Robot 6

The comics that changed the world

In the days since Tokyopop announced it would stop publishing manga, a few pundits have responded what struck me as a disturbing note of glee, a sort of satisfaction that that manga thing is finally over with. Doug Wolk has a piece at Time Magazine with the headline Manga Revolution Apparently Over: Tokyopop to Shut Down. And here’s Tim Hodler at The Comics Journal:

Tokyopop is closing down its manga line. Not long ago, this company and others like it were sometimes pointed to as the future of comics publishing. I suppose they still might be.

I’m a little mystified by that last bit. Is he saying that the future of comics publishing is that everyone will go out of business? Well, everyone dies. But Tim and Doug seem to have missed an important point, which is that Tokyopop (and the other manga publishers) did in fact change comics publishing; Tokyopop may be no more, but ten years ago, it was the future. Graphic novel sales quadrupled between 2001 and 2007, and at the ICv2 graphic novel conference in February 2007, ICv2 editor in chief Milton Greipp singled out manga as the reason for that increase:

I think the biggest factor was Tokyopop’s expansion of their authentic manga line and bringing in original material for girls. Suddenly there was huge growth in a business that was usually flat, and it opened up new opportunities for other categories as well.

The emphasis is mine. That was at the peak of the manga boom, and sales have declined since then, but that surge of new readers has changed comics in many ways, all of them for the better.

Ten years ago, “comics” meant superheroes, newspaper strips, and a handful of artsy graphic novels. Comics were a niche medium, and they were hard to find outside comics stores. Manga brought about two structural changes that have affected the market in a lasting way. One is bringing girls and women to comics en masse—there have always been women who read comics, don’t get me wrong, but in the 1990s the vast majority of comics were made by and marketed to men. No one was wooing girls and women as a distinct market, or setting out to publish comics that would appeal to them. Say what you like about Stu Levy (and I have!), he knows what girls like.

The second factor was bringing comics into bookstores, where casual readers could find them. Would that have happened anyway? Maybe, but probably not. Bookstores only give shelf space to books that sell, and manga sold by the boatload (some of it still does). Superhero trades don’t look good in bookstores, where they are usually shelved spine-out; art-comix are expensive and have a small readership. But manga? Just a few years ago, my daughter’s idea of a grand Saturday night was going to Barnes & Noble with her friends, buying five or six volumes of InuYasha, then staying up all night reading them. And she was not unusual; individual manga volumes often made the USA Today bestseller list, holding their own against Tuesdays with Morrie and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Furthermore, manga are like Harlequin romances—if you buy one, you will probably buy more. Bookstores started carrying them in bulk because the numbers were there.

There’s more. Librarians quickly realized that manga brought in the teens (both boys and girls), and they became avid supporters of graphic novels as a medium. This in turn led to more acceptance by educators and parents. Again, without the manga phenomenon, this might not have happened; graphic novels would still be shelved in the art section and only a handful of people would know they were there.

By bringing comics to young people, manga opened up more possibilities for publishers. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine something until you actually see it, but once publishers saw teens and tweens lining up for graphic novels, marketing to that demographic became an easier sell. Would First Second Books exist in a world without manga? Would Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet and Raina Telegemeier’s Smile be the successes they are? Again, maybe, but I think the Manga Revolution helped grease the skids. Stylistically, those graphic novels owe no obvious debt to manga, but manga helped build the market for them, got kids reading comics and got teachers, librarians, and parents on board with the medium.

Finally, take a look at the young creators that Tokyopop signed to their global manga program and you will see the face of comics today. Amy Reeder (Madame Xanadu, Batwoman), Svetlana Chmakova (Nightschool), Queenie Chan (Odd Thomas), Amy Mebberson (The Muppets, Strawberry Shortcake)—all got their start with Tokyopop and went on from there. More are waiting in the wings. Pick up the Fraggle Rock anthology or one of the Pixar comics produced by BOOM! Studios; both are chock full of fine work by Tokyopop alums. And that’s not to mention creators like Faith Erin Hicks who don’t make global manga but were first drawn to comics by manga.

