Tokyopop's Changes 1: From the Creators' Point of View

The manga revolution is having its own revolution.

Tokyopop, the manga giant and one of the market leaders of the past few years is, depending on who you listen to, going through some reorganization efforts, heaving and bucking as it sheds creators and projects, or circling the drain. The company has been a target of the blogoshphere for quite some time, given creators and would-be creators’ issues with its contracts, but most recently, the company announced a substantial reorganization and reduction in output for the coming year. The move left many creators’ projects homeless.

Today, we begin a three part series talking to creators about their Tokyopop experiences, views, and plans for the future.

TokyoPop’s New Corporate Identities… And Predicament?

So – where are things today?

“We are storytellers and not economists. We’re just trying to what we always do: make great manga [the Japanese word for comics]! We have great fans who are very loyal readers… and we thank them every day,” said Mike Kiley, who was then Publisher of TokyoPop in an interview with Newsarama.com on the subject of “Economics and Comics – Publishing in a Pinch”.

Subsequently, restructuring exercise was announced to the public on June 3 and the internet broke into byte size pieces. According to Stuart Levy, CEO and Chief Creative Officer of the TokyoPop Group, “39 of the most talented, creative and compassionate people” out of an approximately 100 employees were let go and TokyoPop’s print releases will be reduced to roughly 200-225 titles per year from a planned total of over 500 titles. “Between September and December of this year, I believe there are 20-22 releases per month and an equivalent number [per month] scheduled for the calendar year 2009,” said Kiley in a one-on-one interview with ICv2. “I would guess the total releases for '08 will go down to the very low 400s--a diminution of about 80 titles.”

The Beat’s Heidi MacDonald reported that editorial cuts include [former Editor-in-Chief] Rob Tokar, Luis Reyes, Paul Morrissey, Hope Donovan and Tim Beedle, while former Junior Editor Peter Ahlstrom later confirmed that besides him, Kathy Schilling, Stephanie Duchin, and Nikhil Burman were also let go. “There are five editors left, and two of them are now assigned to TP Media.”

“It caught me off-guard, but it doesn't surprise me, for a lot of reasons. Like any industry there has to be a correction when too much material floods into the market,” Chuck Austen, creator of Boys of Summer and former Uncanny X-Men, The Avengers, Captain America and Action Comics writer told Newsarama.

Group President & COO John Parker is now in charge of the publishing arm while Kiley has been promoted to a key senior executive position in TokyoPop Media, reporting to Levy, who will helm the new company that focuses on digital and comics-to-film works.

“In my experience, banking on movie sales is a bad idea,” Pantheon High co-creator Paul Benjamin said. “I spent eight years in Hollywood developing comics for film and television and helped set up deals on well over a dozen properties. The only one that anybody outside of Hollywood ever saw was Showtime’s Jeremiah. If I get a chance to talk to folks at TokyoPop about this, here’s what I’ll say: New media is a business that needs to be built gradually and one needs to be prepared to make some bad deals before the good ones come along. Look at Marvel. They had a bunch of bad movies (Corman’s Fantastic Four, Captain America, Dr. Strange) before Spider-Man and X-Men came along. And even then it was Sony and Fox that made the big bucks. Only after proving itself as a content provider did Marvel get the funding to make their own Iron Man and Hulk films. I believe TokyoPop needs to be willing to work their way up the Hollywood food chain if they want their New Media division to succeed.”

As if the timing is not any better, Borders, the nation’s second largest bookstore chain and the largest manga retailer in the United States, having its own “liquidity issues” and the reported alliance between Borders and Barnes & Noble would be a blow to manga publishers, including TokyoPop. “TokyoPop’s current circumstances are a real shame. Borders’ widely reported financial problems proved to be a catastrophic blow to a publisher that was clearly on ground too shaky to absorb that kind of impact,” Benjamin added. “The hardest thing for me has been to see so many amazing people let go. TokyoPop had some truly outstanding and hard working staff on board. My Pantheon High editor Paul Morrissey was nothing short of incredible. They kept some talented people after the restructuring as well, but they also managed to find a place for the people who made the decisions that led to this crossroads. I hope that the folks in charge take that show of faith to heart and make it worthwhile.

”I think the idea behind the restructuring is something TokyoPop should have pursued a long time ago. Like so many publishers before them, they expanded their Original English Language line far too quickly and as a result they had too many books to edit and market effectively. It bugs me when people say, “I knew this was going to happen.” I had friends at ground zero and they had no idea such a huge change was coming. From my experience though, what was apparent was that the editorial and marketing staff were always stretched far too thin. The company would likely be in a better position if they had published fewer books and had a better plan when it came to the new media side.”

