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High (Fantasy) School in Session

Sokora Refugees is one of the most popular webcomics out there, and Tokyopop's print version is one of the best-selling States-produced manga out there. The two creators of a strip that combines high school angst with high fantasy, Segamu and Melissa DeJesus, gave us a very interesting interview.

We know relatively little about you two. What can you tell us about yourselves? I know Melissa graduated from the School of Visual Arts, worked with Estrigious studios, and helped with the animation of a short film in Super Troopers. I'm sure there's lots more to know – and we know almost nothing about Segamu.

SEGAMU: Oh, I think I’ve gotten my fair share of press thanks to my "day job," but I won’t even get into that. Otherwise what’s the fun of having a dual identity in the first place??

MEL: I guess there's not much else. All I do is draw and almost all of my friends draw too, and most of us like video games. I have a cat who likes to sit on my artwork.

Beautiful art – who are your artistic influences?

MEL: Thank you. I've been getting influences from everywhere since I was little. From Bugs Bunny cartoons and Ren & Stimpy to Mad Magazine and video games. Even comics, movies, CG art and oil paintings have had some influence in art and my goals for art. There also have been so many artists throughout my life that has influenced me in some way. Currently, my faves are Tetsuya Nomura, Tatehiko Inoue, Yang Kyung-Il, Kim Hyung Tae, Alberto Ruiz, and Wendling (whose artbook I found recently) and dozens of other illustrators.

Who are your storytelling/writing influences?

SEGAMU: Hmm, do I sound all cool and brainy if I rattle off writers like Hugo and Tolstoy? Nah, probably just pretentious… I don’t know. I honestly think writers are influenced to some degree by everything they read, but for the purposes of Sokora I think I’m most inspired by Rumiko Takahashi. I do luv her so! But not in a disturbed, stalker kind of way. Okay, maybe a little…

This is an interesting mix of high school angst and high fantasy. How did you first come up with the idea of Sokora Refugees?

SEGAMU: I really wanted Sokora to be an homage to everything that hooked me on manga in the first place. The goal was to pay tribute to some of my favorite archetypes by taking readers on a warped romp through all of them. We do the high school angst, we do the high fantasy, we hit fan service, body transfiguration, "catgirls" – you name it. If you haven’t seen it yet, you probably will soon! All with a deeply felt affection for and admiration of the books that still bring a smile to my face (the teachers in Tezuka Academy are all named after some of my favorite manga-ka) and we hope more than a small helping of humor. Sokora’s like manga gumbo. Made by elves.

Who's your favorite character? (I'm usually not big on catgirls, but I must admit Salome is my favorite – or maybe it's her dress, or relative lack of same.) I imagine you each have your own favorites...

SEGAMU: Salome is hard not to love… For my part, though, I think Tien has to top out as my favorite. He absolutely demands to be written (pushy little punk!), and Mel’s renderings just bring out every snotty, self-absorbed, petulant aspect of him. I feel a father’s pride for the boy! *wipes a tear*

MEL: LOL, I'm not big on furries or catgirls either (though I draw them) but Salome is one of my favorites. Segamu gave such a strong personality to that type of character that I had so much fun designing her look and drawing that attitude of hers. But when it comes to number one favorites, I'd have to say it's also Tien. He's soo much fun to draw!

Another impressive thing about your comic is the web design itself. What's the most satisfying thing about doing this as a webcomic? What's the most frustrating?

SEGAMU: Well kudos on the web design have to go to Jane Irwin (Vogelein) and Paul Sizer (Little White Mouse and Moped Army). They helped us with the design and programming and really made our web presence possible, and we can’t thank them enough for that. For my part, I think the most satisfying thing about doing a webcomic is the direct rapport you build up with the fans. I feel like we’ve developed a whole community on the site. Most frustrating thing? Time! I never feel like I’ve got enough time to devote all my efforts to the site. I’m still trying to get all the fan art pieces up. We’ll get there, I swear!

