Interview: Inga Steinmetz, Mangaka from Berlin
They’re probably as typical of Japan as sushi. And like sushi, Japanese manga have long since found their way to Europe and America.
Manga has also become indispensable in German comic shops and railway station bookstores, as well as in many traditional bookstores. However, most books still come from the motherland of manga, even though a small but beautiful scene of local (predominantly) draughtsmen has been emerging in Germany for years.
Inga Steinmetz was almost there from the very beginning, she calls herself the “grandmother” of the scene with a twinkle in her eye. PonderingTime has asked Inga Steinmetz for an interview.
PonderingTime: Inga, in a Berlin city magazine you were described as probably the longest-serving manga artist in Germany. How did it start with drawing manga?
Inga Steinmetz: I was 14, and at that time already an enthusiastic comic book reader – a funny paperback book, French comic books of my father but also cartoons like family Feuerstein belonged to my daily dose of “comic.” I had always drawn a lot, but more picture stories than original illustrations.
Then the first Japanese animated films came on television, and the fascinating thing was: Suddenly the girls stood in the foreground. They wanted to be the best sportswoman, they saved the world, and they experienced great adventures. I suddenly felt addressed quite differently. And also, the epic, coherent stories were structured quite differently, the single episodes of the American cartoons, which always kept the status quo.
That’s how I got interested in this style. At first, I tried to copy it as well as I could, but soon I developed my own painting style.
The whole thing was 22 years ago – and in fact, I am currently the oldest German manga artist, the “Grandmother,” as I always say with a wink.
PonderingTime: Manga is different from western comics in the way it looks, most people probably notice the big eyes first, but there are undoubtedly other significant differences?
Inga Steinmetz: Meanwhile, the differences are not so significant anymore, because the borders are blurring more and more, and many western artists are picking the “best” out of both worlds.
Of course, in the big Japanese comic magazines, e.g., for boys, there are still a lot of rules that are ironically followed (a friendly hero, his rival and fights that often extend over many volumes), but especially with the smaller publishers you are more and more open for new things – maybe because you also realize that influence from outside can enliven a comic market.
If I had to commit myself to a typical characteristic, that would be the “expressivity” of Japanese manga. They are like a hurricane; everything moves, the faces distort, the emotions boil over, in all directions. With the best manga, the ground is literally torn away under your feet, you are swept away. Apart from that, they are thrilling and thrillingly told, every page clings to you and won’t let you go until you have read the whole volume. It’s fascinating!
PonderingTime: Would you say that manga can still be distinguished according to the country in which it was created? Is there typical German manga, Korean or Japanese?
Inga Steinmetz: A few years ago, I would have said that you can see the differences, but that’s not the case anymore. There are Japanese who deliberately draw more Western, coarser, not so perfectionist, and there are Western draughtsmen who consciously adopt a style that older Japanese manga artists used 30 years ago. The Internet has opened the door to a mixture of styles, and this development is fascinating.
PonderingTime: Your last two publications were “Schneeballens Fall” and “Schneeballen – Verliebt in Japan.” Schneeballen is a German mangaka, which is, how to say, cuddly (?), drawn and has adventures in Korea and Japan. Which is no coincidence, because the two books are autobiographical. What’s this about?
Inga Steinmetz: Before I went to Korea, I had a deep crisis in my life. My future as a cartoonist was at stake, and that plunged me into a deep black hole. I was at the end if you will. During this time, I was offered the scholarship of a Korean comic book agency – and so I was able to escape my problems to Korea.
I took new courage on the spot because a lot of the things I had clung to as a draughtswoman didn’t play a role at all in good, stirring comics – but I had to learn that first. The Japanese drawing perfection had blocked me and also attacked my health. In Korea, I noticed that it’s OK to take it down a notch if only the emotional, the truth is right in a story.
Back in Germany, I offered my editor at Carlsen to tell the travel experiences in a funny comic. A little uncertain, I finally also suggested telling the “whole” story; not only the beautiful but also my exhaustion and despair into the account to pack. She fought like a lioness for it, because autobiographical manga of Germans, who were sweet but also at the same time drastic and gloomy, that had never existed before – and even still in color! But I always find it appealing to be a pioneer in something and finally we box the concept through.
The result was the most positive reader response I’ve ever experienced in my career. Even today I am addressed about my snowball stories and how many readers were emotionally captured. This success has dramatically changed my view of writing and drawing.
PonderingTime: Your Alpha Girl series was very different. The manga goes into the erotic realm. Some readers will surely become blind about that. What do you think of that? And is it really an exception to be a draughtswoman in this genre?
Inga Steinmetz: I love to try out new things; stagnation tires me out and is also poison for my creativity. “Alpha Girl” was a relaxation project after a significant publishing house publication that I actually only wanted to upload on the Internet. But my editor at that time found the concept exciting and so it became an official release. Here, too, it was the first time that a German manga with such a large proportion of sex had been shown at a major German publishing house.
There were never any hostilities or raised eyebrows on the subject; why, after all, the manga is relatively tame. In general, my editor had to slow me down, because we wanted to keep to “Ab 16” and I often slipped into “Ab 18”, ha-ha.
