Viz Media is best known as a publisher of blockbuster teen series such as Naruto and Vampire Knight, but their Signature imprint is designed to appeal to a relatively new audience—older readers looking for more a serious and nuanced brand of fiction—as well as readers looking for smart action and adventure stories who may also have previously shunned manga. Indeed, many comics critics included such Viz Signature series as Pluto, 20th Century Boys, Ooku, and Oishinbo, on their best-comics-of-2009 lists, alongside equally literary American and European titles such as Asterios Polyp, Logicomix, and Stitches. Viz Media editorial manager Leyla Aker took some time to talk with PW Comics Week about the thinking behind the Signature line and Viz’s plans for SigIKKI, an online comics site that also targets older readers, as well as what is in the works for Viz Signature in 2010.

PW Comics Week: Every imprint has its own personality. What’s your shorthand description of the Signature line?

Leyla Aker: Comics for grown-ups. Actually, “Manga for Grownups” was the tagline for PULP, the manga magazine Viz put out back in the '90s that was the forerunner in a lot of ways for what we’re doing now with Signature, and with the IKKI titles in particular. (During the planning stages of the project there was a standing joke in the office that we should call it “PULP 2.0.”). What “comics for grown-ups” means on the simplest level is that these are series created to appeal to a mature audience. They possess much higher levels of narrative and/or artistic sophistication than the majority of graphic novels, which are created for young adults or children.

PWCW: Did the Signature line evolve from the old Editor’s Choice imprint?

LA: The Editor’s Choice imprint came into being around the same time as PULP and Raijin magazine (this was in the late '90s/early '00s); all of them fueled by the same general motivation. The manga and anime industries in North America were just taking off, and properties like Sailor Moon and Pokémon were proving that there were huge potential audiences out there for the content.

However, the lion’s share of what was being released in North America was aimed at children, and children’s properties are only one part of this enormous, diverse creative field. So publishing professionals in both Japan and the U.S. decided to take the next logical step and start bringing over content for older audiences, specifically titles in the seinen genre, which are aimed mainly at male readers in their late teens and up. A lot of fantastic authors were published, but despite the high quality of the works, sales were weak. PULP and Raijin closed, and Editor’s Choice was kind of put on a back burner. The general consensus seems to be that they were just too early. The market hadn’t matured enough yet—literally and metaphorically—to support the seinen genre.

Fast-forward to the late '00s. Shonen and shojo had already exploded in popularity, as had Western graphic novels. The graphic novel format was moving out of the niche ghetto and into the mainstream, and the kids who had started out with Pokémon were now in college and were (we hoped) looking for things to read that spoke to them as adults. A bunch of us at VIZ Media started looking at how we could address that need. Signature is the result.

PWCW: How has it changed since then?

LA: In terms of content, we’re still publishing the masters of the seinen genre like Takehiko Inoue (Vagabond, Real) and Taiyo Matsumoto (Tekkon Kinkreet, GoGo Monster), and bringing in newer creators like Naoki Urasawa (Pluto, 20th Century Boys). We’re also expanding into the more action-oriented side of the spectrum with series like Rei Hiroe’s Black Lagoon, Tsutomu Nihei’s Biomega, and Shirow Miwa’s Dogs. In terms of focus, we’re trying to create a balance between the more “literary” works that would appeal to readers of Western graphic novels like Fun Home or Asterios Polyp and the more “action” works that would appeal to readers of American superhero comics and genre fiction.

PWCW: Do you think these series have more appeal to manga readers or to mature readers who are crossing over from American graphic novels?

LA: Anecdotally, we’re seeing both so far. A lot of it depends on the specific series. For something like Biomega, it’s not the Naruto reader picking it up so much as the Avengers or Resident Evil reader—which makes sense when you look at the book, or if you know that Nihei has created art for Wolverine and Halo. For something like Bokurano, which is a sophisticated spin on the mecha (a.k.a. giant robot) genre, manga readers are more likely to be the ones drawn to it.

PWCW: How do the Signature manga do in the direct market?

LA: The series in the Signature line definitely have more of an appeal to the direct market for the reasons I mention above. For a customer at an independent comics store, it’s more of a natural transition to go from picking up White Out to Black Lagoon than to, say, a Shojo Beat series. And something unique and fun like Oishinbo is easier to recommend and hand-sell than a series with a more generic premise. I’ve had a couple of comic store owners come up to me and ask when we’re going to publish more of it!

PWCW: Why did you decide to set up the IKKI website based on a single magazine?

