It would be relatively easy to make the claim that Japanese pop culture—from Astro Boy in the 1960s to Pokémon in the 1980s—is, so to speak, about as American as apple pie. From comics and animation to fashion, movies and an endless supply of adorable knickknacks, J-pop products are no strangers to the American consumer. And since the late 1990s, licensed English-language editions of Japanese comics—manga—have been instrumental in helping bring book-format comics of all kinds into the general bookstore market.
But the publication of original English-language (OEL) manga—comics created by non-Japanese artists deeply influenced by Japanese manga conventions and sensibility—is a growing and potentially significant phenomenon in the U.S. comics market, offering a new creative vision for the category and the potential for new revenue for U.S. publishers. Out in Los Angeles, Tokyopop is leading the charge, planning to publish more than 50 titles over the next two years into a U.S. market that was created by, and generally demands, "authentic" Japanese-originated manga.
It should come as no surprise that manga's visual and narrative conventions have tremendously influenced Americans of a certain age. These days a generation of American artists and writers are diligently creating a homegrown version of the Japanese comics and animation they love. Call it manga American-style—although if you do you might find yourself in an argument with hardcore manga fans. The proliferation of non-Japanese manga has provoked a strong reaction from hardcore fans as well as from Japanese publishers concerned about the potential of an upstart competing genre. Both groups believe, with significant justification, that the only real manga comes from Japan. But a handful of American publishers (like Antarctic Press in Texas, for instance) have been publishing OEL or MIC (manga-influenced comics)—take your pick—for nearly 20 years, and more is on the way.
Licensed manga—the translated manga that dominates the U.S. market—comes with restrictions, and publishers have always known that OEL offers important advantages. U.S. publishers of translated manga generally only have print rights while the Japanese licensor controls important movie and merchandising rights. Not only does original manga offer publishers a full suite of rights—from TV and film to foreign rights and merchandising—but it also offers real live English-speaking authors available to tour and promote their books—the conventional mainstay of book promotion. Indeed, the whole growth of manga in the U.S. has happened almost entirely without Japanese manga-ka (manga artists) to tour and meet the fans.
Although the Japanese manga market is huge in comparison to that in the U.S. (it represents nearly 40% of total Japanese publishing revenues) and offers an almost endless pool of potential licenses, the competition from U.S. firms for licenses is escalating. Publishers such as Random House's Del Rey Manga (which partners with Kodansha) and Viz Media (owned by both Shueisha and Shogakukon) have partnerships with large Japanese manga publishers and guaranteed content. But add a steadily increasing number of smaller houses, like Broccoli Books, DrMaster, Digital Manga and Central Park Media, to the bulk license shopping of Tokyopop, and you've got the beginnings of a bidding war. As Kurt Hassler, graphic novel buyer for Borders Books and Music, puts it, "Everyone is competing to get the next Full Metal Alchemist." Hassler ought to know. Besides being instrumental in recognizing manga's commercial potential right from the beginning, Hassler is an OEL author himself and published the comic fantasy manga Sokora Refugees with Tokyopop earlier this year.
"You'd be hard pressed to find a publisher who doesn't want to develop a book into an animated series or other merchandise," says Hassler, pointing to the potential of original manga properties. "It's an exciting aspect of the business."
Viz Media and Dark Horse pioneered the publishing of manga for U.S. audiences in the early 1980s. But Tokyopop is responsible for the popularity of publishing manga in mass market paperback in the original Japanese right-to-left format, now the standard format for U.S. licensed manga in translation. Tokyopop launched the Rising Stars of Manga competition in 2002, an effort to identify a pool of talented local manga-influenced artists to create original works. Tokyopop's editorial director, Jeremy Ross, says Tokyopop plans to release 28 original manga titles this year.
"We've signed up 16 former Rising Star winners for 13 different projects," says Ross. Overall, he says, Tokyopop has signed up about 70 projects. "And next year it will be significantly larger. We're constantly trying to sign people every month. This makes it the largest launch in graphic novels of all time."
Ross is quick to point out the advantages of OEL: "We can develop these properties across all media. When we license from Japan we have to pay for each form; movie, video game and so on." But he says that's not the only reason. "We are an entertainment company specializing in manga. Tokyopop has always tried to lead. We're the largest creator of original manga, the go-to people who create in this market. We're getting the greatest quality and diversity."
