“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
There may be a parallel world out there where Kira Okamoto is a name known only in the circles of professional language translators. In this world, however, they’re a comic artist who followed their heart’s calling and now are currently making a mark with striking, vibrant covers for a variety of publishers.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist
Your home base: Seattle, WA
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: As an artist, what attracts you to making comics specifically that’s different from other artforms?
Kira Okamoto: To be honest, this isn’t something I’ve ever sat back and reflected on! Drawing comics has just been something I’ve always done. I think what attracts me to making comics these days is that I love to tell stories visually, and comics is the medium where I get to do that with it being my vision from start to finish, for better or worse!
KS: Roughly when and how did comics first come into your life as a reader?
KO: I think my first experience with comics was newspaper strips. I always read the Sunday comics as a kid, the colored pages spread out all over the floor as I worked my way through all of them—although I only skim-read Prince Valiant as a seven-year-old. The first comic books I ever owned were the large collections of Calvin & Hobbes. Meanwhile, my older sister was into superhero comics because our mother had been into superhero comics when she was a teenager in the ’60s and ’70s. Stacks of X-Men issues pepper the landscape of my memory; even though at the time I didn’t touch them, they were always around.
KS: Were there different books you tracked down on your own?
KO: The comics I engaged with and sought out as I grew up were mostly manga, as I came of age just as the U.S. manga boom took off. I would circle back to Western comics as a teenager, finally going through my sister’s single issues of stuff like Marvel Knights Spider-Man, while she also introduced me to a bunch of titles from Image and Dark Horse.
KS: Where were you living during this time?
KO: I grew up in Hawaiʻi. My family moved around the islands a bit while I was young, from Oʻahu to Molokaʻi back to Oʻahu, and then finally settling on the Big Island, where, at the time, there was one comics “shop” that was pretty much just a guy who wanted to order stuff off of Previews for himself and would do your pull list, too—if you could become friends with him.
KS: Was there one special comic story that stands out as really having an impact on you as a reader?
KO: Yup! Paradise Kiss by Ai Yazawa changed the trajectory of my life forever.
KS: Do you remember when you discovered it?
KO: In seventh grade, my older sister’s girlfriend at the time would hang out at our house after school. One day, she lent me her copy of Paradise Kiss :Volume 1, saying she thought I might like it. And I did. It’s a shoujo manga with counterculture values, a romance that follows characters that are trying to find themselves or be true to themselves even in the face of familial and societal rejection. It spoke so much to middle school me. It put into words all of my feelings about not fitting in, about being unsure about and wanting to rebel against the academic trajectory I was put on by my parents and my culture’s norms, and it introduced me to both punk and queer culture all at once. Because of that, I began to seek out more stories in punk and queer spaces, and that ultimately shaped who I became.
KS: When did you get the idea of pursuing art as career? Was there some moment of inspiration or was it something long simmering?
KO: It was pretty long simmering, right up until high school when I suddenly found myself outpaced by other artists my age or younger. Like many other artists my age with internet access, I had made the switch to digital art and began posting that art in online spaces like DeviantArt. This was so incredible, because I found both community and broadened my artistic horizons. It was also rough, because I suddenly had hundreds of incredible artists to compare myself to, and more and more I found my own skills lacking.
KS: Do you recall anything specific you noticed those other people were better at than you? For example, as a young artist I put so much work into drawing a character’s head that I’d end up with these large, detailed heads on way-too-small bodies because I’d used up too much space.
KO: Oh yeah, same! I had no sense of anatomy, and that was a big difference between me and a lot of the online artists I was comparing myself to. I had a very vague understanding of how things should look, but no foundational understanding of why things looked that way. A friend at the time, who was a few years older than me and on her way to studying illustration at Parsons in New York, bought and mailed me an anatomy book because she could see I was struggling. But I couldn’t understand what the book was trying to tell me. It really wasn’t until these past few years that I’ve really started to go back and build that foundational understanding that I was missing for most of my artistic life.
KS: Is there a first “serious” art project that comes to mind for you? Something that felt like a big deal to complete at the time, whatever age that was.
KO: Oh boy. From ages seven through probably 11, I had a several thousand-page comic I worked on, based on stories my older sister and I came up with for our stuffed animals. They were humans in the comic, though, because I couldn’t draw animals! And honestly, I couldn’t really draw humans, either, but… This sounds kind of impressive until you realize I did two panels a page, one panel per front and back. It was on the cheapest 8.5 x 11” printer paper I could buy. It felt like my life’s work at the time, and now it sits in my childhood closet. I have yet to work up the courage to look at it.
