The manga revolution was alive and well in East Rutherford, New Jersey, last weekend, as manga fans, cosplayers, and professionals rubbed shoulders at MangaNEXT, the only convention in the U.S. devoted solely to manga.
The Sheraton Hotel was taken over by fans and cosplayers, who formed long lines for the concert and posed for photographers in the lobby and the hallway. In the panel rooms, manga publisher Vertical Inc. announced two new licenses and other publishers as well as creators discussed the strategies they are using to survive and thrive in a changing marketplace. After a couple of brutal years that has seen U.S. manga sales drop significantly, it seems that the manga industry is shaking it off and moving forward, but not necessarily following the usual paradigms.
Consider manga creator Tomo Maeda, one of several guests who came from Japan. Maeda is the creator of Black Sun, Silver Moon, a series that was published by the now defunct publisher Go! Comi and is now carried on the JManga digital manga website, a cooperative effort by a number of Japanese manga publishers to provide online access to manga to the North American market. She was there in the company of executives from JManga and her Japanese publisher, Shinshokan.
"Shinshokan is very interested in releasing their content in America as well as other countries abroad, but especially in America, the overall manga market has been difficult in the last few years, so we are looking for creative ways to get as much content as possible out to American readers," said Hironari Suenaga, Shinshokan's director of publication selection. "One way to do this is to release manga digitally through JManga." As for other possible channels, Suenaga said, "We don’t have anything concretely planned yet. The approach for the time being is to see how things go with JManga and look at other options in the future."
You could hear the tectonic plates shifting in the panel rooms, as creators and publishers outlined very different views of the market. Ben Dunn of Antarctic Press, whose Ninja High School comic is currently on hiatus because it can't make Diamond's minimum numbers for distribution, bemoaned the problem of digital piracy. "Unless they get the ability to print a comic down to the cost where it is low enough to be worth it, people are just going to keep reading it online because it's convenient and it's free," he said.
But Robert McGuire, editor-in-chief of GEN Manga, an online magazine that publishes doujinshi (fan-made manga) in Japanese and English editions, said he doesn't mind at all if his back issues are pirated—as long as readers continue to pay for the new issues. "We are not worried about theft," he said in the GEN panel. "With pirating, you can't fight it. In the end, people reading the pirated comics or even putting the pirated comics up on the net are fans themselves. I appreciate people who would continue to pay for it, but if you want to read our back issues for free, if you want to pirate them, that's OK. But for new material you have to come to us."
McGuire also said he keeps costs low by eliminating the middlemen: He sells manga as downloadable PDFs, with no third party involved, and he negotiates directly with creators, eliminating the license fees that many publishers pay to the Japanese licensors.
In addition to Maeda, the guests included yaoi creator Makoto Tateno and a trio of former Tokyopop creators: Felipe Smith (MBQ), Jen Lee Quick (Off Beat), and James L. Barry (Warriors).
Smith has moved on and is now living and working in Japan, where his manga Peepo Choo was published in Kodansha's Morning 2 magazine before being picked up by the American publisher Vertical; he is currently working on several new pitches to Japanese magazines. Quick stopped making comics after Tokyopop canceled her series Off Beat during one of the company's periodic shakeups, but she has recently resumed work and hopes to publish it digitally with a new publisher, whom she would not name. And Barry said that although Tokyopop closed its doors last year, HarperCollins, which co-published the Warriors series, has just released the second volume of the current trilogy, SkyClan and the Stranger, and will release the third in April.
The creator lineup also included Dave Roman, who sold his Avatar and X-Men graphic novels and his creator-owned Astronaut Academy from a small table in Artists Alley. And the future of the business was there as well, as would-be artists asked enthusiastic questions in workshop panels and independent artists Lizbeth Jimenez and Emily Wing showed off their self-published work.
Neither of the big New York-based publishers, Kodansha and Yen Press, sent representatives across the Hudson to participate, but the smaller publisher Vertical--a small publisher of manga and Japanese contemporary literature in translation that was acquired by Kodansha in early 2011--was a prominent presence at the con. Vertical marketing director Ed Chavez announced two new licenses in his panel: The Limit, a shoujo manga about bullying whose survivor storyline should appeal to male readers as well, and Heroman, a teen boy series co-developed by Stan Lee. Chavez was doing a brisk business at the Vertical table in the dealers' room as well, selling everything from the all-ages cat manga Chi's Sweet Home to the sophisticated wine drama Drops of God to an eager audience.
Yaoi Press publisher Yamila Abraham said that she had recently announced two new print books, a yaoi manga titled Punishment and an illustrated novel titled Royal Pain, both written by her, but that the most robust part of her business at the moment is digital, specifically yaoi prose stories that are sold via Amazon Kindle. "Kindle is saving our business," she said. "Our e-books have been growing exponentially, because we are able to sell books immediately to Germany, Italy, Spain… And once someone has read one of our books on Amazon, they know about the others as well," because Amazon accompanies each listing with a list of similar titles.
While some guests were there to see the creators and pick up some pointers, others were there to see and be seen. Cosplaying fans dressed up as characters from Black Butler (which seemed to be particularly popular this year), Durara, Soul Eater, and Hetalia mingled with Captain Jack Sparrow and Queen Victoria. Some posed for a professional photographer in an improvised studio while others simply stopped for enthusiastic fans. The general impression was of older teens—more 18-year-olds than 14-year-olds—although the location, which is not accessible by public transit, may have had something to do with that. Most of the panels were sparsely attended, which suggests that the audience was there to socialize rather than to learn, although the yuri panel led by Erica Friedman was packed, and word is that Abraham's yaoi panels drew a good audience as well.
MangaNEXT has always been an interesting convention, and though they have taken a couple of years off, this was a strong year, with a smoothly run operation, a good-sized crowd of attendees, and a robust guest list. While none of the big U.S. players were there, the more interesting growth seems to be among the smaller publishers, and the willingness of Japanese publishers and guests to come to a small convention says something about the significance of MangaNEXT and state of the manga industry here.