Ross says the company isn't shy about calling this new variety of manga, well, manga. "We use the term manga for all our books in order to reach the widest possible audience," he explains. "[Manga] is not just stories that come from Japan. A broader audience is beginning to accept that." And what about sales? "Sales on average are as good as our Japanese books," Ross says. "It took off faster than we thought and is doing as good as we hoped."
Tokyopop may have the most ambitious OEL publishing program, but it's not the only one. DC Comics has published a series of well-received manga-influenced titles by Jill Thompson (among them Death: At Death's Doorand Dead Boy Detectives), in addition to CMX, its line of licensed manga. Indie publisher Oni Press in Oregon has published critically acclaimed manga-inspired works including Ted Naifeh's Courtney Crumrin series, whose heroine bears the big eyes and noseless face standard in Japanese girl manga, and Bryan Lee O'Malley's manga-inspired hit series, Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life.
James Lucas Jones, Oni's editor-in-chief, says, "We haven't shied away from the manga comparison. It makes sense for us to adopt that label so that our books will reach the audience." He points to O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series—Oni has gone back to press on its first two volumes—as an example of successful and innovative manga-influenced work. "[Scott Pilgrim] is informed by many different sensibilities," Ross emphasized. "The X-Men, video games, manga. It definitely has momentum. The passionate fans are a testament of what the audience [for OEL] will become."
Even Sabrina, the All-American teen witch series published by Archie Comics, has gone though an OEL manga makeover. Tania Del Rio, a former Rising Stars winner, was hired to take over the series. She maintains the Archie sensibility while infusing the series with the emotional pull common in Japanese girl comics. Last year, Dark Horse took over the print publication of Fred Gallagher's Megatokyo, a groundbreaking OEL manga series that began its life (and continues) as a Web comic.
Other companies, like Antarctic Press and the newly launched Seven Seas, publish nothing but OEL manga. Since 1984, Antarctic Press has published books by American artists that fuse the manga aesthetic with American storytelling. AP publishes such artists as Fred Perry (Gold Digger), Joseph Wright (Twilight X War) and Christopher Reid and John Krantz (Legends from Darkwood). Unlike many manga publishers, AP publishes quite a bit of its material in full color including one of its most popular OEL titles, Neotopia by Rod Espinosa.
Founded just last year, Seven Seas Entertainment is hard at work building a fan base. Its top-selling manga, Amazing Agent Luna, has caught the attention of fans and of foreign publishers. Indeed, despite criticism that OEL isn't manga at all, the steadily increasing quality of domestically created manga is making readers more receptive to a looser definition of the genre regardless of its place of origin.
Kuo-yu Liang, v-p of sales and marketing at Diamond Book Distributors, says that at this point, it's all a matter of marketing: "Books that don't sell are the ones that aren't good, and the ones without marketing." Despite being a new comer, Liang says Seven Seas is "doing all the right things." The company previews its manga on the Web (gomanga.com) and has made those works available for download on Sony PlayStation's portable PSP. Seven Seas sticks to standard manga aesthetics for its artwork and despite being written in English, the company flips the books to read right-to-left just like their Japanese counterparts.
There are, of course, skeptics about the future of OEL. Hardcore fans, of course, have reservations. Manga publishers like Viz Media, owned by two of the largest manga publishers in Japan, don't necessarily have to publish OEL. Viz can rely on a virtually endless supply of high quality manga from its parent companies. Evelyn Dubocq, publicity director at Viz Media, suggests that publishers are turning to original authors only because they are "struggling to find licensed content. Manga is Japanese in origin." And James Killen, graphic novels buyer at Barnes & Noble, points out that the Japanese licenses sell far better than OEL manga.
But Tokyopop responds to skepticism about OEL by emphasizing that manga is both a global publishing andentertainment phenomenon, a now internationalized style of visual storytelling that transcends national origin. "We've seen the globalization of manga taking place," says Ross. "It's a cultural phenomenon that spans nations. It's very significant that we're going to Frankfurt. We'll be licensing to other countries who are interested in buying our original material."
"Our competition isn't other publications," says Tokyopop president John Parker, more than eager to develop Tokyopop original manga into Hollywood film projects. "We are competing with DVDs, games and anime. We are competing for time. Great stories with great characters. That's what the entertainment business is all about."