Manga in America
Episode 5 of Crunchyroll's Anime in America podcast is here, this time exploring the world of manga and how closely tied it is to the anime industry in Japan. Read on for the full transcript!
The Anime in America series is available on crunchyroll.com, animeinamerica.com, and wherever you listen to podcasts.
EPISODE 5: MANGA IN AMERICA
Guests: Rachel Thorne, Nick Rowe
Disclaimer: The following program contains language not suitable for all ages. Discretion advised.
Manga, the section of Barnes & Nobles you had to walk all the way around because the floor was covered in teenagers, or maybe you were those teenagers. Once a vanishingly small piece of a market completely dominated by Marvel and DC, these black and white comics all the way from Japan have eclipsed domestic publishers to represent what might be the largest foothold Japan holds in any U.S. industry. How did we get here? Well, let’s start with the first manga in America, which you might be surprised to learn was actually made in the United States.
So this podcast is about the history of manga in America and for such a podcast you’d probably want to start at the beginning and, of course, stuff like this is extremely hard to track down since very little before the invention of the internet can be proven to have happened at all. One man I spoke with seems to think he has the answer.
The Four Immigrants Manga was illustrated in the home of Crunchyroll, San Francisco, California by a Japanese immigrant by the name of Henry Kiyama way back in 1927. Written in both English and Japanese the comic would be indecipherable to anyone who couldn’t understand both languages, making it custom-tailored to the bilingual community of immigrants in the city. What might have been a cultural artifact lost to time can actually be bought today, lovingly translated and heavily annotated by a man named Frederick Schodt, who is going to be pretty important in this podcast.
Fred is a writer, translator, and interpreter who’s received a number of awards for his work including the Order of the Rising Sun in 2009 for “distinguished achievements in international relations, promotion of Japanese culture, advancements in their field, and development in welfare or preservation of the environment.” But for our purposes he is a member of a group of manga enthusiasts in Tokyo who came up with the crazy idea of translating manga to English called “Dadakai.”
Back in 1977 a group of friends working in Tokyo including Fred Schodt, Shinji Sakamoto, Jared Cook, and Midori Ueda decided to try translating manga and, through one of Sakamoto’s connections, actually managed to secure a meeting with Tezuka Productions where, to the group’s surprise, they met with Osamu Tezuka himself. Always searching for an international audience for his works, Tezuka agreed to let the group translate his manga Phoenix, a personal favorite of Fred’s.
This might have been a landmark moment but, while the group had the jump on translating manga for the U.S. market, they were also a bunch of bilingual idealists with no means of their own to distribute their work. The group translated the first five volumes of Tezuka’s Phoenix in 1967 but couldn’t publish it, so they turned their work back in to Tezuka Productions with the hope it’s leaders’ enthusiasm would translate into a release. Ultimately it sat in Tezuka’s archives for 25 years before finally being published in the U.S. by VIZ, who brought Fred and Jared on to translate the remaining seven volumes.
The first manga to receive an official translation and distribution in America was Kaiji Nakazawa’s semi-autobiographical recounting of Hiroshima in the aftermath of the atomic bombing, titled Barefoot Gen.
[Barefoot Gen music]
The english edition was actually translated and printed in Tokyo by a group of volunteers called Project Gen, of which our friend Fred was a member, and then was distributed in New York City in May of 1978 by the War Resisters League, a pacifist organization that had been around since World War One and still exists today, as a cautionary tale against nuclear proliferation.
Unfortunately it was not popular and the run was cancelled after two volumes, but the cultural importance of Nakazawa’s work would result in two more attempts to put Gen in the American market. The second was a heavily Americanized version in 1988 by New Society Publishers titled “Barefoot Gen: The Cartoon Story of Hiroshima,” again unsuccessful, before finally receiving a fully released translation between 2004-2010 by Last Gasp Publishing, a very ironic name, this time backed by the famous cartoonist Art Spiegelman who himself penned the comic Maus recounting the experience of Polish Jews during World War Two.
After that not so successful 1978 attempt, it took eight years before someone gave manga in the U.S. another go. In 1986, Taiko Saito had an English edition produced from his long-running story of a one-shot-one-kill assassin Golgo 13. The volume, called Golgo 13 Graphic Novel Series No 1: Into the Wolves’ Lair was shipped to the U.S. and distributed by American Books Nippan. You may have noticed so far, all these attempts have originated in Japan.
