Intro by Shanon Weltman / Interview by Ray Jones
Currently soaking up the California sun in MC Hammer’s hometown of Oakland, we bring to you Illustrator Michael Manomivibul. His inky illustrations are reminiscent of an updated Grimm’s fairy tale. In addition to having a mastery of sumi ink, he’s a fantastic storyteller. The moments he chooses to capture are at the height of suspense. He highlights natural movements with unusual, and sometimes unexpected, lighting solutions. Read on to see what Ray Jones had to ask him.
RAY JONES: Name a few of your inspirations.
MICHAEL MANOMIVIBUL: Let’s see, the illustrators that are the pillars that make up my house of art are… Mike Mignola with Hellboy. Greg Ruth, you’re probably familiar with his work, Greg Ruth? Mike is for storytelling and for design, for a lot of things really. I don’t draw like Mike Mignola obviously, but I try to design my pieces kind of like Mike Mignola because that guy is amazing. I learned a lot of picture making from his work.
RJ: Yeah, he’s great.
MM: Greg Ruth was the moment I realized I wanted to work with ink. I found this comic, Freaks of the Heartland randomly when I first got to art school, at a comic book shop. He’s all Sumi ink, mostly dry brush stuff, just gorgeous.
RJ: I used to own that comic actually, I met him at MoCCA years ago.
MM: That’s the only time I ever see him, at MoCCA, but I’m always like a screeching fanboy around him. He’s, like I said, one of the pillars of my house of art. He’s just the sweetest guy, super awesome nice. I have a piece of his hanging above me right now from him, that we did an art trade for. It’s still like a defining moment in my young career. So, Mike Mignola, Greg Ruth, and Sergio Toppi. I remember running into his work when one of my teachers, Baron Story, brought a book of his into his sequential comics class. It was one of those rare moments when you see something you’ve never seen before and kind of fall into it head first. Sergio Toppi, really crazy line work, like, really dreamy, almost abstract comics and they’re always based on legend and myth. He draws from multicultural stuff. He has like Native American stories… I can’t read any of them because they’re all in Italian or French, but they don’t really need to be read, they’re just so crazy looking. Then, Yoji Shinkawa, who is the Japanese concept artist that worked on Metal Gear Solid and continues to work on Metal Gear Solid, Zone of Enders, a few other things. But again, brush and ink, I don’t know, that stuff just gets me right in the heart.
RJ: Yeah [Laughs]
MM: You know. As an ink guy, you know that all four of these guys are big ink people, which is funny. It’s not that they work in ink, but I think that the kind of artist who is drawn to ink is drawn to a certain design sensibility which is really what my thing is too. And the guy who lives in the house of the four pillars is– Miyazaki!
RJ: Oh, beautiful!
MM: Hayao Miyazaki… and the reason I say he lives in the house is he is an amazing artist, but for me it’s his storytelling, the stories he tells and how he tells them. That’s the beating heart that drives my stuff forward. There are other things that I look to in terms of stories, Pixar and stuff. I find myself drawn to work that is supposed to be for kids but really anybody else can enjoy them too. There’s something timeless about that and there’s something that’s really telling about those stories. The thing is, is that they’re all hopeful. Gritty — now that’s fun too, and I enjoy that but it can’t be the only thing I live on. Too much grit in my day to day life just makes me a gritty person. I don’t want to be gritty. To say that it’s just those five people is doing a disservice to my giant book shelf of art books and comics, just tons of other stuff, lots of golden age illustration guys. Leyendecker, NC Wyeth, Howard Pyle. Old pen and ink dudes, Joseph Clement Cole, Franklin Booth, just countless others. Moebius, lots of children’s books… Japanese dudes, that Korean guy who is blowing up, Kim Jung Gi, upsets me to a deep degree.
RJ: On average, how long would you say it takes you to complete a piece?
MM: On average, like 20 to 30 hours, probably? If I had to guess. It’s funny because for the longest time, like so many people, I had a day job, so my barometer for how long it took me to do stuff was evenings. So it would be like two evenings for prep work and sketches, two evenings for planning maybe three. When I really think about it, it’s probably 30 hours on average each piece. Some pieces come quicker and faster than others, those are usually better pieces.
RJ: When did you realize you were drawing dragons for a living? When did that all transition for you?
MM: [Laughs] Do I draw dragons for a living? I’m not sure I do that yet, not sure if I’m a dragons guy. Dragons in the larger sense? Like fantasy?
RJ: Yeah, yeah.
MM: Like a lot of people my age, I went to art school thinking I was going to be a concept artist. I grew up with video games and I was like, ‘duh I like to draw, I like to play video games. This is what I’ll do.’ But I think, I don’t remember a defining moment, but pretty much the moment I realized what illustration was, I think I wanted to work in books and comics and not video games. I think I wanted to tell my own stories and I realized that video games is not a good place — it’s getting to be a better place nowadays, but it’s not a good place to tell YOUR stories, because it’s so collaborative and until very recently you worked as part of a giant, giant hundred person team. To answer your question more directly, I literally always drew dragons. It was just this past #ThrowbackThursday when a friend of mine and I were digging through our Facebook, and I found some stuff that even predates high school. I think I was either 12 or 13 when I drew them. They’re basically just Diablo characters. [Laughs]
MM: [Laughs] Like OG, first Diablo, like an armored mage knight thing. There was never a chance that I… wasn’t going to draw dragons. I think. Just like everybody else who draws dragons, just being a nerdy, lonely but not really lonely, nerdy introverted kid who knew no better than to draw knights and soldiers and monsters all day long. Transformers too, lots of Optimus Prime drawings.
