JuYoun Lee on Yen Press' Talent Search, Plus Tips for Manga Creators

Yen Press' Senior Editor on Original Manga, Plus Common Artists' Pitfalls

JuYoun Lee
JuYoun Lee. Courtesy of Yen Press

Since 2010, New York-based manga publisher Yen Press has put out an open call to aspiring comics creators with their "New Talent Search." In this yearly contest, aspiring artists were asked to submit work that met these requirements:

  • Create a SELF-CONTAINED, 32-page short story comic.
  • Your story must read left-to-right.
  • Please do not recycle a short story you have already completed. We would like to see the work you are able to complete within the time frame allotted.
    The talent search also specified that they're looking for entries from "Any UNPUBLISHED creator who is prepared to work at a professional level," and that includes "webcomic/self-published creators," and "international creators."

    So what happened? Well, 2011 came and went, with seemingly no 'winners' announced by Yen Press. The same thing happened with the 2012 New Talent Search. When I spoke with Yen Press Publishing Director Kurt Hassler at San Diego Comic-Con 2011, he stressed that the New Talent Search was just that — a search for new talent, not a contest that would result in 'winners,' especially if they simply didn't find artists who were ready to do professional-level work.

    For the 2012 Yen Press New Talent Search, the Yen Press editorial staff, including Hassler and Senior Editor JuYoun Lee reviewed many entries, but the result seemed to be the same: several promising entries, but no outright 'winners.' This time, Lee wrote about the entries she received in her Editor's Letter, published in the May 2012 issue of Yen Plus magazine, Yen Press' online manga anthology magazine.

    In this essay, she offered her assessment of the entries Yen Press received, and offered some suggestions for aspiring artists.

    I thought this essay was very interesting, because it offered a rare perspective of the state of 'original manga' in North America from a professional editor's point of view.

    Lee also has a unique perspective because she conducted this sort of talent search for comics creators when she worked in manhwa publishing in Korea.

    After reading Lee's essay, I wanted to know more, so I sent her a few questions via email, and asked her to explain in greater depth some of the advice for artists she offered in her essay. Here's what she had to say.

    YEN PRESS' NEW TALENT SEARCH: LOTS OF ENTRIES, NO WINNERS?

    Q: So this is the second year Yen Press has done the "New Talent Search" — I got the impression from Kurt's comments from Comic-Con last year and your Editor's Letter this year in the May 2012 issue of Yen Plus that none of the entries you received in the past two years were ready for primetime. That is, you didn't find artists who had the skills to create original work that was ready for publication. Is that a fair assessment of the situation?

    JuYoun Lee: Yes, it is. I should stress, though, that it is a "New" Talent Search, so it’s not that I'm necessarily looking for someone who can be published immediately. That’s why we make it clear that there are no winners per se. The goal is to find someone in whom we see great potential and who we think with just a bit of help could blossom and soon step into the role of a professional.

    That said, it is sad to say that it's often hard for us to find someone we think is ready to start working with us, since, well, we aren't a school. There are many ways we could help creators grow, but at the same time, that doesn’t mean we can actually teach them from the ground up.

    Q: Have you seen an improvement in the quality of work you received this year compared to what you received in the first year you held the talent search?

    JuYoun Lee: Yes, definitely. I think this year word got out a bit more which increased the number of submissions, and the quality has definitely gone up.

    Q: I know Kurt mentioned that this isn't a 'contest' where there would be 'winners' announced – but did you find any artists from the first talent search that you've considered for future Yen Press projects? Any artists found in this year's talent search that you're looking to work with in the near future?

    JuYoun Lee: I think I covered this a bit in the first question, but the point is to find someone who is almost there and to help them get to where they need to be to achieve their potential. As of right now, our interest in potentially working with some of the creators we’ve seen really depends on how much they can grow in the near future.

    DISCOVERING NEW TALENT: CASSANDRA JEAN AND ASHLEY MARIE WITTER

    Q: Were Cassandra Jean (artist for Beautiful Creatures, which recently debuted in the May 2012 issue of Yen Plus) or Ashley Marie Witter (Interview with a Vampire: Claudia's Story) discovered through the New Talent Search, or did you find out about their work in other ways?

    JuYoun Lee: Cassandra Jean already had some experience under her belt, so she sent us her portfolio through our open submissions policy. As for Ashley, we found her after an extensive search.

    Q: So in Cassandra's case, what was it about her work that made you decide that she would be a good fit for illustrating Beautiful Creatures?

