Robin Sevakis talks Anime News Nina

On October 24, 2007, the website Anime News Network launched its newest feature, a weekly webcomic by Robin Sevakis called Anime News Nina. In the opening five panels, we were introduced to Nina, a cute but bewildered news elf whose sole purpose in life is to learn everything about… umm…

Anime!” her annoyed director yells at her. “You’re going to learn everything about anime for the Anime News Network.”

And in just those first five panels of cute artwork, establishment of a lovable main character, and one hilarious sarcastic punch line, I knew this was going to be one great comic. I was hooked on Nina.

Nearly a year later, the comic is still going strong with a weekly release schedule on the news site. Nina has reached such a high popularity that the New York Anime Festival offered Sevakis a chance to come to the convention as a “Featured Guest” this year. Quite an impressive achievement for a first-time comic artist.

So being the unashamed Nina fanboy that I am, I asked to sit down with Sevakis during the convention to learn more about Nina and the clever artist behind it.

Birth of Nina

Robin is the younger sister of Justin Sevakis, the founder of the Anime News Network. The siblings got started watching anime 15 years ago, back when Robin was only in elementary school. A friend of Robin’s introduced her to shows like Project A-Ko and Dominion Tank Police. Robin, in turn, introduced the shows to her brother, and the two have been fans since then.

“Yes, I got my brother into anime,” she jokes, “so that would make me the indirect founder of the Anime News Network.”

Sevakis was always an illustrator and went to art school in Michigan to pursue it as a career. But every once in a while, she’d have a sudden urge to do something very odd with her artwork. “Little weird comics would just come into my mind. I couldn’t get to sleep at 3:00 in the morning, so I got up and drew some really deranged comics.”

Her brother noticed that Robin’s obscure comics were funny, and he suggested that she pursue drawing comics a little further. He recommended starting a comic about anime and then try to get it onto ANN. So she began sketching out Anime News Nina and put together a few concept strips. After the staff of ANN reviewed the strips, they approved and Nina began its weekly run.

Inspiration for Nina

The character of Nina was inspired by Jadress, a blond elf character sketched out by Sevakis that served as her personal mascot in most of her early works. After the Anime News Network website took off, the teenage Robin pestered her older brother to include her artwork on his site. He eventually gave in and added Jadress to the header of the each page. The illustration became somewhat of an mascot for ANN at that point.

When ANN went through a redesign, they did away with the Jadress image and many readers (including myself) wondered whatever happened to the elfin mascot. So Robin decided to create a new mascot for her comic that was a little more applicable to anime fandom and less about fantasy. And so began Nina, the new ANN elf.

Sevakis created Anime News Nina as a satirical look at anime fandom in general. “I thought it would be funny to have a comic about a person new to fandom just seeing it for the first time.” She wanted to recapture that wonderment that we all felt going into the subculture.

“There are so many different aspects of anime fandom,” she explains. “There are nice parts of fandom, ugly parts of fandom, and some things that are just utterly ridiculous. There is so much material there.”

Although a lot of her strips take place at an anime convention, Robin says that she very rarely attends them, having to stay within the affordable reaches of her home state of Michigan. Most of the weird convention stories she writes about come second hand from either her brother or other staff members of ANN who are constantly on the road covering them.

But she also draws a lot of humor from the online community by watching flame wars and stupid arguments take place in online forums. In one of my personal favorites, two world leaders find common ground when they discover that they were both otaku. But after a bit of of a disagreement over Naruto, their argument escalates to the point of a nuclear war.

Yet surprisingly, she is not a big fan of webcomics herself, saying that she only reads a few strips like Penny Arcade and The Perry Bible Fellowship. But she calls herself a fan of very offbeat humor, citing inspiration from stand-up routines, dark comedies, and Seinfeld.

“I’ve enjoyed different forms of humor, and would always think about, ‘What makes this funny?'”

Well, apparently she’s figured out it, because her sense of humor really goes over well with her audience.

The Fan Reaction

I’ve been a huge fan of the strip since the beginning, and I know I’m not the only one. In fact, mostly everyone I had spoke to at the convention about the comic had seem to be very familiar with it and had nothing but good things to say.

“I’ve been kind of shocked that the response has been overwhelming positive,” she tells me. “I mean, there have been a couple of haters here and there complaining about the art work is bad. I dunno, I don’t think it’s that bad. I’ve seen a lot worse. And I think that content matters a lot more.”

While her art is still very cute and appealing, I would have to agree the heart of the strip is in the content. Robin comes up some of the funniest jokes geared towards the an otaku audience, and they completely understand it and eat it up. One of the most popular jokes in Nina is Ultimate Mop Daisuke DX, a parody of a tournament fighting anime involving a novice janitor aspiring to be the best.

“I find that the shonen genre is always the easiest to make fun of. I mean, tournament fighting is such a formula, and it’s been used for everything from fishing to cooking to board games. So I figured the only logical next step would be janitorial work.”

But even Sevakis was surprised at how well the parody was received by readers, and jokes that Ultimate Mop Daisuke DX might be more popular than Nina itself. She recalls how someone once made a Daisuke Wikipedia entry, but it was later deleted due to the fact that it was not a real show. Another fan even created a Daisuke theme song in a podcast episode.

But there are some times that I wonder if Sevakis crosses a line with her parodies of anime fans. In one strip,  she portrays a “Narutard” as an idiotic man complaining about Youtube removing anime episodes. A lot of fans I’ve talked to seem to remember this strip in particular, and I believe this is because they secretly sympathized with the Narutard’s anger over C&D takedowns. So has Robin ever gotten heat over this strip?

“Well, I found that somebody did write on some blog about it by asking ‘What is Happening to ANN?’ He was saying that it was sending mixed messages on ANN’s stance on fansubs.”

Unaware of who she was talking to, I bashfully admitted to her that I was the one that wrote that, and we end up talking about fansubs for a bit. But I think that if I end up being one of her biggest critics, then she probably has not made too many enemies with her lampooning. She tries to keep it that way.

“As far as making fun of particular groups, I guess anyone is fair game. But I try not be too harsh. I don’t like to start flame wars.”

A Future For Nina?

So Sevakis has built up quite a fanbase with her comic, but how long will she be able to continue with it? Recently, she had taken up a full time job illustrating for a video game company in Seattle. Her free time has been very limited, and sometimes she struggles to meet a 9:00 deadline every Tuesday night.

“Yeah, it’s definitely a pretty strong pressure to get it done every week. If I was doing it all on my own and I didn’t have all the ANN people reading it, then I wouldn’t have the motivation to continue. But the readers make it all happen.”

What about content? We are such a niche subculture that it would appear that she has pinned down every oddity we know about. Is she ever worried about running out of material?

“I’d say that I worry about running out of jokes about every week, but somehow something always comes out. I mean, the stuff I see at this convention alone is enough for several comics,” she laughs.

“The industry keeps changing. Since I got into it so long ago, I’ve seen it grow from those early days of fansubbed VHS tapes with just creepy old men watching them. But now manga is huge and all these young kids are into it. So I think things will continue to change and provide me with more material.”

And as long as she keeps making more comics, we’ll keep reading them. If you have yet to check out Anime News Nina, I cannot recommend it enough. A new strip is released every Tuesday night around midnight on the east coast, and she has a great track record of delivering some pretty funny jokes.

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