While it was fascinating to see Q&A's with manga artists like Yun Kouga, Yasuhiro Nightow and Takashi Okazaki, quite possibly the most intriguing panel at Anime Expo 2009 was Friday's industry-only discussion about the commercial potential (and limitations) of manga that's made in America.
I tweeted some of the highlights as they happened, and that generated a lot of comments from fellow tweeters and comic industry pros. So to try to expand upon those 140-character Twitter sound bites, here's a somewhat meatier report on what was discussed at the unwieldly-named "Can Manga Be Created in the USA and Be Commercially Successful?" panel for pros and press.
The assembled panelists included Robert Napton, Director of Marketing at Bandai Entertainment, Lillian Diaz-Przybyl, Senior Editor at TokyoPop, Luis Reyes, former editor at TokyoPop and currently Associate Producer at Nexon America, and Northrup Davis, a producer/screenwriter who is currently teaching a manga/anime curriculum at University of California - Irvine.
The panel was only open to Anime Expo attendees with industry or press badges, so the conversation was pretty business-centric, but no less lively. I tried my best to keep up with the discussion, but it was challenging to record all of the rapid-fire comments and quotes as the panelists discussed the challenges that come with creating original manga-inspired comics in North America.
Diaz-Przybyl and Reyes were clearly the most knowledgeable about the ups and downs, ins and outs of publishing original English manga in America thanks to their tenure at TokyoPop, an early innovator and promoter of the genre. TokyoPop has taken their share of lumps on this topic, so it was refreshing to hear both editors talk frankly about problems they've encountered in the past and the challenges that this nascent genre faces today and in years to come.
PROBLEM 1: The Japanese manga industry has a refined system that trains, recognizes and nurtures talent over the long run. The American comics industry doesn't offer the same level of support to young artists, and demands quick return on investment.
Lillian Diaz-Przybyl: "Manga has been around for over 50 years in Japan, so they've had time to develop an apprenticeship system that gives young artists a chance to work and learn under a more experienced, successful artist."
"Many first series by creators are not successful. Natsuki Takaya (creator of Fruits Basket) had several multi-volume series before - but they never were as successful. This very refined system created over 50 years can recognize talent where it is."
"In America, there's this push for immediate financial return on investment, which makes it hard to give artists that kind of time to develop their skills and mature to the point where they do their best work. 10 volumes of manga represents at least five years of professional level work."
Luis Reyes: "We had a manga creator Felipe Smith who did MBQ - the book didn't do well. TokyoPop didn't push it much. But Felipe was recruited by a Japanese manga magazine (Peepo Choo for Morning 2) He's now he first American artist who is producing work regularly for a mainstream, weekly manga magazine."
Upon reading my tweets from this panel, C.B. Cebulski, an Editor for Marvel Comics and a veteran of many portfolio reviews had this to add (via Twitter):
"The U.S. comic system is equipped to train artists. The problem with OEL manga creators is that a lot of them aren't artists. They're manga fans who draw."
"Many OEL (original English language) manga kids were thrown into, and taken advantage of, by a fledgling business they had no education in or understanding of. Early OEL chewed up and spit out a lot of artists who did have talent and just needed guidance and support. I hope they stick with it. I know many "OEL artists" who have stuck it out and have successful careers now, but there are plenty more who walked away disenchanted."
"Reading manga is not a proper art education. Hopefully (these young artists) will go to art school, learn more about the comic form, & give it another go, w/ a company/editor who can guide them this time."
"I think TokyoPop was dishonest and abusive in their (original English language manga) program when it comes to developing talent. TokyoPop had it within their power to advance the artform, and the business and they pissed it away and took people with them. What a waste."
PROBLEM 2: Japanese artists, especially those featured in weekly manga magazines, pump out a lot more work in a shorter period of time than their American counterparts. This is largely due to a system that requires numerous assistants to meet a grueling work schedule. The upside to this approach is that when required to draw a lot over a relatively short period of time, creators tend to evolve as artists more quickly.
