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TokyoPop Insider Pt. 3: Stu Levy Reflects on OEL Manga Mistakes, Looks to Future

By December 12, 2009

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Princess Ai: Prism of the Midnight Dawn Vol. 2In Part 3 of this three-part series of transcripts from the December TokyoPop Insider webcast, TokyoPop CEO Stu Levy answers more questions from fans about his beginnings as TokyoPop's founder, past ventures into creating original manga, including Princess Ai.

Also, Levy and TokyoPop Senior Editor Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl explain why you won't see a TokyoPop manga magazine at your neighborhood newsstand anytime soon, and drop a few hints at some very special events planned for 2010.


Q: What did you have to do become the CEO of TokyoPop?

Stu Levy: Well, I founded the company! It's not like I could walk into anyplace and apply for the job of CEO -- they'd kick me out with my hair! (laughs)

Stu Levy and Lillian Diaz PrzybylI was living in Tokyo, and subsisting on ramen and Aquarius out of the vending machines... fell in love with anime and manga, and then one thing led to another. At the time, there wasn't really manga in America, so I thought it was a great business opportunity. I was doing digital work at the time, what they used to call "multimedia." I was offered a job by Microsoft to run their Microsoft Network -- they were just starting out MSN Japan. And that was a very, very attractive offer.

At the very same time, I was just about to close on my seed funding for TokyoPop to bring manga to America. So I had to choose: work for some big IT company and make tons of money, or create the first company to bring manga to America and probably make no money? And so I chose the latter. So that's how it turned out.

Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: And you ended up doing pretty well for yourself.

Stu Levy: (laughs) Well, not really! Well, I have a nice place, but I have a mortgage.


Q: Does it bother you that so many TokyoPop original manga creators are somewhat... bitter about their past experiences with having their work published by your company?

Stu Levy and Lillian Diaz PrzybylStu Levy: Yes, it totally bothers me, personally. I think it's really too bad, because... we.... Well, I just want to say that I think there are many manga creators who enjoyed their experience with us.

Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: I think there are many who had good experiences, or at least had realistic expectations about what to expect from the experience.

Stu Levy: We tried to support manga creators, and I think we still do. But the challenge is that we put a lot of financial investment into it, and I believe that the manga creators, some of them, maybe some of those who are more bitter, don't quite understand how much of a risk that was, and how much of an investment we made. Part of the challenge of that is that almost all of that investment we made, we haven't made back. Even now.

Dogby Walks AloneWe were hoping that the manga audience would be a little more open-minded. I think when you call something "manga," the definition of what manga means in the United States and what it means in Japan is very, very different.

I had spent so much time in Japan, that I had thought the English version of manga would be the same as the Japanese, that it would be so much more inclusive, and all-encompassing. But in the States, "manga" means a very specific thing, a very specific look like what everyone imagines what a typical Japanese-style manga would look like; anime-style manga.

But in reality, there are all kinds of manga. So we assumed that if we did all kinds of graphic novels, and because we're TokyoPop, that we'd call them all "manga" like they do in Japan. But that was very misinterpreted. The fanbase wasn't willing to try new things, for whatever reason.

Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: And it wasn't just work by US creators. We're always asked about josei manga and seinen manga -- manga for older readers. And even that doesn't get much of a following in the United States.

Sure, there are people out there who love that kind of manga, who are devoted to that kind of manga and constantly ask us for it. But you have to understand that you are the minority.

We're doing our best to keep the market diverse, and kept that stuff out there, but the same people who aren't reading Dogby Walks Alone are the same people who aren't reading Suppli.

Stu Levy: That said, certain original English language (OEL) manga titles that we've published have done quite well.

Dramacon Vol. 1Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: Even during the course of working on something like Dramacon, working on it from the time that Volume 1 came out, until Volume 2 came out, people went from saying 'non-Japanese people can't draw manga,' to saying 'Well, of course they can draw manga.' -- there are people who are doing it, and there are people who are doing it who are doing stuff that is really cool. It's just that there isn't quite enough of (those types of creators) yet.

Stu Levy: Well, for me, I never quite distinguished between what people call manga and what they call graphic novels. I treat it all as sequential art. To me, the word "manga" meant all of that. Certainly, there are stylistic differences in general, but there are exceptions to those rules too.