    JuYoun Lee: We actually received Cassandra's portfolio years ago, and her storytelling ability and unique character designs immediately caught my eye. However, we didn’t have a project at the time that I thought particularly complemented her style, so I kept her on file and waited.

    When I read Beautiful Creatures, the small town setting with the mysterious caster girl seemed perfect, and I contacted her. I think her use of lines and gray tones beautifully captures the atmosphere of the title, and I'm very excited by how it’s coming together.

    Q: Beautiful Creatures is currently being serialized monthly in Yen Plus. But when it's completed, will the Beautiful Creatures graphic novel be presented as a single volume (like The Clique) or multiple volumes (like Witch and Wizard)?

    JuYoun Lee: The first book will be out next February, just in time for the release of the film. It’s going to a beautiful hardcover, not unlike what we did with A Bride's Story. The first novel, Beautiful Creatures, will be adapted into a single volume of manga.

    (NOTE: You can read Cassandra Jean's webcomic Land of the Lions at MangaMagazine.net, and see her illustrations at her Deviant Art page.)

    Q: In Ashley's case, you mentioned that you "found her after an extensive search." Could you perhaps elaborate on this? Did you find her through recommendations or portfolio review, or...?

    JuYoun Lee: The short answer is that we found Ashley via the web. She had a couple webcomics online as well as a Deviant Art page.

    (NOTE: You can see more of Ashley's online comics Reign of Adeoatus and Scorch at SmackJeeves.com, as well as more of her illustrations at www.ashleywitter.com.

    JuYoun Lee: We looked at tons of artists for the project, both reviewing submissions and scrolling through various sites online. After extensive deliberations, we decided that Ashley would best suited to bring life to these characters.

    Q: Who came up with the concept for re-telling Interview with the Vampire through Claudia's point of view, vs. just a re-telling of Interview With the Vampire as it was written in the original novel?

    JuYoun Lee: That was Kurt's idea, and we all thought it was brilliant since we wanted to make sure that we were bringing a fresh perspective to this classic tale which has already seen various retellings. Anne Rice was very happy with our suggestions, and we can't wait to put the book into everyone's hands!

    Q: With the exception of Nightschool, most Yen Press-created manga projects are adaptations of young adult novels. Are you also interested in publishing original stories / content, or is that just not feasible at this time? If not, why not?

    JuYoun Lee: I am very, very interested in publishing original stories. The issue we have right now that the market has definitely changed since we originally published Nightschool (which I adore, by the way.) It's a much tougher environment.

    We've become much more selective with all of the titles we publish - which is probably one reason we've been faring so well in a difficult climate.

    However, finding the right original project has always been my goal, and I am constantly on the lookout for them.

    TRAINING THE NEXT GENERATION OF COMICS CREATORS: COMPARING KOREA WITH NORTH AMERICA

    Q: So back to this year's Yen Press New Talent Search! How many entries did you receive this year? Were they all from North America, or did you receive submissions from artists from other countries too?

    JuYoun Lee: Whoa, I didn’t actually count, but there were a lot! And we get many entries from outside of North America.

    Q: I know you've mentioned that you've done similar talent searches / looked for up and coming artists in Korea as well. Can you offer any observations about the differences in the type of entries you got when you had this type of talent search in Korea, compared to what you see in the entries you've received at Yen Press in the past two years?

    Are there key differences in how Korean artists are trained / prepared to work as professional manga artists compared with aspiring North American comics creators?

    JuYoun Lee: I think I can answer these questions together. The biggest difference I see, at least from my perspective, stems from the different educational methods employed here versus in Korea.

    In Korea, basic skills are really the focus of students' education. The intention is that students learn to play with the knowledge and training they receive as they mature. Schools try to cram in as much as possible without really giving students an opportunity to digest or even apply what they've learned. They don’t necessarily give them a lot of room for "creative exploration." It's all about nailing down fundamentals.

    It seems to me that in North America the process is a bit reversed. Students aren't so much forced into a rigorous system but learn to express themselves more freely. I think this shows in the kind of entries I receive.

    In Korea, most of the submissions we got demonstrated solid skills, all of them rising to a certain level. The biggest hurdle there was to identify the ones with a real spark, something unique enough to catch our eye.

    By contrast, I feel like the education system in the States teaches the confidence to be expressive, which can result in very unique and creative entries. More often than not, though, these entries lack the basic skills needed to support that creativity. We’re considering two very different cultures which means there are different things we have to watch out for.

