Westfield: For someone who's never read Akiko before, how would you describe the book?
Mark Crilley: I always use the very short summing up of it's the Wizard of Oz meets Star Wars. To take it a little further than that, it's the story of an ordinary fourth grade Japanese-American girl named Akiko and she is taken to a distant planet called Smoo where she has a series of adventures with amazing and silly characters. [laughter]
Westfield: Who are some of the other major cast members?
Crilley: There's a core of five characters including Akiko, so there are these four characters that she meets early on and that follow her throughout the entire series. The first is Spuckler, who is kind of a swashbuckler, in fact that's how I derived the name Spuckler from swashbuckler. People think of him as the Han Solo character although he's probably closer to Indiana Jones in that he's a good, old fashioned hero; he's not really burned out and cynical, he's more of the classic cowboy good guy. Then there's Mr. Beeba who's the opposite of him. He's the intellectual librarian type character. There is Gax which is Spuckler's robot, a kind of beat up looking robot. He plays the butler role, but is always making snide remarks and proves to be the smarter of the two. And finally we have Poog, who is probably the most popular character, who is little more than a floating head with two eyes and a mouth who speaks his own language that we never really are able to read.
Westfield: Do you have a favorite character to write?
Crilley: My favorite character to write is probably Mr. Beeba just because he has this very verbose way of speaking which allows me to make fun of intellectuals, pseudo-intellectuals, and people who try to use their knowledge to impress people, which I think is a great target to make fun of [laughter].
Westfield: What influences do you have either story or art-wise, other than the Wizard of Oz and Star Wars?
Crilley: Art-wise there's definitely some of Windsor McCay and Little Nemo in there, especially with the earlier issues. It had that kind of dream-like feeling to it. As time has gone on, there's been a lot of different influences. I think in terms of the writing there is quite a lot of influence from Calvin & Hobbes. When I read Bill Watterson's style, I realize how much I have been influenced by that kind of approach to writing. Interestingly, both of the influences that I name are hardly ever from the modern comics world, they're always just outside of that. But since then, having gotten to know Jeff Smith, Stan Sakai, Charles Vess, and some of these other guys, I've started to get some influences from them, just as friends watching the way they do it.
Westfield: How do you go about putting an issue together?
Crilley: One of the things that typifies my style of writing and creating is to come up with a very general idea of the kind of story I want to do with an over-arcing concept of where I want it to go, but never working out the final details until I really get down to doing the actual page work. Part of the reason I do that is to keep it exciting for myself, and part of it is honestly I don't think you can tell how something is going to work until you really get it down on the page. Even when you sketch it out in advance I find that I have to really get down to the final artwork before I realize what's going to work best. And so I find myself working through one page at a time and altering my original plans as I go to suit the natural rhythm that is growing out of each issue.
Technically, I'll start by writing out one page at a time, a rough draft of the dialog and the set-up, I do a rough pencil of what I want the page to look like. Then it becomes kind of technical with the way I use the computer. I begin a process of scanning line art into the computer to create gray tones and this is where I really depart from almost every other computer colorist on the planet. I print out the gray tones on paper and go back to the old fashioned process and draw the lines onto the gray toned paper. It is very unorthodox, but it results in gray toning that is a foundation for the drawing rather than a sort of added paint-by-numbers thing that would happen after you had completed the final artwork. I think it does have an effect on making my work look different. As I alluded to earlier, I hold off on finalizing dialog and details until the very last moment just to keep it fresh and make sure I don't chain myself down to something that I thought was going to be funny or was going to be effective. When I find out something isn't working I'm always quick to let it go and start anew with something that will work better.
Westfield: This month you begin the Earth stories. What can you say about this storyline?
Crilley: This is going to be a really exciting story for me to work on. It's something that the fans suggested, demanded and asked for again and again. "We want to see an earthbound story. We want to see Akiko on Earth." And it never seemed really interesting to me. I was always interested in the fantasy land and creating this fantastic world and not dealing with the every day world which others have depicted far better than I could. But I came up with the idea of having them crash-land in Japan which would be kind of a compromise. They're on earth, but they're in a world that is interesting to me because it's not my own and it allows me to start playing around with that. The basic storyline as I've worked it out is to have them crash in rural Japan and they discover, or run into, this very elderly blind woman who is able to befriend them on the basis of not realizing that they're aliens because she can't see them. The tension of the story is can they get their ship repaired and blast back out of Japan without being discovered by ordinary Japanese people and the media and having it all turn into a circus? For me, what's really exciting is I'm going to try to involve the Japanese language in the story and have the Japanese characters speak in Japanese and supply subtitles like you would in a movie. So you'll actually see Japanese writing with the Chinese characters and so forth and hopefully I can plunge the readers into the experience of what it's like to be in another country. As you may or may not know, I lived in Japan for a couple of years so that will come into play.
Westfield: What do you have planned for after the earth stories?
Crilley: I'm still in the middle of the last two issues of the story arc called Bornstone's Elixir and then there are the three issues which are the earth bound story. There's another story that the fans have demanded that I'm considering doing. I don't know if I'll do it immediately after the earth bound story, but they've asked to see a story about Akiko's replacement robot. If you're not familiar with the story, there's this robot that replaces her while she's on Smoo. I can't really tell you anything about that because I've not worked out the plot but I have this sense that it would be a single issue story. Beyond that, I'm always interested in pushing the book in new directions and taking on new things. I haven't actually worked this out yet, but there's a part of me that wants to try to do a murder mystery but with my customary interplanetary setting and all the fun characters. Instead of going on a quest, which is what I've had them do over and over again, I want to try and get away from that and create a single setting and follow the pattern of a murder mystery and see what kind of story that would create.
Westfield: Akiko is a black and white all ages book. Why did you decide to go for the all ages audience and what different sorts of challenges does that create for you?
Crilley: To answer that, we have to go back to when I first came up with the story. I was living in Japan. I was teaching English and I really had no concept of what was successful in comics in America at that time. I came up with a story that for me was more influenced by classic children's stories like the Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka, Alice in Wonderland, and stuff like that. I honestly could not at that time have had any vision as to whether it could be successfully published in the comic book market in America. I, in blissful ignorance, came up with this first 33-page story. I was an English teacher, so I wasn't doing this for a living and I could take my time and do it for fun. Coming back to America a couple years later I finally showed it to somebody over at Fantagraphics, I had a connection there through an old friend. Eric Reynolds looked at it and said "Hey, this thing is ready to be published right now." He was the first person who told me don't give up on this. He was the guy who gave me the optimism to say, "Hey, I should mail this around. Maybe it is publishable." So I sent it around to 10 different companies, Sirius was the one that really got excited about it and suggested doing a series. So, to answer your question, if I had known what did and didn't sell in comics at that time, I might not have had the guts to pursue it. That being said, I think Jeff Smith proved that an all ages comic could be pretty wildly successful given that it's a quality book and enjoyable for adults as well as children. I think that's the key here. I never thought that my comic was like Richie Rich or something that was so much targeted towards kids that adults wouldn't want to have anything to do with it. I saw it more like Calvin & Hobbes, something that the mainstream American would get a kick out of. But you are very right that it's been a challenge. The people in the comics world expect grittiness, a certain amount of violence, certainly a lot of bang for their buck, and it's kind of a surprise that it has been so warmly embraced by the critical establishment. I'm very indebted to the Eisner Nominating Committee, to Wizard Magazine, to different people who have really lent a lot of support to Akiko. In the end, I think it's because it's safe for kids but written for adults, for an adult's sense of humor.