Sunday's "State of the Manga Industry" panel at New York Anime Festival 2008 was short on participants, but long on commentary on some of the current and perennial issues that arise time and again in the American manga publishing business.
In Part 1, Kurt Hassler from Yen Press, Michael Gombos from Dark Horse Comics and Ali Kokmen from Del Rey Manga talked about future prospects for continued growth, the manga biz's relationship with the anime industry, their mixed feelings about scanlations and digital delivery of manga, and the viability of manga anthology magazines.
Now in Part 2, Gombos, Kokmen and Hassler talk about the effect the American market has on Japanese manga, strategic alliances with Japanese publishers, and the up-and-coming generation of American comics creators who are heavily influenced by manga.
Slim Pickin's or Bountiful Buffet: What's Your Take On The Quality of Manga In Japan Today?
Hassler: "I don't think you can make blanket statements about Japanese manga. It's very title-specific. Depending on your taste, if you look back at some of (Osamu) Tezuka stuff, you might find that work superior to what's out there today. But you have to look at what your goals are. If you want to sell million copies, then you make different choices."
"With The Light (a josei manga series from Yen Press about a young mother and her autistic son) is a very different book, but we didn't go with it because we thought it would be this huge seller -- but because we thought it was a good book that deserved to be read. There is a lot of extremely high quality material available in the Japanese market, so fans have a lot to look to forward to in the coming years."
A Matter of Taste or a Matter of Style: Is Global Manga Still Manga?
Gombos: "I've heard that you have to worry about publishers in Japan trying to make manga to tailor to our taste, but that's exactly what we don't want. We love manga because it's not like American comics."
Kokmen: "The reason why a lot of manga is popular in Japan is different than why (a given title) is popular in America."
Hassler: "(Japanese publishers) seem to be very surprised at what becomes popular in America that wasn't as popular in Japan."
"Instead of Japanese publishers trying to create for American tastes, what you'll more likely see is domestic creators making what their market wants. Look at Svetlana Chmakova, (creator of Dramacon and Nightschool, which is serialized in Yen Plus magazine). What you'll see coming from them won't be a knock-off of a Japanese title -- They'll start telling stories from their own point of view and taste. That will be the most exciting thing we'll see."
Gombos: "You're already seeing Korean creators creating for a Japanese audience, such as Black God (A comic series created by a Korean writer / artist team specifically for a Japanese manga magazine, published by Yen Press). But to me, anything created with the American audience in mind isn't manga."
Hassler: "I never hear Japanese people argue about what manga is -- I only hear this kind of discussion in America. It's a very superficial way to talk about stylistic influences -- manga has become a distinct style compared to American comics, but honestly, putting Japanese manga, Korean manhwa and American comics influenced by manga together on one shelf in a bookshop was just to make it easy for people to find similar books in one place."
Gombos: "I'm against using the term so loosely that it loses its meaning."
Hassler: "I think the term will continue to change. It's not a genre, it's a medium -- but it's stylistically different than American comics."
Licensing Landgrabs: Do Publishing Partnerships with Japanese Companies Leave Little Guys Out in the Cold?
The fight for licensing hot manga titles from Japan largely comes down to an American publisher's relationship with a given Japanese publisher. It's a given that VIZ Media gets first dibs on any Shogakukan or Shueisha title because VIZ is essentially a U.S. subsidiary for these two powerhouse publishers. There are Shueisha and Shogakukan titles that get published by other U.S. publishers (e.g. Gantz was originally published by Shueisha, but is published by Dark Horse), but these are rare examples, for the most part.
Del Rey Manga launched five years ago with a line-up of manga from Kodansha. Today, Del Rey continues to publish Kodansha titles in the U.S. such as Mushishi, Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles and Fairy Tail, and they continue to enjoy a close relationship with the Japanese publisher of Nakayoshi, Morning and Shonen Magazines. Yen Press features manga from Square Enix in their Yen Plus magazine. Digital Manga Publishing recently started a special sub-imprint Doki Doki featuring manga from Shinshokan.
Meanwhile, a few Japanese publishers have made efforts to open their own U.S. publishing divisions instead of just relying on U.S. companies to license their titles. Aurora Publishing is a U.S. subsidiary of Ohzora Shuppan, a major josei manga publisher. And Kodansha made news when word got out that they're planning on opening their own U.S. office to publish manga.
