Navajo Artist Makes Manga

A decade ago, a middle school Navajo girl stumbled across a Japanese-style comic book while on a shopping trip.

Today, the 24-year-old woman is author and illustrator
of her own comic book series in the Japanese comic-book style called manga.

“The first time I saw the art of manga, I was blown away,” said Jessica
Moffett, who is working toward a master’s of Fine Arts degree at Montana
State University in Bozeman. “Manga is so simple yet so intense and
expressive.”

Her comic book series, “Tobias,” recently published by Radio Comix,
showcases Moffett’s story and artwork. In May, another publisher, Antarctic
Press will release Moffett’s art illustrating someone else’s story.

“Manga and another medium of Japanese popular culture called anime have
become really popular in America in the last few years, but when I saw my
first manga – Japanese for ‘comic book’ – I found it hard to find any more
available manga titles,” she said. “Unlike American mainstream comic books
created for mainly one audience – young males – comic books in Japan are
popular among all age groups, occupations and genders.”

Manga comics are recognizable by the dramatic black-and-white line drawings
that depict humans and creatures with large eyes. The earliest artists were
Buddhist monks who created picture-scrolls in the sixth and seventh
centuries. In the U.S., modern manga’s most famous character is “Mighty
Atom,” animated in the 1960s as “Astro Boy.” In Japan today, 10 monthly
manga magazines have a combined circulation of 10 million according to Dai
Nippon Printing, Ltd.

Manga characters stand in affected poses that are typically drawn from
non-traditional points of view. The art accompanies stories of heroes and
antagonists. Cartoon Network’s show “Dragonball Z” is an example of popular
animated manga. Bookstores carry manga translated and distributed by
publishers like Tokyo Pop and Viz comic books.

Soon after Moffett’s first encounter with manga, she began drawing her own
stylized black-and-white images, adding elements of science fiction. The
24-year-old based some of the stories and dialogue on her Navajo culture
and history. Her protagonist, Toby, lives in a land that has been invaded
by another culture. The invaders murder his parents and destroy his
homeland in search of natural resources and eternal youth.

Because the invaders believe that Toby’s DNA offers the key to immortality,
he is separated from his sister, Leona, and adopted and reared in the
invaders’ society. Years later as a teen, Toby seeks out his sister only to
discover that she has lost all memory of him because of experiments carried
out by the invaders.

“Some parts of the story resemble Native American history-genocide, burning
of their crops, destruction of livestock, racism, concentration camps,
separation of families and the government forcing young children to attend
boarding schools,” said Moffett, whose mother was sent to an Indian
boarding school.

“Toby has to get a quail cut and Leona a bowl cut,” she said. “Like the
Native Americans in boarding schools, the head is shaved except for a small
forehead lock, called the quail cut. Dorm mothers would yank on that
forelock as a means of discipline.”

She said that manga offers an emotional intensity that is lacking in
American comic books. And artistically, manga’s line work and line
variation – all hand-drawn in her case rather than computer drawings –
results in stylized characters with similar faces but different hair and
clothes.

“Jessica is incredibly talented,” said Rod Espinosa, submissions editor at
San Antonio, Texas-based Antarctic Press. “You don’t get this good quality
manga from this age of an artist. Hers is exceptional.”

He said manga art is a competitive field and that although many people
believe they can draw manga well, only a few achieve the quality of
Moffett’s work.

“She drew a small story for us, slated to be published in May,” Espinosa
said. “It’s a standalone story in a collection of little stories. We are
considering her for a major project but don’t want to overwhelm her while
she’s still in college.”

More manga comics in her “Tobias” series will be published by Radio Comix
this spring too.

“Jessica incorporates some manga art into painting, which becomes an
interesting dialogue between oil and manga,” said MSU art professor Robert
Smith. “She is clarifying how one art form works with another. Her cultural
background adds a twist, too.”

“I just want to practice drawing manga,” Moffett said. “In school, I study
art history, I paint and I work, but when I go home, my passion and
obsession is to produce a comic that not only is written and drawn by me,
but resembles the draftsmanship and aesthetics of authentic manga. It is my
hope that my art will become indistinguishable from real Japanese manga.”

Soon, thousands of middle school kids and young adults who pick up
Moffett’s manga will be exploring an art bridge between Japanese and Navajo
culture and history.

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