Let´s Talk Art | The road to success: Mikiko’s take on internet fame, focus and fans
Welcome to the next episode of Let’s Talk Art.
I’m Jack, founder of PosterSpy, and this time I’m chatting to illustrator and comic artist Mikiko known for her quirky comics and manga art, including her hit book “Mini Comics”. I actually met Mikiko at MCM London Comic Con, where she stopped by the Wacom booth to do some live drawing.
Mikiko chats about what it means to be a comic artist, from artwork creation to engaging with her fanbase. Her down-to-earth style and relatable comics made her a perfect fit for the Let’s Talk Art series.
Hope you enjoy this interview.
So, Let’s Talk Art!
Welcome to the Wacom Let’s Talk Art series, Mikiko. Firstly, your online pseudonym ‘Zombiesmile’. Is there a story behind your online alias?
Hi! Thanks for having me.
Well ‘Zombiesmile’ is not exactly my online pseudonym anymore, but about 13 years ago I signed up on Deviantart when my favourite comic was called Zombie Powder. One thing I especially liked was the use of a deteriorated smiley face as a logo of sorts, and so I ended up with ‘Zombiesmile’.
Over the years I used it a few times on various social media, but eventually, as my art became more professional, I started using my own name instead. By now websites offered name changes and my fan base grew considerably, so silly teenager usernames had to go!
Deviantart, unfortunately, did not have ‘Mikiko’ free anymore (it’s taken up by a dead account), so despite it one of my most viewed profiles with nearly 4 million clicks, I’m stuck with this name for now.
You create many different artwork types, like comic, concept art, storyboards, character design, and more. Is there any particular one that you like the most and is there a type you would like to focus on more?
Yes, comics/manga are by far my favourite.
It’s simply what I started with and where my passion lies! There are many many fields I’d still like to explore, like the animation for example, and I tend to go into experimental phases for months at a time, but whenever I come back to comics I realise this is what makes me truly happy.
A close second is probably illustration and character design. I think the area I feel most lacking and would like to explore more is environments and backgrounds. I truly admire artists who can create a sense of vastness and scale in their artwork!
You work both traditionally and digitally and have a great guide to your tool list on Deviantart. What’s your favourite thing about traditional and digital mediums, respectively?
Personally I find traditional art to be much more relaxing to use, meditative even. I really enjoy just switching my brain off when I ink an original piece or colour a gift for someone.
Nowadays it’s very rare for me to use traditional media simply because my job demands things to be edited a lot during the process and speed is crucial. Another problem with traditional media I find, is scanning the work afterwards. It always seems off, the colours not right, etc. Something that bothers me greatly as a bit of a perfectionist.
Digital media on the other hand has this strange thing where a lot of things are at danger of looking ‘too polished’ and unnatural.
The famous ‘happy accidents’ Bob Ross talked about don’t really occur. So making things look organic and alive is much harder in my opinion. On the other hand though, editing and effects are much easier to do with little to no consequences thanks to the Undo command or image history being available all the time.
Both methods have their pros and cons, but for me, digital work has simply been more practical and useful for what I do! Even as a child, I knew that digital was the future, and I got my first graphics tablet at age 15.
As an artist you attend many conventions, selling work and your comics. How important is this to your career and do you feel that attending conventions is something every artist should be encouraged to do?
I suppose it depends on the person.
Personally I find conventions quite stressful, so I try to limit them to a maximum of 5 a year if possible. The time I spend isolated is very important to create new work, and to have new and fresh products to sell each time I go somewhere. Nonetheless, I do believe it’s very important to meet fans face-to-face.
These are the people who make my life possible by buying my work, sharing their love, giving feedback, and even reporting stolen art online for me. There’s a very special relationship going on, so signing things, shaking hands, taking pictures is the least I can do!
Seeing the joy and enthusiasm also charges me with fresh energy to sit down and create some more.
Has there ever been a time that you lost your passion for art? If so, how did you come back from that?
Yes, I’m quite certain that there is no creator who hasn’t hit a block on the road at some point and lost motivation.
For me, being able to make a living was a slow slog. After school, I immediately went into publishing my comics through indie publishers and going to conventions as well as selling my work online. Comic art is notoriously underpaid. So for many years I lived under the poverty line as I refused to give up my dream.
