We spoke with the comics legend about what makes Naruto special and more
VIZ Media recently revealed its original cover art for a new triple feature of Naruto movies, and it certainly sparked an immediate discussion. The artist behind the illustration is none other than comics legend Whilce Portacio, a Filipino-American artist and writer who has been a staple of the industry since his work on The Punisher. Portacio would go on to handle memorable runs on X-Factor and Uncanny X-Men — in which he debuted his and John Byrne's original creation Bishop — before co-founding Image and kicking off his series Wetworks in 1994 as part of Jim Lee's Wildstorm imprint.
Flash forward to 2020 and Portacio is dipping his toes into the world of Naruto, but just how long has that anime and manga influence been kicking around? We got a chance to talk with him about everything from the way this influence worked its way into American comics to his thoughts on Naruto as a character and, ultimately, the reaction to his Naruto cover illustration, so dive in below for some insight from one of the most interesting creators in the field.
Crunchyroll News: Have you been able to stay sane and busy during lockdown?
Whilce Portacio: Actually, you know, I don't know if you remember, but when the whole thing started there was this meme going around with some people that, you know, this is their life? That's basically a comic book artist's life. [Before all this] there were months where the only time I'd go outside would be to a convention. For me, seriously, though, the cool thing is having [my kids] stuck here with me and, you know, movie nights and long discussions and things like that.
I've lived here in the US for 52 years, and growing up as a kid in the ‘60s and as a teenager in the ‘70s, one of the things I kind of miss from what we now call the modern world, is there was really not that much in the way of distractions. It was, you know, you got home from school at three o'clock, you ate your snack, you watched the one hour of cartoons, and then you were all kicked out of the house with the other kids, and you had to do something together. You just hung out; there wasn't anything in particular to do, it was just, “Hey, look there's a mountain, let's go see what's at the top of it.” But in that just hanging out with no structure or anything, you actually kind of found out who you were, and who everyone else around you was.
Yeah, it was the same with me growing up; there was just a lot of 'We're doing nothing today.' Not in a bad way, just, like, let's see what happens.
Right, and you know for creative people, I would believe almost all creatives who are "commercially successful" in the market today, they had a lot of that time where they were basically the fly on the wall and could witness and see people. In order to do a story that relates to people, you gotta create characters and situations that people can understand. Especially in a superhero world. How many people do you know who were affected by gamma rays or something? But if you know enough about how people really react to certain situations, then you can really weave a little of that in there and make it believable.
We've got some WIP images straight from Whilce Portacio to show how the image came together.
You've had an amazing career in American comics, but what's your relationship with manga and anime?
You know what's really interesting, is that when I was in the X-Office [Marvel’s HQ for creating all the various X-Men books], we were kind of lauded as trying out these different techniques, like, I don't know if you're familiar with the term "Akira lines," and that's obviously directly from Akira, and I think some of the first times we were playing with expressing a borderline of a panel differently also came from manga and stuff.
A lot of people don't know this, but apparently, there was a big fan in the X-Office who would work half the year in Japan and half the year in America — and I'm talking about the '80s, okay — and he would then bring back VHS dupes of anime. As you know, manga and anime didn't really become anything socially conscious in the US in the ‘80s, but here we were in the X-Office because of this one person, so a lot of the X artists and writers were the first to be exposed to Macross, to Fist of the North Star; there was also Lensman, and Lupin the 3rd, Miyazaki's one (Castle of Cagliostro). And a little bit after being exposed to those videotapes, we were able to get copies of the Appleseed manga. So a lot of the experimentation that was happening at that point of time in Japan was directly being absorbed into American comics.
It's funny, I wonder how much of that bled into the early '90s, especially with the rebirth and explosion of Jim Lee's X-Men #1 with the gatefold cover and everything.
Oh yeah, all of that. The cyberware and stuff like that, that was directly Appleseed.
One of the big things we did in Wildstorm — this was in San Diego — there was this big department store called Mitsuwa. It was a Japanese store which had a Japanese bookstore to the side of it. Every Tuesday, all the boys would zoom off over to Mitsuwa to gobble up all the new art books, and it wasn't just restricted to Japanese artists. They had a bunch of the European stuff that would be hard to find. We encouraged that, because they would then get that stuff and get inspired, and absorb different things and experiment with that, so that was a very conscious thing we did in those early days.
You can see that experimentation a lot in those panel borders. I was obsessed with Image in the '90s; how everything exploded out of the panels. It was splash page city.
It's interesting, again, at the time we were only thinking about creative things in terms of being exposed to that stuff. Never, never, until later on — I'm talking up to four, five, six years later, when the convention circuit is huge and anime and manga is embedded in the social structure and stuff — it's interesting that we were being exposed and engaged by certain influences that you guys were going to react to later on. It was that perfect thing of everything converging without the different parts being culturally aware that it was happening.