East Coast Rising creator Becky Cloonan thinks that “people love to hate TokyoPop, and like to see them as the ‘bad guy’ in comics. Understandable, some of their decisions are hasty and ridiculous, and some of their contracts are questionable, but overall I think they're just the hot topic on the blogosphere. So many companies that are going under this year (Borders, anyone?); the failing economy and rising gas prices are just giving way to what I think will be a wave of corporate bankruptcy. I do think Tokyopop could have avoided the situation they are in by making better business decisions, but I don't think that Tokyopop deserves as much negative attention as it's getting.

“On the whole, my experience with Tokyopop has been positive overall.”

TokyoPop: A Hell of An Experience?

Tony Salvaggio, co-creator of Psy-Comm agreed with Cloonan. “Overall we (speaking for Jason [Henderson] and I) have enjoyed working with TokyoPop a lot. We had great a great editor in [former Tokyopop Editor and now Senior Editor at Marvel] Mark Paniccia and who then transitioned us to a totally awesome editor in Bryce Coleman. They treated us really well through the whole run. I’ve met great people there, and some amazing creators. We’ve been part of different multimedia pushes here and there, and I’m still involved in trying to get more of that going if possible (when I have time). There have been ups and downs, like losing [artist] Shane [Granger] as an artist (amicably, I might add) which was a low point for us. But on the upswing, we gained Ramanda [Karmaga], who is awesome. We kept our inker, Jeremy Freeman and toner Chi Wang and created a lean mean comic creating machine. Even if we go out with a whimper instead of a bang for now, I’ll count it as a net positive with a few small detours along the way.

“I’ve learned a lot about the publishing biz, especially about direct market vs. bookstores. I’ve also learned that making a book with a hyphen or asterisk in the title makes it really hard for people to search for it. Ha!

“Seriously though, I’ve learned a lot about telling a story in three volumes, and what to pick and choose to put in. I read reviews and pick apart the really good critiques so I can make my next project better. I’ve also grown even more as a team player (I love working in teams) and I can see where I would like to go with my next creative works. Psy-Comm isn’t the first thing I have written, but it has certainly pushed me in ways that I think will make my next books (and hopefully there will be more books with different team players on Psy-Comm) even better.”

Stuart Moore, who’s seen two volume of his Earthlight series published so far, dropped by to say that, “Everyone at TokyoPop, from editorial on down, has been great to work with, pitching in and letting me stick my nose in at various stages of the project. I have to give particular props to my primary editor Bryce Coleman, who's still there and working like a dog. He's been a great champion of our book and just terrific to deal with.

“Contract negotiation, on the other hand, was frustrating. But that's not exactly news. In the end, [artist] Chris [Schons] and I got enough to go ahead with the book, and I'm glad we did.”

Benjamin Roman has nothing but nice things to say about working with Keith Giffen on I Luv Halloween. “Well, I had the chance to work with a writing legend,” he said. “I've been a huge fan of Keith's since I was a teenager. It's still a bit surreal to speak with him on the phone.

”My experience with making ILH has been great since they allowed me a lot of leeway creatively. I think that the most I was ever asked to change was probably one word in the three books that I did. The only negative sentiment that I have about my TP experience is that sometimes they don't communicate with their creators as effectively as I think that a company should.

”Other than that, my editor Bryce [Coleman] is a good guy, and I'd definitely work with him again under different circumstances.”

Undertown’s Jim Pascoe: “My experience with TokyoPop has been exceptional. Perhaps because my book has been a financial success. Let me say that I was greatly saddened by the loss of jobs due to the restructuring, which included many friends and talented collaborators, like my amazing editor Paul Morrissey. However, many other talented friends remain. I look forward to continuing to work with them.”

For Roadsong’s Joanna Estep, she acknowledged that the manga side of the comics industry has never been a friendly or easy place. “But in my eyes, it doesn't seem to be getting any better. Too much pain for too little gain. I believe I'll be shedding my manga artist mantle for the time being, and looking into other aspects of comic making. Working for TokyoPop is what got me interested in manga in the first place, but I'm feeling more than a little let-down in that department. Manga, I love you, but we've got too many differences. I'm wondering if we ought to break up.”

On the other hand, Ross Campbell did only one volume of The Abandoned and that was it. “I didn't work with them for very long, but it was kind of a mess, all sorts of stuff from printing problems to censoring dialogue,” he explained. “But I appreciate that TokyoPop went that extra distance and paid for color printing (my book was black, white & red) despite it being a huge mess that ended up costing them a bunch of extra money (ironically the color was their idea),” he added. “I don't think I've ever been as furious as I was when I got the finished, printed book and saw what happened to it. I also felt like despite TokyoPop having put all this effort into getting the book printed a certain way, them taking a chance on an artist whose style isn't very ‘manga’ at all and which looked totally different from anything TP was putting out, that they didn't really have that much faith in the book to begin with.

