What We Owe to Creators: Burnout in manga artists and how to prevent it

By: Priya Sridhar October 23, 20190 Comments
A man looks unwell, boxes highlight his medical condition: tendonitis, stiff shoulders, lack of sleep. Caption: So that was because of deadlines...

Manga artists have done a great service for international comics. They have given readers stories like the realistic drama of Baby & Me or the surrealist existentialism of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Their work has provided emotional pathos, catharsis, and an aesthetic that has influenced people across the globe.

A two-page spread, done in lavish detail, of Amir and Karluk sitting on rugs in an open-air patio area. Karluk is playing an instrument while Amir sits next to him, watching.
A Bride’s Story by Kaoru Mori

With all the good manga provides, you would expect that readers and publishers would do what they can to ensure creators can keep making manga. However, we readers instead see an unsettling trend of writers and artists burning out. This leads to forestalled careers, sickness, and even death. 

This cannot stand, for the sake of basic decency. Publishers, both in Japan and internationally, need to improve the manga industry to protect creators’ health. I would also like to talk about the smaller power that readers have, to influence the manga industry and turn the tides. We can start with preconceived notions about the industry and how often artists work. Readers can change how we think, and that in turn will help the artists.

Buried by the Workload

Manga artist schedules are one primary factor in burnout. Per one weekly schedule provided as a sample, an artist only gets about “three hours of free time” per week working on a story serialized weekly. The calendar even regulates sleeping hours, limiting them to a paltry two hours on Mondays. 

Manga artists spend most of their time throughout the week storyboarding, writing, drawing, inking, and meeting with editors. If their manga is picked up for franchise adaptations, the artist needs to serve as a consultant as well.

Artists can hire assistants, but if they cannot afford one, then they have to do the work alone. Pay can also be low for manga creators and artists; one former assistant illustrated this by pointing out an artist getting paid $100 per page at 32 pages a month (an average length for a monthly series) only makes $3200 a month.

If an artist is working on at least one manga chapter a week, that means they have to produce dozens of pages every week. A collected tankoubon can have around 200 pages, which means about ten chapters per volume in demand. 

A smiling man with messy short hair holds a pen.
Urasawa Naoki at Japan Expo. photo by yves Tennevin

Even American comics, for all their problems, do not put this much pressure on artists and writers in the mainstream. Comic projects in the United States usually have a writer, penciler, and inker. The work is split among a team who specializes in different tasks. The page expectations are also different: an American comic produces about one issue per month, ranging from 20-32 pages.

For webcomics, creators mention releasing several pages a week independently if doing a long-form comic. The book How to Make Webcomics (written by Brad Guigar, Scott Kurtz and Kris Straub) stresses the need for a buffer for this reason.

These expectations take a definite mental and physical toll on artists. Several creators died in their early sixties, including Tezuka Osamu, the so-called “god of manga.” We should not sacrifice life expectancy for good art. Urasawa Naoki, author of Tezuka-inspired Pluto, says as much in a conversation with Eguchi Hisashi, when he quotes Mizuki Shigeru, who outlived many of his contemporaries: “I sleep nine hours a day and look at me now—everyone else is dead!”

A fashionable woman with shoulder length black hair.
Takeuchi Naoko. courtesy of IMDb

Lost With the Pages

Takeuchi Naoko, the creator of Sailor Moon, recalls her burnout in the memoir comic Return to Society Punch. We know Takeuchi for the Sailor Moon franchise, which started with ten tankoubon volumes, but she also had previously worked on other titles such as The Cherry Project, which was about a figure skater navigating romance and her jumps. 

Takeuchi said she was working all the time and Sailor Moon’s success did not alleviate her stress: “I was doping every day to endure the tension. My stomach was upset, and my skin was wearing out.”  She also said that she was burned out after working on the last Sailor Moon chapter and had to work on her subsequent five-month vacation. Takeuchi outright called her schedule “impossible.”

During this time, Kodansha assigned her to work on PQ Angels, a new magical girl series about warriors that could turn into insects. After she ended part one, she drew more material to collect into a book. Kodansha then lost seven of those pages. No one could find those pages, and it was a time before comics were drawn digitally. 

Promotional splash page for the third chapter of PQ Angels showing a blonde haired girl dressed as an angelic pig surrounded by sweets and bugs
PQ Angels by Naoko Takeuchi

While Takeuchi adhered to the deadline the Kodansha editors imposed on her, they couldn’t responsibly handle the work they demanded. Takeuchi, feeling stressed and heartbroken, aborted the project. She quit drawing for Kodansha and took a year-long break from working on manga. After the break, Takeuchi then switched companies to Shueisha, where she worked on her Punch memoirs. 

Since then, Takeuchi has not finished any of her subsequent manga, and none of the incomplete ones have officially been translated into English. She has focused on expanding the Sailor Moon franchise with a live action series and anime reboot.  Since the 1990s, she has married and written a children’s book for her son.