LA: As a lot of readers are probably aware, manga is first published in Japan in magazines designed to appeal to very different, specific audiences, ranging from grade-school children to working adults. As a result, these magazines all possess a certain holistic creative identity that’s reflected by the series they contain.

The reason why IKKI and Signature are such a good fit is because their objectives are the same: to publish series that offer a diverse range of content but that are all marked by creative excellence. Another factor is that both lines are gender-neutral, so to speak; their content is aimed at both adult men and women, which is fairly unusual for manga.

How the website came about functionally is that Hideki Egami, the editor-in-chief of IKKI, and Hyoe Narita, the publisher of VIZ Media, had both worked together at a magazine called Big Comic Spirits back in the day and had remained friends. The possibility of bringing IKKI to the English-language audience online started over the proverbial conversation in a bar, and here we are.

PWCW: How do you decide which manga from the IKKI site will be published in print? Is it strictly traffic, votes, reviews—or internal factors that we can’t see?

LA: It’s a combination of all these. That said, we were all kind of making bets internally about which series would turn out to the most popular, and so far they’ve largely turned out to be correct. I mean, it’s pretty hard to bet against things like Bokurano or House of Five Leaves.

PWCW: I haven¹t seen any ads other than for VIZ products on the site. Are you currently accepting ads?

LA: We are currently accepting ads. The site went on hiatus over the holidays, which is probably why you haven’t seen much change recently. Monetization is always the issue for media online, and it’s relatively rare for sites to be able to survive on ad revenue alone. As with many other media companies, we’re hoping to recoup our costs of running the site mainly via product sales, which in our case is the print version of our manga.

PWCW: Would you consider including a non-Japanese title in the Signature line?

LA: We don’t have any immediate plans to do so. But comics publishing in the U.S. is changing so fast that I’ve learned to never say never.

PWCW: What is your background, and how did you come to work at VIZ?

LA: My professional trajectory is pretty typical for someone in publishing, I think. I was a bookworm as a kid, started out working in bookstores when I was in high school and continued through college. I thought I would stay on the retail side of the industry but ended up at my first job at a publishing house sort of by chance. After that I worked in trade publishing in New York on the editorial side for about a decade.

Comics and manga and anime were my hobby, what I read and watched as a break from working on prose books. Just at the point when I was ready for a professional change I met my future bosses, Elizabeth Kawasaki and Alvin Lu, through a mutual friend, Anne Ishii. It was one of those bitterly cold New York winter nights, and we ended up huddled in the back of a bar in Hell’s Kitchen. I didn’t really know who they were at the time, but I do remember that after a couple of bottles I was babbling on with Alvin about RAW and California wines. Turns out they were looking for an editor, and next thing I knew I was in San Francisco working at VIZ Media. After landing here I sort of drifted into working on Signature titles because seinen is my preferred genre.

PWCW: What comics do you read for fun?

LA: I’m omnivorous. The question for me is not so much what to read as finding the time to read it. My “to read” pile is like a paper version of the Blob. Or a midden heap. The titles that have made it up to the bedside table this week are. Amaen ja ne yo by Renaissance Yoshida, a relatively new manga creator with one of the most powerful and utterly unique styles I’ve ever seen. New Teen Titans. I’ve been on a Marv Wolfman kick the past few months. Asterios Polyp. Gotta catch up on what the rest of the world is raving about.

PWCW: Is there a series you think deserves more attention than it is getting?

LA: I want to see Real get some more love. Everyone I’ve pushed it onto has the same reaction. First they say, “Manga about wheelchair basketball? Right…” Then they come back and ask for more. It’s such an unusual premise, but it’s Inoue, so it’s brilliant. If the man wrote a series about watching paint dry, I’d read it. And I’m really hoping that GoGo Monster gets more good press (and sales); it’s singular evidence of Matsumoto’s genius.

PWCW: What series are you most optimistic about in 2010?

LA: We’ve seen very strong initial sales for Biomega and fabulous critical reception for Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku and All My Darling Daughters. And there’s a whole passel of IKKI titles coming out this spring and summer: Bokurano, Dorohedoro, Saturn Apartments, Afterschool Charisma, I’ll Give It My All… I really can’t pick a favorite out of them.

But I guess the thing I’m looking forward to most is publishing a whole heckuva lot of Natsume Ono. not simple came out in January, and will be followed by Ristorante Paradiso in March, House Of Five Leaves vol. 1 in April (it’s been serialized on since last summer), and Gente vol. 1 in July. This is one of the best parts of my job: going out and finding cool stuff, and then getting share it with everyone else.