One day I definitely felt it was a futile effort and set myself a deadline: if by the end of the month, nothing had changed, I would give up comics and look for a ‘real job’. The following week, Tokyopop Germany offered to work on a project, Crash ‘n’ Burn with me. It sold out within a month after release and won the 2016 Max und Moritz comic award in 2016. In the end, I was just really lucky.
Once I had steady work I only suffered from the occasional creative low, but thankfully have the luxury of resting my mind to recharge nowadays.
I’m sure throughout the years, you’ve had some very interesting, odd or even frightening propositions regarding your art. Has there been one particular request that has stuck with you throughout the years?
Interesting and odd? Definitely! Frightening maybe not so much, but I must admit I’m very hard to shock.
Early on in my career I would take on a lot of fan commissions, and many people requested a lot of strange fetish art. But as I’m proudly shameless and find challenges interesting and important, I never declined any work if I was getting paid appropriately.
In the end, these drawings contributed greatly to my repertoire and knowledge of anatomy. Win-win.
Artists are always critical of themselves, always trying to improve and explore new techniques. Is there anything you’re trying to improve right now? If so, what and why?
Currently my main focus for improvement in comics is backgrounds. All throughout my career as a comic artist, the biggest critique I got was that my backgrounds were sparse and lacking.
Personally I find landscapes quite boring to draw, so now I make an effort into researching thoroughly for every background, as well as brushing up on my composition to make it more interesting.
Another one is colouring, but this applies more to my illustrations overall. I find colours very challenging, so it’s hard to say which part to explore further… In digital painting I feel like I haven’t quite found a comfortable spot yet, so I suppose right now, every painting is a challenge and learning experience.
What programs would you recommend for people looking to get into comics and drawing digitally?
PainttoolSai, hands down. It’s just the right mix of carefree drawing and enough editing tools to do a decent job without overwhelming new artists. The main reason is that the brushes feel very natural, and it’s very cheap! A lot of my young students already have a copy, before even coming to me, so it’s also popular and easy to find tutorials and tips online.
Your comic art career spans over a decade. You’ve published your own graphic novels as well as having worked for studios during this time. Through these years, what is the one motivator that has kept you interested in comic art?
When I was a child, I didn’t have friends, I was awkward, lonely and an introvert. So drawing became my tool to dream and communicate.
When I was 12, I read a manga that changed my life. The expressions of the characters impressed me greatly, it was as if the art captured what I felt on the inside. Immediately I knew, I wanted to be a comic artist when I grew up.
To this day, I find it easier to express in comics than in any other medium. There’s a magic in hearing from readers the exact emotions you managed to trigger in them by ‘simply’ arranging panels and drawing characters. To me, this human connection is what truly makes me happy.
What’s your current set up like? Do you draw in an office space or are you a ´draw on the sofa´ kind of artist?
Oof! I admire sofa artists! But no, I simply could never feel comfortable enough to do that. I need a fixed workstation and all tools close by. And drawing in public is something I only do at conventions, since I need to be able to shut everything out to concentrate on my work.
Currently I have a self-built PC, a Wacom Cintiq 27QHD touch, and a second monitor. My preferred software is Paint tool Sai and Photoshop.
There are drawers by my desk that have all my traditional media stashed away, and my Cintiq is on an ergo-arm so I can make space to draw traditionally on my desk too. It’s all about efficiency of space!
Although your work spans many different genres and styles, your art focuses mostly on the manga style. What manga inspires you and what are your favourite art pieces?
The first manga that pretty much made me who I am today was Yu yu Hakusho, by Yoshihiro Togashi. After that I went into a complete manga-craze. It was also one of my few means of having a cultural connection to Japan as I moved all over the world.
Artists that influenced me most in this field were also Tite Kubo for his use of negative space and pacing, Shirow Miwa for his design work and inks, Kentaro Miura for contrasts and depth, and Yuusuke Murata for colouring, dynamic poses and perspective. There are many more, but these are the most notable to be able to pick up on whilst looking through my own work.
For artists looking for a career in comics, what is your biggest piece of advice?