KS: Was the readership of the series limited to your household?
KO: My sister was my sole target audience. I would show her “chapters” as I finished them. I think I was resistant to showing my parents. I feared they wouldn’t “get” it. Dragon Ball-Z-esque fight scenes were at the heart of our comic, but I don’t think my parents were that big on cartoon violence.
KS: Aside from posting on DeviantArt, talk about the next steps you took to make your dream a reality.
KO: When it was finally time to go to university, I couldn’t justify the cost of art college tuition versus my meager skills. I had to drop out of high school, which really disappointed my Asian-American parents, and I wanted to make it up to them in college, so I went a much safer route at an in-state university with a sensible degree they could be proud of. It wasn’t until I had finished my baccalaureate with 4.0 GPA, summa cum laude recognition, and having done one of the most prestigious scholarships the Japanese government could offer, that I realized I was burnt out and miserable because I wasn’t living my life for myself—I was back on the trajectory Paradise Kiss had freed me from all those years ago! So, I had a sit-down with my folks and told them I was going to give art a try. They eventually understood, and here I am now.
KS: Do you think your mom being a former comics fan gave her more appreciation for what you’d set your heart on pursuing?
KO: You know, probably. I think she still wishes I went for something a little more traditional, but I think her history with comics definitely [helped] sell her on my career choices.
KS: And if art didn’t come together for you, you had that other career path already laid out.
KO: I got my B.A. in Japanese Language and Literature, basically finishing the degree my mother started but gave up. I became interested in Japanese-English translation because of manga, and so that sort of narrative translation was my focus at university. One of the only reasons I’m able to pursue art now is that I do have that fallback career. I can always go back and try to do JPN-ENG translation if art doesn’t pan out.
KS: Do you remember the first time you ever got paid for a piece of your artwork, either early on or after you’d had some exposure?
KO: In fifth grade, we had a classroom craft fair, and I made hand-drawn bookmarks of Future Trunks from Dragon Ball Z. I sold out of them.
KS: How did working in comics come about for you?
KO: My first big break came when comics writer Mark O. Stack responded to a tweet from Frankee White when Frankee was putting out a call for a variant cover artist. Frankee was looking for a new cover for 20 Fists, which, from the title, you can bet has a ton of great fights in it; Mark suggested me since I was coming off the back of doing “Bats in the Ring” (DC fanart of batboys as pro-wrestlers).
KS: Do you know what led to Mark suggesting you in the first place?
KO: That is a very good question. Unfortunately, I actually can’t remember the specifics. I just remember we were Twitter mutuals and I enjoyed seeing him on the timeline, and at the time, I believe he was crowdfunding All This Too Shall Pass, which included his graphic novella, The Scent of May Rain, which I was really excited about in particular. I feel like that’s how so many of my comics industry friendships start. I don’t remember how or when I start following you, but through the grapevine of retweets and the algorithm, I do keep up with what you’re up to and am hyped for it, whether we’ve directly interacted yet or not!
Frankee took the chance on me, and I got to do the variant cover for 20 Fists #1 for his Kickstarter, which was then picked up by Source Point Press when SPP re-released it! I’d been trying for a while to get into the variant cover game, and starting out in the indies with Frankee eventually snowballed into getting on the radar of editors at IDW and Skybound, which got me my first direct market cover gigs, as well!
KS: As a cover artist, what’s something you appreciate about other people’s covers? If you’re looking at a rack of comics, what elements tend to catch your eye?
KO: These days, I really love covers that manage to convey a ton of narrative in a single illustration. Mattia De lulis draws some of my favorite covers like this, but it was seeing Yasmine Putri’s variant for Thor #14 a few years back that made me go, “Oh, dang. That’s what I want to do. I want to make variants like this.”
That said, I also love covers that just look rad as hell and go big on visual impact and style. Dustin Nguyen’s Batman Beyond covers from 2010 to 2014-ish were what inspired me to start drawing again after my near decade-long hiatus! In a very wild turn of events, Dustin and I became pals and he shared with me the Photoshop brushes he used to make those covers. I spent a while unsuccessfully messing around with them, and it just goes to show, you can give two artists the same tools and not get the same results. My stuff looked like poop without Dustin’s sensibilities and skill!
KS: When you look back at your earliest artwork now, what’s something that stands out as different from the artist you are today? This doesn’t have to be something worse, just different.
