The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 225 | Break on through to the other side: On getting American comics fans into manga

Leaving Proof 225 | Break on through to the other side: On getting American comics fans into manga
Published on Wednesday, May 21, 2014 by
A Manga! Comics! Manga! blog post has us looking into manga’s past successes in North America and pondering what today’s publishers can do to broaden manga’s appeal among “traditional” comics fans. ALSO: The latest concept art from The Last Devil.
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In many North American bookstores and comics shops, manga titles are displayed based on alphabetical order, with no regard as to genre and demographic. Above, volumes of the josei manga 0-7 Ghost and Absolute Boyfriend share space with the seinen manga Afro Samurai. (Image credit: http://postbubbleculture.blogs.wm.edu)

Cartoonist, comics journo, and editor Deb Aoki, in a blog post we linked to in yesterday’s entry on our Tumblr-based frontpage newsfeed, posed a question of great interest to me and, I imagine, a lot of other folks who enjoy reading both American comics and manga: “What would make manga more appealing to [fans of American comics]?”

Aoki and the respondents to her question on Twitter offer insightful, even practical, answers and anyone even slightly curious about the crossover appeal of manga and American comics would be well-served in giving the article a read-through. Especially salient, I think, is the point the article raises about the way many booksellers and comics shops display their manga offerings on store shelves alphabetically, with no real regard for genre or intended reader demographics. It’s a system that perhaps works for the well-informed customer who already knows what he or she is looking for, but for the manga-curious shelf browser and casual shopper, it isn’t an optimal path for discovering new manga titles to explore given the multiplicity of subject matter and themes found in manga and the confusion that variety might engender.

The post also brings up the relevant factors of pricing, the drawn-out nature of many manga serials, the barrier posed by the right-to-left reading format which is the current industry standard, and the many misconceptions about manga and manga art and how these all keep readers of American comics from exploring the form.

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Mai, the Psychic Girl was one of the first manga to be brought over and translated by an American comics publisher.

I don’t self-identify as an otaku—a “hardcore” fan of Japanese comics and animation—nor am I in any way a marketing or brand management professional. I have been reading the occasional manga here and there for almost as long as I’ve been reading American comics though, and I’m old enough to remember when the now-defunct independent American comics publishers First Comics and Eclipse Comics (through what was then its Viz Comics imprint) started bringing manga titles like Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub, Kazuya Kudo and Ryoichi Ikegami’s Mai, the Psychic Girl, Sanpei Shirato’s Kamui, and Kaoru Shintani’s Area 88 to the comics direct market in the mid/late-1980s. I’ve also been in a position as a reader and industry observer to see, as it happened, manga’s rise to the top of the international comics market in the mid-1990s through the early 2000s and its integration into the pop culture mainstream, its subsequent decline in popularity, and now its current resurgence.

If the goal is for manga to make inroads in the community of fans of American comic books, I think it’s instructive to consider which, if any, manga titles have previously succeeded at gaining some notable measure of crossover popularity in the American comics community and see if there is anything particularly useful that can be gleaned and replicated from their examples.

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The Epic Comics edition of Akira, which began publication in the summer of 1988 and ran for 38 issues, was the first ongoing comic to employ computer coloring. Otomo consented to the decision to color what was originally a black & white manga, and he handpicked colorist Steve Oliff for the job.

The first English-language manga title that really grabbed my attention as a young reader of American comics was Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, which was being published at the time by Marvel Comics under its currently-dormant Epic Comics imprint. Given Otomo’s virtuoso execution of the comic as well as the interest generated by the animated feature film adaptation, Akira would likely still have gone on to become the seminal breakout hit that introduced manga to many, if not most, American comics readers (by which I mean readers of American comics, not necessarily comics readers from North America) during the 1980s and early 1990s regardless of which company had released the title to the North American markets.

At the same time, I think there was genuine crossover promotional value to the title being published by a company previously known to American comics readers—one of the two biggest American comics publishers, at that. American comics readers can hold particularly strong opinions about publisher brands, as anyone who has been witness to a Marvel vs. DC argument or a debate on the merits of creator-owned comics vs. work-for-hire comics can attest. Surely, the publication of Akira alongside Epic Comics titles featuring known superhero comics quantities like Silver Surfer (in the Eisner Award-winning Silver Surfer: Parable miniseries) and Elektra (in Elektra: Assassin and Elektra Lives Again) as well as Epic’s English-language editions of lauded Franco-Belgian graphic novels such as Moebius’ Airtight Garage, The Incal, and Blueberry could have had only a positive impact in terms of its reception by comics fans familiar only with the Western comics tradition.

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Dark Horse began publishing Kosuke Fujishima’s Oh My Goddess! in English in 1994. The series is now up to its 45th trade paperback volume, with a 46th volume set to come out this August.

In a similar vein, I have to think that Dark Horse Comics’ solid standing with American comics readers has helped convince more than a few Hellboy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Conan, and Star Wars comics fans to give the titles from the Oregon-based publisher’s Dark Horse Manga line a shot. Speaking for myself, up until perhaps a couple of years ago, the overwhelming majority of English-language manga I read were from Dark Horse Manga. I had grown to trust in the quality of the imprint’s publications, partially from my experience with the non-manga comics offerings of its parent company. Dark Horse Comics’ long and successful history with licensed comics also led me to believe that it could maintain the robustness of its somewhat modest manga catalog, even during the down periods of manga sales that seem to be behind us for the moment.

