Made in Japan: Cummings and Zub talk 'Wayward'

In 2010, UDON Entertainment published Vent, an anthology/art book celebrating the company's 10th anniversary. Artist Steven Cummings contributed a piece of art to the collection, which at the time caught the eye of Jim Zub.

"I asked him, 'What is this? Are you doing anything with this?'" the writer told Comic Book Resources, "and he said, 'Oh, I had this idea I wanted to do – something supernatural set in Japan, but I don't know much of how it would work beyond that.'"

Their conversations grew into Wayward, a creator-owned series by Zub, Cummings and colorist John Rauch debuting Aug. 27 from Image Comics this summer. Cummings and Zub were kind enough to answer some questions and share artwork from the series. To see more of Cummings' artwork, be sure to check out his deviantART site.

Robot 6: Steve, I'll start with you. How long have you been living in Japan, and where exactly do you live?

Steven Cummings: I like to tell people that I live in almost-Tokyo to keep down the offers of random people to "visit" me (and who really just want to stay somewhere for free during their Tokyo vacation). It's just outside the window, beckoning at me but not so close that I have to pay the Tokyo taxes. I think I am going on my 10th year here total. I was a student back in the late '90s and early 2000s, and lived up in Saitama and only moved back stateside when I started getting offers from publishers to draw comics.

How has living in Japan influenced your art?

Cummings: I think Japan in general and manga in particular were the biggest influences on me, art- and storytelling-wise. I was a student up in Saitama at a Japanese college, and since I didn't have the money to travel or do much I would sit around reading manga or drawing. I had always wanted to draw comics as a kid, and all the great books they have here on drawing techniques and art really helped me learn. And all the manga I was reading impressed a form of storytelling that has more to do with what you would see here than back over there. It has gotten me some interesting comments from editors over the years where they (sometimes pointedly) ask me to draw more like an American artist or tone down the "cute."

With the emphasis on Japanese mythology, obviously the setting is important, especially since the main character is "new" to the country. What sorts of visual touches or local landmarks are you including in Wayward? How are you guys balancing the supernatural aspects with the more grounded "this is what life's like in Japan" aspects?

Jim Zub: Right from the start Steve and I include elements of Tokyo grounded in reality, little touches that aren't a "touristy" look at the city. In the first few pages Rori takes the train from Narita airport and arrives in Ikebukuro, a bustling neighborhood that's not as well known to travelers, compared to Shinjuku or Akihabara.

Steve loves drawing detailed backgrounds, and I think that really helps visually "sell" Tokyo to our readers. The city is a whirlwind of traditional and modern elements and Steve's done an incredible job at breathing life into it.

Cummings: Jim and I talked about having a setting that is Japan, but not the Japan you would see on tourist brochures. So while we will sometimes include more well-known areas or landmarks, we are intentionally aiming for the parts of the city that are off the beaten path of most travelers. The more well-known areas from photos and movies tend to be the bigger built-up areas around the major stations and have a great look that is modern and tend to have clean lines and some open spaces. But we want to use the areas beyond those spaces because they have so much character and the quality of living there is so different it will really help to expand the tale we are weaving.

Jim, as you live in Canada, how much are you taking advantage of Steve being "on the ground" in Japan, in terms of research and feedback on your scripts? Also, have you been to Japan yourself, or are you planning any "research" trips?

Zub: Having Steve right in the thick of things is invaluable, absolutely. It's easy to make assumptions about how things work, and Steve has been great about pointing out little details that most people wouldn't catch but I think really help ground the setting. I let Steve know what I'm looking for in terms of setting or what the plot requires and he finds the right location and suggest additions that build on my initial ideas. We've even passed some Google Street View links back and forth to "scout" important areas. It's a great collaboration.

I've been to Japan quite a few times (including for my honeymoon) and have a slew of photos I took each time. Being able to dig back into those and remember the atmosphere and vibrancy of Tokyo has been exciting and nostalgic for me. I'm hoping to take another trip in 2015 and head to different locations with Steve as we work on the second story arc.

Above: Steve's line art for the cover for Wayward

OK, getting away from the setting now, let's talk about the characters. The press materials have played up the "Buffy" comparison, but what are some of your other influences that went into the creation of the main character Rori?

Zub: Rori's an outsider left to her own device as her parents' relationship fractured, and she's become quite self-reliant in the face of that. She pulls from so many different areas, both genetically and culturally, and has gathered an eclectic mix around her to reflect that. Her clothes are layered with fashion from a half-dozen different looks and she puts on an air of confidence as a shield from the confusion and fear she has under the surface.

Rori is a half-Irish, half-Japanese girl who’s never actually been to Japan. Her mother is Japanese but Rori grew up in Ireland. The family traveled around for her father's work, but they never went back to Japan. She has Japanese cultural elements her mother has instilled in her – language lessons, cultural lessons, and she’s seen tons of photos. All of that has given her a grounding in what Japan is all about, but no matter how much research she’s done, she has no way of truly understanding it until she experiences the country firsthand.

I didn't want the teens in our story to carry the baggage of overused and overwrought high-school archetypes. There are no "cheerleaders,' or "jocks" or "nerds" in this story. Life's more complex than that, and so is Rori and the rest of the cast.

Steve, from a visual standpoint, what were some of your influences when designing Rori and the other cast members?

Cummings: For Wayward I looked to modern fashion to try to get the feel of the current street look for the characters. I especially referenced Japanese fashion. It can be kind of quirky, and I think that adds a bit to the over all different-world feel we are aiming for.

What are things like between Rori and her mom?

Zub: It's been over a year since they've seen each other when our story begins, and Rori doesn't actually know how their interactions are going to go. Divorce changes people. Rori's mom wants this move to be a fresh start for the two of them but they can't just pretend those traumatic times never happened. Her mother is trying to be positive and upbeat, but there's a tension running underneath that's going to grow ...

In your interviews with CBR and other outlets, Jim, you've talked about Rori, but I haven't seen much about the other characters -- her "Scooby Gang," for lack of a better term. What can you tell us about them?

Zub: There are three other characters alongside Rori who make up our core group in the first arc of Wayward. They're all Japanese teens from different economic backgrounds who at first don't seem to have much in common, but the supernatural influence in their lives becomes the glue that holds them together.

Ayane is a whimsically violent girl on the streets who relates more to the many stray cats that wander Tokyo than other kids her age. She's the first one Rori encounters and is the person most aware of the supernatural threats starting to gather. Shirai is a classmate from Rori's high school who carries a destructive curse. He's a loner who needs others but has never found a way to ask for help. Nikaido is a younger homeless boy they come across in their exploration of Tokyo's supernatural secrets. He's a bit of an enigma. His cold emotionless exterior hides something creepy and powerful underneath.

Jim, I know you have a very long list of projects going on right now, from Skullkickers to Samurai Jack. Steve, do you have any other projects you're working on right now?

Cummings: I do some dojinshi here, kind of like creator-owned stories back home, that I sell through the local manga conventions like Comitia and Comiket as well as through some of the local dojinshi stores like Toranoana and Comic Zin. But the schedule on Wayward is busy, busy, busy, and so I am putting those off for the time being. I also do illustration work for local publishers here, sometimes in-game art and sometimes for publications. My most recent job was a series of illustrations for a Macross publication. The 12-year-old nerd in me is the proudest of that job!

Check out some pages from Wayward below.

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