KO: My art, from childhood all the way up to high school, was very, very anime influenced. But this was also at the time where the more traditional institutions of art absolutely despised anime. To be taken seriously as an artist back then, I realized I had to tone down the anime influence… so I did! A lot. Sometimes, I wonder what my art would be like if I were instead coming of age today, where those sorts of anime styles are more widely embraced. If I hadn’t had the anime stomped out of me, I bet my art would look much different today.
KS: You’ve done various works involving pro wrestling. Is that coincidental, or are you a wrestling fan?
KO: I am definitely a wrestling fan! I’m a newer wrestling fan, but yeah, I love it. Just like all those X-Men issues that were in the backdrop of my childhood, so too were wrestling action figures—another thing my older sister loved that I didn’t get into until way later. When I was studying abroad in Kansai, Japan, during my undergraduate, my sister came to visit me and I treated her to tickets to one of her favorite wrestling promotions that was touring the area. We went to see a Dragon Gate show in Osaka, and that was finally when my eyes opened to the wonder that is pro wrestling. I was like, “Okay, this rules, actually.”
I’ve had the incredible privilege to do work for pro-wrestlers like Rey Fénix, and have gotten to work on a comic about pro wrestling. The intersection in the Venn diagram of comics fans and wrestling fans is massive, and it’s really fun to hang out in that space!
KS: Since I’ve only talked wrestling with two prior guests—Jim Rugg and Daniel Warren Johnson—I have to take the opportunity to ask about your favorite wrestlers, either for their in-ring work, promos, or a combination.
KO: I’m still a big fan of Shingo Takagi, who headlined that show we saw in Osaka. In fact, I just bought a ridiculous t-shirt that says, “Shingo is My Daddy,” and I’m gonna have to see if I’m courageous enough to wear it out and about. I’m also a big fan of luchadores, and still love both Fénix and his older brother, Pentagon Jr/Penta El Zero Miedo. Some of my newer favorites are El Hijo del Vikingo, who is another luchador who does absolutely wild stuff. And I will forever be a fan of my home state hero, Jeff Cobb!
KS: These days, do you have a set daily or nightly work routine, or does it change significantly based on what’s on your plate?
KO: I have a pretty set routine! I try to keep it routine to maintain some semblance of a separation of “work” and “life” since I work from home and only have one computer station for both work and leisure. I start my work day at 10 a.m. and end it around 5 p.m., and I really try to only work on weekdays. I put my work hours in my email signature so folks know when to expect a reply from me, which helps me feel less bad about not answering emails when they come in at night or on the weekends!
KS: How about listening to music, or any other background noise, while you work?
KO: I have to listen to music while I work. I wish I could listen to podcasts or audiobooks, but I find those a bit too distracting for my brain which already struggles with directing my attention where I want it to.
KS: Tell us what we might hear on the Kira playlist.
KO: Oooh, right now I’ve been listening to a lot of Polyphia and returning to my 2000s roots with old favorites like Ted Leo and the Pharmacists!
KS: What’s a hobby of yours totally unrelated to art? Something you study, practice, collect…
KO: Bicycling! I’ve always loved riding bikes, and we finally invested in some. I just putter around the city, mostly, but there’s a ton of beautiful bike trails up here in Seattle, so my partner and I like to do those on the weekends when we can. I’ve recently been reading blogs about bikepacking, though, and am now audacious enough to dream about trying it myself… once I find a good long-term cat sitter, and also maybe am 10,000 times better at bicycling, I’ll think about it seriously!
KS: As we wrap up, give us a comic or graphic novel from any era that you’d hold up as an example of the medium at its best.
KO: The Calvin & Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book that has all of Bill Watterson’s commentary. As a kid, reading about him fighting against his editors to break away from the traditional Sunday strip layout with the top two throwaway panels so he could do those beautiful, boundary-pushing pieces was so inspiring.
KS: Finally, let readers know what you have out now and what we should be on the lookout for in 2023.
KO: I’ve got two comics out that you can buy right now! Rubber Match is a 64-page queer pro-wrestling romance from myself, writer Elizabeth Brei, letterer and designer Danny Djeljosevic, with wrestling consultation from Razerwyng. There’s also a fun, six-page gorefest from myself and the aforementioned Mark O. Stack along with Jodie Troutman, dEMOn BOY!
As for what’s coming, I’m finally doing it—I’m jumping headfirst into creating my own graphic novel where I’m both writer and artist. It’s going to be a sad, queer romance and adult coming-of-age story taking place against the backdrop of 2000s emo and post-punk revival music. It’s gonna be a bummer!