As the editor for the U.S. editions of Dragon Ball, One Piece, The Drifting Classroom and the first American editor for Shonen Jump magazine, Jason Thompson spent the better part of the last decade in the center of the manga universe. With his recently released book, Manga: The Complete Guide from Del Rey Manga, Thompson rates and reviews over a thousand manga series and demystifies the wide world of Japanese comics.
With so much manga now available in English, how can any one sort through them all and find the gems among the piles of rocks? In Manga: The Complete Guide, Thompson reviews titles both popular and obscure, and provides insights about Japanese culture and the different genres of manga to make finding your next favorite manga series easier than ever.
We talked with Thompson shortly after the release of his book, and got his take on the current state of the art, why manga has more in common with TV shows than American comics and, after reading over a thousand graphic novels, what he'll be doing for an encore.
LOST IN TRANSLATING: DISCOVERING ANIME AND MANGA
Q: According to your bio and other interviews, you first discovered manga almost 15 years ago. What turned you on to manga?
Jason Thompson: While I was in high school, before I was aware of anime and manga, I knew that some of my friends were into Robotech. Later, some of them were into Ninja High School, which was a comic by Ben Dunn that was influenced by manga. I wasn't aware of those first VIZ releases in 1987, because I really wasn't that into comics at the time.
When I went to college in 1991, I joined the anime club and I started watching those types of shows pretty regularly. I was into a mix of science-fiction, horror and fantasy at the time, but I also liked romantic comedies, like Rumiko Takahashi's stories.
Q: It was really different being a manga reader at that time, wasn't it? There was a lot less available in English, and you really had to search for that kind of thing if you were interested in it.
JT: Absolutely. I wasn't even aware that there was translated stuff available until several years after I had been reading non-translated manga. Then a friend showed up with a copy of Battle Angel Alita (one of the first VIZ manga titles available in English) and I thought "What the heck! I don't have to read this stuff in Japanese!"
I was kind of disconnected from the comics community at the time. That kind of manga was only available in the comics stores, there was no presence of these books in the bookstores at all.
JUMP-STARTING SHONEN JUMP IN AMERICA
Q: So let's fast forward a little bit. In 1996, you then went on to become an editor at VIZ Media, one of the first and one of the largest manga publishers in the U.S. How did that gig come about?
JT: Well, it was kind of a stroke of luck. Earlier that year, I had done a college paper about manga for a class I was taking. So I graduated with an English degree, then a friend pointed out an ad in Animerica magazine which was for a job at VIZ. I applied for that job, and in a stroke of incredible good fortune, I got it.
I was the editor for Game On! USA, which was VIZ's video game and manga magazine. So I worked on that magazine during its brief, comet-like run. Then after that I stayed on and worked on other things.
Q: You went on to edit several manga titles, including Dragon Ball, Silent Moebius, and then you became the first editor for the U.S. edition of Shonen Jump Magazine.
JT: Yeah, it was a good thing to move from being an editor of a video game magazine to a manga magazine, because I know a lot more about manga than games. When I was a manga editor, I started out by working on a lot of very forgettable titles, such as Nightwarriors. By the time I got to edit Dragon Ball, I really felt I was in the big time as a manga fan.
In early 2002, VIZ was looking for their next big thing to do after the success of Pokemon. Pokemon made a lot of money for them, but they weren't able to generate any big follow-up to it. So one thing they wanted to do was launch a shonen manga magazine.
I had always been a fan of Shonen Jump titles, so I had always regretted that VIZ couldn't get these licenses because Shueisha (Japanese publisher for Shonen Jump) wanted all their manga to be presented unflopped. VIZ wasn't ready for that at the time.
So the original plan was to do a manga magazine that would have Shonen Jump titles, but wouldn't be Shonen Jump. However, the Shueisha people were very hard negotiators, so they bought half of VIZ in exchange for the privilege of publishing the Shonen Jump titles and the Shonen Jump name. This was a huge change for VIZ, but in the end, it worked out very well for them.
Q: It must have been challenging to try to adapt one of Japan's most popular manga magazine for an American audience… .
JT: Yeah, it was very tricky. Originally, there were plans to make Shonen Jump an all-ages title, but it ended up being a 13+ title. I was glad to see that, since you can get away with a lot more, content-wise, in a magazine that's for readers age 13 and up.
With all the new places that manga was being sold, like through Scholastic book clubs and Walmart, there was a lot more scrutiny placed on manga than ever before. For example, you can't show scenes with kids smoking in comics for that age group.
While dealing with this challenge, it was interesting to work with the different artists. For example, Hiroyuki Takei was very concerned that Shaman King would have to be altered too much. I had to convince him, by telling him that we liked his manga so much, we would do our best to respect his work.
Eiichiro Oda of One Piece was also very sensitive to every aspect of how his manga would be translated, right down to the sound effects. On the other hand, there were other artists who didn't have as strong opinions, because they were used to getting their work translated into other languages.(More on Page 2)