Sean Michael Wilson is a comics rennaissance man. He’s the editor of the Top Shelf’s AX Alternative Manga anthology, unveiled at the recent San Diego Comic-Con International, and has two manga adaptations in the works. His original graphic novel, The Story of Lee is forthcoming from NBM in February of 2011 and his adaptations for Classical Comics (which include Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost, Dickens’s Christmas Carol, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and Sweeney Todd) come out beginning this month. PW Comics Week put a few questions to Wilson, about gekiga, his new projects with Kodansha, and the presumptions we have of the older manga reader.

PW Comics Week: How was Comic-Con?

Sean Michael Wilson: My first time in San Diego—at Comic-Con. I’m glad I went—the AX book was very well received (sold over 200 copies at the Top Shelf booth.) Volume two [of AX] is in the works. We’ve got the cover art but none of the contents so far. It took us so long to do volume one, I’m just enjoying it being out now. We’re working on Masahiko Matsumoto’s Cigarette Girl (Top Shelf). We announced this at Comic-Con. It’ll probably be ready in time for next year’s San Diego Comicon.

PWCW: Why gekiga?

SMW: The three main original gekiga creators are Yoshihiro Tatsumi who we know, Masahiko Matsumoto, and Yoshiharu Tsuge. Tatsumi is being covered by D&Q [which published his acclaimed memoir A Drifting Life). It’s fantastic that they’re covering his books so well.

The other two are Matsumoto and Tsuge. Tsuge is refusing translation. We tried and Asakawa [editor of Garo and AX in Japan] has tried over several years. Hopefully he will agree somewhere in the future. His contribution is important to the maturation of manga in general. The other is Matsumoto. He died a few years ago, unfortunately. Asakawa has some interviews from before his death and Matsumoto’s son has allowed translation of his father’s work. We decided to go with Top Shelf again because we were impressed with their quality. Matsumotu is important to gekiga style and the mature focus and subject matter in manga from the 1950’s onward.

Tatsumi himself has indicated that he learned a lot from Matsumoto [in A Drifting Life]. This will be something better known as the book comes out. He was an instigator of the style and an influencer of Tatsumi. Cigarette Girl will help develop a better understanding of gekiga manga [in the West].

Cigarette Girl was published in 1974—around the same time as Tatsumi’s books - and in general, it’s roughly similar to the kind of thing Tatsumi was doing; big city alienation, individuals feeling lost, their relationships strained. Matsumoto does this kind of thing as well, but with a lightness of touch makes it different from Tatsumi.

His line work in drawings, his subject matter and pacing—there’s a lightness that’s not there in Tatsumi’s work. It’ll be something for people to compare similar stories, and it’ll give people a different sense of what gekiga is and what manga is.

Matsumoto also has a biography in manga—Gekiga Freaks—that was written in 1979, before Tatsumi’s which was written over 10 years. We’d like to bring that out too, but not sure who the publisher will be. It’s in the works—probably for 2012 although late 2011 is also a possibility.

PWCW: Tell me about your forthcoming project with Kodansha?

SMW: I’m working with Kodansha’s international department on two books. They’re starting a mature manga line and I’m the main writer. I’ve got four books slated overall. Hagakure is an idea I came up with the editors there. It’s a manga adaptation of In the Shadow of Leaves, one of the fundamental books of Japanese culture and philosophy. It was written in the early 18th century by Yamamoto Tsunetomo and published in 1716. It’s his guide to how samurai should behave, told in anecdotes. My task was to take that book and see how we could visualize it.

The second book is an adaptation of Yakuza Moon. It’s the true story of a yakuza daughter and an emotional one about the difficulties that this young woman, Choko Endo encounters in this lifestyle that she get’s caught up in. There’s sexual abuse, very heavy drug use, violence. Some very serious things happen and its an emotional take on the consequences and how she copes and manages to come out of it. All these manga adaptations will first be released in Japan, then in the U.S., Britain, Canada, etc. They’ll all be in English.

PWCW: What is the power in a graphic novel adaptation of a prose novel? Does it really reach a wider audience? Or does it dilute the audience for the novel?

SMW: I wouldn’t say a wider audience. Yakuza Moon sold very well. The original version sold over 100,00 copies. I think the idea is to reach a different audience in a different format. The purpose—the artistic purpose—is to create something new. And the whole idea of creating something new is that this version is new in and better in itself.

PWCW: Is there an audience for mature manga? So many young readers simply consume the stuff online—and for free. Do they really grow up to read manga when they’re older?

SMW: AX was well received—a lot of reviews and interviews. It’s the kind of manga that the audience will enjoy. There’s excitement for something interesting and exciting. There’s a presumption of what people will do as they mature; a presumption that they will move to things of deeper sophistication. But it may be an accurate presumption. About the scanlations—that’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, it promotes a wider awareness and understanding of manga, but on the other hand, scanlation people don’t do a good job [of translation]. Creators themselves are annoyed or upset.