Luis Reyes: "I'm doing editorial work for another company, Radical Comics, because I like being in the comics world. We're writing the production schedule for the artists that calls for 2-3 pages per week. When I pushed for 4 pages for week - they said 'You must be working in manga too much - American artists don't work like that.'"
"For example, Felipe Smith is now drawing like 7-8 pages per week. In Japan, manga artists can do almost 15 pages per week."
Lillian Diaz-Przybyl: "(When manga artists produce pages at that rate), 10 volumes represents at least five years of professional level work. It's good that the Japanese don't age!" (laughs)
Comics creator Lea Franco added this comment after hearing about this discussion:
"I really took exception to the idiotic assertion that three pages a week wasn't decent output. That's 150 pages in a year! For a creator doing all the work, that's very good. They just can't make the comparison between studios in Japan and American artists working alone (and still) be accurate & fair (in their assessment)."
PROBLEM 3: It costs a lot more to develop original content than it does to license Japanese manga, and with lower odds for commercial success.
Robert Napton: "It costs four times as much to develop an OEL manga title than licensing a title from Japan. We considered developing original content at Bandai, but as a business, we need to devote our resources to what keeps our business afloat. It's a matter of prioritization. (Publishing original manga content) is on the low end right now."
"The American bookstore business works in a consignment model - you can sell 10,000 books to these stores, then they can return 9,000. It plays havoc with your business to be stuck with 9,000 books that then gets sent to the compactor."
Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: "We'd love to pay artists more for their work, but the way the business is structured makes that difficult."
PROBLEM 4: The kind of stories that some OEL manga creators want to draw aren't bestselling genres in America.
Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: Dogby Walks Alone is something like a quirky seinen manga title. But in America, no quirky seinen title does well. Some people love (those kinds of stories), but seriously, it only sells in the hundreds of copies here."
"In Korea, the comics industry isn't as large as it is in Japan, so there's a lot more experimental work, and it's more marketable there. In Japan, there's fringe, experimental comics but they're still fringe (as far as sales and popularity). In Korea, these same kinds of books can be bestsellers."
PROBLEM 5: Early OEL manga was imitative and derivative, and many early efforts failed to capture essence of the visual storytelling style that makes Japanese manga engaging. Is calling it "manga" a mistake when it's really just comics?
Robert Napton: "When Adam Warren (creator of Empowered) did the Dirty Pair comics, it was done in a fusion style. It showed a manga influence but it was still a very much American perspective on art."
"In last five to six years, there have been artists who are specifically trying to emulate manga style. But there's still a lot of imitation happening - artists are still trying to figure out how to do this."
Luis Reyes: "Jake Forbes (a former TokyoPop editor now at VIZ Media, and the author of the manga adaptations of Jim Henson's Return to Labyrinth) convinced TokyoPop to bring in Fruits Basket, and I recall him saying 'Why is it important for you to call it manga, instead of calling it comics?' "
"In Japan, they don't make that distinction. "Manga" is just comics. We make the distinction in the United States. I think (American publishers) do it because it's a marketing buzz word, not because it's a huge change in style, tone and storytelling (from American comics)."
Lillian Diaz-Przybyl: "Early imitators drew the big eyes and colored hair - but in my mind, manga is impressionistic, it draws the readers in and the reader immediately relates to the character through a variety of visual techniques. (Japanese manga artists) explore different panel angles to drive the reader thru the page. The best manga artists do this incredibly well. It's what makes me read page after page, and gets me engaged in the story. All manga artists should try to do this."
PROBLEM 6: It's difficult to find an original English language manga artist who has both strong drawing and storytelling skills.
Lillian Diaz-Przybyl: "I've been doing portfolio reviews for five years - some artists get the character design and storytelling, but they don't have the drawing skills to tell the story they have in their mind. The combination of drawing chops and having an understanding of how the story works is hard to find together in one creator."
"There really only have been a few people who have found that perfect fusion. Svetlana Chmakova (creator of Dramacon and Nightschool) is probably one of those few. Her work is not selling at Fruits Basket levels, but she's clearly the most successful at it."
