City writer introduces Japanese comic book fans to Scottish traditions

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Spider-Man scales tall buildings, Batman skulks in his Batcave. There’s the formidable power of the Hulk and the might of Thor.

But while they’ve been busy saving the world, a new comic book hero has been preparing to join their ranks.

The difference is he goes by the name of Sean. And his comic adventures involve growing up in Morningside, where one of his biggest “kapow” moments is the discovery of a disgusting “personal package” left in his secret den by a mystery prankster.

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It may not sound in quite the same league as Superman saving humanity, but award-winning graphic comic writer Sean Michael Wilson is about to share the day-to-day lives of him and his friends in the leafy suburb where he grew up with the world.

Featuring makeshift dens, chip shops, rainy afternoons and Edinburgh accents, Once Upon a Time in Morningside will recall his own experiences growing up in the area.

If that’s not enough comic capers for the Capital, Sean – the only British professional manga comic book writer living in Japan – is also busy completing another comic book based in his home city, this one featuring a punch-up in a Marchmont chip shop.

In both books Scotland’s capital features heavily, with familiar roads and buildings faithfully redrawn. However, the “kapow”and “wham” superhero cries of typical comic heroes have been put aside for more appropriate Edinburgh shouts of “aye” and “ken”.

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Sean, 42, who quit Britain for Japan eight years ago, says the two books will feature more gentle storylines than what some might expect from certain comics.

“Once Upon a Time in Morningside is all set in the area around where I grew up, around the Astley Ainslie Hospital and Cluny Avenue area,” he says. “And it’s all real stories from my childhood. Little things that happened to me, with my brothers Ryan and Mark or my friends, and done in a poetic type of way.

“It’s probably going to be called pretentious, but I’m doing it my way,” he shrugs. “It’s personal and I hope beautiful and funny too.”

He dreamed up the idea and has penned the story, while a Swedish artist is working on the drawings – making it more graphic novel than true Japanese manga. However, its publication will coincide with the second instalment of Sean’s manga series, The Story of Lee, which follows a love-struck young Hong Kong woman and her Scottish boyfriend as they set up home together in Marchmont.

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Artwork for that has been created by a Japanese manga artist who travelled to Edinburgh to see for herself the streets and buildings Sean refers to.

It follows a first volume which won critical acclaim for perfectly capturing contemporary Hong Kong and conflicting attitudes to the characters’ cross-cultural love affair. “In volume one, there’s a Scottish guy who goes to Hong Kong,” explains Sean, whose work includes historical books, quirky novels, poems and adaptations of literary classics. “Volume two is when they go to university and Lee starts to live the life of her dreams. She had a dream of having a European boyfriend. Now she’s in Britain, she has a flat in Marchmont, there’s a chip shop and a punch-up.”

All of which may shatter the tartan and heather-trimmed dream many Japanese have of life in Scotland. According to Sean, many still expect Scots to wear kilts every day, while English people are typically thought of as tipping their bowler hats to each other.

“There are very stereotypical ideas,” he explains, speaking from his home in Japan. “They very much think of Britain and the ‘English officer club’ image. Meanwhile, for me, it wouldn’t matter how long I lived here, I’ll always be considered as ‘alien’. I could be here 50 years and speak perfect Japanese and the officials at the city hall will still ask if I’ve just arrived.”

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But at least he is, like his award-winning creation Lee, living his personal dream.

He quit Britain and a job in television documentaries in 2004 with a plan to achieve his childhood ambition to write graphic comic books right in the home of manga. He ended up in Kumamoto on Japan’s south island, Kyushu. Like Edinburgh, the city boasts a castle and a thriving city centre, unlike Edinburgh, it has a tram system that works.

The big downside, he says, is that Japan doesn’t have Heinz baked beans and – perhaps why the local chippies appear in his work – he often fights cravings for a bag of chips smothered in Edinburgh brown sauce.

His obsession when he was younger, however, wasn’t beans and chips, it was comics. “I was a wee kid at St Peter’s school and I remember going in to the newsagent to get an old British comic, either Victor or Warlord,” recalls Sean.

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“Something caught my eye: 2000 AD. It was a bit more sophisticated than what I was used to, it was like a teenage type of comic compared to kids’ stuff. And it was one of those eureka type moments. I thought what?! Wow!

“Even today I remember where it was in the shop. I have it here now in the corner of my room.

“I just remember thinking ‘this is brilliant!’. This is what I am into. Within six months all my mates and me wanted was to be comic book creators. We spent that summer making comics together. That planted the seed in me which never left.”

Even after he became the first in his family to go to university – he studied sociology and psychology at Glasgow Caledonia University and Edinburgh University – and with a qualification to work as a college lecturer on top of those, he couldn’t shake his childhood comic book obsession.

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“In some ways I never really got older,” he laughs. “There’s a level of immaturity about all of this. But look at anyone with creative ideas, in a way there’s an unrealistic element to them. The problem with being realistic – often the problem with Scottish people – is that they are realistic to death and it stops you doing things.

“You have to a bit more idealistic to get things done. But we’re too busy telling ourselves we can’t do things.”

Aged 33 he quit his job to head to Japan, thinking he’d find a healthy ex-pat community working in its thriving manga comic industry. It turned out he was the only one.

Now, however, he’s challenged the masters at their own game and become one of the leading writers, working with established Japanese artists and even picking up awards for transforming English literature such as A Christmas Carol and Wuthering Heights into graphic novels.

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But it is his latest Morningside project and his Marchmont-based instalment of The Story of Lee which will bring his unusual work closest to home – much to his mum Eileen’s concern.

“She said in a slightly worried voice ‘what are you going to say about us?’ when I told her I was working on an autobiographical book,” he laughs. “But there are no adults in it. It’s like Tom and Jerry, you never see Tom’s owner’s face, just her ankles and her slippers. In this you never see above an adult torso level in this.

“There are a lot of Scots words used. Apart from that, it’s kinds of thing that can happen to kids in Adelaide or Morningside – swinging on ropes, falling in the river, your mum being angry because your shoes are 

As for superheroes fighting the forces of evil, there’s none of that. “It deliberately doesn’t have traumatic things in it,” shrugs Sean, who has a son, Tomi, eight, living in Japan.

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“Some people might think there’s nothing happening, but it’s about how we lived as kids. We went to the chip shop, it starts to rain. You feel warm inside, shelter under a tree, talk rubbish. To make it more dramatic would be artificial.

“Besides, this is deliberately everyday life and I think it’s full of interesting little things.”

Big-business books

The origins of manga in its modern form can be traced back to Japan at the end of the Second World War.

Consisting of comics and print cartoons, manga – a literal translation of the term is “whimsical drawings” – is read by people of all ages in Japan.

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The medium covers a broad range of subjects, taking in everything from action, adventure and romance to historical drama, science fiction, horror and sexuality.

It is typically printed in black and white, though colour series exist, and are usually serialised in telephone-book-sized manga magazines, often containing many stories.

The manga industry in 2009 was estimated to be worth $5.5 billion

in Japan alone. In Europe and the Middle East the market is worth

$250 million.

The most popular manga series have been running since the 1970s, with volumes of stories running into the hundreds.