It wasn’t until 1987 that American publishers began releasing licensed and localized manga published in the U.S. In May of that year, First Comics began releasing its run of the bloody samurai epic Lone Wolf and Cub, which is basically the Mandalorian and Baby Yoda in Edo period Japan. It’s print was strange for the time, coming out in monthly issues that were square bound and included anywhere from 64 to 128 pages with covers illustrated by none other than Frank Miller, a.k.a. the man you can thank for turning Batman into an edgelord thanks to his “Dark Knight Returns” series. Frank’s 1983 comic Ronin had been heavily influenced by Lone Wolf and Cub, although he couldn’t read Japanese and had just looked at the drawings before its official release.
In a two month period afterward, a variety of publishers would release Mai the Psychic Girl, Speed Racer, Area 88, and even Astro Boy, translated by Fred Schodt, and released almost 20 years to the month after the anime first aired on American television [end of the Astro Boy opening plays]. Fans of the heavily localized animation were, ironically, disappointed that the manga showed a lack of familiarity with the story concepts of the TV anime. The TV anime that was, as I said, heavily localized.
The next year even Marvel Comics got into the game, beginning their print of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and a guy named Toren Smith would start a company called Studio Proteus which specialized in acting as the middleman for American publishers looking to license and localize manga. Among his achievements were getting the majority of Masamune Shirow’s works such as Appleseed, Black Magic, and even Ghost in the Shell (translated by Fred Schodt) brought over to the U.S.
At the time Shirow had a dedicated fandom in Japan, but his work proved to be much more popular in the West. His high concept, high violence science fiction titles found a real following in the U.S. and Europe, and this would eventually turn around and boost his acclaim in his native country when Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film adaptation, itself a co-production funded by the UK-based Manga Entertainment transformed the IP into one of the most well-known works of science fiction in history.
By the end of the 80s, manga had gained a small but powerful cult following.
That said, most of the stuff they were printing in the U.S. in the late 80s and early 90s would be unrecognizable as manga compared to what we see today, the little roughly 200-page novel-sized black and white volumes popularly known as tankobon in Japan or digest size in the United States. Publishers went to great lengths to ensure that manga would feel familiar to the American comic consumer. So just about everyone in the industry was printing their manga in the style of American floppy, those 32-page single issue comics that have the stapled spines like Amazing Spider-Man or Batman… whatever you- what have you.
Essentially, in the same vein as much of this chronicle, these publishers were trying to sell manga as American comics and to that end, they also flipped the entire thing over so it could be read from left to right rather than the original Japanese format of right to left, either reversing entire pages or painstakingly reversing the order of panels on the page. This was just how manga was until the early 2000s with only a few exceptions which we’ll go into later.
Other localization efforts were “colorizing” manga, which sounds uh… bad, when you say it out loud. Most manga are black and white, and black and white comics just didn’t sell well in the American market, so to avoid falling in that pothole, they’d hire artists to professionally treat manga like coloring books. Publishing manga was a risky venture back in the day and publishers did everything they could to lower the barrier of entry for American comics fans to get into manga.
I will go ahead and tell you now that all of these were bad ideas and that will become more clear as we continue on. In fact, the number one mistake all the comic publishers made trying to sell Japanese comics was marketing them toward American comic book fans.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say the biggest mistake ever made by publishers was ever putting manga in comic book stores to begin with. Working out of comic book stores actually prevented manga from finding a wide audience for three reasons. The first is that comic shops are a small market with limited customers who… ah, I’ll just say are of a certain type. The second is many stores had no interest in carrying manga at all either due to prejudice against or unwillingness to accept the risk of carrying an unproven foreign medium. The third is that the comic shops who were interested had to order their manga through a company called Diamond Comic Distributors.
If you haven’t heard of Diamond, they’re a distributor that comic shops almost universally are forced to work through to stock their shelves. Diamond has been around since the early 80s and have become notorious To. This. Day. for… I guess forgetting what they have in stock? Just entirely forgetting. After the initial order of an upcoming manga, titles tended to disappear from their catalog forever, even when the publisher can confirm there should still be volumes in stock. How and why this is is anyone's guess but it leaves retailers in a position where you can either take a risk and over order an upcoming manga or play it safe and miss out if you want to restock. Guess which option most of them chose?
