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Mangaka (漫画家) is the Japanese word for a comic artist or cartoonist. Outside of Japan, manga usually refers to a Japanese comic book and mangaka refers to the author of the manga, who is usually Japanese. As of 2006, about 3000 professional mangaka were working in Japan.
Some artists may study at an art college, manga school, or take on an apprenticeship with another mangaka, before entering the world of manga as a professional artist. However, there are some that just start in manga, without being an assistant by applying to contests that magazines run. For example, Naoko Takeuchi, author of Sailor Moon, who won such a contest sponsored by Kodansha, and Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy started out without being an assistant.
A mangaka will rise to prominence through recognition of their ability when they spark the interest of institutions, individuals or a demographic of manga consumers. For example, there are contests which prospective mangaka may enter, sponsored by manga editors and publishers. They are also recognized for the number of manga they run at one time.
The word can be broken down into two parts: manga (漫画) and ka (家).
The -ka (家) suffix implies a degree of expertise and traditional authorship. For example, this term would not be applied to a writer creating a story which is then handed over to a manga artist for drawing. The Japanese term for such a writer of comics is gensakusha (原作者).
Relationship with staff 
The editor helps and supports the mangaka by ensuring that the manga is being produced at an even pace and that deadlines are met. The editor may also do a little bit of managing of the appearances of the mangaka. He or she will often comment on the layout of the manga panels, the art, and make sure that the manga stays up to company standards.
The editor also does basic editing and story suggestions of the manga itself. Generally the editor is considered the boss of the mangaka and oversees the majority of the production to make sure it runs smoothly. In addition, in cases where the mangaka cannot supervise the anime character and action figure designs, the editor often supervises these things in place of the actual mangaka.
Many mangaka have assistants who help them with their artwork. The duties of assistants vary widely; some mangaka only sketch out the very basics of their manga, and have their numerous assistants fill in all of the details, while others use assistants only for specific things (Go Nagai, for instance, at one time employed an assistant specifically to draw helicopters and other military vehicles). Other mangaka have no assistants at all, and prefer to do everything themselves, even though to meet the tight deadlines assistants are usually needed. The group CLAMP for example, splits the duties between its members, but does not use additional assistants.
Most often, assistants are responsible for the backgrounds and screentones in manga, while the mangaka him/herself draws and inks the main characters. While they are often employed to help with art, assistants almost never help the mangaka with the plot of their manga, beyond being a "sounding board" for ideas. Most full-fledged mangaka started out as assistants, such as Miwa Ueda to Naoko Takeuchi, Leiji Matsumoto to Osamu Tezuka, Kaoru Shintani to Leiji Matsumoto and many others. However it is also possible for an assistant to spend their entire career as such without making the jump to being a mangaka in their own right. It is not a must to become an assistant prior to becoming a mangaka. It is possible to become a mangaka without having to serve as anyone's assistant.