As the focus has shifted from live events, our Smile Politely arts coverage continues to showcase the talented artists who make our community so special. Judy Lee recently sat down with manga artist Kofi Bazzell-Smith to learn how his time in Japan influenced his life and his work. Bazzel-Smith’s journey is the inspiring story we need right now. A natural teacher, he shares tips for studying and making art, learning a new language, and his pursuit of Japanese boxing. (DD)
Smile Politely: You share quite a bit about creativity and your time in Japan. For people who aren’t familiar with you, can you briefly explain what you do?
Kofi Bazzell-Smith: Sure, I would be happy to. I draw manga, which is the Japanese style of sequential art(comics) in both English and Japanese. I’m self-taught and have been drawing manga since about 8 years old. I am still in the learning process and currently submitting short works to competitions in Japan in hopes of getting a contract with a publisher. I also have a children’s book series called Azuki, about a Rock, Paper, Scissors champion. My goal is to increase Black representation in manga. I started a manga storytelling workshop after studying the four-arc story structure in Japan. I also recently started a YouTube channel where I teach lessons on manga storytelling and craft based on my studies overseas.
SP: How did you end up in Japan?
Bazzell-Smith: I was a broke drop-out working another dead-end job and I decided to change my life. I had studied Japanese for two years in community college several years before and decided to start studying again and pursue a career as a mangaka. I found a private Japanese tutor and had my first few art shows. In 2017 I saved up $5K and left my-temp job to study manga at a private language school in Japan.
I had an amazing experience, but it left me broke upon returning to the U.S. I decided to go back to school, graduated from Parkland College and flipped my 1.7 GPA to a 3.91. I told myself that the next time I go to Japan somebody else would pay for it. So, I started working to build a resume in order to earn scholarship money. I started the Japanese Culture Club at EIU, started teaching a workshop on manga, and published my first children’s book. In 2019, I returned to Japan, fully-funded by major scholarships including the U.S.-Japan Bridging Foundation Scholarship and the Freeman Foundation Study in Asia Award.
SP: What has been your most memorable moment in Japan?
Bazzell-Smith: There are way too many memorable moments to narrow it down but I will share these three:
(1) I was with some friends at an anime and manga convention in Kyoto and stumbled upon a major networking event downstairs. I take my portfolio with me everywhere and, in my brash way, started showing as many random people as I could. I ran into a professor from Kyoto University of Art and Design and gave him one of my books. He liked my work and my drive, so he told me that there was a publishing event downstairs.
So, I headed downstairs and found that all of the major manga publishers and magazines had travelled from Tokyo for a special event. The air in the room was completely different from the convention above. Everybody was serious and wearing business attire. It was an opportunity for Japanese mangaka to pitch their one-shots (like a TV pilot) to these publishers and receive feedback and guidance from professionals at the top of the industry!
I was the only non-Japanese person in the room… and I was severely underdressed sporting black shorts and a black tank top revealing two big tattoos. Everybody was staring at me and were surprised that I could speak Japanese (nobody in there spoke English). I signed up to participate and got to meet with representatives from 3 of the biggest Manga publishers in the world: Shonen Jump, Kodansha and Young King! These were one-on-one lengthy meetings where we discussed all of the strong and weak-points of my work. These conversations were very deep, so I kept my phone out any time a word came up that I didn’t understand. These meetings, especially with Kodansha, fundamentally changed my art practice.
Also, making connections at this event led me to being invited to visit my dream school, Kyoto Seika University.
(2) I got in touch with Shosei Nitta, the Executive Director of Japanese Professional Boxing and asked him if he could set up a match for me. He agreed and set up an exhibition match for me in Kawasaki City on 12/7/2019 against a B-class Professional fighter. (Japanese Boxing has a class system based on experience Classes A, B and C).
So, I caught an eight-hour night bus from Kyoto to Kawasaki to go fight. I left completely alone, with no coach, trainer or teammates. Luckily, one of my boxing friends that I met in Japan back in 2017 had recently moved to Kawasaki! He saw my social media post saying that I was going to compete and said that he could come. Uryuu is retired now but when we trained together in Fukuoka in 2017, he was an active professional fighter. I arrived in Kawasaki early and met Uryuu at the train station. I didn’t sleep well on the night bus so I took a quick nap in his apartment before the match.(so lucky!) The venue, Culttz Sports Arena, was huge! Luckily, I was able to get Uryuu in for free as my trainer.
I got to meet Director Nitta in person and several other pro fighters and trainers. I didn’t realize how big this shows was. The two main events were fighting for All-Asia world championship belts. And my exhibition started the whole show! For some reason, they put me and my opponent, Ryukyu, in the same dressing room and we talked for a bit. It was funny warming up in the same room because we kept looking at the other guy to check his skill level. I ended up winning the match really easily and had a great time.
By chance Ryukyu happened to be travelling to Osaka the next day to watch his friend compete in another match. I also had some friends fighting in Osaka that day. So, we fought against each other in Kawasaki on Saturday and then got dinner together across the country in Osaka the very next day!
(3) I was walking around in downtown Osaka on New Year’s Eve and a random group of guys recognized me! This guy came up to me and said “Hey are you Kofi Manga?” That was really an incredible feeling.
SP: Has studying art in Japan been very different from your studying art in the States?
Bazzell-Smith: Studying art formally is still very new to me, so I don’t have much reference to compare. The first course I took was in Japan in 2017 and it was more of a storytelling course than ‘how to draw’. I didn’t take proper art classes until 2018 at EIU. Two semesters later I went to Japan and took only two courses.