Because it was going to be a commercial property image, which they might then do different things with, the whole image is done on multiple layers.
Can you tell me a little bit about your work on the Naruto cover for VIZ Media? Were you specifically approached for the project, or did you pitch something?
They got in contact with me, because there was going to be this DVD, and they wanted a cover done for it and wanted my take on it. I guess it was kind of like the thought of seeing two different aspects of the same styles. One thing you gotta understand about comics is the community is very, very tiny; at Image we were influenced by manga and anime, and then introduced to European artists like Moebius. Comics has always been kind of like a big tent thing; a lot of the cover artists were European painters. Alex Ross was a classically trained painter, and now you flash forward to the later years of styles that are very far from Image, which rely on the colorist and the linework is very sparse. Go back in time to the Moebiuses, the Wrightsons, the Bisleys. So, my point is comics has always involved interpretation.
Whenever I got onto a new book at Marvel, I was allowed to change the costumes, and the writer was allowed to explore different avenues. So at the end of Jim and I's run on X-Men, the editor had such confidence in us and the industry standards allowed for it that, you know, almost every other issue Jim and I came up with the storyline. And if you look at even individual characters that have lasted a long time, they've been reinterpreted and reinterpreted. And if you look at the Rolling Stones, they're still the Stones from day one to today, but they adjust to the new trends. They're open to the new trends, and that's how comics were.
So when VIZ approached me for that, that was the mind frame. My son is the real Naruto fan, and VIZ then sent me a couple of the art books, some of the manga, and three DVDs. Watching the three DVDs, I then totally fell in love with the character of Naruto. But interestingly enough from a comic book standpoint, from a hero standpoint, I then really wanted to interpret it in my way. As I'm learning now — I come from this weird thing where I was exposed to anime and manga in the '80s, but now it's become its own social phenomena — I know nothing of the current social thinking of manga and anime today. So I approached it from the point of view that I've approached every other character I've had, and my interpretation of it.
When I first was exposed to Naruto before I got this job, I got the impression that he was just this feisty little kid, and I imagined all the feisty little Japanese kids I grew up with in Hawaii. But then when watching the DVDs and really absorbing for the first time a lot of the stories, I realized why he works. When you talk about leaders; when you talk about Scott Summers from the original X-Men, or even when Storm came in, and any other leader out there, they all have this one commonality, and Naruto has it in spades. That stubbornness, when they notice something is wrong — when they notice something just doesn't feel right for them — Naruto has that stubbornness to just keep going at it and going at it until he finally gets it right. He can't stop doing that.
If you look back at my work in the X-Office, every time Scott, Jean, and Bobby moved to another book, I petitioned to go to that book, so I always followed the original team. I always had the original concept of Scott Summers — he's a born leader, he knows the right thing to do in a certain situation, he knows how to solve the problems … he just hates bossing people around. That's where he got his "wimp" moniker, but for me, it's always been that he was just too nice of a guy, but he was the perfect born leader. That's what Naruto is. I really love how there are other characters that are "prettier" than he is; there are other characters who are older or who seem more "ninja" and disciplined than he is, but Naruto's in the spotlight. Because he will not stop when something is wrong, when something is bad. And another brilliant thing I love about it is he has to be a kid. Well, he's not anymore, but to start that legend he has to be a kid.
If he were older in the beginning he probably would have given up a long time ago.
Right. As a kid you don't have that yet, and he's fortunate in that he's able to be in those kinds of situations where he can stubbornly have an effect.
The team over here (at VIZ) in San Francisco … it's one of the best commercial experiences I've had. When you deal with going across the pond — we have our pipeline, they have their pipeline — so the creatives are trying to work out the differences and coming up with a pipeline that works for everybody. I just can't be thankful enough for the VIZ crew, Alexander and all of them … they were instant communication. When I get a client that's like, "Oh the dot is usually a little further from the other two dots," or "The hair is this way or that way," I just love that. That tells me as a creative person there's a real world here, and to be invited as a guest or visitor to play, that was really great.
It was one of the smoothest jobs outside of comics I've ever had.
Each character is on a separate PhotoShop layer so they can move them all around if they need to.
I don't know if you've noticed, but the Naruto illustration has kind of taken on a life of its own since it was revealed. It's even been covered on some of the anime blogs in Japan. Have you been surprised to see it spread like it has, or have you even noticed?
Because of what the internet is today, you know, I try not to dive in too much. I dive in a little bit, because I need to be aware, but not too much. One thing you learn as a "professional creative," especially if you've been able to last a little while, is really to have thick skin. As an artist, you can only do what you can do, you can only follow your instincts, you can only do the best you can do. That's the biggest skill set that's non-creative that you have to learn. You're pouring yourself into this and you have to let it go and go out into the ether.