Manga publishers were leaning into a small existing comic reading demographic through unreliable distribution which, unfortunately, prevented manga from breaking into the mainstream.
It wasn’t until the 90s that manga would begin to find its legs in the U.S. And for that we can probably thank none other than a small (at the time) company called VIZ Media. Although far from the first to publish manga in the U.S., VIZ, which was founded in the anime and manga mecca of San Francisco by Seiji Horibuchi in 1986, was the first to make a real footprint focusing primarily on publishing manga.
Now they had one major advantage that other startups did not. It was a subsidiary of Shogakukan, a major Japanese publisher that founded the Hitotsubashi Group, a major partnership of Japanese publishers including Hakusensha and Shuiesha… two publishing companies ALSO founded by Shogakukan. This is important because these three companies were then and still are three of the most successful manga publishers in Japan. Shuiesha in particular is notable for one of their almost 30 manga publications, one of which you may already have heard of called Weekly Shonen Jump, a weekly collection of manga chapters that has featured titles such as One Piece, Dragon Ball, and Naruto.
Blessed with the most direct pipeline to a Japanese license holder that would exist in the U.S. for the next few decades and no small amount of seed capital, VIZ was able to be strategic, limit their costs, and ride out fluctuations in the comics industry. They were publishing manga as early as 1987 but wouldn’t find major success until they began their first print from the mangaka who would become VIZ’s #1 money maker for years to come, Rumiko Takahashi.
In 1992, VIZ began publishing Takahashi’s second major long running shonen hit, Ranma ½, a romantic comedy martial arts series about a boy named Ranma who falls into a cursed spring and turns into a woman every time he’s splashed with cold water. It would also be the first anime licensed by VIZ, released in 1993. At the time, the manga became the greatest success in the history of manga in America. You see, the manga was sold in comic shops but the dubbed VHSs made it onto the shelves of video stores like Blockbuster, which was a thing that once existed.
Thorn: At the time, video rental stores were becoming a thing, and yet the major producers of content in the U.S. were really cautious about putting things on VHS, because they thought that it would be pirated. And so you had these rental shops, but they didn’t have a lot of stuff to put out, so they would put literally anything that wasn’t pornographic on their shelves.
Thorn: My name’s Rachel Thorne, I teach about manga and comics at the Kyoto Seika University, and I’ve been doing so since 2000. And I’ve been translating manga into English for… about 30 years.
Rachel was the translator for VIZ and the original translator for Ranma ½. She also translated Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa manga and is basically the only person allowed to translate the works of the woman considered to be the “founding mother” of shojo manga, Moto Hagio.
Thorn: So you got all kinds, back in like 1990, there was just all kinds of weird stuff in video rental stores. Obscure documentaries and things, just anything, they would put it out there. So- and yet, everybody had a video deck and they wanted to watch stuff, so they would go to the rental store and they would say “oh, what’s this with big eyes?” And it’s like Speed Racer [laughs]. Because I think back then, people would see the big eyes and they would think “Go, Speed Racer!” And that’s how Ranma took off, and I think that’s how anime in general took off was that they were getting on the shelves in rental stores, and rental stores were being visited by just ordinary people and not some, not some narrow group, and then that fed back. And then, you know, of course the success of the anime then helped promote the sales of manga and then people became aware that manga was a thing and we started to gradually grow from there.
Finding an escape from the limited comic market, Ranma earned fans through its anime that drove interest in the manga. This just so happens to be the formula anime was essentially invented for, driving fans to buy the comics and associated toys. Ranma ½ sold so well that they did the exact same thing with Takahashi’s next long-running work, Inu Yasha, which they began publishing in 1998 and put the anime out on Adult Swim in 2002 and which recently found its way to Crunchyroll in December of 2019.
The formula hit critical mass when Pokemon finally hit the U.S. in 1998 and VIZ’s concurrent manga release, issue #1 of Pokemon: The Electric Tales of Pikachu, would hit an industry first of becoming the best selling comic in the U.S. With manga now handily kicking Marvel’s ass you might be wondering how that formula works with the MCU being the biggest movie series in the history of cinema. Well…
Rowe: The movies are very different from the comics, and that has to do a lot with Marvel, the way Marvel markets and sells their comics. The connection between the comics and the movies is nonexistent. When a movie comes out, they don’t have any kind of concurrent themes or relevant themes or you know, connections to the movies, it’s all its own continuity. And stuff that’s the storylines that they pull for the movies are out of print and trade when the movie drops, and for six months after the movie drops. I mean, it’s a complete disaster. So yes, people have been coming in saying “hey I saw Into the Spiderverse! Where’s the comic?” And our answer to that is “uhh…,” because there is none. And that’s just a fatal mistake on their part. So it’s a very different beast.