RJ: Did you draw the Ninja Turtles too?
MM: I was more a Transformers guy than a Ninja Turtles guy, Ninja Turtles is definitely there as part of the growing period. I was watching Robotech, or Macross now that I’ve grown up. Anything where people were made out of geometric shapes and if they could fly and transform into jet planes, it was all the better.
RJ: Yeah, so awesome.
MM: I was a big robot nerd! [Laughs] The thing is, despite that and growing up in Asia and also just being Asian, I can’t draw robots for shit. [Laughs] Which is really funny. If like Kung Fu is a heritage power, giant robots should be my equivalent of that as well, and I didn’t get it.
RJ: It’s okay. [Laughs]
MM: [Laughs] I rue it actually, why can’t I draw a robot?! But yeah.
RJ: When I first met you it was at a convention and it seems that every time I see photos of you you’re at a convention, so…
RJ: The question is, how many of these do you typically do and how crucial are they to your success?
MM: It’s been a few years now. When I first met you, I think… that was my first MoCCA (2012). When I first met you was the year that I did multiple conventions… that I did any out of town conventions at all. To answer the other part right now, they’ve been super crucial. I owe everything to conventions in all honesty. I mean that in a more dire strait than it comes off right away, because conventions are what pulled me out of not making art after art school. I think a lot of people can relate to this. If you go to school or art school in general and all of a sudden you’re not in school for the first time in your life, it’s like, ‘oh there’s no structure anymore. What the hell do I do with myself?’ I was just so paralyzed with everything that comes with not being in school anymore. Not having any structure… I’ve never been much of a self-starter. I’m much better at that now, but it was hard after school. I spent about a year and a half not really making art. Trying to, definitely not just sitting around being lazy, even though there was a lot of that. But always having that horrible shame guilt that I wasn’t really making anything. At the same time it just felt so hard to make anything. And then eventually I started making these diver pieces that I think I’m still best known for. If you do a Google image search of me, my diver piece might still sell best. I just started making these pieces because I couldn’t take anymore. I just stopped caring about what would look good for clients and just made some crazy pieces. Then a friend of mine was like, ‘Hey let’s do the CCA craft fair’, which was just my art schools fair. They have one twice a year, there’s a spring one and a holiday one. You just set up a table and sell your stuff. We did pretty good for kids doing their first ‘I’m selling art to the public.’
After that he was like, ‘Hey let’s do this comic convention in San Francisco called APE,’ the Alternative Press Expo. I was like, ‘Okay let’s do it.’ I just jumped right in. I got a taste of how good it could feel to have someone give you money for art. It was great! I did super well. Like legitimately, even looking back now I’m like ‘wow, how did I have so much money?’ The money was a secondary thing. It was more like physical proof that people wanted my art. That was the fire. Being able to get out of your head and in real time see people’s reactions to your art, that’s why conventions are so valuable.
MM: Beyond that, y’know the more conventions I did… I did APE, this one for three or four years before I started away conventions, out of town conventions. I started getting little jobs here and there. I got some comic book jobs with IDW. Just some really random stuff. I got my first book job through IDW, through these conventions. And when I went to MoCCA, that’s when real work started coming in. I always thought I wanted to be in book publishing and what better place than Manhattan to actually find those clients. So, that’s where MoCCA comes in. MoCCA has always been really good to me in that regard, making those connections and stuff. For the last three years, I’ve done about five or six conventions. I think last year I did seven conventions. I owe everything to conventions, but personally I’ve grown a lot from just getting out there and dragging my bags. I do most of them on my own, I don’t usually have backup or anything. They made me grow up a lot. They made me get social a lot faster than I would otherwise, I’ve always been kind of a horrible introvert. I get, like, crowd anxiety and stuff too, but I’m so much better after putting on a good, outwardly professional, outspoken, charming face. I feel proud that I’m so much better equipped to deal with it.
RJ: How much preparation do you typically do or engage in? What’s your inventory like before you head out to another state?