So we at TokyoPop, we were publishing sequential art; and we still do! So whether the Western comics audience will ever accept what we publish as something they like, or whether the traditional manga audience will ever accept some of the "non-manga" stuff that we publish, I don't know.

But personally, as a music fan that loves all kinds of music, and as a movie fan who loves all kinds of genres, of course as a comic fan who likes all kinds of comics, I think people should try a little harder to be a little more open-minded, or at least experiment. Ultimately, if you find the things that you love and just stick with that, that's great. But at have a little bit of an open mind and try different things. You don't want to just eat steak and potatoes every night. (laughs)

Stu Levy and Lillian Diaz-PryzbylLillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: I think we try very hard to maintain good relations with our creators. It's obviously been a hugely challenging market these past few years. I know that we have personally disappointed (some creators), so for an editor, that's difficult for a founder and creative officer to... well, we're creative people ourselves. There's a passion involved that's difficult to deal with.

But we're really doing our best to complete (manga) series, and to get things out there somehow. There's stuff in the works that will hopefully make people happy in the next few months, but there's also the recognition that maybe not everyone is going to be happy.

Stu Levy: I think the most important point that I'd like to make is that any contractual commitment we've ever made with our creators -- we've always kept them. We have never once violated a contract that we have. So there are other publishers out there, who, if they're not doing well, they would break their contract and not make payments. We have never, ever done that.

If a series was ever cut in mid-series, it was something that we were contractually able to do. It was never that we contractually committed to do a volume, and then we cancelled out on it -- that's something we've never, ever done. As far as cutting something in mid-series, that's something we try our hardest not to do, but if it's losing money, then what can we do?

TokyoPop logoWe did a conference with our creators at Comic-Con. For those of you who don't know, I create stories with the pen name DJ Milky. So somebody asked me, 'Hey, what does DJ Milky feel about this stuff?' and I said, 'Hey, DJ Milky got his series cut too!' (NOTE: Writing as DJ Milky, Levy is one of the creators of Princess Ai)

DJ Milky, or rather I wrote a series called Karma Club, after the first volume was released, and the second volume, it was completely written, and the third, fourth and fifth volumes, the summaries were completely written, and it got cut after the first volume by TokyoPop. So, that's life.

If your series is really bombing, the company has an obligation to do their best, but there's a point where, unfortunately, things aren't working out. Things get cancelled. Then it's up to us to try to make the next thing more commercially successful. That's also the creators' responsibility too.


Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: I'm here in Tokyo to do some meetings with licensors to get us some exciting new manga. I've met with a few artists, and talk with Stu about some Princess Ai stuff.

Princess Ai: Prism of the Midnight Dawn Vol. 1 Stu Levy: You met with Misaho Kujiradou last yesterday about Princess Ai, and our local editor. We were talking about the third volume of Princess Ai: Prism of the Midnight Dawn, and the third Princess Ai series that will be coming after that.

Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: Yep, it was cool. Kujiradou-san brought in some cover sketches for volume 3, so we got to talk about that in person.

Q: What's Misaho Kujiradou like?

Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: Well, you'll get to find out, because we recorded a really nice interview with her the other day.

Stu Levy: She's very sweet, and very quiet -- manga artists tend to be quiet. But as she's gotten to know us, she's become a little less shy.

Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: We've got the next volume of Princess Ai: Prism of the Midnight Dawn coming out this month. Kujiradou-san also signed a bunch of posters for us, so we'll be doing a giveaway soon. Keep an eye out for that.

Stu Levy: I'm also starting to think about what the next Princess Ai series is going to be about. For those of you who follow Princess Ai, the next series, we're going to bring things back to Earth. And we'll be moving away from the fantasy of Prism and a little closer to reality, but hopefully still have a nice little balance.

Q: Does TokyoPop have anything planned for younger kids, like readers age 5 to 8?

Lillian Diaz Pryzbyl and Stu LevyLillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: Well, not really. I know how much buzz there is on the Internet for more comics for kids, but it's a really challenging market.

In terms of internal resources -- it requires someone who really knows and understands that audience. It's also a distribution problem. You're selling to an entirely different part of the bookstore. You can't just stick it in the manga section, because your 8-year old reader might pick up Battle Royale instead of Card Captor Sakura, and then you've got a real problem on your hands.

So it's a real complicated issue. If you're talking direct market (e.g. comic book shops), it might be a little bit different. But it's not really on our radar right now. About the youngest readers we cater to are age 9 and up.