MEL: It's a great way to get feedback from fans and just having fans is a great inspiration to work harder and better because I know there are people waiting for the next page. You want to keep them entertained while bettering your art or writing skills. The most frustrating, like Segamu said, is time. I want to make wallpaper, animated gifs and a whole bunch of stuff for the site that I just don't have time for. Sometimes I don't even get to respond to fans and I'd have to say that’s the worst.

How does your collaboration work? Is it the usual plotting, then script, then the artwork or do you use the Marvel method of plotting, artwork, and then scripting? Who has contributed what to the finished product? Did one person come up with all the characters, or did one of you come up with some of the characters, and the other the rest?

SEGAMU: I don’t know how conventionally we work, actually. With respect to plotting, that’s work I do in my head and it very rarely sees its way to paper. I hate writing plot summaries because as far as I’m concerned the story is in the characters and the details. Synopses always seem shoddy and lackluster to me; I’m much more focused on the finished product. I always hated showing my work in math class for the same reason.

Scripts tend to be pretty detailed with me breaking down each panel on the page. This is as much (if not more) for myself than Mel because I want to clearly visualize the page layout. When I’ve finished the complete manuscript, it becomes Mel’s baby. She’s free to improve upon my panel and layout suggestions as she sees fit.

SEGAMU: I created the characters and wrote up some brief descriptions of them for Mel. At that point, she did her magic and brought them all to life. That’s probably been one of my favorite parts of our collaboration. Mel catching me online and IMing me questions as she tried to nail down a vision of each character… Seeing her finished renderings was nothing short of amazing. I will say (somewhat sadistically) that it was the most fun when she was having trouble getting a character to her liking. In the end, I think those are some of her best designs.

MEL: Thanks Segamu. With brief descriptions (and I mean really brief) my designs were based on that and the characters personality and actions throughout the script. I'm happy to say I had a lot of freedom on how I wanted each character to look. It gave me an opportunity to design them based on the visual images I got after reading the characters in action and to give them all unique looks. Though some characters did prove to be impossible to design, I'm happy in the end that Segamu finds them to be the best.

How did you two meet – and get the idea to collaborate?

SEGAMU: I already had the concept for Sokora and had made an agreement with Tokyopop for publication. I really wanted to have a hand in selecting the illustrator for the project, though. I knew of Mel’s work from the Estrigious site, so I sent her an e-mail asking if she’d possibly be interested in working with me on the book. Happily, the rest is history!

MEL: Segamu did approach me about illustrating Sokora and not only was it a great opportunity to work with Tokyopop but a great opportunity to work with a story that hit so close to home. (I've had my own set of characters based in a fantasy setting with elves and a bunch of crazy characters with eccentric personalities.) Sokora was definitely something I wanted to work on. It felt really comfortable and made it so much fun.

How are your sales of the print version of Sokora Refugees on Tokyopop doing? (You don't have to quote actual numbers, but are you pleased or displeased?) Are you satisfied with Tokyopop's arrangements? Would you recommend them to other comics authors?

SEGAMU: I don’t think we could have hoped for more with sales on the first volume of Sokora. It’s been one of the bestselling gaijin manga titles in the market. I think ICv2 recently ranked us as one of the top 25 manga licenses in the states. We’re selling right up there with some of the properties that helped to inspire Sokora It would be hard not to be pleased. I’d have to say the same with our agreement with Tokyopop. This is our first book. An original graphic novel is a HUGE undertaking, and it really requires a lot of faith on the part of the publisher. I think you’d be hard pressed to find other publishers offering similar opportunities to emerging talent – particularly on this scale.

What are your future plans? Both for Sokora Refugeesand other projects?

SEGAMU: Boy, I’d sure love to see a Sokora anime one day – particularly with Mel directing! I love these characters. I couldn’t ask for a better partner. I can see staying in Sokora for a long time to come. Of course that isn’t to say I don’t have other concepts percolating even now…

MEL: Oooh! It would be amazing to see Sokora animated and yes I want to be a very big part of it. Sokora has been like a step child you raise and (since I have a BA in animation) I want to be right there to make sure it goes right. I feel comfortable working with Sokora for many future volumes and aside from Sokora I'd like to take a shot and make an original story myself. Overall in the future, I'd like to continue making comics and eventually work with animation or gaming.