    BACK TO BASICS: ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR ASPIRING ARTISTS

    Q: So you mentioned a few observations and advice for artists in your Editor's Letter in the May 2012 issue of Yen Plus. Let's go down the list, and maybe get some clarification about these points, and perhaps hear about some examples of what you saw in this year's entries?

    "The main thing that we look for is potential for growth. One of the main aspects of that potential is whether or not the basics are there. I feel as if many of our submissions were too focused on the individual artist's style — which is good to have, of course – but were lacking in fundamental skills."

    "While there are artists who have a distinctive style from the beginning, those tend to be in the minority. Nailing down the basics allows an artist to be more diverse."

    "Coupling that strength with practice, and trial and error, allows you to more efficiently find your own style."

    "Don't try to pin yourself down at such an early stage of your career, and always remember the fundamentals. Practicing figure drawing and human anatomy is always helpful, and trying out as many perspectives as possible will help enormously too."

    Q: Hm. So you're saying you received entries that showed a common beginning artists' weakness: the inability to draw human anatomy that makes sense, or show figures from different angles / in different poses. I've heard similar sentiments from other editors / art educators. Was this a common theme / weakness in many of the entries you received this year?

    JuYoun Lee: Yes, that was exactly the point.

    Q: When you say "were too focused on the individual artist's style," what do you mean?

    JuYoun Lee: Looking at just the art and not the full picture, I feel that many consider manga a "style," a simpler form of art that comes off as easier to mimic. Some of the submissions we received lacked those fundamental skills that I mentioned early, and I fear that it may be a reflection of this attitude of "mimicking simplicity."

    For example… say we have an artist who can do a stylish rendering of boys' profiles. Sometimes that’s all we get — just page after page of boys’ profiles. No background, no full body shots — just headshots and all of them rendered from the same angle. Even if the submission mixes it up with a different perspective now and then, it can be quite clear that the artist has really only practiced this particular angle.

    The most common thing I see, though, is artists focusing too much on that "manga style" which because of the lesser detail can come off like a caricature.

    These artists end up not paying enough attention to things like anatomy or even simple consistency of character. I also have to say that I’m continually surprised by how many entries we receive where the main character is a spiky-haired boy....

    Q: So I know that one of the criteria for entries is that the stories submitted must be of a certain length / page count. Here's your comment about how entrants met, or rather didn't quite meet that requirement:

    "Storywise, practice brevity. The New Talent Search is about creating a short story that engages readers immediately. Having a rich backstory can help give characters depth, but at the end of the day, you can't put everything in your head onto paper."

    I'm guessing from what you said here that you received entries that were a bit too… ambitious, storywise. That is, they tried to do too much, tell too much story in too few pages. Is that what you saw in several entries?

    JuYoun Lee: I’m assuming this is a function of the fact that many people associate manga with fantasy, but many of the entries that we get are fantasy/action stories set in a new world.

    In a short story, you can't fully explain or explore this new world you've created. You can't spend the first five pages just trying to name cities and define terminologies, ending with a "To Be Continued," but at the same time, you can't jump into the story without any background information. Even when it isn’t a fantasy, there's often necessary information that isn’t clearly articulated which led to my next comment.

    Q: Here's another comment from your essay, this time about storytelling:

    "Be mindful of your readers. If this is a career you want to pursue, you have to pay attention to how your story is coming through, not just the story you want to tell."

    "Make sure your characters shine, and keep the story tight. This will give you a better chance to submit a complete piece within the page restriction."

    I was hoping you could explain this a bit. Is this about how the stories were paced (too slow/too fast/abrupt), or how the action unfolded? Or was this more referring to stories that were unclear / didn't give the reader a clear sense of what was happening and why it was happening?

    JuYoun Lee: It’s not just about the pace, although pacing is important. You have to be mindful of keeping the readers engaged and can't go into pages and pages of explanation with the expectation that everyone will read it.

    But more than that, sometimes authors get so immersed in their stories that they don't actually know how to convey them. The creator might have such a clear picture in mind of the characters or setting that he or she ends up taking this information for granted, forgetting to include the reader.

    I believe that making a book and telling a story is primarily about communication, how you interact with your readers. It's not just an internal monologue.

    The limits of a "short" story can combine to pit these two elements — brevity and richness — against each other. You can’t spend the majority of your pages simply establishing your setting, but you can’t just forge forward without explanation, either. Finding the balance here and revealing the story and the setting organically through the characters and art is the challenge.

