U.S.-based manga publisher and anime distributor Viz Media made its mark in the American comics scene by publishing bestselling Japanese manga such as Naruto, Dragon Ball, and the Eisner-award-winning series 20th Century Boys. Over the past year, however, the publisher has begun branching out in a new direction, releasing original graphic novels created just for them.
Viz is owned by the Japanese companies Shueisha Inc., Shogakukan Inc., and Shogakukan-Shueisha Productions, Co., Ltd., and almost all their manga comes from those two publishers. That changed last July, when Viz released Meet Mameshiba! and Mameshiba: On the Loose! Although they were based on the animated cartoons produced by the Dentsu advertising agency in Japan, the books were all new material published for U.S. audiences.
Since then, Viz has published a graphic novel based on the Nicktoons cartoon Voltron Force and two more featuring the Roger Hargreaves characters Mr. Men and Little Miss, with more volumes on the way for both series. They have also announced two more licensed series, Redakai and Winx.
Traci Todd, senior editor of children's publications, said that she came on board in 2008 to grow the VizKids imprint. "It soon became clear there wasn’t a lot of content coming from Japan that was appropriate for a kids audience," she said. "I realized the only way to grow the imprint was to get licensed characters."
Although the books seem to have all come at once, Viz senior editorial director Beth Kawasaki said that they have been in the works for some time. "We saw an opportunity a couple of years ago to bring things over that weren’t already in a certain format and could be turned into something fun and exciting, and hopefully profitable as well," she said. "We started talks, and things are now coming into fruition."
Kawasaki said the books would be marketed through a variety of channels, including Barnes & Noble as well as smaller retail chains, Diamond, club stores, book clubs, book fairs, and Amazon. As for digital, she said, "We are looking into different options at this time, what format I can't say, but we will have a digital product for kids. We do have a nice catalog to choose from for the kids' imprint, but it is nowhere near as deep and vast as what we have in our Shonen Jump imprint, where we have had series for years—some, like Naruto and One Piece, are over 50 volumes unto themselves, whereas I would probably have less than 50 titles altogether for kids' books. We may have a different strategy for kids, but digital is something we are very interested in."
Viz did a Voltron Force comic for Free Comic Book Day, and the licensor actually made a book trailer for the first volume of the series. Todd said there are also plans to promote the book at the upcoming American Library Association conference.
Todd said she looks for properties that have strong storytelling elements. "We really look for properties that have kid appeal, that we are sure and confident that children will gravitate toward," she said. "If we are really lucky, as we were with Mr. Men and Little Miss and Voltron Force, we will have a secondary audience as well of teens and even adults."
"The number one thing is will kids like this?" said Kawasaki. "Is there something there for them? Is there something we can do with the property, either expanding the universe that already exists, or as in Mameshiba, creating the narrative?" The Voltron Force books include stories that are parallel to the show, so they don't interrupt the narrative of what is on TV, she said.
The Mr. Men and Little Miss books are based more closely on the animated cartoon than the original small-format books authored by Hargreaves, Todd said. "The little books are the classic brand; we went with the attitude and conventions of the cartoon brand," she said. "The sensibility had been established in the cartoon: It's for a slightly older audience; the characters look a bit different. We worked with writers who worked on the cartoon—we hired them to write the book."
"We like to have a nice mix so we have what could be traditional boys' action titles, and for girls more magic fantasy cute stuff," Kawasaki said. "We do try to have a balance there, but it's what we think can work in the marketplace."
Kawasaki said that she finds creators in a number of different ways, from hiring people who have worked on the franchise to paying visits to art schools that have comics programs—although she stresses that Viz is not doing open call portfolio reviews. "I met [Voltron Force writer and editor] Brian Smith from a completely different deal on something else and found out what a fan he was, and we were all geeking out," said Kawasaki. "His enthusiasm came through." And Jacob Chabot, the artist on Voltron Force 1, was a fan of the show from childhood and even sent the editors a photo of his mother's homemade Voltron costume.
That sort of enthusiasm is why Kawasaki thinks it's important for Viz to have a children's line. "Our stuff is for ages six to nine right now, and that's such a great age for kids to be forming their love of narrative, of storytelling, of art," she said. " I don't want to sound like we are doing educational comics—at the end of the day we are doing entertainment—but I think just as a company, we see the potential for the audience,” Kawasaki said.