Interview: Sean Michael Wilson - The Boy Who Never Grew Up

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It started with the purchase of a comic in Morningside. Now Sean Michael Wilson has become a top writer of manga, Japan's native version of the art form

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SEAN MICHAEL WILSON, the only professional British manga writer working in Japan, has a pretty forceful riposte to the clich that comics are something you should grow out of, preferably before you leave your teens. "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," says Wilson, who is 40. "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," he adds. "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 that he saw the cover of the classic British comic 2000AD on the shelf of his local newsagent.

"Like almost all boys who grew up in the 1970s and 80s, I read comics like Whizzer and Chips and Warlord, but one day when I was 11 years old I went to my local newsagents in Morningside Road – I think it's still a newsagents now – looking for the comic Victor," he said. "Then another comic caught my eye, sitting on the lower shelves, and it was 2000AD It was a more modern style, with an American influence but by British creators."

The cover story, a sci-fi fantasy tale called Nemesis The Warlock really fired his imagination, Wilson said. "Reading it, it really hit me," he says. "It was significantly different to traditional British comics and it was just great. That comic I bought in Morningside Road is responsible for me becoming a comic-book writer now. It planted a deep love of the art form into me, and that still inspires me to move forward. In fact, my latest book, The Story of Lee, just arrived from the publisher this morning – and I felt the thrill all over again."

Wilson describes himself as a trans-Scot because he lived all over the country as a youngster. Born in St Andrews, he grew up in Edinburgh, lived as a teenager for four years in Aberdeenshire, went to university in Glasgow and moved back to Edinburgh at the age of 22.

"As a kid, my family lived in Morningside, but that doesn't mean I had a rich family or middle-class background. We were what you could call first-generation lower-middle class," he said. "My grandparents were very old-school, working-class Scots from a poor Irish Catholic background, but by the time I was a boy they had become quite successful in business, owning their own hotel in Bruntsfield and The Mill pub in Penicuik.

"My father was, and still is, a salesman for various breweries; my mother was a housewife with three boys to keep out of trouble."

Wilson went to school at St Peter's in Morningside and then St Thomas Aquinas, close to the Meadows, both Roman Catholic schools. The family also went to church every Sunday and had the Irish part of their heritage was drummed into the boys from an early age. Holidays were spent in Ireland, with relatives in the Dundalk area, and Wilson says Irish folk music remains an abiding passion, and that he feels partly Irish.

Wilson says his "newly minted" middle-class background coupled with a working-class heritage has influenced him a great deal. "I was the first one of all my extended family to go to university, but I don't think my family quite appreciate that, not having had the experience," he said. "They thought it was good, of course, but when I went on to do a postgraduate at Edinburgh University, my grandfather in particular thought of it as little better than skiving."

Wilson says he can still picture his grandfather asking, with a fierce scowl, when he was going to get a job. On a diet of beans on toast and bowls of cereal, he paid his own way through a BA at Glasgow Caledonian University and then did a postgraduate MSc at Edinburgh University and a PGCE to teach psychology and sociology from the University of London.

Home today is Kumamoto on Japan's south island, Kyushu, where he arrived in the very hot summer of 2004. Angel of the Woods – a horror-mystery story with mythical aspects – 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, he decided to continue his comics work while living in the land of manga.

The difference between manga and Western concepts of comics, he says, can be compared to spaghetti and Japanese "ramen" noodles. "They are roughly the same form and have basically the same aim of providing us with the nourishment and enjoyment that we want, but the process of making them is rather different and the taste can be very different," he said. There are a wide range of techniques – everything from the use of stillness and the focus on subtle details, to depictions of sound – that vary between the two genres. There are also differences in the way in which the writers and artists work. "Firstly, in Japan, it is still mostly one person who does the story and art, in let's say around 75 per cent of cases, but in Britain and the USA it's the other way around and maybe only 25 per cent of published comics are by one person as the majority are done by a team," he said.

