Taiwanese Manga Creator Ponjea
Using SOP to Sustain Brilliance in a Demanding Market
Taiwanese manga creator Ponjea, the first non-Japanese cartoonist to have a short manga published in Japan’s most influential manga periodical, is stunning fellow artists and manga lovers alike not only with his high-quality manga but also his productivity.
Using SOP to Sustain Brilliance in a Demanding MarketBy Ming-ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 591 )
“Spray on more effect lines here to get a stronger sense of speed. Then draw page 19 and show it to me when you are done along with the draft for the forest background. You have an hour; give it a try,” says Ponjea as he instructs an assistant without even turning his head.
It is late January, and a cold front engulfs Taiwan, bringing with it record low temperatures. Ponjea’s 20-square-meter studio is located in one of the many rooftop dwellings in Taipei’s Wanhua District. He and his three assistants are glued to their computer screens, busily drawing manga. Unfinished takeout meals from a hamburger chain sit on top of their desks.
They are working on new chapters for the manga Chronos Ruler, which has been serialized by Shonen Jump+, a digital publication by Shueisha, the publisher of Japan’s highest circulation manga magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. At the time of our interview, Chronos Ruler, which launched as a manga series last March, had reached Chapter 22. But Ponjea and his team have already finished Chapter 53 far ahead of time, which runs counter to the stereotypical image of the cartoonist who constantly works late into the wee hours to meet deadlines.
While Ponjea is a new star in the manga firmament of Taiwan, he also is an outlier with regard to the story of his success.
Six years ago, he became the first non-Japanese manga artist to be published in the manga fans’ bible Weekly Shonen Jump with the short manga Kiba & Kiba. Two years later, his short manga Chronos Ruler was published in Shonen Jump Next!, a seasonal edition of the magazine. In 2014, he collaborated with Japanese manga writer Yuma Ando for Shinjuku DxD, which was published in the Japanese manga magazine Manga Box. Including the serialization of Chronos Ruler last year, Ponjea has established a steady presence at the top of the Japan’s sophisticated manga scene.
“Japanese manga is very competitive, and they also have plenty of talent. Getting published as a non-Japanese is not easy, not simple at all,” remarks Michael Huang, publisher of the Taiwanese manga and music publishing house Sharp Point Press.
On the day of our interview, Ponjea happened to receive some good news from abroad. The Chinese Internet video site Youku Tudou will invest in the animation of Chronos Ruler by a leading Japanese animation studio. For Taiwan’s manga world, this is a rare case of transnational collaboration as well as a real breakthrough.
Moving People with Cartoons
The 33-year-old Ponjea speaks very fast, always using clear, logical thinking. A typical Virgo, Ponjea is detail-oriented and demands a lot of himself. He is rational and imperturbable, and hates wasting time. Feng Hao, who has worked as his assistant for the past three years, has worked with irritable cartoonists before who used to bang the table or kick chairs about when things went awry. Feng says he has never seen Ponjea flip out or become violent.
Ponjea says he has always known that one’s dreams must be nurtured, and one’s fighting spirit must be sustained, as the manga creator profession tests one’s endurance and willpower.
“The will to fight is what truly remains after you have burnt up your interest and passion,” Ponjea says. He fell in love with manga at the tender age of five when he found a pirated copy of the Japanese manga Doraemon on the street. The story of the blue robotic cat from the 22nd century moved Ponjea so much that he stapled together plain sheets of copy machine paper and began to draw comic strips with his classmates as protagonists.
“From childhood on I was influenced by manga; that’s why I also want to change others,” Ponjea says in explaining what drives his artistic ambitions. He says that the more people set eyes on manga the better because it will spread positive energy. “My dream is to use manga to move people around the world,” he says. But the route to fulfilling his dream turned out to be thornier and more circuitous than he had imagined.
“In our profession, you won’t be able to prevail if you solely rely on your interest. Because, although doing something you are interested in will make you happy, once you have entered this profession, you will come across many things that make you unhappy,” Ponjea says. “If you don‘t have a strong and powerful will at this point, if you don’t hang in there telling yourself ‘I have to do this’, you will give up," he says.
Ready to Make Changes
The first wall manga artists hit is picky editors.
In Japan, editors have a decisive role in a manga production. Taking into account market considerations, editors will give artists suggestions for improvements that they are expected to observe strictly before resubmitting their revised drafts. Since most editors are buried in work, it often takes one to two months before the editor’s feedback arrives.
“The creator’s mindset makes it very difficult for them to let others change their works, and a whole lot of people are defeated by this. This [accepting changes] is the key to whether a creative person is able to make it in the commercial market. You must be ready to change, or else come up with something better to convince them,” says Ponjea. But he elaborates that this does not mean following editors' suggestions blindly. A manga artist must be able to put his foot down when necessary, but he also needs to heed reader reactions.
In 2007, Debut Wang, general manager of the manga publisher Friendly Land Creative Co. Ltd., toured Japanese publishing houses, pitching works of the cartoonists his company manages. When he presented Ponjea’s work to Weekly Shonen Jump in 2009, he was told that Ponjea’s paneling was very “teenage” and therefore suited for junior and senior high school students, but that his drawing style was too grown-up.
Wang recalls that back then Ponjea did not feel that anything was wrong with his drawing style, so he was very distressed.
