When the first all-digital issue of Shonen Jump Alpha hit the interwebs in late January 2012, manga readers in North America got a taste of what they've been begging for, for years: the latest chapters of six very popular Shonen Jump manga series, only two weeks after they hit the newsstands in Japan. Now fans can get their fix of Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, Bakuman, Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan and Toriko for less than $1 an issue (or $26/year for 48 weekly issues), and read it online on their computer, or on their iPad, iPhone or iPod touch.
Sounds good, right? Well, it is pretty good. Compared to what was available online (legally) even a year ago, Shonen Jump Alpha is a quantum leap forward in online manga publishing - but it's admittedly not perfect. Because while Shonen Jump Alpha largely delivers on what VIZ promised when they announced this initiative back in October 2011, this weekly manga magazine doesn't quite provide everything that fans really want: they want their manga fast, free (or at least cheap), and available to them anytime to fans who live in any country, anywhere in the world.
Shonen Jump Alpha is fast - A two week lapse is a huge improvement over the months, sometimes years lag between US and Japan releases that fans used to deal with as recently as a year or two ago. But that's not fast enough for fans who want to read it the same day as it's available in Japan.
Shonen Jump Alpha is inexpensive - At $1 an issue or $26.99/48 issues, subscribing to Shonen Jump Alpha costs about the same as 12 issues of the print edition of the magazine. But inexpensive is not cheap enough for fans who want it for free.
Shonen Jump Alpha is available to all fans… as long as you live in North America - At launch, Shonen Jump Alpha is only available to readers in the United States and Canada. This is great for fans in North America, but not so great for fans in Central or South America, Europe, Australia or anywhere else English-speaking manga readers live in the world. That's not to say that Shonen Jump Alpha will never be available to readers world wide. There are reasons why it's not available worldwide now, and reasons to believe that this situation may change eventually. But I'll get into that later.
Shonen Jump Alpha is far from perfect. There are things big and small that VIZ could do to make it a better reading experience for fans (which I'll get into when I post my review later this week). Sure, they had their share of hiccups at launch, but they've largely resolved most of 'em. Most folks at VIZ will concede that these first issues of SJA demonstrate progress and not absolute perfection. (You can check it out for yourself with this free preview of Shonen Jump Alpha at VIZManga.com)
I think VIZ knew going into this that they wouldn't please everyone. You have to admit that the whole 'fast, free, and available everywhere' thing is a pretty tall order to fulfill, much less deliver only a few weeks since Shonen Jump Alpha's debut. Everyone knew that it would be impossible to make 100% of fans 100% happy from the get-go. To be fair, many fans are very pleased with the first few issues of Shonen Jump Alpha. But the unhappy contingent? Boy, are they unhappy, and they're not content to sulk in silence.
MANGASTREAM CRIES A RIVER OVER PULLED SHONEN JUMP MANGA
One of the main sources for the recent outburst of fan rage due to scanlation site Mangastream's announcement that they had pulled down their scans of several Shonen Jump manga series. They broke the news with this message on their site:
"Dear MangaStream supporter,
It's with a heavy heart that I make the following announcement. MangaStream will no longer be releasing the following series:
VIZ Media has demanded that we end our scanlation work for all of the above. This comes despite our best efforts to pursuade (sic) fans into supporting official distributors by being the only group to actively prevent an archive from forming on their website through the removal of chapters that are older than a couple weeks."
- One Piece
- Hunter x Hunter
- Katekyo Hitman Reborn
Okay, some commentary here: Notice how Mangastream's note tries to paint them as the aggrieved, innocent party who were simply providing a much needed 'service' to readers?
Before you feel too sorry for them, remember that Mangastream does not own, nor has ever owned, or has ever had the right or permission to publish these comics online. They, and other sites like them, have been flaunting their posting of unauthorized scanned and translated pages of Shonen Jump (and many other titles from many other publishers) for years.
It's not like this news caught them by surprise. (See the announcement of the anti-piracy coalition Japanese Digital Comics Association back in June 2010, followed by OneManga's shut down in July 2010 and MangaFox's token attempt to take down VIZ titles in June 2010 (that they later reposted).
Sure, MangaStream tried to make some concessions to VIZ by "removing chapters that are older than a couple of weeks." Clearly, this was an attempt to placate VIZ/Shueisha's legal team who eventually got tired of the games, and by the sound of Mangastream's letter, finally sent Mangastream a strongly-worded threat that they had to take seriously. Given all the anti-piracy developments brewing since June 2010, Mangastream was living on borrowed time and they darn well knew it. If they didn't, they were either naïve or stupid or both.
Meanwhile, in case you weren't aware of this, VIZ Media is partially owned by Shueisha, the original Japanese publisher of Shonen Jump. VIZ is also the authorized North American licensor of these manga titles and they have been for many years. This means that some of the proceeds from licensing fees and sales of print and digital editions of these Shonen Jump titles go back to the original creators of these comics - something that Mangastream's scans never did.
This bears repeating: Mangastream's scans NEVER paid a CENT to Masashi Kishimoto, Tite Kubo, Eiichiro Oda, or any other manga creator whose work is posted on their site. And for good measure, they probably didn't pay the fans who translated, scanned, cleaned up, and lettered the manga hosted on their site either.
