The Bean Dogs Are Coming
Viz Publishing is the U.S. master licensee for Mameshiba (“bean dog”), a hit property in Japan, for children’s book formats. The program marks a departure for Viz in many ways. It is its first major branded children’s line consisting of original titles—partners for additional programs will be announced soon—and the books will be in color. Viz is best known for its black-and-white Japanese manga titles translated for U.S. audiences.
Mameshiba started out as a series of animated shorts shown between television shows; a subsequent merchandising program has generated $100 million in retail sales of licensed products in Japan since 2008. Viz executives came back from visiting Japan—the company’s owners are based there—with samples of Mameshiba products. This led Viz to investigate whether there were any Mameshiba books that might work in the U.S. market. “They were so supercute,” says Traci Todd, senior editor, children’s publishing. At the time, a limited number of books were available, but they were adult-targeted and too culturally specific. So Viz approached the recently opened U.S. office of Mameshiba’s licensor, Dentsu, about doing an original publishing program for children.
The shorts, which have become popular on YouTube, feature two dozen gender-neutral beans, peas and peanuts. They pop up as people are about to eat them, to divulge off-the-wall trivia in child-like voices. “We sort of departed from the idea of the shorts,” says Todd. “Because there was no publishing and it started as a merchandise brand, there were really no parameters.” In Viz’s books the beans, led by the character Edamame, go on adventures and rescue missions where they meet monsters and aliens, still with occasional bursts of unexpected trivia. Twelve titles are planned from 2011 through 2013, starting with a graphic novel and a character guide this July, followed by picture/board books, traditional board books, sticker books and novelty formats for holiday 2011 and beyond.
Skelanimals: Dead But Still Cute
Another manga publisher, TokyoPop, is releasing a series of books for teens and tweens based on Skelanimals, a property created by ex-Disney animator Mitchell Bernal and brand-developed and licensed by Art Impressions. Bernal conceived of the property, which features cute animals that have died mysterious deaths, to help his son cope with the demise of a goldfish.
TokyoPop published its first collectible hardcover storybook in December, followed by a companion iPhone app in January. “The visual style is very iconic, and it’s a really interesting mix of creepy and cute, which tends to do well in the manga community,” says Lillian Diaz-Przybyl, senior editor at TokyoPop. “It has a gothic sensibility, without getting too dark. There’s a huge cast of characters that are very appealing, and no stories had been written about their afterlives.” An Android version of the app (a snowball-throwing game), as well as a free “light” version for the iPhone, are planned. Future publishing is likely to include sequential manga stories and more collectible storybooks tied to holidays such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day.
Art Impressions CEO Cindy Bailey says the property was a hard sell at first. “They’re dead animals, and everyone told us we were crazy,” she says. But amusing backstories, captured in books of poems self-published by Bernal, as well as the manga-like graphics, ultimately translated to licensing success. Retailers ranging from specialty stores to Toys R Us sell teen- and tween-targeted Skelanimals products in all categories, including apparel, jewelry, home décor, electronics, skateboards and scooters. PETA tied in with the property for its “Fur Is Dead” campaign and Target featured Skelanimals as the centerpiece of its biggest-ever Halloween effort in 2009, according to Bailey. Art Impressions has been approached by several animation studios and hopes to launch more computer games and apps, as well as animation, in the future.
ZombieZoo: Undead Animals
Neecy Twinem, author and illustrator of 26 books with Grosset & Dunlap, Charlesbridge and other houses, is launching an original line of plush zombie animals packaged with mini-DVD-storybooks. “There have been a lot of changes in publishing,” Twinem says. “I’m just looking at different and alternative ways to be creative. I’ve always wanted to do toys based on my books and I just decided to start small and do it on my own.” Depending on the fortunes of the plush toys, Twinem may ultimately approach publishers about doing books based on the characters, of which there are currently five.
The author/illustrator describes the 12- to 15-inch plush zombies as “dark but cute.” They are targeted primarily to tweens and teens but are appropriate for younger kids, too. “Zombies are really cool now,” she says. “And my zombies don’t eat brains or do anything gross.” Twinem has authorized some licensed products based on her artwork in the past and is open to partnering with licensees for ZombieZoo as well.
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