I've been applauded for the X-Men. I've also been "raked over the coals" from "X-Fans," and you know, Image … I don't know if you know, but there has been a huge backlash against Image. VIZ actually informed me like two days ago that there was, over here, a little bit of a backlash, and I checked that out a little bit. As a person, of course, that hurts me a little bit. As a creative, you can only put your best foot forward.
I recently saw an interview with the creator, Masashi Kishimoto. They were asking him about creating the character and developing the style, and he went on at length about creating proper human proportions, and proper action because he wanted this to be clear, and how this went against some of the norms at the time. It's interesting, then, some of the negative comments I've read over here of, you know, "he looks too realistic." Again, on the personal side, it hurts anybody. Especially on the creative side, you want to be appreciated. But I try to look at it on the macro of, maybe these are ultra fans of these things, and maybe they don't want things to go beyond … when really all that's happening here is I've been given the chance to tip my hat to what a great character and IP this is.
So, I try not to, but it's hard.
The internet very much favors instant reactions now, there's a lot of that.
You know, the remarks that really hurt — and you can understand it because it's one of society's main themes, the white-washing mantra thing — those are the ones that most personally hurt me. It was people saying I was helping whitewash Naruto. But I created Bishop. I was known in early comics circles for doing minority faces and stuff like that, and Naruto, truth be told, himself is not a traditional Asian-looking character. Here I was trying to, you know, do Naruto and make him look like he would actually fit, and really work, so I studied Eurasian faces and stuff like that. And I know a lot of Hapa people — I grew up in Hawaii, I think that's where the term originated — Hapa, you know, half Asian, half American or whatever. It's interesting because I'm trying to be true to this.
As an artist, you can only do what you know and follow your instincts, and to see those kinds of remarks, you know …
Are there any other manga or anime titles you'd like to put your own spin on if given the chance?
Yeah! Just given my past, from being exposed to Miyazaki taking the Lupin character and doing that with him to, of all things, Fist of the North Star. He had that line 'omae wa mou shindeiru.'
"You're already dead!" "You're already dead!"
(laughs) What I'm talking about is, the creatives back then being able to take such a character and make something understandable about them. In all creative fields, if you're successful in my opinion, you're able to do that.
Flashing forward to now, and my son being a big fan of Naruto — and I remember buying all these things at conventions for him — and VIZ exposing me to the movies and the manga and the art from the creator, and then finding out that this is a character that I would normally love; the kind of character I've been working on. I don't ever get into this usually, but I'm of the feeling that you take any manga or anime character and expose me to them, and I'll totally get into it.
I should totally understand that, because when anime and manga were getting popular, you know a lot of people always try to put distinctions between things. The distinction back then was that superhero comics were just about the action, whereas in anime and manga, even if they were doing a superhero-ish character, it was never about the power, it was always about the character. The only fear I have is that everything is such an epic now! I spend too much time already on the internet … I kinda don't wanna …
You don't want to start another big commitment.
I mean, you tell me, with Naruto, how many hours of viewing is that going to be, start to finish? (laughs).
You've got over 700 episodes to dig into!
To answer your original question, when I was a kid in Hawaii in the '70s — I became Japanese because all my friends were Japanese — they had this Japanese channel there … and in the early '70s, that's where I became a Kamen Rider fan.
I love Kamen Rider. Living in Hawaii, were you familiar with Kikaida at all?
Oh, that was my favorite!
I would love to see your take on Kamen Rider, and Fist of the North Star, too, I'd love to see that illustration.
Again, as much as I love American superheroes, it's kind of run the gamut of getting to the four walls of where it can go. I've been involved in so many of the IPs in that light. But manga and anime seem to go into other corners we don't really see. I remember when Neal Adams and Dennis O’Niel did Green Lantern/Green Arrow and did all that social commentary, that was a big, “Whoa, what are you guys doing?” But that's forever, from what I understand, been how it's handled in anime and manga.
That was one of the biggest appeals early on when we were exposed to Akira. All this stuff [they explored], but they handled it in that cool universe. I guess it's just part of me growing older; wanting to have that playground but have it handle some of those more substantial issues.
I think we're in the last hours of the #SuitsForHeroes campaign, which is a great cause. Is there anything else you'd like to get the word out about or an upcoming project you're excited for?
There is something I'd like to talk about, but … the pandemic has really destroyed schedules. You don't want to talk about something too early and have everyone forget. But I am actually working on something more personal, it's part and parcel to the campaign you mentioned. When I was two years old I came to the United States, and so 52 years later I've absorbed all this and I've done what I can here. The last 15 years I've been going back and forth to the Philippines and learning my language, one, and two, learning about my history, and three, more importantly, learning about my culture; learning about my people.
