On Free-Range Comics With A Side Of Adventure – Ken Niimura Discusses Umami From Panel Syndicate

by Hannah Means Shannon

This week, the film I Kill Giants lands in theaters, based on the comic by Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura. On Thursday, March 22nd Niimura also releases the fifth issue of his cooking-themed adventure comic Umami on the pay-what-you-want digital platform Panel Syndicate, which is also home to Brian K. Vaughn, Marcos Martin, and Mutsa Vicente’s The Private Eye, Vaughn and Martin’s Barrier, and more. On Panel Syndicate, comics are presented to readers as a DRM-free digital download which can be downloaded for free, or for a donation amount of the reader’s own choosing.

The previous installments of Niimura’s Umami have ranged from 29 to 46 pages, are influenced by manga tradition, and represent Niimura’s first long-form solo venture. In the series, we meet Uma and Ami, who are radically different young women, one on a folktale-like quest to help out her rural hometown and one a chef-in-training heading for their nation’s capitol.
But strange circumstances drive them together and highlight their opposed cooking philosophies–Uma thinks any cooking that is fun is good cooking, whereas Ami is all about procedure and specified outcome. But in a world where all kinds of manic adventures can crop up, there’s plenty to recommend both their strategies for cooking, and for survival.
Ken Niimura joins us on Comicon.com today to talk about working on Umami, his art strategies, and his choice to deliver his comic to fans via Panel Syndicate.

Hannah Means-Shannon: When you look at the tradition of cooking-themed manga, what are some of the features that stand out to you the most, and which do you think show up as essential in Umami?
Ken Niimura: They’re usually based around the idea of eating (the flavor, what food makes you feel…) or the cooking side, leaning on a cooking manual side of things.
Although I enjoy both approaches as a reader, Umami is actually a way to question them and talk about broader subjects using cooking. Should you follow the recipe as it’s written, or should you invent our own? Why should cooking be only restricted to nourishing? And most of all, why can’t we play with our food?
In many ways, Umami is the anti-cooking comic, tastefully done.

HMS: Can you tell us a little bit about what sort of processes you usually go through in visually designing characters, and what that experience was like designing the appearance and body language/movement of Uma and Ami?
KN: It’s always a very long process, because there isn’t one. 
For I Kill Giants, I spent almost a year until I was able to get right the main cast (especially Barbara), and in the case of Umami, since I was also working on the script, it’s been almost 3 years!
It’s probably a process that most resembles sculpting: you add a bit of clay, you turn it around, see the overall balance, compare it to the other characters, see how it fits in the environment, correct and repeat again and again until it feels right.
Uma and Ami are complete opposites: The intuitive, imaginative and wild Uma, the rational, strict and righteous Ami, so it was a matter of playing with curves and softer shapes for Uma, more straight lines and fuller shapes for Ami, but in a way that feels natural when you put them together. And I also worked hard not to make them too “main character”-like.
This might sound like a paradox, but since Umami is, in a way, a story of two outcasts finding their place in the world, I wanted them both to just be themselves, without resorting to designs that’d scream, “We’re the main characters”.

HMS: I notice that in Umami, the dynamism and movement of the characters is about equal to the emphasis on landscape and setting, whereas in a lot of visual storytelling, especially concerning journeys, the landscape is a little stronger in emphasis than the characters, if that makes sense. When you’re laying out a particular page or panels on a page, how do you decide where you want the visual focus to be and how do you guide the reader to those points usually?
KN: Umami is first and foremost the story of these two girls’ friendship, their disagreements, how they get to understand each other, and all they achieve thanks to their collaboration. It’s an inner journey that we’re seeing through a physical one, but because people are what they are also because of their environment, I wanted the backgrounds and overall atmosphere to have a distinct flavor that you don’t normally see in high-fantasy works.
As for the page layout, its composition and design are crucial to create the right reading experience – what you put on each panel should only be what’s necessary to make the reader imagine in their heads the story as the artist envisions it. In this sense, Umami is a very minimalist comic, because I don’t want readers to get stuck in one panel, but I want them to keep reading.
In this sense, it’s similar to music – comics is what happens while you’re moving onto the next panel, never the current one.

HMS: The spirit of Umami, from what I’ve read so far, seems to be really encapsulated by the idea that if something is “fun, anything is possible”. The story feels like that too, in terms of the twists and turns the plot might take. Is that also what keeps you drawing?
KN: I once heard a dancer say that being a professional is standing on the stage every night, and regardless whether you’ve had a good or bad day, offering the best possible show while finding small moments of fun that are just to yourself.
I do comics because I want to share ideas, asking the reader “In this circumstance, I’d feel this way — how about you?” However, putting these ideas on paper is not always what I’d call fun.
This might sound counter-intuitive seeing how light and fun Umami is, but you should see my original pages, they’re a mess of blue lines that I’ve drawn over and over…but then I ink over them, and it feels like dancing on the paper!
So yes, it has to be fun, but you have to work hard to make it fun!

HMS: I believe you’ve worked on comic covers, some short form comics, as well as the long-form I Kill Giants and the now, the getting-to-be quite long story, Umami. What draws you to the long form? Do you find yourself free to do things differently when dealing with a single cover image or with a short story?
KN: I love doing covers because they’re like a one-bite treat – you get to make a powerful and meaningful image without the worries of continuity, logic or anything that makes comics so satisfying but tiring to make, so I’m always grateful whenever I get to work on a cover or illustration.
Long form comics are totally another beast. They’re necessary to tell nuanced stories, but there’s so much more to build!

HMS: Can you tell us a little bit about your choice to use Panel Syndicate to host Umami and what that experience has been like? I know many creators are faced with choices about how to bring creator-owned work to readers, with an increasing number of options, and for readers, they are also exploring new ways of accessing stories, so anything you can share would be helpful.
KN: First of all, who wouldn’t like to publish along with Marcos and Brian’s The Private Eye or David Lopez’s Black Hand Iron Head or Montey’s Universe!?
And then there’s the fact, as it’s always the case, that when it comes to platforms run by creators, they always understand the creators needs. The deal is simple: we get to do what we want in whatever form we want. And this goes to the extent that although Umami is different from what they’ve been putting out so far (colored horizontal comics), they were really excited to put it out.
I also like the very honest and simple system: download the comic as a PDF, which you can later use in any way you want, and whatever money is made goes directly to the creator. You can read it for free and eventually come back and make a small payment, or not. And either way, we’re grateful for the readers’ time! How much more simple can it get?

Big thanks to Ken Niimura for taking the time to answer our questions here at Comicon.com and delve into his artistic methods, too!
Get to theaters to see I Kill Giants this week, and tune in to Panel Syndicate on Thursday, March 22nd, to pick up the 5th chapter of Umami. If you haven’t read the previous installments yet, chapter 1, 2, 3, and 4, are all currently available on Panel Syndicate!
Here’s the trailer for I Kill Giants:

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