Dark Horse Manga does seem to suffer from a relative lack of variety when compared to the other major US-based manga publishers, but I think this is part of what has made Dark Horse Manga so resilient when so many US manga publishers have folded over the past two decades: it doesn’t try to do too much and takes only calculated risks when picking titles to bring over, fully cognizant of its corner of the North American manga market. Maybe Dark Horse Manga will never land a sales record-breaking hit like VIZ Media’s One Piece or Naruto or Kodansha USA’s Attack on Titan, or even a consistent New York Times best seller like Yen Press’ Black Butler, but it does have two of the longest continuously-published manga titles in the US: Kosuke Fujishima’s Oh My Goddess! and Hiroaki Samura’s soon-to-conclude, Eisner Award-winning Blade of the Immortal.

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DC’s choice of Tenjho Tenge—a title notorious for its depictions of nudity and explicit sex scenes—as a launch title for its CMX imprint raised more than a few eyebrows. Instead of marking it as a mature readers-rated title, DC/CMX opted to radically modify the material to get it down to a teen-friendly rating, a decision that did not sit well with adult fans of the property and some anti-censorship advocates.

Being associated with an established American comics publisher isn’t a surefire formula for manga’s crossover success, however. Marvel’s Epic Comics failed to capitalize on Akira—the imprint never published another licensed manga title and the Akira license was acquired by Dark Horse in the late 1990s before finally settling a few years ago at Kodansha USA, the American subsidiary of its original Japanese publisher. Through a combination of poor communication with readers and the press, ill-considered cases of censorship especially during the early years of its existence, and just plain bad luck, DC Comics’ CMX imprint failed to find much traction among manga fans, never mind crossover success with readers of American comics, and the imprint closed shop in 2010, barely six years removed from its launch. It was a real shame too, as apart from the flap over its bowdlerization of Tenjho Tenge (a title I personally think was a poor choice for the imprint in the first place), it seemed to manage well its diverse catalogue of manga that catered to male and female readers across a wide range of ages and interests.

Will we ever see another extant “traditional” US comics publisher besides Dark Horse attempt to bring manga to its base of American comics readers? I wouldn’t write off the possibility, but given how Japanese publishers seem to be exploring methods of delivering their content directly to international markets through various digital distribution platforms and the lock VIZ Media, Kodansha USA, Yen Press, Seven Seas Entertainment, Digital Manga Publishing, Dark Horse Manga, and Vertical, Inc. have on the most popular manga licenses in North America, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen.

Still, I do wonder why publishers like BOOM! Studios and IDW Publishing haven’t exhibited an enthusiasm for pursuing manga licenses the way they have for the licenses to European comics material and properties with roots in prose, film, video games, chidlren’s toys, and Western animation, especially with the increased visibility certain manga properties are gaining in the mainstream through their animated adaptations on TV and legitimate video streaming services like Netflix, Crunchyroll, Neon Alley, YouTube, Crackle, and Funimation.com. I suspect it may have to do with economics and logistics, and maybe even just a plain lack of interest on their part.

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Dark Horse’s Blade of the Immortal isn’t a “flipped” manga, despite being oriented in the left-to-right reading direction. The pages have been reoriented, and in some cases even retouched by Studio Proteus artist Tomoko Saito, to ensure that the left-to-right reading experience matches as closely as possible the original right-to-left reading experience.

Again, if the goal is to get some subset of the American comics reading public to read some manga on a regular basis, it might be the case that offering them the option to read certain manga titles in a format they are more accustomed could work out commercially. As OEL-manga pioneer and Empowered creator Adam Warren averred in a 2012 interview, there is a population of superhero comics readers who follow developments in manga. There could very well be a small but stable submarket just waiting to be tapped by a publisher willing to go the extra mile in its production of English-language editions.

In the debate between “flipping” manga or keeping the original right-to-left orientation in translated editions, I tend to favor the latter, simply for the reason that I want to see the art as originally published (and it bugs me to no end when the dialogue refers to something as “left” but it appears as “right” in the art). I do appreciate, however, the fact that reading right-to-left just doesn’t work for everybody, and I think offering the option of reading manga in a left-to-right orientation can broaden its appeal among non-manga comics readers.

Can every US manga publisher and mangaka afford to do as Dark Horse and Hiroaki Samura did on Blade of the Immortal, where the Studio Proteus production team painstakingly cut individual panels and reoriented them and artist Tomoko Saito actually went so far as retouching (with Samura’s permission) select panels to better suit the left-to-right reading experience? Of course not. But the extreme care and attention put into the creation of the English-language edition of Blade of the Immortal partly helps explain its crossover popularity among comics readers not traditionally into manga, and a similar approach could pay off dividends for the right title (Attack on Titan, anyone?).

The Last Devil concept art update

Below is the latest line and color test for Malo, one of the featured characters in The Last Devil, an original comic I’m co-developing with my brother.

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And here’s some background design concept art for The Last Devil‘s opening setting, the waterfront of late 19th century Manila:

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Check out last week’s column as well as the one before that for even more concept art and basic details about the comic’s premise. And don’t forget to follow the Unwilting Bros. tumblr for even more original and fan art not seen here on the Comixverse. Make sure to come back next week as I discuss some of our thought processes on the three character designs we’ve revealed thus far.

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Naga, Malo, and Macanaya from The Last Devil.

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