So what do these strategic alliances and new Japanese-owned subsidiaries mean for U.S. publishers? Is this a game-changing trend that will leave smaller publishers who don't have as cozy a relationship out in the cold?
Hassler: "There's definitely a benefit to have a close relationship with a publisher, but things change. We work with a variety of publishers, and we may have a closer relationship with one or another. But unless you are owned by that company, strategic alliances change all the time."
Kokmen: "There are great benefits for a Japanese proprietor and an American partner when they have these kinds of close relationships. But it doesn't preclude that there's still a whole lot of stuff out there to be published."
Hassler: "It has gotten more difficult for small publishers as time goes by."
Gombos: "Strategic relationships have a lot of value. Dark Horse doesn't have a strategic relationship with any publisher, but we have long relationships with creators, such as Kazuo Koike (Lone Wolf and Cub, Color of Rage), Yoshitaka Amano (Vampire Hunter D and the upcoming Shinjuku) and Masamune Shirow (Appleseed)."
"We're a private company, but last year we sold more than we ever have in our 20-year history of publishing manga. I never consider Shueisha / Shogakukan / VIZ Media as our competitors. They're on a different level."
"But the announcement of Kodansha USA opening shop -- how does it affect Del Rey? There are good things (about these kinds of alliances), but what happens to publishers who stick so closely to a publisher when that kind of thing happens?"
Kokmen: "At Del Rey Manga, it's business as usual. We still license a whole bunch of stuff from Kodansha, but what Kodansha wants to accomplish with their new company, I don't know."
Hassler: "When Dark Horse started 20 years ago, it was a completely different market. Dark Horse has street cred in the comics market -- and Yen has street cred in the book market."
As It Gets Trickier to Get Hot Japanese Manga Titles, Is Home-grown Manga The Answer?
Hassler: "There's no such thing as a dead end in the market -- but in terms of creative ability, the artists here have had to struggle. In Japan, there are editors who can help grow talent, there are art schools that teach this style."
"Only in the past few years, there's been a influx of art students who have this reading background that want to create manga and get the instruction that they need to do that."
"The bar (for publishing original English manga) was set low. If you were just looking for getting stories to gain intellectual property, that's different. If you really set out to publish a quality book that would stand on its own, that's another matter."
Kokmen: "There are a lot of creators who have had deals with TokyoPop who don't anymore. The ones that are good will find other publishers. The ones that weren't will get better and find publishers eventually."
Is Manga Mostly a Female-Driven Phenomenon? And How Can It Reach Audiences Beyond Teens and Otaku?
You don't have to go too far to find a bookstore that's got a pack of girls camped out, reading in the manga aisle. It's been an eye-opening experience for the usually male-centric American superhero comics publishing biz to see girls flocking to the comics and bookshops to buy graphic novels. But that's not all they're doing.
Inspired by manga, many girls (and boys) are going beyond being just passive consumers of manga to becoming manga creators themselves. These manga fans are part of a new generation of aspiring artists who just might become, as Kokmen put it, "the next Jack Kirby or Frank Miller… and she'll be very successful at it too."
But it's good to be reminded that manga's popularity is not just a girl phenomenon, nor is it destined to remain just a tween, teen and otaku reading choice, if U.S. publishers have their way.
Hassler: "The girls get a lot of focus because they BUY this stuff -- it tends to give the impression that it's 70-80% girls. But in reality, the manga audience is fairly evenly split between male and female readers."
"The challenge for publishers like us (when we're trying to expand our market) is to find the right product for big box stores, to have it do well for them, and work with their return policies, their audience, etc."
Kokmen: "We'll see more an increase of graphic novels for kids -- that's operating on the assumption that the right distribution channels are in place."
Hassler: "We're working on a manga release with James Patterson, Maximum Ride (currently serialized in Yen Plus, with the graphic novel to follow in 2009). Patterson is an author (that mainstream book buyers and readers) are familiar with, and it's a brand name that they know. This (kind of cross-promotion between mainstream authors and manga-style artwork) is where we'll see more penetration into the mainstream. That's how you bring people into the medium."