Scottish comic book writer Sean Michael Wilson has more than a dozen western-style graphic novels and manga-style books released by U.S., U.K. and Japanese publishers (his manga have even been published in the mobile-phone format in Japan). Wilson says he tries to create comic books that are different from the “normal superhero/fantasy brands” and collaborates with a variety of non-comic book organizations, such as charities and museums. His main influences include British and American creators, such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Eddie Campbell.
Currently working on books for the Tokyo publisher Kodansha, SLJ caught up with Wilson, who is a guest speaker at SLJ‘s August 9 online event, SummerTeen: A Celebration of Young Adult Books. If you’ve signed up for SummerTeen, make sure to gather your teens to hear Wilson speak on the “Classic Twists” panel from 2:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m. Registration is still open.
Tell us about the kinds of comics and graphic novels you create?
SMW: I work in three or four genres within the general art form of the comic book or graphic novel. Adaptation of classics and historical work, manga, biography and documentary books are what most of my books have been. I can understand why librarians are more prone to classification, but in my mind I don’t make much distinction between the various types of books I write. The key elements of what leads me to write a specific book are two in all cases: what is interesting for me to create, and what will publishers want/ask me to do? (Unfortunately, those two are not also going in the same direction in this money-dominated system we have at present!)
How does it feel to have such a strong teen fan base?
SMW: Well, my books are not just for the YA audience, but for adults in general. In both types, what we are dealing with are human emotions, social situations and relationships, ideas that engage and motivate people-basically about the human condition. YA books are about the human condition at that particular age.
Of course, one of the basic aims is to increase YA’s interest in reading. We might take it a step further and say what is the point of reading, what advantages does it bring? I’ve been reflecting on [author and media theorist] Neil Postman’s point that reading helps encourage logical thinking, analysis, and a feeling that the world has some pattern, and that our current lives take place within a continuity. He contrasts that to television, which encourages a short-term memory type processing, the visual, the instantaneous, thinking that’s divorced from building patterns of connection. These are perhaps less desirable. So, graphic novels with the mixture of both visuals and text are one good way of bridging between these two ways of thinking.
How valuable are librarians at getting the word out about your work?
SMW: Very important, libraries and librarians are crucial, and getting even more so recently with graphic novels. In fact right now a good example of that is happening. My Wuthering Heights book has been shortlisted in the Stan Lee Excelsior Awards, which is an exciting new
award scheme where readers aged 11-16 choose the winner from eight shortlisted books held in their school library. In the process they, of course, read the eight books, and give some considered opinion on the merits of each—a good way for libraries to encourage reading and analytical thinking. This is organized by the libraries of around 170 schools in the UK.
What’s one of the most moving things you’ve heard about your work?
SMW: I was giving a lecture about my books in a college, and a teacher was there with her 14 year old daughter. She told me that so far she had not let her daughter read comics/graphic novels, as she had thought they would be detrimental to her reading development. But that after
listening to my talk, she had changed her mind and intended to buy my book for herself and her daughter. So, I managed to bring over both an adult reader and a younger reader-success!
Ever worry about your work being censored or challenged?
SMW: Censored no, challenged yes. I don’t think any publishers I’ve worked with so far have said ‘Don’t do that.’ The challenges often come from critics and often rather narrow minded and ill-informed ones at that. I do often get upset when a critic makes some point that seems totally inaccurate to me, and based on not having thought about the book enough or just mouthing off their own prejudices. People tell me I need to be more ‘thick skinned’ about it. But sometimes a point raised can make me reflect on how I write or what I write and lead me to try to do better next time.
What can you tell us about the books you’re working on now?
SMW: I’m working on a 150-page historical manga book with Kodansha, my first Japanese/English bilingual book. It’s exciting to have this bilingual version. Also a documentary-style comic book called ‘Parecomic’, with Seven Stories Press in NY. We’ve almost finished
that one now, a 200-page book with an introduction by Noam Chomsky. I’m also doing some library based use of comics to promote literacy with the ‘Upside Comics’ group in the UK:
Other SLJ SummerTeen Interviews: