This week's Justin Lab Report brings forth a manga editor that'll explain the typical day of a manga editor, being Black in the manga industry, and what happens when you draw people on a train in Japan. It involves old people.
Hey welcome to the Justin Lab Report. This is Justin, I run a site called TheOASG, where we show you how you can watch anime and read manga legally. For the 3rd guest in the Lab Report segment, I’m interviewing an Editor at Kodansha Comics. This editor happens to be working on Yamada-Kun and The Seven Witches, Inuyashiki, Ninja Slayer Kills, and The Heroic Legend of Arslan, to name a few. He also happens to be an aspiring cartoonist, as he’s done some drawings from his time in Japan and summer life in New York. Ajani Oloye, pleasure to talk to you today.
Ajani Oloye: It’s a pleasure to talk to you too Justin.
Justin: How’s the spring been for you man? Kind, light, all over the place?
Ajani: *sigh* Personally it’s been nice, but it’s nice to have the cold weather and things that kind of came in the last few days. But work wise…you know, it’s here or there. Work is always busy. I’m not really sure if it’s gotten even more or less busy, but it seems pretty stable to me.
Justin: Speaking of work, you work at Kodansha Comics. But, I just want to make sure everybody knows: you actually got your start in the industry at TOKYOPOP. How was your time there?
Ajani: Well actually for TOKYOPOP I was a freelance translator for them for a while. I started…um…maybe it was 2007 or 8? I started off by substituting for someone on one of the .//Hack series that had come out at the time, and from there I guess I did a decent enough job to get more jobs and started doing regular series, but they were mostly…I would say kind of B grade or lower type comics. Like Hanako and the Tower of Allegory, things like that. That lasted until about 2011, which is when they went out of business. At the time I had come back to America and was in the middle of a series that I believe never got published, but I just finished the second volume when I got the email that went like, “Hey, send in all your invoices, we’re done.”
Justin: You weren’t in America when you were translating for TOKYOPOP?
Ajani: I was mostly in Japan. When I first started out I was in New York. Then I moved to Japan around August 2008 and continued doing work for them there. And then when I came back, I finished the last series that I was working on and shortly after that’s when they went out.
“It’s been pretty cool. Like I never would’ve imagined that I would have a job like this. It totally makes sense once I actually got into the job, and it’s all these different skills that I had or was interested in. And now it kind of came together to one point in this job.”
Justin: So you started out as a translator. What got you interested in translating manga?
Ajani: Manga was I guess more accessible to me. It was something that I’d always been interested in. I was always interested in comics. I had the skill with Japanese, even though at the time when I was in New York I was actually studying Illustration. Previous to that, I grew up in Miami, Florida and went to Florida State University, and there I had studied Asian studies. I was doing mostly Japanese, I did a little bit of Chinese, but…I guess I don’t remember any of that now.
Ajani: So I was kind of trying to — I think I just graduated from the Illustration program and wasn’t really having a lot of success with that. I was doing some freelance stuff for a magazine. It was kind of regular, but it wasn’t really enough, and I was trying to find something. So I think I just looked at different websites for manga companies and applied. That was the first one I took, I didn’t think to try and find any others besides that one. Japanese is a little bit of a passion of mine, so I just stayed with that and with me moving to Japan, it became even easier because I was around Japanese all the time.
Justin: And then I believe you mentioned at a convention last year that after TOKYOPOP, you didn’t work on manga for a while, right?
Ajani: Yeah. Basically before TOKYOPOP ended, while I was in Japan I spent my last year and a half in Japan doing freelance translation, but in a different sector. I was working in technical translation in things like machinery, factory automation, basically doing a lot of manuals, then eventually getting into scientific papers and things from a wide of range of subjects like nuclear power stuff, there was a survey of the Sofia Ruins or something. All kinds of stuff, but it was a departure from manga. They’re both difficult, but–this is difficult in a totally different way.
Justin: *laughs* Sounds like a very big departure from manga to me!
Ajani: Yes. *laughs*
Justin: Was it…fun to translate all that?