Basically when it comes to anime. What you see is what you’re gonna get in the manga, which usually has a straightforward single chronology. If you liked Ranma ½ the anime, you could just pick up issue one of the manga instead of sorting through everything Marvel has ever done to figure out which run of Spider-Man featured the Vulture as Mary Jane’s father. That was Nick Rowe, by the way…
Rowe: So my name is Nick Rowe, I’m the manga guy at Dr. Comics Mr. Games in Oakland. I’ve been doing it since 2007-8, ish? So I started, I took over this section right at the beginning of the crash in ‘08. But I was also here through the Tokyopop boom and even here during the single issue stuff back in the early days. So I have a lot of experience slinging manga in a comics store.
He’s been slinging manga at Dr. Comics Mr. Games, Diamonds’s #1 manga account west of the Rockies for the past 10 years. Basically, they move more Japanese comics than anyone outside of the East Coast, making them an aberration among comic shops. Nick himself has been in the industry since manga was coming out in flipped floppies, the versions trying to look like Western comic books, 20 page, staplebound, with all the panels rearranged to read left to right, you were listening earlier, I hope.
Speaking of which, VIZ takes credit for printing the first unflipped manga in the United States. Their original Neon Genesis Evangelion run in 1998 was promoted as being released in “authentic Japanese right-to-left format” in response to popular request by their readers. But just as likely it was the result of a request by the author Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. It was followed shortly after by Dragon Ball which also went unflipped, this time DEFINITELY because the creator Akira Toriyama requested it. You don’t say no to him.
[Dragon Ball Z, Goku Pushes His SSJ Form to its Limits!]
It made Goku. And you don’t say no to Goku. Unless you’re Frieza. I gue- okay, okay, I guess you can say no to Goku, but you get the point.
Both, by the way, were still sold in those stapled leaflet 32-page floppy formats. You can’t win every battle. I’m sorry.
In the midst of their early 90s success, VIZ was operating on a tried-and-true business model with popular Japanese properties. They had no reason to deviate from their course but for some reason, but still they asked themselves what would turn out to be THE question that would shape the future of sequential art storytelling in the United States…
What if… women… also read comics? Crazy.
Thorn: There was no plan to do any kind of shojo manga at all. Of course, I suggested it almost as soon as they hired me. I suggested it and they said “oh no, girls don’t read comics in America, and the comic book shops would never carry it.” And as I said, the Editor-in-Chief at the time who was Sotoru Fuji and he said that at the time that he really wanted to do Bananafish. We ended up finally doing Bananafish, but that was before then, before then. I don’t remember how I finally managed to convince them to do it, I think I had started doing a column for Animerica about shojo manga and I guess they just decided to give it a try because I pestered them so much. And so the first thing we did was something that was easy to get the rights to, that was short, and not too like flowery and not too girly and that was a couple of short stories by Keiko Nishi, The Promise and Achieving the Bond. And that was the first title released, I believe, onto the Flower imprint. I’m pretty sure they used the Flowers imprint. It’s a goofy name for an imprint, but it actually comes from at the time VIZ was a wholly owned subsidiary of Shogakukan, and now it’s Shogakukan and Shueisha both, but at the time it was just Shogakukan. Shogakukan has used the title “flower” or “flowers” in their shojo manga for decades and decades, so that’s where that came from. And so Keiko Nishi’s Promise was the first, I believe, Flower imprint, in fact I’m sure that was the first Flower imprint. And then after that we did- they thought that it would, we could take a chance on science fiction, so we did Moto Hagio’s They Were Eleven, which is a classic science fiction shojo manga and that was well received. And then it sort of gradually snowballed from there.
In 1994, VIZ started out a new imprint of comics called VIZ Flower Comics focusing on shojo manga, starting with romance Promise, following high schooler Reiko’s struggles with her mother remarrying with the help of a childhood friend, and including titles like They Were Eleven from the aforementioned manga luminary Moto Hagio.
