Before Tokyopop’s Sailor Moon led the way to today’s shojo manga boom almost 10 years ago, a high percentage of independent U.S. manga publishers were in the business of publishing pornographic manga, or ero manga, the industry’s term. At one point, publishers like Antarctic Press, CPM Press and Fantagraphics had ero manga lines devoted to uncensored sexual content in adult comics printed in the traditional American periodical comic book format. Because of Japan's strict censorship laws, art in ero manga is frequently edited (often by the artists themselves). Yet American erotic manga treated readers to uncensored sexual content at prices that were comparable to average manga prices of the time.
Since the mainstream manga boom of recent years, few of the strictly erotic manga lines remain in business. One company still in operation, Icarus Publishing, takes a very different approach to erotic manga. Devoted solely to Japanese erotica, the Colorado company publishes a bimonthly anthology, Comic AG, currently the longest running manga anthology in North America. Since its debut, the publisher has collected 16 of the AG series into graphic novels format—among them Midara, Blue Eyes and Innocence—as its flagship properties. These three titles will be reprinted in 2007 with new trim size and a new fan-friendly price. This year the publisher will step up its production with plans to release a new graphic novel each month through the end of the year.
PW Comics Week spoke with Icarus publisher Simon Jones about the evolution of the manga market and the difficulties in publishing erotic manga—effectively a market niche within a niche.
PW Comics Week: How long has Icarus been around?
Simon Jones: Icarus has been around since 2002, although one could say we didn't really hit our stride until the end of 2005 to early 2006, when our trade book releases increased.
PWCW: How has Icarus continued to survive when erotic manga lines like Manga 18, Red Light and others have faded?
SJ: Many ero manga publishers that have come and gone were imprints, side businesses which were expendable for their parent publishers. The sane ones with fiduciary accountability and business acumen have since moved on to the greener pastures of mainstream books, in direct response to the market changes of the past few years. However, it is ideology, not profits or market share, that drives Icarus. We specialize in ero manga, period. It's all we do. We have a realistic view of the market and make things work within those limitations.
PWCW: Icarus and Eros [a Fantagraphics erotica imprint] have a wide-open playing field to work with right now. While other publishers have to compete with each other for content, Icarus seems to have a Wild West situation, where you can pick almost anything you want to license when it comes to erotic manga. Or does Icarus also work with specific Japanese publishers?
SJ: There's no competition for licenses. There are too few publishers here that publish ero manga—and too much ero manga being published in Japan—for licensable books to be in shortage anytime soon. But that's not to say ero manga licensing is easy. Rather than fighting other publishers, we're fighting against the inherent problems of working within a small niche, simply being able to make the whole exercise of licensing worthwhile for the Japanese creators and publishers. One of our strategies has been to work almost exclusively with select publishers to build up strong relationships, rather than cherry-picking one or two books from everyone.
PWCW: Are the various genres within ero manga ever considered during the licensing process? Or when deciding on content for the anthology?
SJ: From the books we license to the stories that are run in each issue of our magazine, I do try to cover as wide a range of themes and styles as I can. But there are also other factors, such as the trade book release schedule or simply making sure that we can fill out our allotted 68-72 pages per issue. Not too different from the concerns of other anthology editors, I would assume.
PWCW: What hurdles do ero manga publishers have to overcome in the West? Printers, scanlators, misconceptions of manga, prejudices toward adult entertainment.
SJ: Approaching this from a pragmatic (as opposed to a strictly legal or moral) view, scanlation [publishing untranslated print series online with unofficial translations] isn't necessarily a problem for erotic manga except under very specific circumstances. However, I feel the proliferation of online scans does create a devalued perception of ero manga. They do more than anything to promote ero manga and create new fans, for sure, yet a significant number of those fans will end up becoming accustomed to getting their fix in that particular way, and find little reason to support official products when so much material can be had online. So you win some, you lose some. We just take the bad with the good.
But all that doesn't even compare to the problem of distribution for ero manga in the West. Our sales venues are limited. Unlike other genres of manga, we haven't entered the book market in any meaningful way and probably never will. Our fortunes are tied to the whims of the direct market—your local comic book store. Things have actually been pretty stable, even robust, for the direct market; however, that hasn't necessarily trickled down to smaller publishers like Icarus, nor has the number of stores recovered to its highest point. This is probably the number one hurdle of any comic publisher, not just specifically for ero manga.
