(c) Nana Li 2012

Though we traditionally associate manga with being a product of Japan (the industry has a turnover of $5bn per annum), the burgeoning popularity of this art form in Europe and the Middle East has resulted in the emergence of a market that now generates an annual revenue of $250m.

Factors such as the commercial success of Akira and Ghost in the Shell comics, their critically-acclaimed film adaptations, the success of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s Gorillaz (who embody traits of anime), and the popularity of Pokémon have all played their part in establishing manga (and anime) as a multi-million pound industry outside of its home country.

The extraordinarily talented Nana Li, one of  Europe’s leading manga artists, is part of a collective of illustrators whose artwork is helping to further propel the popularity of this Japanese art form in Europe. The Swedish-born artist’s work ranges from private commissions (she created the artwork for comedian Ross Noble’s 2010 tour) to illustrated manga adaptations of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. And, as if that wasn’t enough, she is currently working on an exciting, new graphic novel project.

Fotorater first came across Nana’s work when we commissioned her to do a portrait of our resident car expert, Cameron Countach (see below). The way in which she captured Countach’s boyish good looks and darker side blew us away, and we’ve been huge fans of her creative output ever since. Here, we find out more about Nana Li’s work as a manga artist/illustrator:

Tell me about your background and how that informed what you are doing today.

I fell in love with the art in a comic by the Japanese female comic group CLAMP when I was about 13, and decided that I had to learn how to draw like that.

It was only after I had started drawing that I got into reading and watching manga and anime.  I grew up in Sweden at a time where there wasn’t much anime or manga around, which I guess made my interest in it rather special. Kind of like an exclusive hobby.

After finishing school in Sweden I came to the UK to study engineering at university. I always thought that drawing would just be a hobby, as it didn’t seem possible to make a living out of the creative arts. But, after I arrived in the UK, I met a lot of fellow artists who showed me that it could be done – so that inspired me to go for it.

(c) Nana Li 2012

There were some competitions for budding manga artists, which helped inspire me to push into comics, and I was lucky enough to get a job adapting Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

How old were you when you first knew you wanted to be an illustrator? And why manga?

Probably about 20 years old. I was about halfway through my engineering degree when I realised that my passion was in the creative arts. At the time, there were some competitions for budding manga artists, which helped motivate me to make the move into comics. I was lucky enough to get a job adapting Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night into a graphic novel for the publisher SelfMadeHero, straight after university.

How long does it take to create a detailed manga image? Do you find it hard to maintain your concentration, or do you get lost in your work?

A full colour illustration with characters and background can take anywhere from a day to three days, depending on the complexity of the artwork. Back in the day, I used to be able to lose myself in the rendering more easily, but these days I find that I get bored quickly. So, I don’t do that many polished illustrations anymore (unless it’s for a job). These days I find it easier to lose myself in work where I can explore new ideas, if that makes sense.

(c) Nana Li 2012

Can you make a good living out of being a manga artist?

I think, like in any small business, you can make a living if you’re good, reliable and have a decent business head. It’s beneficial to not hole yourself into manga, though – since that limits the work that you can take on.

How do you distinguish yourself from the competition?

Haha – I’m not sure that I do. Hopefully the artwork speaks for itself (it does, Nana – we love it – Ed).

The Manga Shakespeare series has been very well received. It’s been particularly nice to hear teachers and parents say that the books helped their kids get into Shakespeare

(c) Nana Li 2012

You illustrate Manga adaptations of Shakespeare. How did that come about? Has the series done well?

A few friends of mine had done books for SelfMadeHero, so I was aware that they were doing a series of Shakespeare adaptations.

I approached SelfMadeHero with some samples of my work, and I was fortunate that they liked it enough to want to commission me to do the artwork for one of their books.

I still had half a year of uni left, but SelfMadeHero was awesome and found me a title which I could start on after I had graduated. That was Twelfth Night.

The Manga Shakespeare series has been very well received. It’s been particularly nice to hear teachers and parents say that the books helped their kids get into Shakespeare, since that was one of the core reasons for doing these graphic novels. Hopefully both Shakespeare novices and existing fans can enjoy them as well though.

Cameron Countach (c) Nana Li 2012

Cameron Countach (c) Nana Li 2012

What is the most exciting, challenging piece of work you have done to date?

Hmm… perhaps my tour poster for the comedian Ross Noble. It was exciting because it was such an unusual commission. I was contacted by someone from his agency about doing a poster for his 2010 Non-sensory Overload tour. Ross already had an idea of what he wanted, so I was mostly trying to match what he had in mind and, hopefully, throw a few new things in to the mix.

Because of Ross’s crazy, stream-of-consciousness style of comedy he wanted very bright colours for the posters (which I wholeheartedly agreed with), though that’s something I’m not very used to. I tend to gravitate towards more muted colours, so getting the colours to come together in the poster was like laying a puzzle.

The artwork ended up being used on merchandise, and on the stage in the actual show. I was invited to the show and was blown away by what I saw. The artwork was projected as an animation onto the curtains and on stage they had built a giant air-castle featuring elements from the poster. After the show I got to meet Ross back stage, where he showed me his shoe, which had been customised with the poster artwork. That was a pretty incredible experience!

(c) Nana Li 2012

Without the advice and help shared between artists I doubt that I would have been able to find my way into this line of work

What do you use as your source of inspiration? Or does it just come naturally?

I get inspired by other artists, by interesting things I watch or read, or things in the world around me.

Is there much competition in the UK?

The scene is actually very friendly here. That was one of the things that got me into doing this professionally. Without the advice and help from other artists, I doubt that I would have been able to find my way into this line of work.

(c) Nana Li 2012

Have you any exciting projects in the pipeline that you can talk about?

At the moment I’m working on a chunky graphic novel with a friend of my, Fehed Said, who’s the writer. It’s a story that’s been a long time in the making, but we’re finally getting to a stage where we can start showing the work around. It’s a touching story about growing up, featuring a slightly dysfunctional father-daugher relationship and set against the backdrop of a moon colony (amazing! – Ed).

What is your dream?

To be able to constantly learn and grow in the field of art. Well, that’s the long term goal. For now my dream is work with inspiring people on exciting projects, possibly as a concept artist.

(c) Nana Li 2012

What are your favourite Manga comics/novels/animations?

I love most things by Naoki Urasawa, David Eddings, Hayao Miyazaki, and Pixar, of course.

Do you think you’ll ever go into animation?

I don’t have the necessary training for traditional animation but there’s many ways to animate these days. Never say never!

For further information about Nana’s work, visit: www.nanarealm.com

More of Nana’s illustrations below:

(c) Nana Li 2012

(c) Nana Li 2012

Source of manga revenue statistics: CNN.com