The relative success of this run could be considered a miracle. Since these were being sold in comic shops, an arena historically resistant to any kind of content meant for women, the fact that they were moving these manga at all almost seems like they were succeeding in spite of themselves.
VIZ was so close to the right answer, which would eventually be discovered by a new company who would become the biggest name in manga for the next decade. In 1997 a new name appeared in manga publishing.
Originally known as Mixx Entertainment which got into the manga industry with a manga compilation magazine called MixxZine that had several titles arranged by chapter much like a traditional Japanese manga magazine. Now you can go on Wikipedia and find a laundry list of attempts to print Japanese-style manga magazine anthologies in the U.S., and they generally fall into three categories. Ones that last two, five, or 10 years before going under. Most of them don’t make it to 10. The format just didn’t really catch on with American consumers. So what made MixxZine different?
Uh… basically they had Sailor Moon.
Sailor Moon had a rocky history in the U.S. Originally airing in 1995, the show basically bombed. Lack of confidence in this cartoon meant for little girls caused the network to place Sailor Moon into “dead” early morning time slots, which is what we in the industry call a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anyway, the series was doing well in Canada and after 12,000 fans went to the trouble of signing a petition to have it re-air, the show was brought back on USA network in 1997 and then the golden land of all anime airing in the U.S., Toonami, in 1998. Obviously, the series took off and Tokyopop, having grabbed the manga license before the anime became popular, was suddenly sitting on a gold mine. Lucky them.
Where VIZ was backed by Shogakukan, Tokyopop established a sweet deal with Kodansha, which is one of Shogakukan’s main competitors, during their golden era and they started cranking out manga. They leaned heavily on shojo titles like Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket, CLAMP’s Rayearth and… also everything else by CLAMP. If you ever went to a Borders in like 2002 or 2003, you’re probably VERY familiar with that name. Focusing on manga for girls had never been done before in the U.S., but Tokyo had a strong recipe for success.
Cutting their costs, and ignoring comic shops entirely.
Thorn: What made the difference was the price, and they were able to make their books so cheap by just cutting corners everywhere, they cut corners on everything. The translators were paid terrible, terrible pay rates, and I’m sure the editors were poorly paid. There was not really, as far- they just had really bad production values. But since their readers were like 10 years old, the readers don’t really care so much about the details, so that really worked. They got the price down to low dollars, which was almost like dumping, in a way, in the sense that they had- they HAD to have been losing money at the start with that. Because that’s a big risk in house, to make the per unit price that low when you know that there’s a chance that only like 1,000 people will buy it. You know, our VIZ graphic novels were expensive because we had low print runs, and that’s just the way capitalism works, you know? You can only make an item so cheap if you know it’s not going to sell that well. And of course manga, paperbacks in Japan, are really cheap because they know that they’re going to sell huge quantities of them, so they don’t have to make a lot of profit per unit.
When it came to cutthroat cost saving, Tokyopop was second to none. Although VIZ was the first to print both collected volumes in 1993 and unflipped manga in 1998, Tokyopop was the first to make it the rule rather than the exception. The 5-inch-by-7 1/2-inch “digest size” volumes pretty much synonymous with the word “manga” today were a Tokyopop standard print.
Much like VIZ, they marketed on the authenticity angle, calling it “100% Authentic Manga” most similar to Japanese tankobon. Turns out if you don’t need to hire anyone to flip the pages, reformat the art to American comic size, source full color art covers for each chapter rather than one per 10 chapters for a collected volume, and you hire most of your translators out of college campuses for record setting low industry rates, you can save a lot of fuckin’ money on authenticity. This let Tokyopop undercut their competition by a devastating margin. Most manga sold anywhere from $12 to $18 and Tokyopop delivered this line at around $10. 10 dollars.
Up until that point producing a quality product had been the emphasis on most publishers like VIZ and, it turned out, this may have been doing more harm than good. Sure Tokyopop’s volumes yellowed and fell apart at record speeds, but if your 8-year-old daughter tugs on your sleeve in Borders and asks if you’ll buy her something that looks suspiciously like an actual book priced for just $9.99, how do you say no?
Did I mention Borders? ‘Cause that brings me to the ignoring comic shops part.
