CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) – Kofi Bazzell-Smith is an artist, a boxer, and an educator. Right now, if you walk into the University YMCA his art is covering the walls.
“This is the university YMCA it’s a community center connected to the university and this is called Azuki,” he said.
But it’s not the typical art you might expect.
“So. I draw manga, which is the Japanese form of comics. I studied manga in Japan,” he said.
The first chapter of his manga is what you’ll find behind the doors of the University Y.
“I’m currently working on a series about a little black girl who’s a rock-paper-scissors champion,” he said.
This isn’t something you can pick up one day and be an expert. No, Kofi has been practicing and mastering this for years
“I really like anime. I grew up watching anime since I was a little kid, started with Dragonball Z, and then I was like 8 years old and I was like, that’s what I want to do. So, I’ve just been drawing in my room. I taught myself how to draw, but I was a dropout for a very long time, so I did learn by myself. I didn’t take my first art course until I was 28 years old. I’m 32 now, so I’m mostly self-taught,” he said. “So, it was a really difficult, painstaking process. Manga has some very specific standards, which we just don’t have access to that kind of education here or in English. So I had to go there. I studied abroad in Japan a couple of times.”
From there, he learned Japanese and learned the storytelling of manga. Then he started writing his own.
Azuki, as he said, is a story about a little black girl who’s a rock paper scissors champ. He said he got the idea from personal experience.
“It’s actually not that complicated. Everybody plays rock, paper, scissors. So, it’s actually traditionally a Japanese game. I didn’t know that until after I made this, but basically, it’s probability and it’s just chance. And I don’t think there’s a sort of tactic that you can create that will win. So I decided at some point in my early twenties, I’m just going to play scissors every time, and that’s what my character does,” he said, “So it’s like a really wacky it’s like an action comedy. She plays scissors every time, but she always wins in these bizarre ways against like these really tough male characters.”
It’s a fun story about a silly game, but it’s also important in showing representation in Japanese comics.
“Well, you know, I think representation is important. There are a lot of black people that love anime and manga, and I sort of want to be a part of the community that creates representation because I think, you know, you can’t really demand Japanese creators to create a representation of a different race, I think that’s my responsibility. So I learned Japanese, went to japan, learned manga, and I’m going to make manga with black characters,” he said.
On top of bringing different faces into manga. He wants to even go one step further and teach the art of manga where it’s never been taught before
“I sort of found a way to carve a path through academia because you can’t learn manga in the United States anywhere actually. So I want to be the first manga professor in the U.S. at least that’s my goal,” he said.
He’s actually hosting a workshop at the YMCA on October 8th starting at 1 p.m. He’s going to be teaching people about manga, how to draw, and the storytelling structure.
You can see the exhibit any time through October. To learn more about Kofi and his manga you can visit his website here.