"In her second series Nightschool, you can see the jump in terms of her style. It's manga-influenced, but it's still very western in its story conventions. It's about a North American girl, a Caucasian character in a multi-cultural cast. It's currently serialized in Yen Plus, an approach that has some potential for introducing this content to readers who might not otherwise pick it up."
Luis Reyes: "We struggle with young artists who try to become awesome artists and awesome writers at the same time. It's very hard to be both. We've met great artists who are miserable writers. We try to help, but there's only so much an editor can do."
PROBLEM 7: It takes time to develop strong art and storytelling skills to be a professional comics artist, yet many young artists try to be pros before they're really ready.
Luis Reyes: "I see so many 14-year olds on Deviant Art who say "I've got a great idea for a manga." I say to them, 'Give it 10 years & come back to me when you know how to write.' And that's me being NICE."
"You gotta start somewhere - but spend the time refining your craft. No one wants to hire an 18-year old. You don't know what you want to do in your life yet. Spend the time living life outside of manga, learning and doing as much as you can and honing your craft. You'll end up better for it in the end."
Robert Napton: "Drawing great pinups is fine - but at some point you have to learn how to draw sequential art."
Luis Reyes: "We don't care that you can draw Naruto in 15 poses. Being able to draw a character in a story - that's what we want to see. We want to see if you can draw your readers' attention from one panel to the next."
"And you need to be able to take criticism! And understand things on a critical level - 'you suck' is not criticism. That said, someone who is giving you comments on a thoughtful, critical level should be listened to, not argued with."
Robert Napton: "It's about having patience. I've been to many portfolio reviews where the first thing the artist says is 'It's not my best stuff.' If it isn't your best stuff, don't show it! Don't be in a rush - you're not racing against the world. Be ready when you're ready. Don't make excuses for your work before (the editors) even see it."
Luis Reyes: "The Internet is your friend. You no longer need to live in the same city to find collaborators. Artists and writers can find each other and work together much more easily nowdays."
Robert Napton: "Megatokyo is an online success story that everyone talks about. Producing a webcomic is one way to develop your skills and get noticed."
"But sometimes the trouble with webcomics is that the creators focus too much on creating a page at a time, and don't pay as much attention to how the story flows as a whole chapter."
So what does this mean for aspiring international manga creators? Well, to be just as blunt as the panelists, it means times are tough and you're going to have to be resourceful, hardworking and patient if you want to be a published pro. There are still manga publishers who are willing to take on original comics by new creators, but there are significantly fewer of them than there were five years ago, and they're more selective than ever.
The days of publishers throwing money at anything that looks vaguely like manga are over -- but there will always be room in the American comics business for solidly-written, skillfully drawn, innovative and entertaining stories. Artists are now required take charge of their own careers, get more business-savvy and learn from the mistakes of the past.
As many early OEL manga creators learned the hard way, it's important to understand the publishing business and know your rights as a creator. While it's not solely geared toward comics creators, the Graphic Artists Guild publishes an annual guide that can give you a crash course in intellectual property rights management, professional ethics and pricing guidelines for freelancers.
C.B. Cebulski often posts helpful tips for aspiring comics artists, including information on how you can put your best foot forward at a professional portfolio review. ComicsCareers.com has compiled some of his "greatest hits" of career-building tips for semi-pros.
I know this post is full of downers, so I wanted to pass along a hopeful thought for aspiring artists from two of AX '09's special guests, Yasuhiro Nightow (creator of Trigun) and Satoshi Nishimura (the director of the upcoming Trigun anime movie):
Satoshi Nishimura: "Work on what you like, and always be the person who is proud and happy to work on what you like."
Yasuhiro Nightow: "In Japan, and everywhere in the world, there aren't artists who draw manga who don't also love drawing. So brush up on your skills - work on a lot of projects, so you'll get better. The important thing is to complete the project. The more you do, the more skills you'll obtain. And if you create stories that people enjoy, you'll make money."
So what do you think about what these panelists had to say? Add your thoughts below, or post your opinions in the forums.
Image credit: © Deb Aoki, © Felipe Smith / KODANSHA, © Svetlana Chmakova, © Fred Gallagher