Tokyopop was one of the first manga publishers to score a wide distribution deal with a big box bookstore, Borders. Comic book stores were (and often still are) a place that a lot of women don’t exactly feel welcome. Not the best place for a publisher printing metric tones of women’s comics daily. Selling manga at Borders not only put Tokyopop’s manga in front of a massive new potential audience instead of the usual comic shop regulars, it also put them in front of real, breathing women!
Thorn: Now our approach was to kind of like try to shoehorn shojo manga into the existing comic book fandom, which was, you know, a difficult task because it was almost all guys, and it was all technicolor long johns and macho men beating each other up and it was all in color and it- those people hated manga, they hated manga particularly, but they even hated shojo manga even more than that. And I have to admire Tokyopop for having the guts to just like totally ignore the whole comic book market and go straight to paperback.
Borders became a cultural touchstone of manga in the U.S. The image of entire aisles becoming impassable for all the teens and pre-teen tweens sitting on the floor quietly reading manga that they may or may not intend to purchase became known even outside the manga community.
This was a period of huge prosperity for the manga industry. The seemingly impenetrable western market that Japanese publishers had been trying to secure for decades broke like a collapsing dam and Tokyopop was riding the wave. Seeing Tokyopop’s success, VIZ leaned even more heavily into shojo titles and manga sales exploded in the U.S. The secret all along had been to find new readers and especially. Especially. Women. All of whom, or most of whom, were new readers. And they’ve stuck around. Nowadays even male-focused magazines like Weekly Shonen Jump estimate their readership at about 50% female.
At Tokyopop’s peak, perhaps getting bored with publishing, founder and CEO Stu Levy began to use the business to fund his own vanity projects, pushing his own DJ Milky persona and engaging in some questionable collaborations. In 2004 Levy cowrote the manga Princess Ai with Courtney Love, yes that Courtney Love, featuring illustrations from the famous NANA mangaka Ai Yazawa… because “ai” means “love” in Japanese. These behaviors would compound the problems that Tokyopop would run into further down the line.
Manga was rocketing toward its 2007 peak, having grown by 350% in 5 years. where it would capture 200 million in sales with 267 new titles entering the market. Turns out this was the highest manga sales would ever reach. 2007 was a peak that turned into a landslide, with manga sales plummeting uncontrollably every year before finally leveling out in 2012.
These dates just happen to roughly coincide with the death of Borders Books. Huh. Imagine that.
In 2006, Borders began to lose profits. Amazon was on its stratospheric rise and Borders just couldn’t figure how to make the online sales thing work. It floundered for the next 5 years, losing over a third of its annual profits in steep decline, before declaring bankruptcy in 2011. This was bad news for all manga publishers, but most of all for Tokyopop. Borders represented ⅓ of their manga sales right up until its demise and their wide distribution deal turned back on them when Borders began to crumble...
Rowe: The reason Tokyopop was so heavily stocked by Borders stores was because they signed a contract. It was something absurd like a 70% returnable contract. So Borders could essentially order books from Tokyopop for free and just line their shelves with as much stuff as they wanted. And that’s why when Borders folded, they folded owing Tokyopop like millions of dollars. Because they over expanded, they stocked all their stores with tons of Tokyopop books, and they didn’t have the money to pay Tokyopop. I don’t know if they’re actually returning the books and taking part of that, but it was a terrible deal, I don’t know if other publishers signed a similar contract, but it’s- I mean, that’s why Tokyopop vanished before the crash.
Keen eyes and ears in the industry noticed that Borders decline wasn’t Tokyopop's only problem in the late 2000s. Tokyopop had ceased printing new Kodansha releases for a few years. With the founding of Kodansha USA in 2008, the writing was on the wall. In 2009 Tokyopop announced that Kodansha was letting their licensing agreements lapse without renewal. The same year, Kodansha USA began their Kodansha Comics imprint, gobbling up the lapsed licenses along with Del Rey Manga.
Rowe: I called Tokyopop about a week before they announced they were closing, because I just got fed up. So I looked their number up and just called them and was like, I was ready to yell at them. And I talked to them and I was like “what is going on? What’s happening?” And the person who spoke with me just dumped all this information on me, and I was like “wait a minute, Kodansha’s recalling all these licenses?” I mean, that’s what I considered to be like the major event of the crash, is the Kodansha recall. Yes, Borders closing and Tokyopop going under was a big factor, but the Kodansha recall is a huge turning point. And so seeing that happen and all of a sudden our manga sales were like really solid, and then… it was a black hole. Almost overnight.