As someone who enjoyed the parts of PQ Angels that I could find, Takeuchi’s bitterness strikes a nerve. If someone at Kodansha had actually listened to what she wanted—a proper break and for her work to be respected—she could have continued working on the story. She might have also finished her subsequent works, such as Love Witch and Toki*Meca.

While it certainly wasn’t Kodansha’s intention to hurt Takeuchi, they did. They created an expectation that she always had to work, even during breaks. If she wasn’t working, then what was she doing? As she recounts in Holiday Punch, a fan mentioned that they thought Takeuchi had died. She quickly clarified that she wasn’t dead, just taking a break.

Fandom’s expectations for constant creative output is even more noticeable with Takeuchi’s husband, Togashi Yoshihiro, whose popular series Hunter x Hunter has been on-and-off hiatus for years now. While the exact reason for each hiatus is not always specified, illness and back pain have both been cited in the past. Still, this doesn’t stop some entitled fans from accusing Togashi of laziness or even claiming he’s “faking” his health problems. These demands from manga fans are unrealistic and contribute to the unhealthy work culture.

Four women from CLAMP stand in a row at Anime Expo 2006
CLAMP members (from left to right) Igarashi Satsuki, Ohkawa Nanase, Nekoi Mick and Apapa Mokona at Anime Expo in 2006. Photo by John (Phoenix) Brown at http://phoenixanime.com/

CLAMP Health Costs

It’d be one thing if Takeuchi and Togashi were a manga artist anomaly. They’re still alive and with us. But we have numerous other cases affecting women and men alike.

To cite just one example, CLAMP is known for their versatility and prolificacy as an all-women team of artists who have collaborated to create works such as Chobits, XXXholic, Cardcaptor Sakura, Magic Knight Rayearth, and dozens more. As a team, you might think workload conditions are better for them, but this does not appear to be the case.

In 2012, members of CLAMP put Drug & Drop and Gate 7 on hiatus due to illness. One of the artists referenced having a lumbar compression fracture, a result of sitting and working at a desk for nineteen hours a day for weeks on end. CLAMP also posted a notice that, despite their busy work schedule, they don’t want to sacrifice anyone’s health for the sake of a deadline.

A splash page from Drug & Drop. Two men dressed in formal attire moodily lounge in a room with their shirts open and barefoot.

Clamp serves as a canary in the coal mine for other creators. If even a team of artists face issues of overwork in this industry, then individual creators face similar or even bigger threats.

 The CLAMP team knows the risks of working in the manga industry. Making art should not take a toll on a creator’s health. Rather than pushing manga artists to crank out pages and pressure them to keep writing and drawing, publishers should create a healthy work-life balance. 

Manga artists have recognized this problem, and are suggesting solutions.

Steps to Create A Better Life for Artists

Japan has a term for death from overwork: karoshi. Currently, people inside the industry are working to prevent burnout and health complications. This is what Japan is doing now; these are actions we can also support.

Manga artists currently have a union, the Japanese Cartoonist Association, founded in 1964 and incorporated twice. They negotiate on behalf of their members for fairer work conditions and for better health insurance. Currently, the industry in Japan is working to improve conditions, but it will take time.

The homepage for the Japanese Cartoonist Association

What can readers do? In theory, not a lot to change the conditions themselves unless we work at manga companies. But there are small ways we can support creators and their health. Raising awareness of mental health can help. Donating to organizations and unions will do the same. Unions exist to protect workers’ rights. Japan has one manga union and the number can only grow.

Artists in the meantime use social media to increase their online presence and promote their art. One benefit of the Internet is that we can glimpse into the artists’ work lives. Readers can share the art and view discussions about manga work in real-time.

A good portion of webcomics in Japan exist under publisher umbrellas, but alternatives are appearing. Pixiv has created Fanbox, the Japanese equivalent of Patreon, so that readers can directly pay artists. While crowd-sourcing payment systems have their own share of potential pitfalls, these efforts may lead to more freedom from the stressful workday and more manga creator independence. Fanbox may very well lead the way for manga creators to publish online or in smaller presses with better business practices, so that they don’t have to rely on massive publishing companies with potentially exploitative attitudes.

a graphic advertising Pixiv Fanbox: FANBOX is a community where fans can support their favorite creators through regular pledges

Fans and readers can also do their part by changing expectations and not pressuring creators for constant output. Common decency dictates that manga artists should live beyond their sixties. They shouldn’t get lumbar compressions from drawing. And readers shouldn’t turn on them or assume they died if they need to take a break for a few months.

While we cannot easily enter the industry to press for changes ourselves, we, as readers, should first recognize they deserve better. We should promote and support artists in their endeavors to create their works in a healthy working environment. Manga artists aren’t just creators; they’re human beings. It’s high time they were treated that way.

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