It’s not just that those creators started reading comics because of manga, it’s that they started making comics as well. The superhero comics establishment isn’t particularly welcoming to new creators, but Tokyopop encouraged them through its Rising Stars of Manga program. There were flaws in the program, no doubt, but they got a lot of young artists and writers to think seriously about making comics at a professional level. It helps that manga is a medium that fans talk back to—it’s part of the culture to make comics and write stories about the characters. That gets readers into a deeper level of involvement with the medium and encourages them to create original comics.

Some of these changes might have happened anyway. There were certainly worthwhile, female-friendly comics being made in the 1990s, but there was no mass market for them. There have always been aspiring comics artists, but they didn’t have places that would accept their work or much of a community in which to discuss it. Webcomics, DeviantArt, the internet in general, all have opened up the comics world to new readers and creators alike, but manga gave the comics market an organizing principle for a while. It encouraged bookstores to stock graphic novels, young people (and adults) to read them, and artists to create them.

Here’s the thing about revolutions: They change the world, but they seldom achieve the revolutionaries’ original vision. Who knows what Stu Levy had in mind when he coined the phrase “manga revolution”; most likely, he was just being facetious. But manga did transform the comics world. It took comics out of the hands of fanboys, collectors, and hipsters and made them a truly mass medium.

No one, not even Stu Levy, expected that we would all throw over our American comics for Japanese ones. Japanese manga were significant in their own right, sure, but they were also a catalyst, bringing a new way of reading, creating, and marketing comics to the U.S. If every publisher dropped manga tomorrow (not likely, by the way—there are plenty of manga that continue to sell well, and niche markets are better served than ever), the comics landscape would still be forever changed—for the better. Viva la revolution!

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19 Comments

I find it funny that the Techland article said “looks like manga won’t be taking over American comics after all.” Which is hilarious, because go to any bookstore and look at the shelf space dedicated to American Comics vs. Manga. Or read the sales figures. Manga has ALREADY taken over American comics. It’s a done deal.

TOKYOPOP failed. Not manga. It’s just that new players took over the field. What Techland is saying is as dumb as if an article said “Friendster and Myspace went under. Looks like social media failed.” while conveniently ignoring Facebook.

I think this glee comes from the fact that quite a few people criticized manga’s distribution and, indeed, very existence in the past, and now they feel vindicated. As early as 2000 I talked to comic book store owners who were insistent that manga was a fad, and one even said manga as a whole would last no more than 5 years in the US. So a large part of it is looking at results in the light of what they want to be true.

It’s interesting that you mention Faith Erin Hicks. I read Demonology 101 back when it was still coming out, but it never occurred to me that this might be considered the future of comics in general. Webcomics always seemed like a niche within a niche.

Honestly some people just get a kick out of writing smug statements that drip with “I told you so” sentiments even if everything isn’t even done and over with yet. I think it’s a pathetic way for individuals to get their jollies in life. Even though these events with Tokyopop are certainly undeniably it’s not the end of this hobby by a long shot. Regardless of what happens from here on out manga has had a huge impact on my life and the lives of others in the US. Even if I (for some reason) stop reading manga right now, there is no denying the huge influence it had on my life these past 13 years. I got part-time jobs to afford manga as a kid, and I challenged myself to be better at school so I could have the type of life where I could best afford my hobbies. Someone who probably never would have touched a comic in her entire life now has an entire room filled with manga, manhwa, and comics. I’m a much more open minded person since I’ve gotten into this hobby. “Viva la revolution!”

If you go to Chapters, there is often an entire wall for “Manga.” The domestic comics? One shelf, maybe half a shelf. The last time I went into chapters, there was one 6′ shelf right beside Manga, 8 shelves to the side of it with Manga, and then half a shelf nearby with the sunday-funnies type of comics. That’s it. that’s a more than 4:1 ratio of shelf space to manga over ALL other comics.

Stu Levy is the new Jim Shooter. He made a huge difference getting new readers reading comics, but professionally, he’s disliked by many.

Female readers were enticed, but alsoyounger readers as well. Pokemon appeals to kids, and there are boys who enjoy manga who wouldn’t have gotten hooked on superhero comics.

