Sunday, April 5, 2015

Ngā Atua Māori: Illustrating Māori mythology with Munro Te Whata

Above: Munro Te Whata drawing live at the KIWA Ngā Atua Māori Graphic Novella Launch. Copyright Kiwa Digital 2015.

Earlier this week I reported on the launch and creation of KIWA's Ngā Atua Māori Graphic Novella e-books, today I'm talking to Munro Te Whata, the artist behind these ground-breaking adaptations.

Munro Te Whata was born and raised in Auckland, his iwi are Nga Puhi, Ngati Porou, and also has Niuean heritage. He has a background in animation and a Bachelor of Creative Arts majoring in Creative Writing, and was one of the animators who brought the animated series Bro' Town to our screens during its successful five season run. Long time readers of this blog may also recall some of Te Whata's early comics work, when he collaborated with Czepta Gold on a kids manga/hip hop infused comic, Wulfpak back in 2009.

With KIWA's four graphic novellas competed and more comics work on the way, I caught up with Munro to find out more about the creative process of collaborating on these e-books and some of his artistic influences.

Above: Illustration by Munro Te Whata. Copyright Kiwa Digital/Munro Te Whata 2015.

AK: We've seen different takes on illustrating Māori mythology over the years - from Peter Gossage's children's books to Chris Slane's edger take on Maui; what was your particular approach to the material in terms of style and storytelling?

Munro Te Whata: I was actually the second illustrator to come on board - I was hired because the first illustrator was pumping out some really awesome artwork, but she was way too slow. So there was a style already developed before I even came on. It was meant to look like something an international audience would like, basically something Marvel or DC [comics] readers would buy. Because the stories I was working on were different to the ones the first illustrator worked on, I was able to put my own spin on the artwork, however I was given a lot less time to do it. So my approach was to do everything digital because it was a lot faster. I never really looked at other illustrators of the Māori myths for inspiration, although I do love their work. I looked more at animated TV shows like Avatar and Dragon Ball Z or video games like Street Fighter and Marvel vs Capcom. These were all really influential to me growing up and are therefore part of my style as an artist.

Above: Storyboards be Munro Te Whata. Copyright Munro Te Whata 2015.

AK: How closely do you work with the writers to insure that the stories are entertaining but still retain all the key information and cultural significance of the original myths? I was talking to someone at the launch party and it sounded like there were a few 'false starts' before the series found the right balance between retelling the original stories and adapting them as comics for a contemporary audience?

MTW: During the storyboard stage I would meet up with the writer and try to match how he saw the story in his head, to how I drew it. Each page had it's own text so for example: 'Page 1: this happens.. Page 2: that happens..', so I just had to choose what part of the text would be best to show to make the whole story flow and sometimes when there was more than one bit of action on the page I'd split the page into two or more pictures/panels.

It wasn't actually a false start. We had done four different Myths each around 40 pages which were fully completed. The first illustrator worked on two books and when she couldn't finish all four, I was brought on to do the other two. The big problem with these books was that they were written in English first and then translated to Māori. First and foremost the books are a language and cultural resource for anyone wanting to learn Māori. But by telling the story in English first the translation to Māori wasn't very good. The second problem was that the story was retold in a way that a lot of Māori didn't like. Basically defeating the purpose of why the stories were created in the first place.

Above: Illustration by Munro Te Whata. Copyright Kiwa Digital/Munro Te Whata 2015.

AK: Did you have any personal favourites from the stories/sequences you enjoyed illustrating for the series?

MTW: I think the third book, during the first half I felt like I was getting in a groove but due to having to pump them out quite fast - like 3 pages a day - I have to say that took a bit of the fun out of it! (laughs).

Above: Character designs by Munro Te Whata. Copyright Kiwa Digital/Munro Te Whata 2015.

AK: What's your drawing process from script to finished artwork? And what are your preferred art tools of choice?

MTW: I usually start by doing a whole lot of scribbling on paper. Just concepts of characters and then when I have the script I start going through the whole story and doing thumbnails of different ideas for the layouts of the page. Working in thumbnails helps the overall flow of the story, so I try to get it to a point where someone can read the thumbnails without the script and still get the story.

My experience is in traditional animation and I've never really learnt how to paint, so when I started getting work as an illustrator I bought a wacom tablet and now everything I do that needs colour is done digitally. For me nothing beats drawing with just a pencil, pen and permanent marker.

Above: Illustration by Munro Te Whata. Copyright Kiwa Digital/Munro Te Whata 2015.

AK: And what are some of your art influences?

MTW: I find inspiration from everywhere. I love old spaghetti westerns, old samurai and martial arts movies. Comics like Saga, 100 bullets and Lone Wolf and Cub are real inspiring to me and great reads. I follow quite a lot of TV shows. I tend to gravitate toward stories of wandering types maybe because I moved around a lot as a kid. I also like video games and usually the long free roaming types. I tend to listen to a lot of music while I work as well which can be anything depending on my mood. I also find a lot of inspiration reading about world mythologies/religions, New Zealand history and I'm constantly looking for imagery from old cultures. Some favourite artists would be Bengus, Le Sean Thomas, Banksy, Mike Mignola, Tarantino, Fiona Apple, Goseki Kojima, Miyazaki, Joe Madureira, Moebius and so much more I can't think of right now.

Above: Rough art layout by Munro Te Whata. Copyright Kiwa Digital/Munro Te Whata 2015.

AK: At the launch we talked a bit about some of your future projects in the pipeline, and it sounds like you might have a potential long-form comics project in the works?

MTW: With the Ngā Atua Māori comics Kiwa will be pushing to get more of those done in the future. I also have an ongoing comic series which I'm working on with a friend. It's just a passion project at the moment and we both have kids and full-time jobs so not too much time to work on it but we are hoping to eventually submit to Image Comics. Basically it's an historical fiction comic set in and around New Zealand leading up to the Treaty of Waitangi. There's not much else to say about it other than it's going to show a lot of crazy shit that went down in that time. So it probably won't be for kids...

Above: Illustration by Munro Te Whata. Copyright Kiwa Digital/Munro Te Whata 2015.

You can view more of Munro's artwork over at his art blog HERE, and for more information on KIWA and their Ngā Atua Māori graphic novellas you can visit their website HERE.

- AK!

Above: Munro Te Whata drawing live at the KIWA Ngā Atua Māori Graphic Novella Launch.

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