Ajani: It was. I’m interested in science so I got to see some pretty cool studies that were going on, but it was also a lot of work, and at the time I was just hungry for work and hungry to get paid and stuff, so I did whatever came my way. But looking back on it now, translation, or at least that industry, it’s kind of like a Wild West in a lot of ways and I wasn’t very satisfied with it. I’m kind of glad that I’m not doing that anymore.
Justin: Right. You’re now working at Kodansha, but as a manga editor. I guess first, how’s it been like working at Kodansha?
Ajani: It’s been pretty cool. Like I never would’ve imagined that I would have a job like this. It totally makes sense once I actually got into the job, and it’s all these different skills that I had or was interested in. And all of this kind of came together to one point in this job. That said, it’s also work, so there are times where it can be kind of tiring, and I have to do things I’m not really super enthused about. But all in all, it’s a great job, and I really shouldn’t complain about it because I get paid to read manga.
Justin: All right, I gotta find out what those titles are that you’re not–Ok, I’m kidding, I’m kidding!
Justin: What’s the general day of a manga editor?
Ajani: It really changes day to day, but if I try to think of the most average types of things that I do…
I get in in the morning, I organize myself with like a list of the titles that I’m working on. In any given month, I’m working on maybe like 4, the highest is like, 6 or 7 titles a month, or volumes of series. For each one of those I’m at one stage in the process for that. So of those 5 books that I’m doing, two of them for this week probably will be due to the printer, so I’m doing the final touches on them and proofreading. Some of it will be at the beginning stages so I’m either contacting the translators and asking them to give me a script, or I’ve gotten the script and I’m checking the script to make sure that the translation matches or edit it to make it kind of flow decently.
After that, I’m contacting letterers to make sure that they’re on top of their tasks. If they delivered a PDF of the finished product, I check to make sure there’s no errors and having a conversation with them back and forth to make things look as best as it can.
Obviously that’s kind of all over the place but basically being an editor is juggling many, many balls at the same time–
Ajani: And you have to be pretty well organized to kind of get through the day. But like I said at the beginning I have this list of where everything is at each stage. I’m just checking the list and making sure everything is where it should be.
Justin: Has anything surprised you — you started working at TOKYOPOP and now you’re working at Kodansha — about working in the industry?
Ajani: Not really surprised, but I guess it’s been very different — not only as a freelancer for TOKYOPOP but as a freelancer in general. Now that I’m on the other side of things, it’s kind of made me open my eyes to the decisions that go on behind the scenes.
For TOKYOPOP I didn’t really feel like there were any issues. It was basically, the editor would contact me, ask me to try and purchase the book, or I would get the book from them. I’d have to mark it up — I guess to explain, when you make the script, you’re supposed to label or have labeled in the script…each panel is numbered, so if there’s 10 panels on page 23, it’ll be 23.1 would be the first panel, then I have to put in the names of whoever’s speaking and their text — so I’d have to go in and mark up the book and send it back. Give them the script when everything is done. But it’s a pretty simple job — I just deliver the product. I almost never got any feedback or like, “Oh you did a good job,” or “You messed this part up,” or things like that. Once it was out it was out. I think once they contacted me because they wanted a part translated that I didn’t translate.
But, being on the other side of that, I see that there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s going on, and it makes me wanna approach things a little differently too. Maybe they were satisfied, maybe they weren’t, but I appreciate, as a translator, having the experience of being a freelance translator, having a little closer communication with translators and other freelancers to make sure that we’re both happy with things, because I’ve been in situations where as a translator, work kind of dried up and I don’t really know why. They weren’t very specific about things, and I kind of think I would’ve appreciated it if they had communicated with me and been like, “Well, we like it a certain way.” Or something like that.
Justin: How much better has it been now that there’s legal ways to read manga compared to when you got started? Like back then there wasn’t anything like ComiXology, how you had to get the files from Japan, etc.
Ajani: As a reader I think it’s really great the way things are moving now. We don’t really have to go out of our way to get books that we want to read. The digitization of things and also kind of the simulpub stuff that’s been done — Crunchyroll’s manga services — has made a lot more variety of things accessible that probably wouldn’t happen because before we had to make a choice of what we would be able to publish here, and it was kind of narrow because maybe the market wasn’t as great or the people weren’t there for these certain books.