With no new Kodansha licenses on the horizon and Borders sales decaying, Tokyopop lost 47 of its roughly 100 employees in two rounds of layoffs in 2008. This massive blow would mark the beginning of a long period of floundering as the company tried to find its feet in other media, attempting to leverage TV adaptations of their remaining properties and originals.
In summer of 2010, Tokyopo began recording its ill-advised AMERICA’S GREATEST OTAKU, a reality show featuring Stu Levy a.k.a. DJ Milky himself, touring America on a bus covered with anime characters along with six college age anime fans competing in challenges for a chance to win a trip to Japan.
[America’s Greatest Otaku Tailer plays]
Among the judges was, somehow, acclaimed anime director Hiroshi Nagama who, at the time of this recording, was recently announced as the director of the upcoming Uzumaki anime on Adult Swim. I don’t have anything clever to say about that. That’s just cool.
In 2011 Borders would declare bankruptcy, prompting another round of high profile layoffs at Tokyopop for which Stu Levy placed the blame on unremunerated debt from the former retail giant. The next month, Tokyopop shuttered its Los Angeles headquarters.
After spending nearly a decade on the top of the manga industry and representing a major force for delivering content to a female audience, it seems a shame today that Tokyopop is best remembered for preying on private artists.
Their “Rising Stars of Manga” program that began in 2003. What became a series of annual competitions where aspiring manga artists, mostly north american, could submit their work with the top 10 winning a cash prize and their work published in an anthology. The grand prize winner would be able to pitch their manga idea to be published by Tokyopop. This was followed up by their Manga Pilot program which had a contract that was hugely controversial.
So, when Stu Levy announced his triumphant return in 2015, the community was less than enthusiastic and comic book artists were quick to warn aspiring creators against participating in any Original English Language programs he was running.
But it wasn’t just Tokyopop that fell during the bubble burst...
Rowe: There were a lot of other manga publishers that folded at the same time. I mean, Raijin had a very limited run, but they were around the same time that they were in and out kind of in the middle there. ADV was publishing manga for a long time. They had some success but not a whole lot. Bandai even had their own manga line for a little bit. That disappeared. CPM was another one, Iron Cat was the same thing. There were a lot more manga publishers that nobody knows about anymore because they disappeared along with Tokyopop.
Still, many larger publishers pulled through and in 2012 manga sales began to recover on the back of a new movement in the American manga market. With print sales down and local bookstores on a decline thanks to Amazon, manga publishers started going digital. VIZ launched their digital manga service in an effort not only to reach the growing online market but also to combat a growing problem in the manga industry, piracy. That familiar, familiar problem.
By now scanslators (people who scan manga, translate them, and throw the images up on a website that will definitely use your computer to mine bitcoin) were a major force in the manga market and it was much easier to read a new manga chapter a few days after its release than wait for a new volume to come out, get off your computer chair, and drive to a store.
Comixology had already launched their reader in 2009 and began making partnerships with publishers like Dark Horse, Kodansha Comics, and Oni Press to put their manga on their online catalog. In 2014 they were acquired by Amazon who, having launched the Kindle back in 2007, were intent on not being left behind in the new digital age. Nowadays just about every publisher operates concurrently or even exclusively in digital, releasing their newest manga volumes on one of several services before putting out only their tried and true or guaranteed successes out on the print market… which probably also means ordering them for delivery on a website.
Despite this, manga piracy is still… pretty bad.
Anime has reached a point where basically every anime is licensed and released within hours of each episode getting televised in Japan, making official sources the first to distribute videos, but there’s just way too much manga. There’s too much. Along with light novels which are becoming an increasing share of what’s circulating in America, there’s no way all the manga that comes out in Japan could get licensed, much less translated and released in a timely fashion. Which leaves room for pirates to ply their trade.
Compounding the issue is a general apathy by platforms like iTunes to regulate themselves, making it all too easy for pirate apps to not only sneak in but also become some of the top results for searches of the word “manga.” Also, manga is just kind of an expensive hobby. Deluxe prints can run up to $20 a volume and digital volumes aren’t a whole lot cheaper than print. Even with anime now being spread over Crunchyroll, Hidive, Funimation, Amazon, Netflix, and now YouTube, even their combined subscription fees will have trouble comparing to the check an active manga reader can run up.