In the seven years since arriving, 14 of Wilson's books have appeared as manga or comic books and the latest has just appeared. 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 further torn by a generational conflict with her father, who is from mainland China.

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

"The artist for the two books – Chie Kutsuwada – is actually the same and these are both 'mature style' manga, 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 quite how much research goes into writing a 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," Wilson points out. "I travelled to Hong Kong seven times to take photos of many real places, including Sek O, Llama island, 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.

"I also took the advice of people I met on the Hong Kong website Alivenotdead, as to aspects of the culture of the city and chose to set in it the little-known area of 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," he said. "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 twentysomething Lee, her mainland-born father and British boyfriend Matt, which include Lee fulfilling her dream of moving to the UK – and specifically Edinburgh.

The Story of Lee is already available from NBM Publishing, and Wilson is also a regular blogger at Wilson has also edited a collection of Indie-style manga titled Ax: Alternative Manga, by Top Shelf Publishing, 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" selection.

"My working schedule is far from a nine-to-five thing," he admits. "I have a kind of 'two-peaks-and-a-trough style, meaning that because of global time differences I often start receiving work mails from colleagues in the UK in the evening in Japan, and then again in the middle of the night from people in the US.

"I often do quite a lot of work late in the evening and at night, on the organisational work that needs to be done, then in the morning I often have a good idea of something I want to work on, some inspiration, so I get up quite early. That also means I need a rest in the afternoon, a 'manga siesta,' if you like."

Kumamoto is a long way from Edinburgh – Wilson describes it as the "Aberdeen of Japan" – but said he chose to live there because he had lived in big cities and wanted to return to a city similar in scale to his native Edinburgh.

"Living in Japan can be a bit tough, for reasons of language and culture," he said. "I would say that the Scottish and Japanese cultures are almost mirror opposites. It may be too much of a generalisation, but I think we could say that one is mostly direct in its approach, the other mostly indirect.

"One is confrontational, the other based on the avoidance of conflict. One is very formal, the other prefers informality. That makes it tough to adjust, and the language is very difficult to learn, but I like it here, I don't regret moving to Japan and – oddly enough – Kumamoto is almost exactly the same size as Edinburgh and also has a castle right in the middle.

"Being from Scotland does not really help or hinder me in Japan," he said. "Most Japanese don't know where Scotland is, or even what language we speak. I'm often asked where Scotland is and the most precise description most of them understand is 'It's above England'.

"And all this despite the fact that almost all Japanese have some tartan clothing and they love whisky here as well."

Wilson says he has succeeded in the very Japanese discipline of manga thanks to his inability to be realistic. "I would say that I've always been foolishly unrealistic," he said. "There are those who assure themselves that a thing cannot be done, but that barrier instead gives me an energy to achieve that thing. And it has worked out moderately well for me so far.

"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."COMIC-BOOK HEROES

In recent years many Scottish comic writers and artists have had a big impact in the world of British and American comics. Here are five of the best known

Grant Morrison

Having built a cult following with the esoteric Animal Man, Doom Patrol and The Invisibles, Glasgow's comics mage Grant Morrison hit the big leagues with complex yet hugely popular versions of the X-Men, Batman and Superman.

Alan Grant

Best known for his work on classic British comic 2000AD, writing characters such as Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog, Dundee's Alan Grant has worked for pretty much every major comic publisher.

Mark Millar

From his roots as a protg of Morrison, Coatbridge's Mark Millar has gone on to become one of comics' most bankable names, creating Kick-Ass and releasing comic magazine CLiNT collaborating with Frankie Boyle and Johnathan Ross.

Frank Quitely

A frequent collaborator with Morrison, Frank Quitely, aka Vincent Deighan, born in Glasgow, got his big break in the Scottish answer to Viz, Electric Soup. Known for his intricate yet bold artwork, influences include Oor Wullie creator Dudley D Watkins.

Eddie Campbell

Another Glasgweigan, and a champion of self publishing, Eddie Campbell illustrated the Ripper epic From Hell for Alan Moore, and has created many autobiographical works including Alec.