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Blerd Rising Star: The art of Black manga with Nikolas Draper-Ivey
When Nikolas Draper-Ivey was a kid growing up in Detroit, his dad spoiled him with comics and manga collections. Not many other kids in his elementary school had watched Akira. He wasn't anime-exclusive, though, Draper-Ivey loved superheroes and anything fantasy-related, too. But when a friend gave him his entire collection of Shōnen Jump magazines, Nikolas spent hours carefully cutting out the stories in each issue and stapling them together to create his manga collection. He studied every piece of art he could get his hands on.
His Miles Morales cosplay put him on the map as a young creator when his resemblance to the character made him semi-famous at conventions across the country — which helped kickstart his creative journey. He dreamed of becoming an artist, so after high school, he eventually made his way down to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) to hone his craft. All the while, Draper-Ivey built a massive fanbase on Tumblr and Instagram, amassing fans around the world for his manga-style artwork.
A few years later, the artist had a full portfolio but empty pockets, and that’s right around the time he was introduced to basketball star Johnny O'Bryant, who was opening up the U.S.-based manga publisher and entertainment company Noir Caesar. His first project with the team, XOGENASYS, is currently in production at D’Art Shtajio Studios in Japan, directed by Arthell Isom.
Draper-Ivey’s biggest break came when Interscope Records reached out to ask him to draw the cover for Kendrick Lamarr’s Black Panther soundtrack. The work hasn’t stopped since. These days, he's is a little less broke and a quite bit more famous. SYFY WIRE spoke with him about his project XOGENASYS, Dream Vesper, and his obsession with Final Fantasy.
It sounds like you were always a creative child.
Yeah, even when my mom would punish me, I would find some creative way around it. One time, she took away my toys and I took these little index cards and made little figurines of them. To this day, she brags to our friends. “I would take away all of his stuff and he just made new stuff!"
When were you introduced to Marvel comics?
That's around the same time my dad showed me issues of X-Men and all that kind of stuff. One of the comics he gave me was a Robin III comic by Tom Lyle, who passed away recently. So my dad gave me this comic years ago and my mom was not happy and so she took them away. [When I was older] I got them back and I applied to go to SCAD and the guy who ended up reviewing my portfolio is Tom Lyle. He was one of my SCAD professors. It really came full circle.
Why did you decide to cosplay Miles?
We didn't know who the next Spider-Man in the movies was going to be. And it was like, “Well, why not? It could be Miles.” People would tell me all the time that I looked like him. [So I decided to cosplay as him].
I remember trying to get my friends to help me put it together and everything. Once we finished it, we were like “Whoa.” I got back to Savannah and we took pictures in areas that kind of looked like Brooklyn at the time. And then I put them on Tumblr. And I think, "Remember when that was popular?" Then it spread to Facebook. I didn't expect the cosplay to blow up the way that it did.
The next thing I knew I was on BuzzFeed and then a video game thing and BET and it just spread. And I'm like, WTF? I kept saying, “Guys, I'm an artist! I don't want to be known for this. I want to be known for my art.”
So did that lead to any commissions or any work? Were you able to show your portfolio at cons and get work that way?
I would just like to show my work to people and get portfolio reviews. Like meeting [original Miles Morales artist] Sarah Pichelli was great. Getting critiques from the original artist was dope. Granted, I haven't done anything for Marvel. Well, that's not exactly true...
Well, there's that album cover you drew for the soundtrack of a little movie called Black Panther.
Well yeah, but I haven't done anything for Marvel comics yet. Everyone thinks I want to draw Spider-Man. But no, If I was going to touch anything at Marvel, I would love to reboot Blade.
Speaking of the Black Panther soundtrack, how did you land that?
I was doing another project and I remember that winter was just brutal. And one day someone from Interscope Records was in my Instagram DMs. “Hey, you know, I'm interested in you doing a project for an album.” I had to ask my roommate who Interscope was. And he's like, “Dude, that's like Eminem’s label.” My roommate convinced me to answer it. And when he told me what the project was, I was shocked, you know?
And they wanted such a simple design. I remember trying to convince them, “I can draw way more intricate things.” But Kendrick Lamar really wanted just the Panther necklace. It was really a cool moment. I was a little bitter at the time because they didn't credit me in the album. But at the same time, everybody that needed to know that I did it knew it, and it opened a lot of doors for me.
Let's talk about Noir Caesar. What made you decide to work with them?
Money! No, actually, another friend of mine, which I think you interviewed, Mikail Sebastian, he recommended me for this project because I was struggling at the time. At first, I didn’t know if I wanted to do it. But we're rivals — we’re good friends, but we’re rivals too. And he says, “Well if you don't do it, I will." I just couldn't let him have that over me, so I joined them too.
When I first started working on XOGENASYS, I hated it at first. I was like, “ Oh my God, I can't do this.” But the more I was able to have input, and the more I ended up drawing Darius, it started to grow on me. They kinda let me co-write some of it. So I was able to kind of put some of my pain and emotions into that character and kind of breathe more life into him.
In the future, these MMA fights called XOGENASYS run everything. Everybody's a fan of my XO and it's a big deal that the main character, Darius, ends up getting drafted into it. It’s not a typical battle manga, it’s really about how he copes with being successful way too quickly. He's afraid of success because success implies he has to keep that going. He has to maintain that.
What was it like working with Jonny Bryant?
I saw what his vision was and I think that was another reason that I joined them. I was impressed with his work ethic. We didn't always agree, but it was like a brotherly butting of heads. My view was, "We're black and people are automatically going to expect us to screw up. They expect us to make mistakes, they expect us to not get it right. So we have to make sure we go above and beyond to make sure this is right. We’ve got to bring our A-game."
Are you a bit of a Final Fantasy fan? Dream Vespers seems to reflect that influence.
Yes! I don't know if you remember on G4 when they had [that show about gaming] Cinematech? They would show cut scenes and music from games. I remember I was cleaning my room one day and the TV was on and I heard the opening for Final Fantasy VIII and I was just so inspired by that. I love the lore and the art and the music and what goes into making it. It’s all of the behind-the-scenes stuff I really, really like.
It looks like your obsession paid off. On Instagram, we saw you were hanging out at Square Enix headquarters in Japan, right?
Yeah. One of my friends is a translator there and when I went to Japan I asked him if I could come to visit. I also know Kenji Niki, one of the art directors there, so it was great. In fact, originally when I first did Dream Vesper, I wanted it to be a Square Enix Platinum game.
The art is stunning. What’s it about?
Dream Vesper asks the question, “What if every nightmare you've ever had was meant to save your life?” In that story, there are these demons that feed off of your depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, trauma, and all of your negativity. They kind of create this alternate mirror reality inside of your dream where everything is perfect, but it’s a trick so that you stay there and die. It's the job of the main character, Lace, to pretty much go in and fight off these creatures. If he’s successful, the person only remembers the nightmare.
Do you still want to work for Square Enix?
I really want to work with Square Enix, not for them. When you work with [a company], it's a collaboration. You still have rights to your stuff and you can build together.