Crossover Success: Gurihiru, the Japanese Art Team Behind Your Favorite Marvel Heroes

gurChifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano, the art team known as Gurihiru, work on some of the best known properties in the U.S. comics market. Currently, they are illustrating the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels (including Avatar: The Last Airbender: Smoke and Shadow, Part Two, which came out last month), the Disney Princess chapter books featuring Merida, and the new Gwenpool series from Marvel, which will launch in April. Their previous work for Marvel includes Power Pack, Thor and the Warriors Four, and Skottie Young’s cute take on the Avengers vs. X-Men comics, A-Babies vs. X-Babies. And they do it all from their studio in Japan, communicating with their publishers via e-mail.

Both women were art-school graduates working at routine day jobs—Kawano was a package designer and web designer, Sasaki was a receptionist for an art museum—when they decided to enter their comics art into a manga competition in Japan. They didn’t win, but the editor suggested they pitch their work to American comics publishers. They sent a portfolio to Marvel, which gave them their first assignment. Since then they have built a career illustrating American comics and graphic novels.

Sasaki and Kawano were in Toronto for the most recent Toronto Comic Arts Festival, and we had the opportunity to sit down and talk to them about their long-distance career.

Tell me about how you work. Do you draw digitally or with pen and ink? How about the coloring?

Kawano: We both work digitally.

Sasaki: From the rough layouts to pencil and ink, it is all digital. And the coloring of course.

Do you brainstorm ideas together, or does one of you suggest it and then you work on it together?

Kawano: It kind of depends on what work we do. Sometimes we have Sasaki draw first, and after what I see I make suggestions. Or sometimes we both come up with ideas and then we start drawing. It depends on what we are working on.

Did you read comics when you were young? Did you read American comics?

Kawano: We weren’t familiar with comics when we were kids. We are from Hokkaido, and around where we lived, we hardly had any American comic books.

Sasaki: How we first got to see American comic books was once they had this big Spawn [from Image comics] that was translated into Japanese. We were able to see the translated version in normal Japanese bookstores. That had a big impact on us, and we thought it was cool.

Wow! That seems like the opposite of the sort of work you do now. [Everyone laughs]

Translator: They hear that a lot.

Kawano: Before that, all the American comics we knew were from cartoons and TV shows, so we only knew X-Men from TV.

Sasaki: But for the art style, the one that gave us a lot of influence was Disney animation.

So you watched Disney films when you were little?

Sasaki: We didn’t like Disney animation when we were kids. It was after we grew up we started watching Disney films.

This sounds like something out of a movie: you were working at ordinary, everyday jobs and you sent your portfolio to Marvel and now you are comics artists? Is that how it happened?

Kawano: We used to go to art school. We did keep drawing but not professionally. It was just like a hobby.

Why did you decide to send a portfolio to Marvel?

Sasaki: We actually sent our artwork to a Japanese publisher first because they had an art contest. We got the second prize, but we met the editor and he said our art style wouldn’t fit the Japanese market. So we decided, “Why not try the American style?” So it was kind of like a challenge. We thought our art style was a better fit to the western market than to the Japanese market, so we wanted to try it out and see if it fit.

Sasaki: We got a phone call right away. It was C.B. Cebulski. He said “Would you like to give it a try? Is there any character from Marvel that you like?” We chose The Fantastic Four, and we got a gig. C.B. gave us a short script for an eight-page story in an anthology.

Was this the first time you drew a comic?

Sasaki: Yes.

Kawano: The first time ever.

Did you watch Avatar the Last Airbender before you started working on that comic?

Kawano: Our first Avatar comic was for Nickelodeon Magazine, a six-pager. Back then we had never watched the show. We had the chance to watch the pilot at San Diego Comic-Con, so we knew a little bit about it, but when we actually worked on the comic, all we had was the script and a little bit of reference for the character designs.

With something like that, the world and the character designs have been set in advance. What sort of guidance do you get as to how to draw them?

Sasaki: Actually, after the short story we got an official offer from Dark Horse to do the graphic novels. After that we started watching the show. We watched all the episodes, and we bought the artbooks, and we also had Nickelodeon send some references.

Kawano: And we also keep checking the fan webpages too, especially after we draw it, because some of the fans say “This is wrong.” Whenever we have a library edition we tweak it a little so it can be more true to the show.

You have a very good attitude! Some artists hate that!

Kawano: We don’t understand the English, but if they can kindly tell us where we are wrong, we are all ears and we will listen to it and make the changes.

Do you have a favorite character to draw? Are there any characters that are particularly difficult?

Sasaki: The mechs are our least favorite. We like everything other than that. We really like drawing all the Avatar characters. The story right now is about Zuko, and I am really having fun drawing him.

Why do you prefer to work together as a team?

Kawano: We kind of work individually sometimes, I do the colors, she does character designs, but at the end we give both our opinions about what we do, and we never actually thought about working alone. We are kind of natural as a team, and we can say whatever we want to each other. It’s working well.

Your art is very cheerful and happy. Why is that? Why do you do happy art as opposed to something dark, like Spawn? [Laughter]

Kawano: I like happy styles of art. I like drawing something that makes people just a little bit happy, a little bit like the comic strips in newspapers. Adding a little bit of an unnatural thing in everyday life is one of the concepts that I have, making something a little bit happy.

Sasaki: I am trying to make the art style for all ages. Everybody can relate to it. Everyone can see it, that is my ultimate goal of my art style.

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