This is a tough one… I would say…
- don’t sell your rights off to anyone.
- Research a lot.
- Stop comparing yourself to others, everyone is different!
- Learn to say ‘no’.
It took me many years to learn this in particular. Be it complicated clients, low pay, or simply too much work, sometimes it’s not worth it. Saying no is okay, be kind to yourself, take a break every now and then to recover.
Are there any things you’ve particularly struggled with as an artist and managed to overcome, whether this is to do with your art, jobs or individuals?
Unfortunately, legal issues have been part of my struggles in the past. This is why I emphasize how important basic knowledge about contracts and legal matters are. Too many young artists are willing to give up far too many rights just to get published. Today I’m very strict about licensing and use of my work because I’ve made many mistakes.
Pacing myself is another one. Burnouts used to be a regular thing for me, until I set myself set working hours, just like anyone else who works in an office environment. (Most freelancers know what this is like, I’m sure!) There was an initial panic and a nagging feeling I was being ‘lazy’, but in the end it’s improved my health and emotional well being immensely.
Your latest book ´Miki’s Mini Comics´ focuses on short comic strips. What inspired you to create this book?
My mini comics started out with the first strip being a simple birthday gift to my boyfriend at the time. It was a joke about how I, as an artist, struggled to come up with gift ideas.
When I shared it online, this strip quickly jumped all the way to my top most liked post of all time. So, I started posting more simple things from my daily life: cats, coffee, art, games, silly things.
All strips are based on true events, and I was completely amazed at how much people loved them and shared their own silly little life stories with me. Today, it’s what most of the internet knows me for.
Early 2017 I launched a Kickstarter to finance the print of a first volume, and it was a huge success! Currently I’m collecting more strips for the next volume, which I hope to have ready in a year, maybe two.
Being a popular online artist can have its drawbacks, including very demanding fans. What’s your best practice for handling a high volume of fans without shying away from your community?
It’s all about efficiency!
It might sounds strange at first, but every social media profile I have links back to my website mikiko.art, where anyone can find whatever information they might need. FAQ, galleries, portfolio, social media links. Of course, despite all that, I still get a high volume of messages and e-mails, so I simply brace myself for when I post something new. (always comes in waves, right after I upload something).
Usually my mornings are spent filtering messages by importance, and then I do my best to answer those that can’t be tackled by sending the people to my FAQ section. My rule is to always be nice and polite, no matter what. It may be the 36th time I’m answering this particular question that, but for the person contacting me it may be a huge deal to simply receive a reply.
Besides your comics, what else do you like to do in your spare time and do any of your hobbies tend to inspire your art?
Usually I spend my evenings gaming. I am an avid PC gamer and also am a huge D&D nerd.
Any free time I have will generally be used by getting together with friends and play something together. If it’s not online, we generally play board games.
Aside from that, I picked up playing bass guitar when I was writing one of my manga, Crash ’n’ Burn which focuses around a rock band. I wouldn’t say I’m any good, but I still enjoy playing it occasionally.
When working on a comic, what kind of stories are you most interested in telling and why?
A lot of the times for me it’s about breaking some rules, mixing things up and giving classic ideas a new spin.
My personal favourite genre has always been fantasy, but the most important part of a story has always been the authenticity of the characters. Often they are very much inspired by real people who have intrigued me, sometimes it’s an image I saw or a song I heard.
At the end of the day, I always write stories I would personally want to read. Even an illustration can convey a lot, so I try to add hints and details that say something about the character depicted. Poses, expression, choice of clothes or lighting, all those things can tell a story. Art is a lot about dreaming and exploring to me.
Finally, is there anything you really want to accomplish in your artistic career? Whether it be simply improving a technique or even releasing another graphic novel etc.
There are so many stories I want to write and release, but my ultimate dream would be either a video game, an animated series or a live action movie with my characters or stories.
All these sound pretty crazy at this point, but never say ‘never’, right? Until then, I’ll just keep drawing!
Thank you for reading!
We hope you enjoyed this episode of Let’s Talk Art with Mikiko and found her insight into the comic industry as well as her experiences interesting.
See you next time!
If you like Mikiko’s comics, check out her ‘mini-comics’ book, available here.