Tokyopop helped, but it was Viz which had the first big success. They started back in the days of the black-and-white implosion, when most manga/anime fans were found in science fiction fandom, not comics. They had bookstore distribution via Publishers Group West, and hit the ground running when Pokemon arrived on our shores like a giant yellow Godzilla, blazing a path for hundreds of other properties. (In 1994, comics in bookstores consisted of: Marvel, DC, Viz, Dark Horse, the remnants of First, Cartoon Books, and WaRP.) Tokyopop may have had the first mass market manga with Sailor Moon, but good luck finding it in bookstores; the only SM title in stores back then was a 16-page guidebook offered by Kodansha.

I am a Seducer of the Innocent. I want everyone to read and enjoy comics, and I don’t care what you read or buy so long as you enjoy it. You don’t want to sell manga? Fine. Someone else will, and those FANS will gladly give your competitor(s) money. My local comics shop in Omaha sold manga back when they were periodicals (Lum and Ranma 1/2 and Appleseed and…) and is still in business.

But then, back in the 1980s, there were people who thought black-and-white comic books were a fad, that only color would sell. Of course, they ignored the comic strip collections making the New York Times bestseller lists… and some stores still marginalize comic strip collections, although millions still read them daily.

Yeah, I’m sorry to see Tokyopop close up shop. But you know what? Twenty years ago, I noticed that “the Random House of Japan” (Kodansha) published comics in Japan. Why, I wondered, didn’t they distribute those titles in the U.S.? Now they do. So one door closes, and another opens up.

Brigid, thank you once again. This had to be said. “The revolution” is a process, not a single event. If anything – cuisine, art, language – is alive, it evolves and changes. Comics are not the same as when I was collecting in 1972, and that’s a good thing. Manga is not the same as it was in 2000 and that too, is a good thing.

The next generation of manga publishers are already stepping up to the plate – Yen, Vertical, Kodansha USA and some of the older ones continue their mission. The next few years will bring other revolutions in comics and manga. I look forward to them all.

judi(togainunochi)

April 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm

This is a well written and well thought out article. I just wish I could get over the feeling that I am left holding an “empty bag”. I have more than a few TP manga I was reading, and I will probably never have the closure of an ending.

Brigid Alverson

April 20, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Thank you, Erica! And you’re right—Tokyopop may be gone, but there are plenty of other manga publishers that are making it work. I’m not giving up on it anytime soon.

I honsetly can’t imagine what comics would look like right now if it weren’t for Tokyopop doing what they did over the years, although I’m fairly certain “comics” would be a lot smaller, a lot less exciting and a lot more narrowly focused, in terms of content, the people that create it, the people that consume it, and the places you can find it. Great piece, Brigid.

I was thinking of Viz vs. Tokyopop, and I can remember reading Viz manga that was published serially as comics before being released in the more familiar trade digest format…did Viz initiate the big switch from that model, or was it Tokyopop, or, like, everyone at once? (Maybe it had more to do with American comics focusing on trade-generation as a goal…?)

The teens who came to the Texas Library Association Conference in Austin last week love comics in general, and manga in particular. They swarmed over the Great Graphic Novel Library Giveaway display shelves, and they happily talked with anyone at the booth who would listen to them. And what they said was they want MORE manga! The fact that Tokyopop is leaving the market is sad, but other manga publishers are still around, and there is definitely still a market for manga. I don’t see manga disappearing from the US anytime soon.

BTW, the librarians (who also swarmed over the shelves) also said the same thing – they need more comics, and particularly more manga, for the kids and teens who love them.

Brigid Alverson

April 21, 2011 at 2:55 am

Caleb, both Viz and Tokyopop switched around the same time, but the version I have heard is that Tokyopop tried it first. Viz was doing flipped manga in larger-format trades that were more expensive, and they ended up republishing many of those same books in the smaller, unflipped format a few years later.

