Doctor-turned-comics artist Osamu Tezuka (1928—1989) is regarded as the godfather of manga. Although some of his work is available in the U.S.—Dark Horse publishes the Astro Boy and Next World series; Viz does Phoenix—his eight-volume classic, Buddha, hasn't been translated into English.
That's about to change with the publication of the first two volumes, Kapilavastu (Oct.) and The Four Encounters (Nov.), this fall by Vertical Inc., a New York City press that publishes contemporary Japanese bestsellers in English, like Koji Suzuki's Ring (Apr.), on which the DreamWorks film The Ring is based. Buddha would be an ambitious project for any house, but is especially so for Vertical, which launched its first list last spring and is still in the process of building its program to 20 books a year.
For Micah Burch, one of the directors of Vertical, Buddha is a logical extension of the company's mission. "Much like the gems of contemporary fiction, these classic manga books got overlooked," he told PW. And Vertical is determined to make Buddha as appealing to an American audience as possible. For starters, it has deliberately chosen to buck the trend among manga publishers—the images in Buddha are flipped so that they read in typical English fashion, rather than Japanese-style, right to left. "This was an effort to make it a little bit more universal," said Burch, who regards the art as an integral part of the translation process. "We translated artwork in Japanese into artwork in English."
The hardest part of the translation process may have been preserving Tezuka's puns and the onomatopoeia of the thuds, slashes and whooshes of the action frames. "It was written in a slang Japanese," noted Burch, raising another issue that the company grappled with: "Do we want a literal translation? How would it sound to the Japanese?" In the end, Vertical chose to stay true to Tezuka's playful spirit. In one of his many humorous touches, Tezuka wrote himself into the book and can be spotted wearing glasses and his signature beret. The company has also received some flack for its decision to use American slang, such as "Bro," "Moms" and "Peeps." But, as Burch noted, "Tezuka takes liberties with the stories that devout Buddhists may take issue with as well."
Like the other titles on Vertical's list, Buddha is being issued first in hardcover, even though most manga is typically published in paperback original. Vertical is not the only one facing a set of firsts to get Buddha to market. This is National Book Network's first manga; long-time comics distributor Diamond is handling sales to comics accounts.
Vertical is just starting to line up publicity for the books. Acclaimed book designer Chip Kidd, who reportedly joined the company largely for the opportunity to work on Buddha, will be the primary spokesperson going forward. Three more volumes of Buddha are due out in the spring; the final three volumes will be published in fall 2004.