Stu Levy: We may change that in the future, but right now...

Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: We're a diverse company. We've tried to do something like that in the past, but I think it really requires a huge commitment of resources and labor, and we've got other things we're focusing on right now.

Disney Fairies Stu Levy: We have tried some of those kinds of books before, but unfortunately at the time, it wasn't easy to have comics be accepted (by that market). That may be changing over time, and maybe if it was done by someone who has the trust of parents and teachers...

That's the thing, really. When you're selling to kids age 5 to 8, you're selling to teachers, you're selling to parents. When you're selling manga, you're selling directly to a 14-year old, or an 18-year old reader. So selling to parents and teachers is a different business than what we, TokyoPop have ever done before. It's hard to do both.

Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: When we were doing cine-manga, like Avatar, SpongeBob, Lizzie McGuire, for example, it was different because parents knew those brands. It was those brands that they were buying, not because it was cine-manga or because it was from TokyoPop. But even that market has dried up a little bit.

Stu Levy: But you never know. I'm an entrepreneur. You gotta try things.

Q: Will TokyoPop be coming to Anime Weekend Atlanta in 2010?

Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: I don't think we're coming to Anime Weekend Atlanta next year.

Stu Levy and Lillian Diaz PrzybylStu Levy: Oh, are you sure? I think we have something big coming up next year... (smiles at Diaz-Pryzbyl)

Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: Oh, OH! Oh, THAT! Never mind. (smiles)

Stu Levy: It'll be a little bit until we announce it, but we'll be doing something next year. We always try to do something innovative and new that other manga companies have never done. Next year, will definitely involve more conventions than ever in the past, so it should be fun. But that's all we can say right now. I'm not sure if Anime Weekend Atlanta is on the list, but there's a pretty good chance.

Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: It's a convention that I hear a lot of good things about, so it's one that I'd like to go to if I ever got the chance.

Stu Levy: And this "innovative thing" that we're working on? Schwag will be involved with that.

Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: It'll be way cooler than just doing webcams at the cons, trust me. (smiles)

Q: Have you considered publishing a monthly magazine like Yen Plus?

Stu Levy: I would not say "no" automatically to anything, but I'll tell you, I don't know how Yen Plus is doing from a financial point of view. Hyping a magazine in that old paper print magazine format...

Amazon Kindle Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: This format is dying.

Stu Levy: It's very hard to sell these things! (flips through a magazine). It's sad. Don't think I'm not sad about it! But the lovely paper magazine format is not very financially viable anymore.

Q: So what about a digital format?

Stu Levy: Digital format? Great idea! (laughs) I think that online, the iPhone, the Kindle and all of those eBook devices, there's a lot of opportunities to play with that sort of thing.

Whether it's something like a digital magazine, or something that takes more advantage of the medium itself, it's hard to say. Personally I think things will evolve to the point where the content will be customized to that format. But certainly, these platforms open things up to a lot of great opportunities. We're looking into a lot of different options.

Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: Yes, wait and see. There's nothing concrete in the works now, but things could change at any time.

Stu Levy: I just want to tell you guys that this is not a specific question, but just so you guys know, but I've read some stuff, maybe it's on Twitter or whatever, where people say, 'Oh TokyoPop, they died,' or this thing happened, or whatever. We won't go away.

Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: Our death was greatly exaggerated. (laughs)

Stu Levy and Lillian Diaz PryzbylStu Levy: Yeah! I've always tried my hardest to be aggressive, and to be flexible, and really do what's needed to do to help the company survive and thrive, and lead. Last year was really, really hard, but I was never giving up. I'm not that kind of person. I work all the time.

Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl: Boy, does he ever!

Stu Levy: There's always something out there; there's always new ideas, there's always something to try. It's just a question if people believe in you or not. If you guys keep believing in us and the things that we can do, we can always try new things that someone haven't done yet. You always have to stay one step ahead of things.


If you missed it, check out Part 1 of this three-part series, as Levy and Diaz-Pryzbyl talk about TokyoPop series on hiatus, print-on-demand and scanlations. Also, check out Part 2 of this series, which features Levy discussing TokyoPop's manga movie projects.

To view the video webcast in its entirety, visit TokyoPop's YouTube channel.

Image credits: © TOKYOPOP and Kitty Radio, Inc., © Wes Abbott, © Svetlana Chmakova, © Walt Disney Productions


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