Matt Thorn lives in Kyoto, Japan, where he is a professor, translator, talent scout and now, editor/curator of Fantagraphics' line of forthcoming manga. Here, he speaks with PW Comics Week about his vision for the new manga line, his relationship with shojo manga pioneer, Moto Hagio and the importance of high-quality translations to a new generation of American manga readers.
PW Comics Week: Tell me a little about this project. Who's idea was it to start a manga line?
Matt Thorn: I approached them. To be specific, I asked [Fantagraphics editor] Dirk Deppey what he thought of the idea. He loved it, and helped me sell it to Gary Groth.
PWCW: From what I hear, this was a 4 year project. Out of that 4 years, how much of it was devoted to winning [Fantagraphics publisher] Gary Groth over?
MT: Maybe one? It actually wasn't quite as hard a sell as I thought it would be. Fantagraphics specializes in artsy stuff on the one hand, and classics on the other. What I had in mind was more mainstream, but geared towards adults who find the current choices of translated manga to be lacking.
PWCW: Fantagraphics has published manga in the past-either through their Erocomi line or via Comics Journal. Were you involved in those projects?
MT: The only project I was involved in was The Comics Journal #269, the Shoujo Manga issue. I translated Moto Hagio's short story "Hanshin" for that and also conducted a long interview with Hagio, as well as writing an article on the so-called Magnificent Forty-Niners. That's when I learned that Dirk was a kindred spirit, so to speak, and that's what gave me the idea of proposing a Fantagraphics manga line. I had been wanting to do something like this since at least 2000.
PWCW: That's quite a leap from putting together one issue of TCJ to curating an entire publishing line.
MT: Yes, it is. Which is why it took so much time. I can't remember the details, but it was a very gradual thing. And by the time it came down to pitching it to Gary, I had worked up a pretty concrete (and apparently convincing) proposal. My approach is to publish smart, artistic but accessible work that is well translated and has high production values. This goes against the trend that was started by Tokyopop (who reached new audiences by cutting production costs and lowering the cost of trade paperbacks), but it also, in my mind, is the logical follow-up to that trend.
I think the publishers of manga translations have painted themselves into a corner. They very successfully targeted kids with titles like Sailor Moon and Pokémon, and then with teen-oriented titles. But in doing so, they lowered production values-and particularly the quality of translations-so far that their readers have outgrown them. Translators of manga today are paid a fraction of what I was being paid back in the early to mid-1990s. And it shows in the final product. You can get away with that when your readers are all below the age of eighteen, but the Sailor Moon generation is now in college and beyond. They want something more substantial.
PWCW: So you see a continuity between young(er) readers and old(er) readers?
MT: Oh, yes. And it seems the other publishers don't. Kids grow up. Why let go of readers you've worked so hard to get? And why assume that new generations of kids are going to be as excited about manga as the earlier generation was? I love manga, but I know the sales in the first years of the century were fueled to a large extent by fad and the whole "Cool Japan" thing. Fads are nothing to build a real industry on. Just look at the comics bubble of the late eighties and early nineties. People have told me I'm jumping on the bandwagon too late. On the contrary, I think the time is ripe to build a new, reliable market that doesn't depend on trends.
PWCW: Other indie publishers in North America (like Picturebox, Drawn+Quarterly, and now Topshelf) have thrown their hat into the manga publishing arena. Do you see them as paving the way/testing the waters for your forthcoming line?
MT: To be honest, I have not really looked at what they are offering. I hope they are all successful, because I think the more success stories there are, the more the market will grow. There is still enormous room for growth, but some people don't seem to get that. I have my own ideas of how to develop the Fantagraphics line, and they depend to a large extent on my connections to manga publishers, editors, and artists. In the case of the Hagio volume, for instance, strictly speaking, the kosher approach would have been to approach Viz, then have Viz approach Shogakukan, and have Shogakukan approach Hagio. But I knew it would take forever, and some middle-management person somewhere along the line would toss it in the circular file. So I went to Hagio directly, then she and I went to Shogakukan, and from there we got Viz involved. I'm afraid I ruffled some feathers, but it worked out well for everyone.
PWCW: So you have a relationship with Hagio? Is this from the TCJ issue or before?
MT: Long before. We first met in 1994. That was when I was translating her piece There Were Eleven! for Viz. If I hadn't read her The Heart of Thomas back around 1987 or so, I would never have gotten into manga at all, and I can't imagine what I would be doing right now. It's no exaggeration to say she changed my life.
PWCW: Is that why your first Fantagraphics book will be her short stories?
