Ever since his debut on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987, the robotic blue hero known as Mega Man has enjoyed broad popularity amongst action gamers, but perhaps nowhere is his appeal more keenly felt than in his native Japan. Rock Man, as he is known there, quickly leapt from video games into other media including manga, where artist Hitoshi Ariga eventually had the opportunity to make his mark on the character.
"Mega Man Megamix" first ran in the pages of "Comic Bon Bon," a monthly phonebook-sized anthology and last year UDON Studios brought this series to English-speaking audiences for the first time in a series of three volumes. On May 4, UDON launches the follow-up three-volume series "Mega Man Gigamix;" though only a few months will have passed between the U.S. releases of "Megamix" and "Gigamix," the latter title was in fact created ten years after the first. CBR News spoke with Ariga-san about his approach to Mega Man, his history with the character and what to expect from "Gigamix" volume one.
CBR News: What can you tell us about your thought process when you're interpreting how a Robot Master's actions in the game could translate into character traits in a story?
Hitoshi Ariga: Fire Man and Heat Man are great examples of how I go about this. In the game, Fire Man's attacks are pretty scary, but he spends a surprising amount of time standing still. He doesn't jump at all, but will produce fire at Mega Man's position with deadly accuracy. So while he is an intimidating enemy, he has a very cool and calculating side to him. That's why the Fire Man in my manga turned out to be a pretty calm individual, despite being a fire-type character.
Heat Man, on the other hand, makes much more simplistic decisions. He tends to go a bit berserk, turning into a ball of flame himself or hitting you with a Crash Bomb while he's charging at you, etc. These traits resulted in a slightly cuter design, while still maintaining the crazy intensity that makes him such a daunting enemy.
Aside from the actions they take in game, the characters' theme may also influence their personalities in the manga. Shadow Man, for instance, has a distinctly ninja-like personality simply because that was the theme of his character design.
The allegiances of these characters -- whether they were created by Dr. Light, Dr. Wily, or Cossack and whether they remain loyal -- is an interesting dynamic. What do you take into account when thinking about whether a character like Shadow Man or any of the others would stick by his creator? Or, for the robots who seem to enjoy working in the amusement park, how did you decide they belong there?
I take into account things like their personality, the circumstances surrounding their creation and the situation they find themselves in. These things generally help me to figure out what a certain character would do and what they would be thinking while doing it.
When I had the initial meeting with my editor regarding Skull Man's episode, the plan was to create a story that focused on the friendship between Roll and Kalinka. The two girls were the stars of the story and it was supposed to illustrate the complexities of relationships between humans and robots.
Since Skull Man naturally stands out among Dr. Cossack's robots, we chose him to fill the role of the "villain" who would kidnap Roll and Kalinka. But when I got part way through the story, I started to question whether or not this is the way the story should really be told. Skull Man's just the random bad guy who Mega Man defeats to save the girls and the day -- the end?
I just couldn't convince myself that this was the right thing to do.
Was this how I wanted Skull Man to be remembered? Born an unwanted child, reviled for convenience's sake, then exit stage left? What would his brothers have to say about this? How would Cossack feel about it, and Kalinka and Roll? Not to mention Skull Man himself.
The deadline was already just around the corner, but I made the decision to rewrite the story then and there to focus on Skull Man.
In this way, I am always struggling to figure out what the characters would do if they were in a given situation, what they would desire and above all, what would leave the strongest impression on the hearts of the readers.
As for the Part-Timers, the boss characters of "Mega Man 5" had very unique background stories compared to the other Mega Man bosses. These fellows were created in a time when poverty was the main concern, so their designs are focused on making budget cuts or figuring out new ways of making money. "The jet engine has been replaced by propellers due to budget cuts," "The fuel is now water and coal due to budget cuts," "This robot will be able to mass produce artificial crystals as a way to make money," "This robot will make sure everyone pays the entrance fee to get into the floating garden," etc.
Since "Megamix's" style meant I had to write a self-contained chapter, it would have been impossible for me to fully explore each character's unique background and personality traits. After much thought, I realized these characters could emphasize their purpose by working part-time when they weren't busy fighting on behalf of Dr. Wily.