PonderingTime: A few years ago, you could still find manga in many places. Today at least I have the feeling that you only see them in comic shops and station magazine shops. According to your opinion, how popular is manga/manga culture in Germany?
Inga Steinmetz: Manga is still a growing market, as you can see especially from the vast Manga departments in the bookstores and chains in the big cities. Nobody can ignore this development anymore – Manga is established. I don’t know the subtleties, but I’m sure there were reasons to supply the station book trade differently than the bookstores in the city centers. The convenience factor of Internet shopping certainly also plays a role.
There is no need to worry about manga in Germany, as evidenced by the new publishing houses that are still pushing their way onto the market.
PonderingTime: Is there an independent manga culture in Germany, or are the few publications of German mangaka not noticeable in the mass of translations from Japan?
Inga Steinmetz: The German manga scene is thriving, as you can see again and again at the book fairs. There were more than 100 drawing stands in hall 1 in Leipzig Nagain. At the Dokomi fan fair, there will be incredible 500+ artists who will be offering their pictures, merchandise and comics in a special alee of drawings. It’s bubbling away from the publishers.
Also, some cosplayers dress up as their favorite characters, often in homemade costumes, hobbyists, live acts, singers … The German manga scene is incredibly creative and diverse. The few German manga releases by the big publishers are only a tiny reflection of what “manga made in Germany” can be.
There are many reasons for this: Not everyone is able to work according to editorial specifications and fixed deadlines. Some underestimate the physical or psychological stress of a “big” release. Only the very “crazy,” as I affectionately call them themselves, who do everything else behind their dream, keep it up to become manga artists in Germany, and even more important, to stay.
PonderingTime: A question of conscience. Did you see “Wicki” or “Heidi” as a child, and did you know that Japanese series was anime?
Inga Steinmetz: I really liked Wicki, but of course, I didn’t know that it was drawn in Japan. You can see it a little today, just like with Maya the Bee or Alfred J. Quack. The “tropics of sweat” and the expressivity that I have already mentioned above reveal it to the trained eye.
PonderingTime: Is there a favorite mangaka, or someone you’d call a role model?
Inga Steinmetz: I have no direct role models after 20 years, but I am too consolidated in my own goals. However, I can still feel admiration, e.g., for people who have been drawing the same manga for 60 volumes and can even inspire fans of themselves. That’s talent and a hard-core will that you just have to admire.
PonderingTime: What’s your working method for drawing manga? Is this still done classically by hand, or are the images already created on the computer?
Inga Steinmetz: Until a few years ago, I used to draw with pen and ink, a way of working that had a significant influence on me. This taught me which optics I wanted to work towards. When I ink digitally now, I make sure that it still looks “handmade,” not too smooth and sterile. I often do commission work analogously, originals in the form of watercolors or marker pictures are still in high demand.
Otherwise, I have learned to appreciate digital drawing on the drawing tablet very much. One skips the complete work step scanning and/or image post-processing, a significant time saving, which one would not want to miss anymore with the time-consuming manga drawing.
PonderingTime: You belong to the few established mangaka in Germany, but I’m afraid you can’t live from that alone, can you?
Inga Steinmetz: In fact, 95 percent of my earnings are directly or indirectly related to manga. Here a small selection of the last years: Manga-Workshops, Manga-Portraits on events, lectures about my Manga (especially the snowball travel reports and about the German manga scene), invitations to fairs, gift pictures in manga style in watercolor or marker and just straight Manga/Comics draw. Just this year I am so full of “manga” that I can’t even find time for my own manga, ha-ha. But that’s great and therefore no complaint. As a self-employed person, other periods can always occur.
So yes, I can live from drawing manga, but this is also the result of my hard work and satisfied customers who book me over the years or recommend me. I, therefore, consider myself very happy and hope that things will continue like this.
PonderingTime: What does a typical working day look like for you? Do you rather spend the nights in a creative frenzy, or do you prefer regular working hours?
Inga Steinmetz: I’m more of a disciplined service provider, go to sleep around half past nine and then sit at the drawing board again around nine. Without enough sleep, my body would quickly go limp, and I could not keep up my workload. Recently I am doing some sport again to strengthen my back. But through this discipline I can also be creative at the push of a button, I never have artistic blockages, only physical exhaustion.
Only when it comes to eating, I am not very exemplary, mostly I eat my meals directly at the computer and instead sandwiches than hot, wholesome dishes. During high stress I always lose weight quickly, which of course is not healthy. Nobody’s perfect.
PonderingTime: A classic closing questions. Can anyone see anything new from you soon? Do you have any concrete projects?
Inga Steinmetz: This year I’m overwhelmed with projects, and I’m sure I can tell you a little bit about them: With a large German publishing house, I’m sitting at a “language learning” comic, which entertainingly teaches you new languages. I edit the books for Korean and, of course, Japanese.
I am also sitting at a manga on illiteracy, the result of collaboration last year. Together with an agency and sponsored by the German Institute for Education, we wanted to draw more attention to this topic with Manga and also address young people. Last year this was in the form of a short manga, which was entire without language, meaning that the story was only transported by the images. This year it will be a wholly colored manga on the theme, so again one of the challenges I appreciate so much.
And I’m sitting on my own comic or manga, but here I’ll wait and see what kind of release I choose. But there are already talks with the publishers.