I have a lot of friends back there in the Philippines now, and whether they're rich people or whether they're professionals or whether they're poor people or poor relatives, it just amazes me that in a "poor country," everybody is putting their best foot forward in helping each other out. I have a lot of professional friends who, every time they have a meal, they make extra food for the security guard in their building, or for the poor kids the block over. All my chef friends are cooking meals for hospitals and frontliners every day. It's just really great seeing everybody care about each other, everybody being connected to each other. That's what then solidified in my brain what it means to be Filipino.
So right now I'm working on a project that will put down my thoughts on, you know, in my self-centered brain, on what the Philippines, what the Eastern world can teach the modern world about being connected to each other. But do that in a superhero/Kamen Rider type of world. Something that's easily understandable for all audiences, but then using that opportunity for when people come in that door because it's easy to get through, to show them that personal thing. I don't know exactly how we're going to come out and do it, because I'm trying to tackle it in my own way; my version of what the medium has to evolve into. The format itself.
A lot of people don't know, but in the very beginning of Image, we wanted to do something different. We were going to give everyone the superhero comics that made us popular in the X-Office, but we wanted to give them something different, too, something modern, something new; a shiny object. And that was PhotoShop. I was part of that small team that figured out how to use PhotoShop. And so a part of this project and the way it's going to be produced and the way it eventually, maybe next year, finally gets put out there, is going to kind of be my dissertation on what the visual language of what a comic medium should be.
There are definitely some people who could use a lesson on togetherness.
Putting it into the context of the pandemic — a world event, that all countries are going through — is that if you're in a society where you don't have many connections with other people. Where you, for decades, have only said, "Okay, I'm going to pick my friends because I can relate to them and they can relate to me," and even extend that to family members. Well, if you have a small ecosystem of friends, when a major thing happens, odds are that small ecosystem of friends might not be connected to anything that's happening to them. In today's parlance, you might not know any nurses or doctors or people in politics.
If you don't have those little windows because your world is so small, you get scared, right? Because you don't know and you have nobody to reassure you. But if you live in a society where you're all about extended family, where, growing up, your dad's best friend isn't part of the family but you call him uncle … or there's a conscious effort to keep your friends from grade school, high school, your first job, your third job, and stay connected with them. If your world now is so huge with all those connections, when a pandemic happens, you might know a nurse, or you might know somebody who knows a nurse, or whose dad is a nurse, or a doctor, or a scientist, or a politician. So you can be exposed to that information.
So, you're still going to be scared, but you're going to be less scared, because you're getting information.
Let's say someone was looking at your Naruto piece, and it inspires them seeing something in this different style. Is there a message you have for any aspiring artists out there?
If you look at any creative thing that's successful — movies, songs, stories, comics, manga, anime — the ones that are successful are the ones that are relatable. That's the reason why, you know, you have a story of a farm kid who's told that his dad and mom were killed, and he never met them. And then he goes out into the world, and he meets his dad — he finds out he's actually alive — and it turns out his dad is the most evil person in the whole universe. The reason why that's so impactful, it's because that's a real story that real people have gone through. No, their dad wasn't Darth Vader, but they found out that their dad wasn't a very good guy.
All of that comes from understanding what real people are really like; understanding what you're really like. That's why all creatives are always pushed to follow their instincts. What that really means is follow what you know. If you grew up as an orphan and abused by society, those are the stories you're going to do because those are the stories you understand. So, other people who understand that are going to instantly relate to that.
What I really mean is, as an artist, as anything in any medium, doing anything, you have to follow your instincts. You have to be pure to who you are. Especially when people like me get the opportunity to "give my take on things," it's my experience. It's true to me, it's true to how I really feel about things. And as I've discussed with you how I really feel in this specific case about Naruto; how I admire the character so much from different points of view. I can only do what I can do. So, that's what everybody has to do.
Another case in point is Adventure Time. There's no way in the world that if those guys came to me and pitched Adventure Time, that me, this 50-something, would understand that story, and I probably would have rejected it, right? I would have been wrong! Because they were being true to what they know, what they feel, and there was a whole audience out there that understood that. The world needs to stay in that space of allowing creatives to do what their instincts tell them to do. It's going to take young artists just following their instincts, just putting their point of view on everything.
Especially in this day and age, where everything can get exposure, whether there's only 100 people who understand what you're talking about, or understand the look of your character … that's enough. Art is created to put your feelings out there and connect, and for an artist, that's the best thing. Even if it's only like two people, to connect with those two people and find that you're not the only one, you know?
© 2002 MASASHI KISHIMOTO. All Rights Reserved