But you don’t have to do work, like hire…you don’t have to have a physical place to process these books and things like that, you can cut some of those costs and put those costs into translating other manga that probably never would get done. There’s other things that play into the current market and why we have a better variety of stuff, but I just think in general it’s much better for the manga readers in the U.S and other English speaking countries.
On the other side of things, I guess it’s also good that it gives us a lot more to work with. I can work on a lot more projects that I’m excited about. I’m a manga reader and I’ve always been for a very long time, but I have very specific tastes personally. I’m more into indie, and things that will probably labeled as hetauma….things like that, and though that still isn’t really out there legally, I think we’re getting there. We’re getting closer, and I’ve been surprised at some of the things that have come out.
Like I would’ve never imagined that sports manga, like now Kodansha’s doing a simulpub of Toppu GP by Kosuke Fujishima. Kind of like motorcycle racing, so I would’ve never expected that to come out when I was starting at TOKYOPOP.
Justin: Josei manga as well right?
Ajani: Yeah, Josei manga. That’s been a lot more apparent: sports manga is kind of starting, but maybe from where I am in Kodansha, things I’ve seen a lot more of is Josei manga kind of getting up there. Like when I first started at Kodansha, when we were looking at titles and choosing things, the word “Josei” would kind of just bring silence to the room and no one would come and talk about it or it’d be something that you couldn’t really bring to the table, but now there’s a lot more room for that.
“Maybe they were satisfied, maybe they weren’t, but I appreciate, as a translator, having the experience of being a freelance translator, having a little closer communication with translators and other freelancers to make sure that we’re both happy with things.”
Justin: I’ve been covering the industry more or less since 2013, that’s basically when I got more invested in the industry side of things. I’ve gone to NYCC, Anime Boston a few years ago, Anime Expo last year. I haven’t run into too many Black editors, translators, etc, in the industry. I’m just media though. And as a “disclaimer” I am also Black as well. Have you worked with Black people in the industry?
Ajani: I…have not.* I should preface this by saying I’m not a very sociable person so I don’t really hang out with a lot of people in the industry. I go to conventions and just hearing of certain people — I do have friends or colleagues at Viz, Yen Press. I generally know of the people working there. But I haven’t really noticed anyone–I was talking to Ben (Applegate, Associate Director at Kodansha Comics) and he did say that at DMP, there was an editor who was black, but she didn’t stay long. It sounds like she quit and went to another industry.
Justin: It kind of makes you wonder a little bit…is it because manga is just set in Japan, whether or not Black people might be interested in working in the industry or–
Ajani: Well, I’m not really sure it’s that. I mean, having it being set in Japan, I’m sure it has some kind of effect because maybe people would feel alienated by something like that and they don’t really feel like they’re getting that picture because (it’s set) in Japan and the characters mostly look like they may be Caucasian. And when they do have people of African descent in manga, it’s usually not very flattering images most times.
So I can see why that might turn people off from manga, but I grew up being interested in manga and anime, and I have tons of friends that are into it regardless of those aspects of manga. So I’m not really sure if that’s enough to keep away from it. I mean I did have a friend in Miami who was involved in convention stuff, helping out with that. He wasn’t the head of the convention or anything but he was involved with that. So I don’t think that was something that really stopped him.
Justin: Has there been any point in your career where you realized that your background or perspective was a boon or an asset when it came to editing a manga, talking with a fan, or just someone in the industry?
Ajani: I really can’t think of something that regularly helped me out. I think my perspective is just, everything I’ve done with studying Japanese. I’m sure that there has been me being Black and being involved in Japanese have somehow has influenced my decisions in some ways. I know I’m a little more sensitive to the way that I tackle things like gender and race when it comes to that. Maybe it’s because of the experiences I’ve had in life or maybe I’m just that kind of person. I’m not totally sure. But it’s not anything that’s very, very clear to me.
Justin: Speaking of experiences, you also aspire to draw as you have noted in your Twitter profile. How have your experiences influenced your drawing? Like you’ve been to Japan, you’ve been living in NY, etc.