MT: Definitely. My own tastes were very much involved. Also, I knew she would go along with the plan, since I had gained her trust with my translations of There Were Eleven! and A, A. And I knew that other artists would be more willing to listen if they knew Hagio was a part of the line. I'm not sure, but I think the name "Hagio" helped us get Takako Shimura's "Wandering Son."
PWCW: What was it about her work that attracted you?
MT: I had become interested in manga, mostly as a means of studying Japanese, as an exchange student back in 1985 and 1986. On the recommendation of woman friend, I read The Heart of Thomas. And I just found myself weeping uncontrollably. I still can't read it without crying. It's hard to say exactly what triggered such a strong response, but I think it had a lot to do with where I was in my life at the time I read it. I had had a similar experience reading The Catcher In the Rye in the eleventh grade, and again as a freshman in college reading Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. But what struck me the most-after I had settled down-was the fact that a comic book could move me so much. It had just never occurred to me that such a thing could be possible. And that's how I got the idea of introducing shoujo manga to the English-speaking world.
PWCW: Shojo manga in particular?
MT: Yes. I had read some classic non-shojo manga, such as Tezuka's Phoenix and Sampei Shirato's Legend of Kamui, and had found them to be intellectually stimulating, but it was certain shojo manga that evoked such a visceral response. Yumiko Ohshima is another Forty-Niner who affects me that way. And remember, there was no such thing as comics for girls or women (apart from Betty and Veronica) back then. Comics were (and to an extent still are) seen very much as a guy's thing-something for boys and nerdy men who live with their parents.
PWCW: And how about Hagio's work? You've translated some of her material for Viz Media. Will you be seeking out those licenses?
MT: We will definitely be doing more Hagio. Someone else can translate Hagio into English, but only over my dead body. And whoever did the scanlation of "The Heart of Thomas" should watch her back.
PWCW: So we can look forward to seeing the work of other 49'ers?
MT: I would love to do some Ohshima. Some things just don't age well, though. Stories I think are great might just not be practical. Maybe that was the problem with To Terra. I didn't read the translation, so I don't know. We will do works that will resonate with readers today, regardless of when they were made.
PWCW: I want to go back to your remark about manga publishers in the US abandoning their readers. What's led you to this conclusion?
MT: It's not so much that they consciously abandoned them. They just have not been giving them stuff they can enjoy. I go on about translation all the time, but I think it really comes down to the quality of the translation. You can publish something geared at twenty-somethings, but if it's poorly translated, grown ups won't buy it. I don't know why the publishers don't get this. They think there's something wrong with the product, or the market, but they never seem to consider that maybe they dropped the ball. Take Nodame Cantabile. That's a brilliant, hilarious, engrossing manga that was frankly butchered in the Del Rey translation. I read just ten pages or so and steam started coming out of my ears. I even told Ninomiya's Japanese editor when I met her. That should have been a huge success, but it flopped, and the reason is that the translation was awful. Was it Jonathon Clements who said to me, "You pay peanuts, and you get monkeys."
PWCW: Books seem to be falling out of vogue right now with so much interest in e-readers and e-books.
MT: First, I'm hoping that Fanta can get these books reviewed in mainstream publications, and not just comics publications. And advertising in mainstream digital venues-The Huffington Post, for example-seems like another way. But I think Fantagraphics has had some success in the past with certain titles. I am one of the few people who has no fear of the digital revolution. The kinds of books people want to read on e-readers today are books they don't want to keep on their shelves. So obviously, and you see this in Japan, big time, the first to go will be periodicals. Printed periodicals are all but meaningless today. Books are a different story.
Fantagraphics makes gorgeous books that people want to own. But there are ways to get readers without print, and even make some money in the process. Right now we're in a very difficult transition period. The Kindle and iPad are stepping stones. Once you get the kind of flexible, durable, preferably water-resistant e-readers you see in a film like Minority Report (and I think they are less than ten years away), things will change overnight, the way CDs replaced records and digital music players have practically replaced CDs. I think sequential art of all kinds will thrive in that new world. And there will always be books people want to have on their shelves.
PWCW: Since Fanta is a publisher of original work, are you foreseeing any possibility of pairing Japanese artists with writers in the U.S? Or pairing writers and artists in Japan for original content specifically for the Fanta line-up?
MT: I foresee getting Japanese artists to make original work for Fantagraphics, definitely. But I've dabbled in trying to pair American writers with Japanese artists, and it just didn't work. The gulf in expectations and styles is a bit too wide still.
PWCW: You're also affiliated with Kyoto Seika University. Between teaching, translation work, scouting new talent, how does the Fantagraphics line fit into all of this?
MT: I just love translating, and I love working with talented artists. Maybe if this works out well, Gary will offer me a full-time job, with health insurance and everything. I don't need a Porsche. Just a bicycle.