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TCAF 2010: Indie Comics Japan: Manga Outside the Mainstream

Featuring Christopher Butcher, Ryan Sands, Dan Nadel, Erik Ko & Jocelyene Allen

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Jocelyene Allen, Dan Nadel, Deb Aoki, Erik Ko, Ryan Sands

Jocelyene Allen, Dan Nadel, Deb Aoki, Erik Ko, Ryan Sands

© Deb Aoki, manga.about.com

On Saturday, Christopher Butcher, Toronto Comics Art Festival Director, comics retailer and comics blogger (Comics212.net) moderated a panel titled "Indie Comics Japan: Manga Outside the Mainstream." The panelists included a mix of manga critics, translators and publishers to discuss the "intersection of indie comics and manga," and some of the challenges that publishers face when they try to bring new, artistically edgy and deeply personal manga to U.S. audiences.

The panelists included:

DISCOVERING A TASTE FOR INDIE MANGA

The first question posed by Butcher was about where and how art comics and indie manga intersect, and how each of the panelists came to work in manga.

Ryan Sands: I started out as a fan, and I try to read very widely. I mostly read indie comics and manga, and I find what is called "indie manga" here is based on who publishes it in the U.S. more than what is the actual content. This makes for some odd bedfellows. For example, Pulp Magazine was a manga anthology magazine published by VIZ that was funded by all the money they made from Pokemon.

A few years ago, I met and became friends with Colin Turner from Last Gasp, who also really likes manga. We sat down with a stack of books to see what could work in the U.S. and what would be worthwhile to publish. The first book we came up with together was Tokyo Zombie by Yusaku Hanakuma, an apocalyptic battle manga with lots of flesh-eating zombies and pig riding that's also about class warfare. And it's written by a guy who's a black belt in judo, so there's some of that too. It's disgusting, outrageous, violent and totally great. (laughs)

Erik Ko: I started out as a manga fan too, so Udon is basically a group of artists who are mostly inspired by manga. We also try to publish manga so American readers can enjoy some of what's available in Japan.

During the course of ten years, we started licensing and publishing the Street Fighter manga. More recently, we started publishing new editions of Silent Mobius by Kia Asamiya. Silent Mobius is a classic sci-fi manga -- it just celebrated its 20th anniversary in Japan. It was originally published in the U.S. by VIZ, and at the time, they tried to market manga for the U.S. market in the traditional U.S. format -- they flipped the artwork, colored it, and presented it as 40-page comics.

Things have changed a lot, such that publishers don't feel the need to present manga in that format to reach readers. But even though manga is pretty popular now, we're always trying to do things to reach new readers, like we've been putting out a line of manga for kids, to try to get a new generation introduced to this kind of comics.

Deb Aoki: I've been reading manga for a good chunk of my life -- even before it was widely available in English. I also read a wide variety of comics -- mainstream, webcomics, "indie" and "art" comics, even though nowadays I mostly read manga.

While I read all kinds of manga, I'm most excited to see more not-so-mainstream, artistically challenging and innovative manga coming out lately. Stuff like what VIZ is doing with SigIkki.com and VIZ Signature titles, Drawn & Quarterly putting out very avant-garde manga like The Box Man by Imiri Sakabashira and Red Colored Elegy by Seiichi Hayashi, Picturebox's Yuichi Yokoyama titles, and now Top Shelf and Fantagraphics dipping their toes into manga too, with the AX Alternative Manga Anthology and Drunken Dream by Moto Hagio, respectively.

I'm helping out my friends at Fanfare-Ponent Mon this weekend, because Stephen (Robson), the publisher of Fanfare couldn't make it to Toronto due to some family obligations. But Fanfare-Ponent Mon is a great example of a small publisher putting out just a handful of very carefully selected manga for grown-ups with sophisticated art and storytelling.

This stuff is never going to out-sell Naruto, but I'm glad to see that more publishers and readers are taking a chance with this kind of manga.

Dan Nadel: I first got interested in publishing manga because I found artists who were doing work that was very similar to the kind of art comics by Western artists that I already publish.

One of the first that I got into was King Terry Johnson -- that's not his actual name! (laughs) He's a Tokyo-based artist who pioneered the "heta-uma" style of comics. It's very similar to Gary Panter's work -- a kind of "bad-good" style of rough, expressive drawing that's based on mark-making.

Around King Terry were several artists who had similar sensibilities, like Takashi Nemoto (creator of Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby), Ebisu and Suzy Amakane. They all came out of the 1980s, about the same time as RAW magazine in the U.S.

I got very, very interested in that kind of manga. It's an obvious complement to the books that I publish. I'd like to publish more manga like this, but it is exceedingly difficult to publish very personal, graphically challenging and sexually violent comics like this. Who knew? (shrugs and laughs) Why was I surprised?

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