PWCW: You occasionally discuss boys’ love (aka yaoi) on the Icarus Blog.
SJ: The reason boys’ love is of such interest to me as an outside observer is that its rise encapsulates everything that's right about manga and independent publishing. Boys Love is largely run by fans for fans, with a vibrant community of creators, local and international. BL showed that conventional wisdom is often wrong and underserved fandoms can take over the reins and succeed. And as smaller publishers innovate and find success, the big lumbering giants will be forced to follow. That's the BL story, that's the manga story. I think it's more important for everyone to read about that than sit around and complain about who isn't being served by the mainstream publishers. Meaningful changes—market, social or otherwise —usually happen from the bottom up, not top down.
PWCW: Where have all the old ero manga fans gone? The imprints are no longer around, but the readers are. Have they moved on to other forms of media? Are they still reading manga or are they reading other adult comics?
SJ: If we're talking about the readers who were buying up Eros and Venus releases back in the day, I don't think they've necessarily moved away from ero manga specifically so much as they've moved away from comics as a hobby when it became harder to find comics shops. Some are reading online, but they probably would still read our books if they knew about us, knew where to get the books, and that process was easier. Our job is to not only get those readers back but to entice new readers, the ones who made the manga revolution possible and are now grown up and looking for something spicier. The strength of manga as a medium has been the variety of material which caters to people at every stage of their lives. We're only a small part, but we're going to be there.
PWCW: Is it possible that Icarus or another publisher can make ero manga viable in the U.S. again?
SJ: It's funny that, as a publisher, I've repeatedly referred to our own chosen market as "niche" and "small." Retailers and any other publisher would be horrified by that. So let me make clear that what we do is and will be sustainable. Will ero manga ever achieve the success other genres have had? Maybe, but it'll take a long time. Will it ever be as ubiquitous as it is in its home country? Never—the two manga-reading cultures are just too different. But have we or anyone else maximized the full market potential of ero manga? Not even close.
While the sales do place us at the very lowest echelon of manga at the moment, I do believe that there are quite a large number of people who would enjoy ero manga, as evidenced by the popularity of our equivalent in [erotic] anime. They just don't know who we are or where to get our books. Some of it is due to market and media apathy caused by the very nature of the books, and some of it is our own failure to be better evangelists for ourselves. We're going to improve matters that we do control, suck it up for the things we do not and focus on releasing books we like at the highest quality we can manage. And if somehow ero manga does become hugely profitable, that would be a nice perk.
PWCW: There is a general perception among most people that pornography as a whole is a big and profitable business. Why is ero manga marginally profitable?
SJ: That is the perception, but as it's often said, common wisdom is rarely wise, merely common. It's not even true for the video porn industry, where most of the money is made by the big cable companies and ISPs, not the producers. Ero manga might not be hugely profitable for me personally, but I'd like to think we're doing okay for our licensors! We pay for our licenses quite a bit ahead of time. It's not that bad, it just doesn't look good on paper. Manga, or just print comics in general, is a top-heavy industry. It's tough for the small independent publishers, period. We need time to grow, to mature as a publisher; we're not looking for big hits, we want to establish a healthy backlist and a consistent fanbase. It's going to be a war of attrition. The explosive success of mainstream manga probably skewed the expectations for what a successful comics publisher should be like.
But as for ero manga, once again most of it goes back to the limited retail avenues, and the inherent difficulties of handling this kind of material. As for ourselves, we aren't as aggressive on pricing on our trade books as we would like to be. We're trying to change that with re-releases of some titles at the $14.95 price point.
PWCW: How does Icarus deal with legal implications? Have you ever been challenged by the police or had issues at customs?
SJ: Whether it's by luck or merely our low visibility, we have not had any direct legal problems, knock on wood. We don't export books either (my apologies to our Canadian friends!), so we have not had customs issues except for one Kafka-esque case when our comics printer, which is based in Canada, made a shipping error. The books were confiscated by Canadian customs in the process of being returned!
Ultimately, the most likely legal problems would be faced by retailers, and I don't know of any that involved our books. I think retailers have been particularly careful with our titles, and they deserve all the credit for that. On our end we do the Japanese thing; we have a big yellow eyesore of a content warning on all of our books. So as far as someone picking up any of our books by mistake, that's going to be very unlikely. Oh, and I guess this is a good time to plug CBLDF.org, right?