@Torsten — I just wanted to say, I’m happy you were able to proudly say “I am a Seducer of the Innocent”. :) (Yes, I got the Frederic Wertham reference…)

Tokyopop definitely were like a comet hitting the earth of the comics industry, one that many comic traditionalists disliked, because their favourite comfort bubble had been breached, by something unknown to them. Now while Viz and Dark Horse had been publishing manga in the 80′s and 90s, their efforts were indeed large and expensive.

Price and cost were the Tokyopop sword that built their fortune. They helped bring Viz and other publishers into their line of thinking. A manga GN for $6-7, over what we used to get for $20 or so, and with much less editing too = awesome.The Rising Stars of Manga program, was a certainly a diamond in the rough, and many inspire creators will continue to find their way from it.

Manga, and manwha is far from over in the west. I’d say that Tokyopop’s biggest and most important decision, recently was them shopping the film rights to the Priest manwha around Hollywood. This wonderful korean manwha is perfect fodder for Hollywood, and I really hope that it pans out well for all involved. Comic based films make good bank of late, so its nice to get something unusual. We may yet see more manga/manwha based series, hitting the big screens, if Stu Levy gets his way.

There will now be a lot of manga series left unfinished by TP, but hopefully, they will get picked up by other publishers. I pray this doesn’t turn fans of those books off of manga, as its never fun to have half a series, with no end in sight. However, there’s much more variety of manga out there to try and that’s a huge bonus, condering we still get a droplet of what out in Japan. Whoever you are, go read and enjoy some manga, as there’s something for everyone.

So, who will be the great pioneer of FRENCH comics?

I just spotted some PR about the French BD/GN of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”, and then visited the Delcourt site for more info. WOW! Some great titles I’d love to read in English! True stories about a young Inuit who was kept at the American Museum of Natural History, about a Hasidic Jew in Germany who developed both chemical warfare and fertilizer and won a Nobel Prize…

And that’s just ONE publisher!

Brigid: Tokyopop was first out the gate with inexpensive, unflipped manga; I recall Cowboy Bebop and Chobits being two of the initial offerings, and those old volumes even had obi on them, advertising the whole line. Also, it seems no one remembers this now, but Viz did publish some unflipped manga in GN format long before Tokyopop (Neon Genesis Evangelion, which was also available flipped), but those books were as expensive as the other old ones.

Great article! Comic conventions are booming even as sales of individual books drop, and the big cons are beginning to lean heavily toward Manga/Anime. I’d say 75% of fans under 25 are more into Manga than American comics. The comic book stores who dismissed Manga as a fad are gone, and the ones who embraced it are among the few still remaining. As someone who sells mostly superhero comics, I’d love for the 80s and 90s to return, but I can see the writing on the walls.

Honestly, I think that as far as the average direct market American comic shop goes, the manga stuff was kind of a fad. All the comic shops I shop at got manga sections about eight years ago. Now none of them have manga sections anymore. Maybe this didn’t happen everywhere, but those books seemed to go from hot to dead in the comic shops I frequent. This, of course isn’t a reflection of how well manga sells in barnes and noble or anything. I know they still have a giant shelf full of the stuff at those stores. And I don’t know if the LCS people were just ordering the wrong stuff or maybe they were mean to the little girls who came in or something. They gave me the impression that the average superhero comic shopper wasn’t really into the manga stuff and the manga people just went to the big box stores instead of a local comic shop.

This It’s too bad Joe Mad stopped his Battlechasers comic. It was one of the best things Image ever put out. I recently read the whole nine issues after finally finding the last installment. I read from the preview issue of where it really begins to the cliffhanger ending of issue 9 and I think it was a great book. I found myself wondering what happened to that Aramus guy and what was the story behind Red Monika and those guys that worked for her. Who exactly was August and why was he buried in the ground all those years ago by that Wizard and his friends. It was done in Joe Mad’s manga style. Not being a Manga fan, really, I was sometimes irked by Joe Mad’s style. But overall it was a fantastic ride. I’m not sure I ‘get’ manga, but I understand it. Mostly.

There’s still a manga shelf at my local comic shop. For some reason, that troubled me. I’m not sure why. I don’t know why we shun these things sometimes. It really makes no sense.

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