Nowadays kicking over a rock on Twitter will instantly reveal some anime avatars contorting themselves through logical loopholes to justify their theft, claiming that the authors don’t care who’s distributing their work and that there are no financial consequences to the creators despite all evidence to the contrary.
The most recent development may shine some hope on this problem. In 2018 VIZ released the Weekly Shonen Jump app, probably the biggest innovation in manga since the digest editions. It offers Shonen Jump’s entire back catalog while also releasing new chapters at the same time as they’re released in Japan. Which might sound familiar. All for the low price of 2 dollars a month. Two. 2 dollars. A month! 2 dollars a month.
This is the first time this sort of accessibility has been given to a Japanese catalog and is probably the greatest deal as far as content versus price goes in the history of comics. I swear they’re not paying me to say this, I do not work for them. I don’t know anyone at Shonen Jump. Anyway this roughly puts at least the Shonen Jump portion of VIZ’s output on par with anime simulcasting and, who knows if other publishers start following suit manga may be cheap and fast enough to finally start chipping away at the manga pirates. Assuming the lawsuits don’t...
Now, no podcast about a form of Japanese media in America would be complete without mentioning localization and theft and with manga, it gets real weird, mostly since so much of it is official? Quote unquote?
There have been at least two unauthorized Astro Boy comics that’ve made it into circulation. The first was a 1965 adaptation of the Astro Boy TV show licensed by NBC without Tezuka’s knowledge. He later claimed it was both piracy and horribly drawn. In 1987 this happened AGAIN when Chicago-based NOW Comics started an Astro Boy series drawn by artist Ken Steacy. It was cancelled in 1988. Probably also horribly drawn.
Plagiarism was a big issue in the 2000s when manga was just mainstream enough that people were aware of it, but didn’t think anyone would spot them copying a professional’s work from another country. This being the era where an internet sleuth on Reddit will call you out within 10 minutes of you putting your traced work out there. One of the finalists of Tokyopop’s 2006 Rising Stars of Manga applications submitting a series called “Samurai Zombie” had panels that were pretty clearly traced from Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal. But none of these stack up to the bizarre tale of Incarnate, originally called Skullduggery, a 2009 series printed by Radical Comics by a guy named Nick Simmons. Son of none other than KISS’s own Gene Simmons. Man, this is fucked up.
Early into Incarnate’s distribution, VIZ Media released a statement that fans had notified them that Incarnate had plagiarized everything from plot elements to character designs to exact panels directly out of Bleach and they would be looking into the issue. Needless to say, the series was cancelled shortly thereafter with a public apology from Nick. Apparently even Bleach’s author Kubo Tite caught wind of the situation who, to his credit, tweeted that his primary concern was the fact that Gene Simmons’s son was a comic creator.
The market has been changed forever by digital, but manga is once again a booming industry. Today there are over 50 companies actively publishing manga in the U.S. Years of Shonen hits from the pages of Shonen Jump have VIZ resurfacing as the king not only of manga but all comics, representing about 50% of comic sales in the U.S., dwarfing even the combined sales of Marvel and DC (despite each serving as the source material for series of global blockbuster movies).
It took manga quite a while to build up steam in the U.S., working its way in from the fringes of comic shops and the back rows of bookstores, but films have to enter with some fanfare.
Next up, we’re gonna take a look at the very first animated film from Japan to hit the U.S. and how anime movies have grown from box office obscurity to pulling in millions of dollars opening night… while still getting snubbed at the Oscars.
Thank you for listening to Anime in America, presented by Crunchyroll. If you’ve enjoyed this, please go to Crunchyroll.com/animeinamerica to watch the adaptations of SOME of the manga mentioned.
Special thanks to Rachel Thorn, and Nick Rowe, and if you find yourself in Oakland, California, maybe stop by Dr. Comics and Mr. Games to say hi and maybe buy a manga from a nice, independent shop.
This episode is hosted by me, Yedoye Travis, and you can find me on Instagram at ProfessorDoye or Twitter @YedoyeOT. This episode is researched and written by Peter Fobian, edited by Chris Lightbody, and produced by me, Braith Miller, Peter Fobian and Jesse Gouldsbury.