I chose the amusement park as their place of employment because I had an idea for a battle scene in an amusement park. (This is probably influenced by the fact that "hero shows," where actors dressed as heros and villains put on live performances, are very common in amusement parks in Japan) I also wanted to show Rock, Roll and the other Light Numbers enjoying a normal day of fun. The notion that "even in their world, there is life outside of combat," was a concept that I specifically wanted to convey through "Megamix."
You mention in your introduction to "Megamix" volume 2 that you played through the game quite a bit to get a feel for Skull Man's character. Were there other characters that were difficult to get an understanding for at first?
Generally speaking, Mega Man characters aren't difficult to understand. I was, however, careful to make sure that none of the characters seemed to much like another. With Skull Man, it wasn't so much that I needed to get a feel for him, but more like I was intrigued by his character and wanted to get to know him better. I had played "Mega Man 4" so much just for fun, I think I had a pretty good understanding of all the characters before I actually needed to. When it comes time to express a video game character through manga, I do go back and play the game again in order to expand on my image of the character through the actions they take in the game.
The first story in "Gigamix" vol. 1 is "Asteroid Blues." What can you tell us about the story we'll be seeing here?
"Asteroid Blues" was never included in the overall story arc of "Megamix" due to the "Megamix" story being cut halfway through for various reasons. That's why, when I got the opportunity to start again with "Gigamix," I knew I wanted to do right by Blues and tell his story.
I chose the "Mega Man 3" game as the setting because that is where Blues makes his first appearance. Then I simply interpreted the storyline of the game into a manga. "Mega Man 3" also contained a few strategic elements that would connect everything to the final chapters nicely, so it was a win-win.
The other story in this volume is "Burning Wheel," which was inspired by the "Battle & Chase" game. What led you to set a story in this environment?
We got word that "Battle & Chase" would be released through "Playstation the Best" [the budget re-releases known as "Greatest Hits" in the US] at around the time this was running in the bonus issue of "Comic Bon Bon." It seemed like the perfect time to do a "Battle & Chase" story, as the reader would then be able to go play the game after reading the manga. I also couldn't resist doing a "Battle & Chase" story that included Turbo Man, as I felt he should have been included in the game.
Of course, by the time this episode was printed, the Playstation had evolved into the Playstation 3, making the story seem rather out-of-date... But I'd always liked the story, so I'm grateful to have had this opportunity to get it out there. (the actual story was written back in the "Comic Bon Bon" bonus issue days)
The afterword to "Gigamix" vol. 1 illustrates a bit of where these two stories came from, but what was the inspiration to finally finish them up and create new material for the "Gigamix" series ten years after "Megamix?"
Despite "Megamix's" popularity and success, circumstances forced me to cut the story short. I had already planned out the whole story for "Megamix" by then, so leaving things unfinished had always bothered me. Even while I worked on other manga projects, I kept finding myself thinking, "I wish I could finish it..."
That was probably a big part of it.
More poignant, however, was the sense that I hadn't done all I could for Mega Man. He had given so much to my life and it weighed heavily on my conscience that there was still more I could do to show my gratitude. Mega Man was originally created as a domestic helper robot and he is truly a kind-hearted individual.
The Mega Man in my manga may seem weaker or less manly than the character portrayed in the animated version, but that is a result of a talk I had with [Mega Man creator Keiji] Inafune while I was working on "Megamix." Inafune, as you might expect, was a major influence on my work with Mega Man and he once said to me,
"The game is centered around combat, yes, but it's not like the main character likes to fight. He fights because once the battle against Wily is over, Mega Man gets to go home to a kind professor and adoring little sister. The fact that Mega Man is actually a gentle domestic helper robot is supposed to be a hidden message to the young players of the game, reminding them that fighting isn't everything and that there always has to be more to a battle than simply winning."
Mega Man struggles a lot with the thought of fighting and will sometimes hesitate to defeat his enemy... but at the same time, facing a seemingly invincible opponent would never be reason enough for him to give up. Mega Man is willing to put his body and soul on the line to protect everything he cares about.
And yet here I was, a human who was drawing Mega Man... giving up. A part of me felt like I was making a lie of everything I had worked so hard to convey through my Mega Man mangas and it made me feel wretched. I didn't want to give up.