Ajani: Well, unfortunately, I haven’t really been drawing much *laughs* since I’ve gotten this job. I can only really blame myself for that. It’s definitely been an influence, it’s influenced me a lot as far as my experience in Japan when I was there. I’ve been influenced by Japanese art in general, like my favorite artist is Ito Jakuchu, he’s a Ukiyo-e artist. He does like a lot of roosters and things like that.
But I’ve always been interested in that kind of art, and I’ve always been interested in things like Bokuga, which is like ink paintings of things. When I was in Japan, I was acquainted with an artist while I was there when I was first teaching in Osaka, and kind of learned some print making techniques from him. I was always active and going to museums and checking out art stuff. Even the tools I used — I very much like using brush pens…maybe in the same way that someone like Paul Pope has probably been inspired by Japanese art, he worked for Kodansha too.
And I dunno I guess I kind of gravitate towards those things. So definitely the Japanese experience has influenced my work a lot.
I was selling some of my books before. I started out in New York doing subway art, just drawing people on the subway and I brought that over to Japan. I think that for me that was the best stuff that I’ve produced because there were a number of factors that led to that but I was maybe more inspired there. I started liking Japanese culture, it’s been a big influence on me. I hope it continues to do that.
Justin: Were you drawing people in the trains in Japan?
Ajani: Yeah. I mean now I don’t know what happened. I can’t imagine how brave I was back then, but I just didn’t really care. I was really focused on drawing and becoming a better artist. So I just sit down and — I had a longer commute than I did when I was in New York. I was first living in Osaka. I had about a 2 hour commute to the southern part of a city called Sakai, so I had a lot of time. And even though I got a lot of stares, I felt safe, that I was just drawing people, not doing anything bad.
It got good attention sometimes too. When I was coming back one time from work, I was drawing on the train. When I got off an elderly man tapped my shoulder and told me, “Hey, I never really talk to foreigners, but I saw you drawing and wanted to see what you were doing.” So I showed him my book. And he’s like, “Oh, this is really interesting. Can I treat you to dinner?” And I’m like, “Ok….sure.”
Justin: Hmm! Heh.
Ajani: He seemed like a pretty harmless guy. He treated me to a sushi dinner. It was nice and it was really cool to hear about his life. I don’t know what happened to him. I feel bad, I probably should’ve gotten to see him when I went back to Osaka. But I’ll never forget that experience, and that only happened because I was drawing people on the train.
Justin: Well that’s a cool story there. Gotta make sure you tell that to everybody! *laughs*
Ajani: *laughs* Yeah whenever I talk about drawing in Japan I usually do tell that story.
“I started liking Japanese culture, it’s been a big influence on me. I hope it continues to do that.”
Justin: So, what’s next for you? How do you think the rest of the year’s gonna shake out? Manga, mayyybe art wise?
Ajani: Art wise, I’ll…I’m not gonna put too much weight on that.
But manga…I don’t know what to say. As an editor, we kind of have everything planned out pretty far ahead, so I don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot of surprises. I mean we’re always waiting on announcements to give, and when those come we’ll make sure to get the word out to everyone. But since things are pretty set, I’m just excited for some of our new titles that are coming out and see how those will turn out.
Ghost and the Lady is my personal favorite right now. I feel like I kind of spearheaded getting the license for that, so it’s kind of my baby but we’ll see. It’s a really exciting manga for me and I’m excited to work on it. I’m just about to start going through the scripts. So that’s something to look forward to.
Justin: Ajani, it was a pleasure talking to you today man.
Ajani Oloye: Yeah, it was a pleasure talking to you too.
Ok, that’s it for this week’s Justin Lab Report. Hope you guys enjoyed my chat with Ajani Oloye. Feel free to comment and let me know how I did and what can be improved. If you have suggestions on who to interview, feel free to send suggestions to contact at theoasg dot com. See you all next week at 9pm!
June 28: Oh, Summer Season’s Almost Here, Huh? Edition of The Justin Lab Report
July 5: ???
July 12: ???
*Ed. Note: Ajani let me know a few days later that he is working with a Black letterer, Deron Bennett.