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Interview: Siku, artist, theologian, musician

11 November 2016

‘Manga’s impact on Western civilisation is greater than many of us can imagine’

Mette Frandsen

I worked freelance for 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Megazine for 20 years, after a four-year stint in advertising as a visualiser — doing the artistic side of an ad. I like doing science fiction, but I am a natural with the fantasy “sword and sorcery” genre, set in the pre-industrial world.


I’m a “soft body artist”, like Michelangelo, for example: painting flesh, muscle, organic stuff. I’m not good at industrial or architectural work.


Soon after, I moved into video games, starting a games company. We ran out of money; then I moved into full employment as a visuals director at Elixir Games. I still did a bit of comics for 2000 AD on the side until I went back to study theology.


I grew up watching anime on daytime TV — cheaply produced, always in black and white. A lot of young people in the West were exposed to it, and it created the post-modern culture in all media. The difference between Star Trek and The Matrix illustrates the difference between the millennials’ point of view: Star Trek starts from utopia; The Matrix starts from a human hellish environment.


Manga is very powerful in that way. It’s had a greater impact on Western civilisation than many of us can imagine. It has a wide spectrum of expression. It’s wider than any form of literature in human expression. It could express two teenage girls talking about nothing, or something hyper-violent or perverse. Popular anime movies like Spirited Away or Akira are good discourse about what it means to be Japanese.


Manga came from Disney. Tezuka watched Fantasia and copied Disney. So Astro Boy is Pinocchio, Mickey Mouse evolved and re-envisioned. We thought manga was a higher form than Disney because it was so visionary. Disney has moved from its 1940s naïveté; so Disney is now influenced by manga. Everything we see in millennials’ culture has a Japanese way of thinking about the world.


You have to understand the Japanese point of view: apocalypse is troubling. People who have gone through extremely trying times need to be able to express that torment; so apocalypse is a response to extreme trials. Two atomic bombs — that changed the way they think about themselves. Once they thought they were superior to all humankind, and then they found they were not. That’s why manga is so robust; and it follows, almost step by step, the Jewish apocalypse.


Japanese culture is phoenix culture, arising from fire, post-1945. It’s a weird culture, with no slow evolution. It’s also an island culture. It’s neither Atlantic nor European, like Britain. There’s no house style in British comics for the same reason. Crazy knows crazy — that’s why the Japanese enjoy British culture. There’s a lot we have in common. Jane Austen, controlled emotions which explode. . .


The Manga Bible drives the story from the viewpoint of death and rebirth. That’s what apocalypse is. We try to keep words to a minimum, though often difficult, sometimes impossible in a project like this, allowing the visuals to drive the story.


You start to ask more questions when you slow down your Bible-reading to a crawl because you have to draw it. And then there are the interesting answers you get to suggest.


The most difficult thing was making the sprawling biblical narrative work concisely: breaking it up into four-page sections, and maintaining a narrative spine. That narrative spine is more important than you think, because it gives the work integrity. If truth is conveyed clumsily, it can be seen as untrue.


The evolutionary unfolding of the salvation story interests me most, and how that unfolding did not end at the Reformation. It continues today. The new-wine-in-old-wineskins analogy is apt.


I was 11 years old when I first experienced God. The only gospel I heard was that Jesus loved me and died for me. I literally didn’t hear anything else. I was always a God-fearer from when I was really young. I went to church on my own before I was nine. It was an Anglican church, the sort where the gospel was dead. So when I heard the gospel in that sentence, I intuitively understood it to be truth. I thought to myself: “If he loves me, then I want him in my life.”


Jesus is more like a big brother, informal, than Master and King, formal. The father has moved from being the strict one from behind the scenes to the father Jesus talked about.


I remember once when I sat down with the Lord. I saw in him whites, but when I looked into his face, I couldn’t see anything. He was joking with me. I was laughing really hard, but, at the back of my mind, I kept thinking: “He is my lord and master, he is my lord and master.” Informal, yet formal. He is my king and he is my first kin.


I was born in Leicester, where my father studied to become an engineer and my mother was a secretary. He worked in transport to pay the bills; my mother worked in the factory. It was hard in those days: they would get home from one job and head out for the next one minutes later.


Soon after Nigeria’s independence, my father decided to move to Nigeria to help with nation-building. My mum thought England could be our new home, but soon we were off to Lagos. Life wasn’t too different from in England until the economy crashed.


I spent virtually all of my education in boarding school. Sculpture remains my strongest gift, but I specialised in graphics. I felt God wanted me to do that. I came back to England after art college, and started in advertising four days after arriving.


I’m divorced, and have four children. I’m remarried to a fiery Brazilian beauty, and we have a child together; another son from her previous relationship; and another two girls from my previous marriage.


Back in the days of childhood, I sang in choirs and played the guitar. At the age of 16, I recorded a charity album with the producer Willy Roy (Artists for Africa) with an ensemble. It was a massive hit in Nigeria. In the last few years, I have ceased doing music: the comic-book side greedily ate up all the time.


I’m making my way back, though. I want to see what happens when narrative theology, which is what I do, finds its way into music.


I’m developing, with my editor Kira Luz, in Tokyo, a graphic novel on the life of Natsume Soseki, Japan’s greatest literature scholar and writer and haiku master. He defines what it means to be Japanese at the turn of modernity. He’s a genius of the first order.


And I’m working with Dax Cabrera on his novels on the invisible angelic conflict behind great Bible stories like Abraham’s rescue of Lot, or the fall of Jericho. Dax examines a hypothetical spiritual war facilitating either side of the divide.


Then there’s our work with Brian Brown, creator of Storykeepers and Friends and Heroes. It’s termed a translation, but in truth it’s more a transmission. We’re working with the Gospels’ oral-tradition material in order to recreate hypothetical stories behind how the NT has survived in its current form.


Injustice makes me angry, especially where power shrouded in disguise is concerned; the destruction of Christian populations and other minority groups in the Middle East, and the silence of Western powers on the subject.


The health and happiness of my family makes me happy, and the dissemination of the gospel — especially where there is a response.


The word of God has been the greatest influence on my life, I hope. It’s shaped me more than my cultural affinities. I’m one of those barbarians for whom culture is neither here nor there. To that end, I am not sure what I am.


Jesus is not an absentee landlord, waiting to return when things have almost gone to hell. I believe that this is his world, and that we can win our generation for him in this time. He judges the nations; he controls history, determines the times; he brings salvation; he alters the balance of power; he acts. Everything points to him working 24/7.That’s what gives me hope.


I’d choose to be locked in a church with Jesus. If you consider that’s cheating, a distant second would be St Paul, or St Augustine of Hippo. I would so love to talk and argue with John Calvin, too.


Siku was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The NIV Manga Bible is published by Hodder and Stoughton at £16.99 (CT Bookshop, £15.30).

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