Basketball as Comics: Going Inside Viz's Slam Dunk

There's a story to every sport. Announcers help highlight the individual and group struggles and aspirations as they compete for honor, tradition, fame, money and like the recent Olympics – gold. Sports is a prime territory for drama, as seen in movies such as Rocky, Any Given Sunday and Hoop Dreams. But where are the sports comics? In Japan, sports is a thriving genre – one whose highest celebrated story is Takahiko Inoue's Slam Dunk. And now with the recent VIZ release of the first volume here in America, the popular pastime is hoping to capture the fandom of Japan in basketball's home country of the United States.

The story of Slam Dunk is about a basketball team from Shohuka High School. Basketball in Japan isn't the street sport as we know it here in America – Japan's basketball is one played only in gymnasiums, and always as part of organized and regimented sports. The lead in this case is a young man named Hanamichi, a bolsterous character who resorts to fighting to increase his popularity while his attempts to woo the opposite sex prove increasingly disappointing. But he's spurred into basketball when the girl of his dreams, Haruko, is enamored by the sport and pushes him to participate.

Although oblivious to the rules of basketball, Hanamichi shows raw talent on the court and joins the team in order to impress Haruko. His plan for romance is not without hurdles however, with the appearance of an adept teammate who Haruko herself has a crush on. Quicker than you can say love triangle, Slam Dunk is about rivalries on and off the court as the backwoods high school team struggles to compose it self for the upcoming season.

In Japan, Takehiko Inoue's Slam Dunk ran for six years in in Weekly Shonen Jump and commanded a huge presence on book shelves with 31 volumes of the collected manga, selling over 100 million copies total in Japan. Declared Japan's favorite manga in 2007 and receiving 1995's prestigious Shogakukan Manga Award, Slam Dunk was so popular that news many Japanese teenages took up the sport of basketball after it was published. It went on to spawn an four anime movies and a 101 episode anime television series. This series make Inoue's name in manga, which he later continued with the samurai tale Vagabond and two subsequent basketball manga, Real and Buzz Beater.

Originally released in the United States by the now-defunct Gutsoon! Entertainment in 2003, VIZ Media announced that it had acquired the U.S. license of Slam Dunk at Comic Con International 2007. VIZ later previewed the series in the December 2007 edition of Shonen Jump. With the recent release of the first volume of the manga in book form, Viz took great steps to acclimate this to American audiences with an unprecedented partnership with the NBA to publicize the book's release. "[At 2007's Comic Con] VIZ Media partnered with the NBA for two special appearances in our booth: the Los Angeles Laker Girls one day and the Portland Trailblazer’s Greg Oden, (who was the No. 1 draft pick in 2007, on another day)," said Elizabeth Kawasaki. "The Laker Girls, and Greg Oden both drew large, enthusiastic crowds."

As school is back in full swing in America, Viz has continued their partnership with Oden and NBA on a literacy campaign through Reading is Fundamental and the American Association of Publishers Get Caught Reading program.

Another facet of the NBA partnership is the inclusion of a new Slam Dunk bonus feature called "Overtime". VIZ worked with the NBA and Inoue to select an NBA player and specific moves to highlight that ties into the storyline for the particular volume. "We’ve been very fortunate to work directly with Takehiko Inoue from the very beginning," said Kawasaki. "First, with Vagabond and now Slam Dunk and Real. He’s a creator who likes to be very involved. We usually initiate the design concepts based on Inoue-sensei’s original manga and then work with him on the different aspects of the book."

With the acquisition of Slam Dunk, VIZ has become the exclusive publisher of manga-ka Inoue's work on American shores as it joins the fan-favorite Vagabond and Real. "We wanted to create an author campaign for Takehiko Inoue and started looking at his catalog of work and strategizing how best to introduce or reintroduce his manga. VIZ Media decided that releasing Slam Dunk and Real in the same year, as well as re-launching Vagabond in our VIZBIG omnibus format, was the best approach. It’s as simple as that," said Kawasaki."

"Slam Dunk is the manga that made Inoue a superstar in Japan," says Kit Fox, series editor. "It’s a seminal manga and we’re very proud to publish it. Also, it’s targeted at a slightly younger age group than Vagabond or Real."

Although not the first sports manga VIZ had ushered to America, it has the rightful prestige of being one of the genre's key works. Even though sports is an established manga genre in Japan, it has yet to reach the full saturation here in the western world. " I think there is definitely room for growth in the U.S. In Japan, there are dozens and dozens of bestselling sports-themed manga," said Editorial Director Elizabet Kawasaki.

"The best ones, like Slam Dunk, are serialized dramas about personal relationships using sports as a stage. When you think about it, comics and sports are a pretty natural fit. You don’t have to be a basketball nut in order to enjoy Slam Dunk. You may learn a few things about the game while reading the series but I hope fans will pick up every volume of Slam Dunk because of those personal relationships, the drama, the humor, the what-happens-next aspect. "

Slam Dunk was officially introduced to American audiences with a preview in the December 2007 edition of Shonen Jump. "We introduced Slam Dunk in Shonen Jump to get it in front of as many readers as possible, upwards of 1.2 million pass-around, and to then speed up the release schedule in graphic novel format," explained Kawasaki. "One thing that’s been interesting about the Shonen Jump fan response is that readers are as interested in the romance angle as the sports."

Twitter activity