So who made money? Well, probably Mangastream and the various scanlation aggregator sites who make money off the Google Adwords / display advertising that's posted on their sites. I'll say it again. Not a SINGLE PENNY of this advertising revenue ever did or ever will go to the creators who drew the manga. Got it? Good.
Despite that inconvenient truth, Mangastream's letter drips with bitterness:
(VIZ has) succeeded in little more than invoking inconvenience to the community as their digital magazine missed the mark; it runs several issues behind and only features 3 of the above series. So long as their product continues to be slow, awkward and inferior to something a ragtag group of nobodies can churn out in a few hours - fans will continue to look to scanlation groups and aggregators for their weekly fix.
See how insidious this reasoning is? They're basically saying, 'Hey fans - big bad VIZ is being sooo mean. They sic'ed their lawyers on us. We tried to fight the good fight, but alas, we cannot any longer. VIZ's product is inferior to ours, and it's sooo slow. VIZ is just a big, bad company full of greedy incompetents, while we are for you, the community of fans! We are the good guys! Fight the power!"
Before you swallow that bit of swill, let me introduce another inconvenient truth: The reason why the 'ragtag group of nobodies' can 'churn out' the latest chapters of Shonen Jump manga in 'a few hours' is that they don't have to worry about tedious details like, oh… getting approvals from the original manga creators, editors or publishers in Japan? It's easy to be fast when you don't have to worry about things like that. It's also easy to be profitable when they're only paying for their Internet hosting costs, and not paying anything to the editors, the letterers/clean-up artists, translators, the publishers and most of all, the creators of the comics that they claim to love.
"I think Mangastream's response shows the real reason they did what they did. They scanlated for pure ego, and nothing more."
- Nick Raymond (@CharredKnight)
MANGASTREAM UNLEASHES FAN FURY ON VIZ MEDIA'S TWITTER, FACEBOOK PAGES
Once Mangastream pulled their chapters of these Shonen Jump manga on their site, fan fury made itself apparent on VIZ Media's Shonen Jump Alpha page, their Facebook page and Twitter feed. Here are a few choice comments from the Shonen Jump Alpha comments page from the February 6, 2010 issue and the VIZ Media Facebook page.
"id rather buy the original series all the way from japan rather than this low quality manga translations and scans! shame on you viz for stopping manga stream to continue theyre (sic) PROFESSIONAL work!"
" What the crap is this? i paid 26 bucks for a 1 year membership only because Vis (sic) decided to be turds toward the fan-based scanlation sites, only to find out that the current issue is the one i read 3 weeks ago? and not only is it 3 weeks behind what the fan sites already did, the translations are crap and the site is nowhere near my definition of user friendly.... your company is putting out a shoddy product and (as a paying customer), I'm unhappy."
"Bullying other scanlation sights (sic) that offer a better product is dispicable (sic). Viz Media should be ashamed."
- Brian Cotner
Okay, let's address this perception that MangaStream's scans/translations of Shonen Jump manga were 'better' than the versions posted on Shonen Jump Alpha.
I could try to explain but pictures speak louder than words. Take a look at what "Suzaku," fan posted in the Manga Helpers forum: Several side-by-side comparisons of Mangastream's scan/translation/graphic clean-up jobs on recent chapters of Naruto, Bleach and One Piece next to the Shonen Jump Alpha equivalent. Suzaku had some interesting observations about the differences in quality in both the graphics and the translations. (Spoiler: the SJA pages are crisper and cleaner, and read a little smoother). Don't believe me? Check this out for an illuminating comparison and see if you still think that the MangaStream product was superior, other than being 'free.'
NOTE: If you're curious about the extent of fan fury out there, there are many, many more fan verbatims and commentary posted on Tsukento's Ramblings.
Also worth checking out: One Piece Podcast hosted a discussion between Stephen Paul, translator for VIZ Media's One Piece, and "Molokidan," the translator who worked on Mangastream's version of One Piece.
Worth a read: Brian Hanson, Anime News Networks' "Answer Man" addresses the Mangastream vs. VIZ controversy in his February 18 column.
DELAYS, LEAKS, TRANSLATION GRIPES AND A FEW VOICES OF REASON
Of course, there were also complaints not directly related to MangaStream's issues. These comments mostly fell in the "2 weeks delay? Whhhhy?" bucket or the "Your translations suck" bucket, with a smattering of more specific and constructive suggestions.
"Why is your Manga two weeks behind? Do you really expect to think anyone is actually going to pay you money for a product two weeks old? When you go to a groceries store do you buy MILK two weeks old? I know this is not the FDA here and comparing a manga to a two week old carton of MILK, Well is just, Sour."
Okay, here's another ugly secret about how scanlation sites have been handling Shonen Jump manga. Many sites, including Mangastream, relied upon 'leaked' scans of Shonen Jump series so they could post their chapters almost a full week before they even hit the newsstands in Japan. Even Tite Kubo expressed dismay when he'd get tweets from overseas fans who would ask him questions about chapters that weren't even released in Japan yet. So those of you who have been complaining that Shonen Jump Alpha content is three weeks behind the scan sites? This is the somewhat shady reason why this is so.