Robot 6

Happy birthday, Pokémon!

Anime News Network notes that yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the release of the first Pokémon game, Pokémon Red and Green. That game gave rise to a whole series of other games, as well as four anime series, numerous manga series, feature films, and even chapter books. (The chapter books presented a unique challenge for the authors, who had to somehow allow the Pokémon to express complex thoughts and emotions with a one-word vocabulary: their names.)

It also helped shape the manga industry as we know it today. A few years ago I talked to manga translator and scholar Matt Thorn, who was a freelance translator for Viz in their early days. Thorn described the atmosphere as “laid-back” and the company itself as having only three employees, including the president, Seiji Horibuchi. “For [parent company] Shogakukan, it was almost a vanity project,” he said. “They didn’t expect it to make money.”

And then Pokémon came along. Recalls Matt,

One day, I got a call from Shogakukan Productions. They said, “We’re going to try to promote Pokemon in the U.S., and we’d like you to help.” I said, “I’d love to, but I’m really busy these days, so I’m afraid I can’t. And to be honest, I don’t think Pokemon will fly in America.”

Despite Matt’s misgivings, of course, Pokémon went on to become a media phenomenon in the States, and Viz is now the largest manga publisher in the business, thanks at least in part to that initial burst of energy from Pikachu and his pals.



I can’t believe it’s fifteen years old. That’s crazy. I remember playing Yellow version as a little kid.

I only have the faintest memories of a world without Pokemon’s cultural influence. It’s insane to think I’m only five years older than one of the biggest mass media phenomena to ever hit the planet.

Also, Matt Thorn’s statement cracks me up.

Yeah, Pokemon will never fly. What’s Nintendo thinkin? XD
Anyway, Red/Blue/Yellow and Silver/Gold will always have a nostalgic place in my heart.

Thank you, Pokemon, for saving comics!

Pokemon made manga mainstream. The earlier success, Sailor Moon, could have, but the manga wasn’t properly marketed, and the cartoon had been edited, hurting its popularity.

Pokemon was exported to the U.S. after the controversial “Dennō Senshi Porygon” episode of December 1997. I remember seeing the little board books at the Viz table at Book Expo in 1998. Books In Print shows the first books published in 1999.

By making manga mainstream, Pokemon brought kids back to comics. Bookstores noted sales, and created and expanded their graphic novel sections (in 1996, you found graphic novels in “humor” or in “science fiction”). Librarians noticed the circulation figures, and started buying more graphic novels, and also requesting GOOD graphic novels to add to their collections.

The publishers available to bookstores and libraries in 1996? Marvel. DC. Dark Horse. Cartoon Books. Viz. WaRP. No Fantagraphics. No Image Comics. Pantheon’s comics line was dormant.

1996… Marvel was still with Heroes World. American comics were still hurting from the speculator bubble which had popped in 1993 (Adventures of Superman #500). Marvel was in the middle of Onslaught. Diamond acquired Capital. And by the end of the year, Marvel filed for bankruptcy. Comics were still underground, read by fanboys, and maybe there was ONE comic book movie released a year. Maybe one news article in a major newspaper once a week.

Hmmm… a pivotal year. The beginning of popular manga in the U.S., the end of the Revlon/Marvel speculator era.

Damn, I feel old.

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