MM: I try to keep everything as slim as possible. I only sell prints. I desperately want to sell a book, but I just don’t have a book to sell yet. I’m very nervous about books. Books are a big monetary, time and wait investment. I’ve been burnt before on not being able to sell many books even though they take up so much space. But, I sell prints! For example MoCCA, I usually come to MoCCA with maybe 400 prints. I always leave with close to 100, it’s pretty good to sell like 250-300 prints. Usually I go through my images and decide, especially after doing this for a few years. I know what are my bigger sellers and what are my smaller sellers. My heaviest sellers, I usually print maybe like 40 copies of that print. These are all open edition obviously and I sell them pretty cheaply. I do like deals like 3 for $20, and stuff like that. My heaviest prints I make like 40 of them and sometimes I’ll still sell out of that print. Now I’ve kind of gotten it down to where I know, but about 40 prints for the largest edition. Then sometimes I just need to fill out the table. Make sure it looks nice and full even though I know an image doesn’t sell anywhere near as much as it could. I’ll make maybe 15 of those. Usually end up with like a stack of something like 300-400 prints. I fill a shoebox full of them. [Laughs] I load them up in a shoebox to protect and put them in my luggage. Other than that, that’s pretty much it. Every show is different. I was just at Spectrum and that’s more about fewer sales, but more expensive sales. So I add like a limited edition print for that. These days I bring original art with me in a book too. That hardly ever sells but it’s a good talking point and it makes people stop by the table if I put it out. They kind of stop by to look at and flip through. I think I’ve got everything dialed in since I do so many of them. I basically don’t unpack anymore, I just have my con(vention) bags ready to go, print stands and my tablecloth and my business cards. Everything. Then I just my put my prints back in there, re-stuff my prints, re-stuff my plastic bags. There’s not much prep anymore to be honest.
RJ: Do you think you could solely sustain yourself off of just doing convention stuff?
MM: You know, if I did enough of them, sure. I have a friend who does all of the conventions. I mean you can’t do all the conventions, but as much as she’s able to, she does all of the conventions. She lives solely on convention stuff. I shared a booth with her at San Diego comic-con, and I mean, she’s very modest and humble and doesn’t like to talk about numbers, but if I had to guess she was raking it in. There was never a moment she didn’t have a giant crowd standing in front of her table. But she also does at least one show a month. But if it’s definitely in the right season, she’s like every weekend. I think I would have to do that in order to survive. There are shows that do really well for me, like I was at Chicago in C2E2 and that was really good. That was like, ‘oh I’ll be okay for a few months, good.’ Mostly they’re for the long game. They’re for career building, they’re for connections and really they’re for fun. If I aimed for it, I think I could make a living from it. As it is, they’re more kind of a means, they’re a very enjoyable means but they’re more of a means.
RJ: Just have two more questions left, I want to switch gears a little bit. How is life in Oakland do you recommend it to other aspiring freelancers?
MM: I love Oakland, I love it here. I came here eleven years ago now for college, I never wanted to leave. It’s a really nice place. I think the comparison to Brooklyn is really apt, the way I like to describe it is it’s Brooklyn to San Francisco’s Manhattan and there’s just a good energy here. There’s kind of an up and coming vibe because again Oakland is not a city with a great reputation, and like any city with not a great reputation, there’s some truth to it, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near as deserved as it sounds like it is. Do I recommend it for up and coming freelancers? I kind of have to say no because it’s so expensive here. It’s more affordable than it is in San Francisco, but it is… everywhere else I go, I laugh at how cheap everything feels and then I laugh again because then I realize how expensive everything here is. [Laughs] I can tell you that rent has gone up a good 20%. That’s messed up. I’m very fortunate in that I live by myself in this little studio apartment. I can fall backwards in this chair and go to sleep in my futon, but if I lost this apartment… I’m rent controlled luckily, but if they somehow figured out how to get me out of here I don’t think I could afford to live in this city anymore. I need to live alone. There are very few people who I would consider living with. I’m very wary of living with friends, because I’ve seen friendships torn asunder because they decide to live together.
RJ: [Laughs] Yep, that’s true.
MM: Yeah, it’s not worth it, it’s not worth it for me and it’s not worth it for my friends I don’t think. I’d probably have to leave the city if I lost this apartment unless I got really, really, lucky and found some other kindly old ladies rent controlled apartment. [Laughs] Some kind of sitcom situation. You’re watching Friends and you’re just like ‘how the hell are you guys living in that apartment in Manhattan?’
RJ: [Laughs] This is the last question. We love to throw something kind of random at our interviewees. If you were to cosplay as an anime character, who would it be?
MM: Oh no.
MM: Um. Okay. A, I would probably never cosplay without dying of embarrassment. I’ve never given this any thought. Let’s see, anime… it’d have to be a character with a helmet. The only way I could do it would be with anonymity, so no one could see my face. Scanning my shelves for anime I’ve watched recently… okay, I’ve got it. I would do one of the creepy ass boar skins from Princess Mononoke. You know what I’m talking about? The bad dudes are trying to lead the boar god, the poor blind boar god, and they’re wearing the skins of his fallen boar leaders, and they just kind of snake around his feet.
RJ: Yeah, they like rustle around!
MM: Yeah! And they’re eyeless because they’re literally just the pelts of these boars. There’s just some guy basically wearing a ghost sheet.
RJ: Yeah that’s really creepy, I remember the boars. [Laughs]
MM: I always thought that was such a messed up scene, so messed up. I’d wear that and I’d scoot around people’s feet and just freak them out. That’s cosplay. [Laughs]