@spacekase), SVA graduate and comics creator, Winters in Lavelle
"We all know art is super personal and largely insular. But like anyone else looking for jobs, you need the skills to sell it, not to mention basic accounting, public speaking, and other really important skills. Well, they never teach you that stuff in school, though they really should unless they're gearing artists to work for companies. It should be the standard for every single art major who is going into art for application, not research. Can't be ignorant with money. In general, the whole education system really needs a massive overhaul. Technology is changing the way we do everything. "
- Audra Furuichi (@kyubikitsy), Webcomics creator, Nemu-Nemu
"The problem for most of us self-publishers is that we're craptastic at marketing ourselves. I know I could use an angel on my shoulder telling me what I should be doing to get more eyes on my stuff."
- Dan Hess (@dansaysstuff), Webcomics creator, Weesh and Bento Comics
"They should teach it to all art majors. We had one class about applying to art shows and writing grant proposals, with no reference to any online marketing, selling or digital files. business tips for illustration were a diff class. Even if all that was put together, it was missing a ton."
- Meredith Dillman (@uminomamori), Illlustrator and comics creator,
"SVA alum here. I regret to inform you that the business side of comics is barely touched upon. It's feast or famine. The students are left to plan how to market themselves with just a portfolio and a website. (This) doesn't help at cons, which you would think to be the right place, some editors and company's don't look at portfolios. And I'm speaking for all artists not just the manga ones. In terms of storytelling and writing, SVA helped greatly."
- Steve Yurko (@SteveYurko), Cartoonist ( and co-host for the One Piece Podcast

NEXT: Artists Alley Confidential and Apprenticeships


If you want to see an example of the lack of business smarts in this generation of up-and-coming comics creators, you only have to take a stroll down artists' alley at an anime con.

Some artists know how to display and sell their work. But too, too often, I walk through artist's alley, browse some artwork, and get ignored as the artist hunches over their sketchbook. I know many comic artists are socially awkward, but being able to talk about and sell your work is a basic social skill that every creator needs.

"Teaching artists how not to be reclusive introverts should be a required course at school."
- R. M. Rhodes (@oletheros), Comic creator, Oletheros Publishing
"The socially awkward thing holds people back in every industry. Can't communicate? Doesn't matter how good your art is, then."
- Chris Driggers ‏(@chrisdriggers)
"Agreed. You're there to WORK -- promote, network, not hide in your sketchbook. It can be tough skill for artists but it can be learned. Tho some people prefer to be left alone to browse. Even then, doesn't hurt to say hello. :)"
- Lindsay Cibos (@lcibos), Comic artist and illustrator, Peach Fuzz and Last of the Polar Bears
"Be approachable... not hiding behind the table, but not lunging over it either. No one likes pushy/scary."
- Damian Willcox (@dorkboycomics), Comics creator, Dorkboy Comics
"I'm much more inclined to pick up a comic from someone who appears friendly. I'm also more inclined to do con interviews with people who are immediately talkative. And I try to keep in touch too."
- Liz Ohanesian (@lizohanesian), Los Angeles Weekly columnist, music / pop culture writer


In Japan, many comics creators hone their skills while working as an assistant to an established manga artist. In North America, these types of mentor/apprentice situations or similar opportunities for learning from established comics pros are not as easy to find.

Are artists' assistant positions a viable way to train up-and-coming creators? Or are there too many factors going against it to recreate what works in Japan in North America?

"But, I also think that the N. American market is not structured in a way to allow for comic creators to make a living wage, forget about paying for assistants. Although in Japan beginning creators are in the red if they hire assistants too, there is the chance to make more, there's an established position to aim for."
- Jamie Lynn Lano (@jamieism), Comics creator (, former assistant on the Tennis no Oujisama (Prince of Tennis) manga
"The manga industry's advanced system of assistants is often mentioned in N. American comics circles; I don't see it as even vaguely viable over here. Might be a different story if all North American comics artists lived in one city, like most of Japan's mangaka do-but guess what? We don't. Yes, I realize that distance collaboration via digital means is entirely possible and quite viable for some artists, given the right set-up. Shockingly enough, many artists do not, in fact, work digitally. For such primitive paper-scrawlers, assistance would be needed in-studio. If you don't live in a city with a studio set-up, would a (theoretical) assistant therefore have to move in with you? That's kinda creepy. Transplanting a Japanese-style assistant system to N. American comics isn't just precluded by only geographical complications, either. Next up: $$$$!"
"Most N. American comics artists simply do not make (even remotely) enough cash to pay a full-time assistant-or even a part-time one, for that matter. Whatever productivity boost an artist might get from having an assistant isn't likely to be significant enough to offset the hiring costs. Most artists don't earn much per issue or book; a slightly improved production rate wouldn't end up amounting to much of an income increase. Mainstream work at Marvel or DC page rates might well be more assistant-friendly. Most of us, for good or ill, do not work at Marvel or DC. (Just for the record, even mainstream Marvel/DC page rates have been trending downward of late, sometimes to a dismayingly dramatic degree.)"
"Besides, breezily vague talk of "apprenticeships" or "training" for N. American comics artists smacks of the shortcut. Note: THERE IS NO SHORTCUT. In my experience, you don't learn how to do comics through apprenticeships, or training, or art teachers beaming knowledge into your head. IMHO, you learn how to do comics simply by CRANKING OUT A METRIC F**K-TON OF COMICS, preferably while still young and artistically flexible."
"The 'assistant' route wouldn't be a shortcut, as you'd already need to have quite advanced skills to be of any use to a professional artist. I'm not at all convinced that I'd have the ability to work a (theoretical) assistant into useful shape, art-wise. I'm no art teacher, folks. I'd just wind up pointing wildly at cringing Theoretical Assistant's pages, shrieking, 'DRAW CROWDS GOODERER! STOP BEING ALL NONGOODER-Y!!!'"
"Present-Day Me wouldn't hire 21-Year-Old Me as an assistant; Young Me wouldn't yet have the artistic skill set to contribute meaningfully. By contrast, 24-Year-Old Me? A different story. But why the hell would Now Reasonably Skilled Young Me settle for being someone's assistant?"
"Yeah, yeah, comics gruntwork like filling in blacks or erasing pages gets mentioned, but you don't actually need an art assistant for that. For that sorta crap, any passerby with a pulse will do. (Cue the artist's long-suffering Significant Other, drafted into service again.) Assistants are by no means an impossibility in N. American comics. Manga's elaborate network of assistants? An impossibility in N. America."
- Adam Warren (@EmpoweredComic), Comics creator, Empowered (Dark Horse) and Dirty Pair (Dark Horse)

Now that you've heard what others have had to say, it's your turn! You can add your comments about this article on the blog post introducing this article in this series. You can also tweet your comments to me at @debaoki or @aboutmanga.

Coming up: Making a Living in Manga Part 4 - Publishers vs. Self-Publishing with Webcomics / Kickstarter