    Q: One thing that wasn't mentioned in your letter was the types of stories you received. Was there any particular type of story that you saw a lot of? (e.g. fantasy, romance, action) or any particular subject (vampires, steampunk, superheroes) that popped up over and over again? Is there a particular type of story that tended to be… unsuccessful / kind of got automatically regarded like, "Oh, no. Not that again…"?

    JuYoun Lee: As mentioned above, what we predominantly receive are fantasies. While I don’t like to pigeonhole us as just a "mainstream manga" publisher, I think that’s the impression a lot of artists have of us, and they somehow reach a conclusion that a fantasy is their best shot.

    It isn't as if we immediately go on the defensive when we open a fantasy story, and a good fantasy can work extremely well. However, if it's an action fantasy featuring the exploits of a spiky-haired male lead, well, that's probably going to have to be exceptional to grab our attention.

    Q: What would make that kind of story more appealing / interesting to you and the other Yen Press judges?

    JuYoun Lee: That's a really tough question to answer. Classics are classics for a reason, and cliché formulas can work well with the right spin. In the end, though, I think the characters are what make something work.

    WHAT'S NEXT FOR YEN PRESS' NEW TALENT SEARCH?

    Q: In your essay, you had this to say about possible next steps for some of the more promising entries:

    "...we will be reaching out to selected entrants w/ feedback, and we're actually thinking of running a couple of pieces in forthcoming issues of the magazine."

    I know you've featured a few interesting original stories as one-shots in Yen Plus in the past — will this become a feature that you'll be adding to the magazine more often in the months to come?

    JuYoun Lee: We are still discussing the best way to go about this, so I can’t really provide you with any specifics here.

    Q: Will Yen Press be holding a Talent Search again? If so, when will you be looking to accept submissions again?

    JuYoun Lee: Yes, my goal is to do it every year. I don’t yet have a timeframe in mind, though, for the next search.

    Q: Is there a certain type of story / art style would you like to see more of in the next talent search? Or in general, what do you hope to get out of the next Talent Search? Will you 'announce a winner' if you choose any of these creators to work w/ you on a Yen Press project?

    JuYoun Lee: I don’t have my sights set on a particular story or art style. In general, I would like to see a bit more professionalism in the submissions we receive. Even though it is a new talent search, entries should reflect the fact that we are looking for individuals with whom we would like to work in the future.

    This isn't a school project or a doodle for a friend. Bear in mind that you are sharing your work with editors who are used to seeing professional caliber work. Messy pencil sketches on paper probably aren’t the best idea. Neither is drawing on both sides of your paper. Pages missing here and there don’t allow us to follow the story, and adhering to the guidelines that we provide from the beginning is hugely important.

    I want to add that it does move me to read through all the entries we receive and see how much effort went into them. However, as much as I would like to send everyone feedback, we aren’t an art school, and we just don’t have the time to do that.

    My hope is that our New Talent Search gives aspiring artists an opportunity to stretch their limits and show us their wares when they’ve reached that point where we can give them enough feedback and guidance to really push their talent over the top.

    Q: I've been doing a series called "Making a Living in Manga," culling responses from pros, semi-pros, aspiring artists and fans on my site. So from your point of view, are things looking up, for artists who draw in a manga-inspired style? Or what do you think needs to change in order for more N. American artists who draw in a 'manga-inspired' style to make a living in manga?

    JuYoun Lee: It was a very interesting series to read. Thank you so much for it.

    I feel like I have too many opinions on this subject to be completely coherent, so forgive me that I skip it here. Maybe we can discuss more when we meet at Comic-Con!

    Q: Sounds good to me! Looking forward to seeing you at Comic-Con!

    ------------------------

    JuYoun Lee will be joining a group of publishing pros and comics creators (including Adam Warren (Empowered), Becky Cloonan (Demo), Fred Gallagher (Megatokyo), Audra Furuichi (Nemu-Nemu), Erik Ko (publisher, Udon Entertainment) and Christopher Butcher (retailer, The Beguiling and director, Toronto Comic Arts Festival) who will be on the Making a Living in Manga panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2012.

    The panel will be held on Friday, July 13, 2012, from 7:30 – 8:30 pm in Room 8 at the San Diego Convention Center.

    For more about Yen Press' New Talent Search, check out the guidelines from the 2012 Talent Search.

    Also, check out the latest issue of Yen Plus, for the latest chapters of manga and manhwa from Japan, Korea and North America.