Unfortunately, I wasn't a Capcom employee and without the proper authorization, my hands were tied. But I was still willing to fight for the opportunity and all of the positive support I got from my readers who said they'd still want to read more, no matter how many years passed, definitely helped to keep the fires burning. I can't fully express how happy I am that I finally got to present everyone with the fruits of our victory. Thank you all.
Also in the afterword, you mention that your art has improved -- but has your perspective or your thoughts on Mega Man changed in that time? Do you see the character differently now than you did then?
After Megamix was cut short, I spent a lot of time on other projects, during which I didn't work with Mega Man at all. But I still played the games, of course.
When I sat down with the Mega Man characters after over a decade of being apart, I definitely felt a strong sense of nostalgia, but at the same time, a part of me felt like they had always been with me, close to me, watching over me. It might seem a bit strange, but I don't think my perspective or thoughts on any of the characters changed at all.
The "Gigamix" preview I've seen did not have the "Maniax" or other backup strips that the "Megamix" volumes did -- will there be new material like this, as well, or are you sticking more to the main story?
If I were to write the story of "Gigamix" as I saw it in my head, the manga would span well over 1000 pages. It was pretty difficult for me to figure out how to trim the main story down enough to fit it into the allowed number of pages.
I personally loved "Maniax," but the page allowance and schedule unfortunately didn't leave room for it.
In the "Megamix" books, those backup strips allowed you to comment directly on the game series from the perspective of the characters. What made you interested in creating this sort of "talk show" manga?
There is a long-running television program in Japan called "Tetsuko no Heya (Tetsuko's Room)," which is a talk show hosted by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi. It's been running since I was little and is still going strong today. When I was working on "Maniax," my editor randomly said, "Let's do a 'Tetsuko no Heya' with you as the host!" It sounded like a fun idea, so we went ahead with it. Looking back on it now, I'm a little embarrassed that I squeezed myself in there. It's not like I'm a Mega Man character or anything.
You also asked for reader ideas for Dr. Auto's robots. What did you enjoy about the robots concepts the fans sent in?
I would look through every single submission and got Rightott to build the ones I especially liked. There were so many great submissions every month, I unfortunately had to pass on some of them. Fan submissions had become a bit of a tradition since the days of Mega Man 2, so I thought it'd be fun to have a similar tradition with the manga.
The best part of fan submissions was probably getting to see a child's imagination in its purest form. Kids will nonchalantly come up with designs that professionals would never even dare to suggest.
Since it was going to be Rightott building these creations, the strange and silly designs were all the more welcome. Picking out just a few submissions every month was really hard, but also lots of fun.
There was also a series of "Mega Man Soccer" strips, which you found out too late were not at all like the game. Did you have fun, though, thinking of soccer-based situations for the Mega Man cast?
It was a pretty rare opportunity, so I figured I might as well have fun with it -- the kind of fun you can only have with manga.
I intentionally included characters I knew wouldn't be included in the game, like Yellow Devil and the Mets. I also had a lot of fun with mass producing Rolls. All in all, I think I enjoyed a lot of freedom with the soccer strips.
How was writing the soccer strips like or different from what you did with "Battle & Chase" in this "Gigamix" volume?
It was quite different. With the soccer strips, I had a lot of freedom because I didn't have the game as a reference to work off of. With the "Battle & Chase" story, however, I had to be a little more focused about how I would incorporate elements from "7" and "Battle & Chase" into a story that would still feel connected to the "Megamix" series.
If I follow heavy drama with heavy drama, I feel like my readers will get emotionally worn out. That's why I followed Skull Man's story with the amusement park episode and the Copy Mega Man story with the "Battle & Chase" episode. I think it helps to give the readers a light story they can laugh about and enjoy.
"Gigamix" vol. 3 was released in Japan last year, which I believe was the final volume. Do you have any more plans for Mega Man at the moment?
Well, we are working on a collection of all the short strips of the past over here in Japan. It's going to be called "Rockman (Mega Man) Maniax," and will include never before released materials, as well as other related materials and of course the short strips. It'll be one of the bigger Mega Man projects aside from "Megamix" and "Gigamix."
As for other plans -- my lips are sealed...for now!