Welcome to Week 3 of the Tokyo Heist Art Gallery! 

Violet Rossi, the main character in Tokyo Heist, is a manga fan and an aspiring artist. She’s almost never without a sketchbook. Art is how she makes sense of her world.

In the spirit of Violet, every Tuesday leading up to the June 14 launch of Tokyo Heist, I’m featuring illustrations by artists to watch out for: comics artists, illustrators, graphic designers. They have donated their time and talent to illustrate a character or an image from the novel, and to answer some questions about their creative careers. I hope you’ll check out their websites and see more of their exciting work! If you missed Rich Lee last week, click here to see his art and interview. If you missed Ming Doyle two weeks ago, click here to see her art and interview.

Today I’d like to introduce you to Niki Smith, a Cleveland-based comics artist and illustrator. Her work has won numerous awards, and she was a finalist in Tokyopop’s Rising Stars of Manga competition. She illustrated a digital comics series called In Maps and Legends (written by Michael Jasper), which has been described as a “world-spanning fantasy comic mixed with science fiction and steampunk.” She also illustrated the eBook Formatting Comics for Kindle and Nook (by Michael Jasper).

Here’s Niki’s illustration inspired by Tokyo Heist:

Illustration by Niki Smith

Niki’s illustration took my breath away when I got it. It perfectly captures my concept of Violet as a dreamer and a Japanophile. I love the cormorant with the tie around its neck (you’ll find out how that works in the book, if you don’t already know about cormorant fishing), and it’s fascinating and thought-provoking to see that image superimposed on the sun from the Japanese flag. This picture makes me think about how easy it is for Violet — or for any of us — to romanticize another culture. What happens when fantasies about a place or a culture collide with reality?

And now, here’s my interview with Niki!

Q: Welcome to the Gallery, Niki! Please tell us about your illustration. Why did you choose to draw this particular image from the novel?
I really loved the recurring imagery of cormorant fishing, and I knew I wanted to work that into the piece. Japan plays such a huge role in the book, as do setting and culture, so I brought in the iconic flag, with Violet looking into the distance a she takes it all in.

Q: Can you describe your process of creating this illustration?
A: The illustration was done entirely digitally, in PhotoShop and MangaStudio.

In Maps and Legends, Niki Smith & Michael Jasper

Q: What kind of work do you do as a professional artist? What does a typical day look like for you?
A: I’m a comic artist, and like Violet, I definitely have some manga influence in my art style. I also freelance design book covers. I release my comics digitally, through apps and as ebooks, so much of my day is spent bent over a computer.

Q: What work are you most proud of?
A: SOME DID REST, a graphic novel pitch that resulted in a fellowship from my county. This allowed me to spend time in China last year doing further research, and I’m still hoping to find the right publisher for it.

Highwater, a graphic novel by Niki Smith

Q: What are you working on right now?
A: I’m currently working on HIGHWATER, a comic about floods, the loss of a sister, and coming out. Oh, and it takes place in Germany! I’m planning to serialize it starting this summer.

Q: When did you know you wanted to become an artist?
A: I always enjoyed art — drawing animals, copying cartoons. It took me until college before I realized there was no reason I couldn’t draw a comic of my own.

Q: How did you go about pursuing art as a career? What kind of education did you have?
A: I went to the Cleveland Institute of Art, but I don’t think you need to go to art school to be an artist. The most important thing is to create, create, create. Make contacts, surround yourself with people who inspire you, and be open to critiques.

Q: What artists have influenced you?
A: Some of my favorite comic artists are Takako Shimura, Dave McKean, Kiriko Nananan, Jillian Tamaki, Becky Cloonan, and Jen Wang.

Q: What inspires you?
A: I love people-watching.

Q: What is the most challenging part of working as an artist?
A: The loooong hours. When you’re getting started (and even when you’re more established), comics are often a labor of love. You have to be able to dedicate yourself to finishing a story. You can’t get bored after three pages and start something new.

Q: What misconceptions do you think people have about artists or the artistic process?
A: A lot of people underestimate the amount of time that goes into design or illustration, and as a result they’ll severely underestimate a piece’s worth.

Q: What were you like in high school? 
A: Definitely “artsy.” I spent all of my time in my school’s photography room. My friends and I (re)watched every Disney and [Studio] Ghibli movie we could find.

Q: Do you have any advice for young people who are considering a creative career?
A: Art school can be great for teaching you technical skills, but make sure you’re also preparing yourself for a career! Network, do internships, figure out what opportunities are out there. It’s up to you to take those steps. Too many people graduate and haven’t prepared themselves for what comes next.

Thanks for coming by, Niki!

Here’s where Niki lurks online:
Niki’s website
Niki’s blog – lots of work samples here!
Twitter: @niki_smith

BUT WAIT — there’s more! It’s week 3 of the TOKYO HEIST gallery, so we have THREE prize packs in store, for three winners. Each prize includes TOKYO HEIST swag (crime scene tape, signed bookmarks).


Niki is giving away an eBook of IN MAPS AND LEGENDS.

Here’s a summary:
IN MAPS & LEGENDS – written by Michael Jasper, art by Niki Smith
Kaitlin Grayson is an artist who finds herself compelled to carve a map that covers all four walls of her window-less spare room. One cold night, a disheveled man named Bartamus bursts into her apartment, claiming that only she can save his dying world.

For Kait, things like this happen in the books she illustrates so often, she feels like she knows what will happen next. But she couldn’t be more wrong when she and her friends step through her map and charge headlong into another world.

In Maps & Legends is a world-spanning fantasy comic mixed with science fiction and steampunk. This special edition collects all nine issues of this digital-only, full-color miniseries.

2. A signed print of Niki’s Tokyo Heist-inspired illustration.

3. Courtesy of Viking/Penguin, two ARCS of great books coming out the same day as TOKYO HEIST, 6/14. They are: MY LIFE IN BLACK AND WHITE, by Natasha Friend, and THE UNFORTUNATE SON, by Constance Leeds.

To enter this giveaway, click on the Rafflecopter thingie below (“Read more”) and follow the directions!

a Rafflecopter giveaway