Ponjea then decided to take the works of several popular manga artists and imitate their style. He selected the parts that he wanted and pieced them together, slowly transforming the result into his own thing. “He is terrific in that he is willing to do this (change his drawing style),” says Wang.
Ponjea had honed his skills in that fashion for a year when opportunity came knocking. One day, a letter arrived from Weekly Shonen Jump saying that Japanese manga author Riichiro Inagaki was inviting competitive presentations from artists for his story Kiba & Kiba, asking if Ponjea was ready to give it a try.
That presented another challenge for Ponjea, because he had hoped to take a shot at an original story. Drawing someone else’s story was unacceptable to him at first, leaving him entirely unmotivated.
“In the beginning, I was very resistant, and I am still now. But then I realized that, if this job is good for the future and I can also learn something, why not do it?” Ponjea recalls. Most importantly, he did not forget to keep working on his own stories.
Subsequently, he developed three different characters and drew multiple backgrounds and specific time-space settings, which landed him the collaboration job with Inagaki and made him the first non-Japanese manga artist to be published in Weekly Shonen Jump. Kiba & Kiba also gained him great reader feedback.
China Stress Test
Later on, Ponjea decided to explore the Chinese market while continuing to pitch his original stories to Japan. In 2012, Ark Saga, an original Ponjea manga, began to be published in China as a series, gradually boosting the artist’s reputation across the Taiwan Strait.
“Drawing for a weekly publication in China for a whole year was a stress test for us. We were tested how fast we could draw for a weekly magazine,” Wang says. In order to become a professional manga artist, one needs to be able to cope with deadline pressure and the punishing pace of work, which requires extraordinary self discipline.
After becoming a professional cartoonist, Ponjea developed his own work philosophy and rhythm: He does not burn the midnight oil, and not only never misses a deadline, he even hands in his drawings ahead of time to be always ready to face unexpected challenges. “As far as I am concerned, there are no deadlines; I am always drawing in advance. I always want to leave some extra time, or else I won’t be able to take a job right away when the opportunity presents itself,” he says.
So far, his output record has been 180 pages in a single month. Wang does the math for us: For weekly manga installments, about 80 pages have to be drawn per month. Thanks to his fast turnaround, Ponjea is able to draw for two weeklies at the same time while still finding enough time to take on other assignments.
What makes him so productive? First, having drawn from childhood on, Ponjea has a very thorough grounding. Second, he places very high demands upon himself and has a strong power of execution. The artist begins to work at 9:30 a.m., at the same time as his assistants. After his assistants have left work, Ponjea continues to think or draw. He always goes to bed before midnight, because he does not need and surely does not want to work through the night.
“You cannot constantly burn your passion and youth. I want to stay a bit fitter and draw a little longer. Moreover, you can only be highly efficient if you have a sound mind,” Ponjea says, adding that self-discipline and good daily habits are the basis for managing a heavy workload in the long run.
An 18-page SOP
In order to speed up the drawing process without sacrificing quality, Ponjea keeps improving the workflow in his studio.
In 2012, he wrote a set of standard operating procedures (SOP) that has meanwhile evolved into an 18-page compendium.
The set of instructions explains how to separate the layers of a drawing, gives details about the work flow, and stipulates that working into the night and delaying drawings are out of the question. The SOP also includes detailed rules on how to draw certain things and how to give instructions to team members.
Thanks to this system, the assistants are able to quickly learn the ropes. Moreover, since assistants come and go, an SOP helps save precious time during job handovers and ensures that the quality of work does not suffer no matter when and how an assistant is replaced.
Fellow Taiwanese manga artist iimAn, who is also managed by Friendly Land, has recently begun to collaborate with Ponjea for the manga Super Science Junior. He observes that the heavy workload does not primarily put to test an artist’s drawing speed but rather his or her ability to plan and manage a project properly and to organize everyday life. “I even feel that he (Ponjea) seems to have twice or three times as much time as we do,” iimAn jokes.
Over the past few years, Ponjea learned that he must preserve his equanimity, because dreams don’t come true overnight, and others will not necessarily give you a chance. However, he believes that, even if the road to success has twists and turns, you must continue to hold your head high. You will not walk down any road in vain as long as you still have vision and work towards your goal.
“Defeat is not something to be afraid of; I am constantly losing. If you lose nine times out of ten and win only once, in the end, the main thing is the one that you finish the job without giving up. There is truly no point being afraid of defeat. We spend most of our time making peace with failure,” he says, describing the trials and tribulations of a cartoonist.
Wang notes that after honing his skills over the past six or seven years, Ponjea’s temperment has become even more stable and calm. What hasn’t changed is his determination to use manga to move the world and its dreams.
“I hope that, when I am in a tough position, I am able to open up a path forward. It is probably a hard path to tread, but I want to tell you that it can indeed be traveled,” Ponjea says. It is like in the Japanese manga series Attack on Titan, where humans live in walled communities besieged by man-eating titans on the outside. However, as long as there is hope, humans will be motivated to make a break for the world outside the gate. “This is a very beautiful thing,” he concludes.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Education: Master of Science in architecture, National Cheng Kung University
Current profession: Manga artist
Original works: Story、Ark Saga、Chronos Ruler
First non-Japanese manga artist to be published in Japan’s influential manga magazine Weekly Shonen Jump