The biggest difference is that Japan is the only country where you can take courses on Manga. I was lucky enough to be invited to audit a course at Kyoto Seika University, the only school in the world offering graduate degrees in manga. I studied under a famous mangaka/professor there but that was mostly one-on-one talks in his office. The official courses I took in 2019 were a Manga production course at Kansai Gaidai, and a Figure Drawing course at Kyoto Seika. The figure course was different from the one I take at EIU. It was more so an advanced elective course with no feedback or instruction. Just a time for everybody to sketch models in the studio.
SP: What drives you to be an artist?
Bazzell-Smith: Well, first I’d like to say that I consider myself not just an artist, but a storyteller. Comics and manga are the marriage of words and pictures and one does not exist without the other.
That being said, there is nothing that brings me greater joy than being able to express my thoughts, my fears and desire, and my imagination on paper. The initial desire was selfish. I love to draw. But now, I feel as though I have found a calling as an educator and I want to inspire people with my work ethic and with my art.
SP: I noticed a big passion of yours has been language acquisition. What led you to learn Japanese?
Bazzell-Smith: I took Japanese on a whim after I dropped out of the University of Illinois. I was perusing the course catalogue at Parkland college one day and my dad casually said, “Why don’t you take Japanese?” And I said “Ok”.
I found that I was very good at it and language acquisition became a passion of mine. I also studied four years of Spanish, a year of Latin, a semester of French and, most recently, a year and a half of Mandarin.
SP: Any tips for anyone who wants to become an artist?
Bazzell-Smith: There is no substitute for hard work. You have to sit down and put the time in if you want to be good at something. Talent only gets you so far. The same goes for Boxing, and probably most other things. Talent actually isn’t very important, because once you get to a certain level, it’s all about technical mastery, motivation, and consistency.
Literally anybody can learn how to draw. Drawing isn’t some magical gift that only a select group of people can attain. Some people may improve rapidly at the beginning, but once you reach mid-range ability, you will see that the artists who put time into their craft, those who learn how to draw simple shapes and study the form are the ones who excel.
SP: Or anyone who wants to speak another language?
Bazzell-Smith: I have developed a trick to learning a new language. At the beginning, I try to learn as much basic-level but functional vocabulary that I can. Which words will you need to learn in order to keep an elementary conversation going? When you start a language, there is no need to delve into complex grammar or learn words that you won’t be using in everyday conversation.
I make a list of vital nouns, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions etc. in English and I research the equivalent.
For example, I always learn how to say the following words first: What, who, when, where, how, why, and, or, but, this, that, those, these, with, all, none, some.
Then, I learn a few nouns like: Me, you, he, her,we, they, it, school, student, teacher, mom, dad, house, store, language, book, food etc.
And then basic verbs like: do, don’t, go, come, eat, study, talk, drink, see/watch, read etc.
And a few adjectives and adverbs like: big, little, very, easy, difficult, fast, slow etc.
After that, I learn the most basic sentence structure I can on YouTube. Every language has a basic structure and it’s just like math.
Now, with these tools you can put basic sentences together like. “I go to school” or “She is a teacher” or “this language is hard.”
The trick is, not to be able to form complex and grammatically perfect sentences, but to be able to keep a string of conversation going so that native speakers can understand you.
This method worked for me when I started Chinese at 28 years old. I compiled this list in a notebook and went over a few free video lessons on YouTube so I could get a feel for the language. By the time I enrolled in Mandarin 1 at EIU, I already knew everything that was taught in the first semester.
SP: Do you have any new projects coming up?
Bazzell-Smith: Yes, I am finishing up a one shot manga called “Loser”, about a boxer who never wins. I am also in the imagination process of a story I will use to submit to the 100th Osamu Tezuka Manga Contest.
SP: You also share quite a bit about boxing. How did you get into that?
I’ve always been into combat. I grew up in the Kung-Fu school training under my dad, who is a third-degree black belt. I wrestled 4 years in high school because I was tired of getting bullied and being weak. I also started a fight club when I was 17 (yes a real fight club). I began to develop a name in the martial arts community and an MMA gym approached me. I joined and had my first fight for 18. It was for a title belt. The promoter figured that I would be an easy newcomer but I ended up winning the 2009 Courage Fighting Championship belt.
Shortly after, I left a full ride to UIUC to pursue a career as a fighter. I trained and competed in MMA, Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiujitsu for about a year and a half before I discovered Boxing.
I joined the Luyando Boxing gym at 19 years old and found Boxing to be my favorite sport. The Luyando gym welcomes people from all backgrounds and treats everybody like family and I learned the true spirit of Boxing and Martial Arts through this community. Under coach Luyando I fought over 60 times and won the Chicago Golden Gloves. I also coached for five or six years.
I decided to refocus on school and haven’t been training or competing, but I got back into boxing in Japan last semester. I trained with world champion, Nobuhiro Ishida, as well as many other pro fighters and fought in a major exhibition in Kawasaki. This galvanized my interest and I would like to fight professionally in Japan, at least for a few years.
SP: Anything you miss about Urbana / home?
Bazzell-Smith: Champaign/Urbana is great for arts and culture and has a very diverse community. I grew up there, so I didn’t realize how great it was until I left. I still come back occasionally and really enjoy the atmospheres of both cities.
SP: Anything else you’d like to share?