The mid-2000s were the heyday of the Original English Language (OEL) manga movement. Viz, Tokyopop, and ADV Manga (remember them?) were churning out new titles, and American fans were making comics of their own. Tokyopop provided a road to publication via their Rising Stars of Manga competition, and Tania del Rio was one of the early winners. But del Rio took a very different path from her peers—rather than creating a short series for Tokyopop or going it alone with a webcomic, she took manga right to the heart of mainstream comics, redesigning "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" in manga style for Archie Comics.
Del Rio picked up "Sabrina" in 2004, with issue #58, and ended her run with issue #100 in 2009, and every one of those issues was published in American format, as a full-sized color comic. Now the Archie folks are re-releasing them in something closer to a manga format, a black-and-white trade paperback with a much smaller trim size. The first volume, "Sabrina the Teenage Witch: The Magic Within," has just come out, and thanks to del Rio's clear line and clever paneling, "Sabrina" survives the transition quite well—as you can see in the preview below.
With the new "Sabrina" hitting the shelves, I thought it would be a good time to talk to del Rio about her experiences working on the comic and take a look back at the homegrown manga scene in which she and so many other creators flourished.
MTV Geek: Did you read Sabrina as a kid?
Tania del Rio: I read classic Archie stuff, Betty & Veronica, but I didn't read Sabrina as much.
Did you go back and re-read more of the comics before you started writing and drawing "Sabrina"?
I knew who Sabrina was, but when I got the job it kind of landed in my lap. I had entered a Tokyopop contest and I got runner-up in their Rising Stars of Manga competition. I was living in Westchester, New York, and my local paper did an article and Archie, which is based in Westchester, saw the article and contacted me directly. They told me what they were looking for, and because it was a relaunch and redesign they let me take it from scratch. I did go back and look at some of the characters, I filled in Hilda and Salem, but I also added new characters and made it my own.
Shinji was there; I think the artist before me, Holly Golightly, added him. I liked his character and brought him in as a main character. Then I added a lot of side characters—a lot of mythology that wasn't in Sabrina, all the women who ruled the magic realm and it made a matriarchy, her tutor Batty Bartholomew.
It was my first series, my first professional comic gig. I was very lucky to have the opportunity present itself to me to do that.
You were one of the early global manga artists. How did you get involved with manga to begin with?
I was reading it, when I was growing up, and I was also watching what [anime] I could find. It wasn't really as popular back then. I lived in England for three years, and it seemed they had more available. I remember "Ranma ½," and "Sailor Moon" was one of my first titles. I played lots of video games that had that same manga/anime style look. Miyazaki—"My Neighbor Totoro" was the first movie I saw when I was young. I remember being blown away by that. I was like a little sponge. I remember really loving the aesthetic of the manga/anime style.
When did you decide you wanted to make it yourself?
It seemed there weren’t as many women creators in comics [back then], and when I found out that "Ranma ½" was written and drawn by a woman, I was blown away at first. That really appealed to me, the fact that so many female creators were doing so well in Japan. It was never a thing where I wanted to do exactly that. I wanted to tell stories that were entertaining and inspiring. I loved the magical aspect of so much of the manga, the fact that it took volumes and volumes to tell the story. American comics, which I also read, were more episodic, and something about the Japanese style really appealed to me.
What did you change to give "Sabrina" a manga look?
I was very much inspired by shoujo [girls'] manga, but I also took in my Disney influences and my American, "Elfquest" inspired stuff. I wanted to break up the panels. When I went to art school in Minneapolis, Peter Gross, who is an artist for Vertigo, and Gene Ha were my teachers, and they taught me different ways of paneling, looking outside the box in terms of doing panels outside the usual format. I wanted to do something that was nice to look at, that flowed with the eye. I was a big fan of the whole shoujo technique of big faces, characters popping out of frames, patterns in the background. There were no screentones, but I tried to replicate them by doing little drawings in the background.
You also wrote "Mangaka America." Looking back on that era, which wasn't actually all that long ago, how do you think the art and the comics have held up?
I look at it with a lot of nostalgic fondness. I really love the community that existed at that time. Even though it wasn't a unified community, some people said "I'm a manga-ka," and others said "No, you can't be," so there was a lot of disagreement, the discussion was so lively and supportive. There hasn't been anything like this since. It was a great community of artists, a lot of female creators, young people all really passionate about art. I feel like now a lot of us have scattered to the winds. It's not quite the same sense of community as there was back then, and I feel like it was a really good time not just for manga but for comics in general.
Do you think it's harder now to break into comics?
The Tokyopop thing was a great way to break into it because it was a company actively searching for new talent, but even with that open door, it doesn't mean people who got in with Tokyopop are still making books. It used to be if you got your foot in the door, you could make it fairly easily. That is not still the case. I think it's still a challenge to break into the comics field and stay in it.
You won the Tokyopop Rising Stars of Manga contest, and at one point you were going to do a book with them. Looking back, what do you think about that now?
It never came to fruition. There were a number of years when they were asking me to pitch some new stories. I was sending in things I wanted to do, but they never jelled. Finally they said "We want you to do a story about Quinceañeras," but by the time that all started to be greenlit, that was when the beginning of the end started for Tokyopop. It was bad timing. It just kind of fizzled out.
How much of it did you actually finish?
I wrote the scripts, but the pages were never drawn.
Would you consider publishing it somewhere else?
I would definitely be open to it. I don't know if I had the rights to it—it was almost a work-for-hire situation, where they told me what they were looking for. I did enjoy the script I wrote, and it would be cool to work on it.
In the beginning, you were doing a lot of work-for-hire projects—"Sabrina," "Spider-Man." How do you feel about doing work for hire? Do you think your attitude changed as you got more experience?
For me, it worked out OK. I knew from Day One with Archie that I was working on a character that had existed for many years, that was not my own. I knew I worked on their property and I didn't own any of it, and even if I introduced new characters, they would own the characters. It worked out well for me because they are a good company, they pay out on time, I never have to chase them down for a paycheck. It was a very good relationship: I turned in pages, they paid me. I could see how I would not necessarily want to bring my own property to a company and have them take all the rights. That was what threw me about Tokyopop: I believe they did 50-50 with some artists, depending on the project. I don't think I ever pitched anything that was my heart project, and even now when I do things that are work for hire, I know there is a certain distance you have to take from your work when you do that, but it's still very fulfilling. Even though Sabrina wasn't my character, it was very much my story and it was very fulfilling to do it.
Are you making a living as an artist?
I am. That's what I have been doing all these years. I have managed to keep on doing the freelance thing. When comics were slow I was doing graphic design and logos, but now I have a new gig and I am working full time on comics again.
Are you still drawing in a manga style?
I think my style is similar. I'm less concerned about the label; I realized I have my own style. It's still what I love to read. I haven't been drawing as much; I'm more focused on writing now.
What manga do you read now?
I'm interested in going back and reading a lot of the ones I used to read. I have a huge collection I recently unpacked them all and set up on bookshelves: "Tramps Like Us," "Mars," classics I really enjoyed back in the day and I am inspired by them now.
Now I have a Kindle Fire, a lot of the stuff I have already is kind of fun to have on the Fire, so I can read on the go, although I do miss the paper quality of reading a book.