On Collaboration

I’m developing a new book project with a wonderful young film-maker. Any project changes in the development process: with another creative talent involved, things often end up completely different from my original idea. Yet that’s exactly what makes collaboration so rewarding. Another pair of eyes and hands brings a whole new perspective to the work.

I’ve been lucky enough to have some remarkable creative collaborations as a writer, editor and teacher. Every one has made my work better. Most recently, I led an animation masterclass at the Barbican with Reza Ben Gajra. Reza is funny, energetic and a wonderful teacher. Just watching him is an education in how to draw out individual creativity. You can see the work of our participants here, but the energy of that evening will still be working in me for years to come.

My longest-running collaboration is with my partner, Steve Kyte. We’ve worked together on many projects, fan and pro, starting with convention books, newsletters and zines for various groups, followed by six years of Anime UK magazine. Steve is a fine writer and researcher in his own right, as well as a wonderful artist and designer, and his contributions to my work go far beyond the obvious. The cover he produced for the British edition of my book 500 Manga Heroes and Villains is among my favourites, and he was my co-designer on Manga Cross-Stitch.

The British cover - just click here to see the US version

I was lucky enough to have another remarkable collaborator on 500 Manga Heroes and Villains: Dr. Darren-Jon Ashmore, an old friend from the early days of UK fandom, now teaching at Akita International University in Japan. His input on a wide range of entries gave me an entirely new perspective on characters and manga that were not widely known in the English-speaking world at the time. His language skills were invaluable, his critical assessments and advice even more so. Without his input the book would not be nearly so informative, nor would the writing process have been so enjoyable and instructive for me.

Darren has provided research assistance on several of my projects, including  The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga where his expertise in Japanese theatre helped me understand the importance of the Takarazuka Revue.  He was one of the research assistants on my epic collaboration with Jonathan Clements, The Anime Encyclopedia. A work that has been celebrated, criticised and ripped off in almost equal proportions, The Anime Encyclopedia is so heavy it may well serve as my tombstone. I wouldn’t complain. It’s the book I wanted to find when I first became interested in anime in 1981. It was a rollercoaster ride of laughs, deadlines, round-the-world emails, neglected partners, missed parties, long hours at the keyboard and constant surprises. Mostly I surprised myself, with the amount I learned and with how the process of writing the book changed my views and ideas. It took twenty years to get it written and published, and without 20th-century Renaissance man Clements it wouldn’t have happened.

Corporate collaborations are often viewed with suspicion, but when it came to writing The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga, I was very

The UK edition: click for the US version

fortunate to have the studio Tezuka founded in my corner. Tezuka Production proved to be the ideal partner for a writer: supportive, positive, constantly willing to check facts and provide information, but never attempting to stamp their own views on the book. With their unrivalled archive of material on the artist’s life and work they were always going to be an important part of the process. Their openness to new ideas and views, and their willingness to bring the master’s work to new audiences, transformed what could have been a mere paper agreement into a true creative partnership. If more studios were willing and able to work so closely and co-operatively with Western authors, we could see many great books on anime and manga in English.

Based on a working lifetime’s experience of collaboration, I would say that five factors have been instrumental in my success and enjoyment of the process.

1) Work with the best people you can find. Ideally they should be smarter than you in at least a couple of ways.

2) Establish the terms from the beginning, so everyone knows how things will go and how responsibilities and rewards will be divided.

3) Be prepared to give and take ideas. Yours may be good, but theirs may be better. (You wanted to work with them because they were the best, didn’t you?)

4) Treat your collaborators as you would any other professional partner – meet all deadlines and commitments, and discuss any problems or delays as soon as they arise. Don’t let your close working relationship make you disrespectful or sloppy.

5) Celebrate each other’s contributions. I’ve worked with great people  – I feel proud to know them,  and I think their willingness to work with me adds weight and credibility to my résumé.

If you’re as lucky as I’ve been, the process of creative collaboration will bring huge rewards.

2 thoughts on “On Collaboration

  1. It’s surprisingly to hear that Tezuka Productions cooperated with you so fully, from what little I have heard about journalists and others attempting to work with other Japanese companies. More often than not they only seem to be concerned with keeping to a fairly strict ‘message’, so it’s great to hear that you had such a fruitful relationship with them.

    • Some companies can be difficult to interact with, but this is often because they don’t have time, or don’t have anyone on the staff who speaks the language they’re being asked to work in. Journalists and researchers who aren’t willing or able to communicate in Japanese will naturally have more problems.

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