“At the last minute before the book even came out,” he continued, “TP yanked the "Volume 1" off the cover, like they didn't expect the book to do well or warrant a sequel, like they weren't even going to try, and that wasn't very encouraging. And then they didn't do any marketing for it and didn't sell it at conventions, which also made me feel really deflated. And now I'm frustrated because my book is stuck in limbo, they're sitting on the rights even though they're not doing anything with the series, so I guess they're hoping for the unlikely event some Hollywood studio will come along and want to make a movie. Still, TP paid enough that I was able to move out of my parents' house, finally, so that was a plus. They also paid for my hotel room one year at San Diego, that was also good. And I'm glad they liked my work enough to publish it in the first place, and I'm glad they didn't try to censor any of the gore in my book. Even the negative stuff is a learning experience, so I don't regret any of my decisions or resent TokyoPop at all. I can't say it wouldn't have been nice for things to turn out a different way, but maybe it's all for the best.”

Brandon Graham has “mixed feelings” about his dealing with TokyoPop. “Before TokyoPop, I couldn't get a deal outside of drawing porn comics and now I've got an Eisner Award nomination [for his book, King City] and work all over the place doing exactly what I want to be doing.

”Comic books is a rough gig. This whole thing going down made me think of what Jack Kirby said, ‘Comics will break your heart.’ He knew what he was talking about. Doing this for a living has brought me to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.”

Likewise, the entire experience has been “great” for War On Flesh’s Tim Smith 3. “Nothing but support from them. I do have a great editor that really cares and works with me to get the best possible work. And I do feel that everyone over there wants the same. I still think that TokyoPop is a great way to get one's story out there. Is there other places that does it better or worse? Sure there are. But thus far for me it has been great. I never saw any other company seeking talent the way that they did. And I think it has opened the doors to many people since then in TokyoPop and in other companies that now seek manga/comic creators when at first there was few to none.

“The net has been on fire with the recent TokyoPop affairs and announcements. I do not know much about that. As it has not affected me directly. But I do wish the best for past and future creators, and the good folks over at TokyoPop, that is effect be any changes in the system.”

OEL = Manga vs. Comics?

Originally known as Mixx when Levy founded the company back in 1997, TokyoPop has licensed, translated, published and distributed hundreds of manga as well as manhwa (the general Korean term for comics and print cartoons) and global manga (or more popularly known as Original English Language or OEL manga) in both English, German and other languages around the globe.

TokyoPop has always prided itself as the company “leading the manga revolution”, especially when it comes to global/OEL manga, a term commonly used to describe English publications like comics or graphic novels created by creators heavily influenced by Japanese anime and manga. Even though TokyoPop wasn’t the first to produce global/OEL manga as companies like Antarctic Press (with titles like Ben Dunn’s Ninja High School, Warrior Nun Areala and Fred Perry’s Gold Digger) and creators such as Adam Warren (Dirty Pair, Bublegum Crisis), Lea Hernandez (Killer Princesses with Gail Simone, Rumble Girls, Clockwork Angels) and others had been creating western manga, world manga, manga-influenced comics, neo-manga, and nissei comi years before TokyoPop’s manga revolution.

But Tokyopop did it big, and most recently. There are those that point to the expansion, which saw the creation of new material, rather than the repackaging and republishing of original Japanese material (and the reaction t received) as a cause in the comopany weakening.

“I’ve always been influenced by manga since I found Shotaro Ishimori’s art in a copy of Epic Illustrated when I was around 10 years old (and Nausicaa a few years later). When I was in art school people told me that there was no way that mainstream comics would accept manga type art and storytelling, despite the fact Eternity Comics, Antarctic Press, Dark Horse, Now Comics etc. had been doing just that for years (I was really inspired by Tim Eldred and Adam Warren). When TokyoPop said 'Hey, we welcome creators who are influenced by manga to come do their books for us?' I jumped at the chance,” Tony Salvaggio, who co-created Psy-Comm with Jason Henderson, said. “How cool, right?! At the time, we were called OGN, or OGM. I asked how we were going to be marketed, and if they thought people would gig us for not being 'manga.' Hey, who would think that was an issue….

“I had no idea what the backlash would be, just for doing what I’ve always wanted to do. I see all of these forum and blog posts across the ‘net claiming that all of the OEL stuff sucks, and that the creators can’t understand what real manga is, etc. etc. It is really tough. It’s one thing to not like a book, heck I don’t like a lot of really popular books because those are just my tastes. For example, I’m not a CLAMP fan, but I respect them because they’ve created some neat books and Wow, they own their own city block. They must be doing something right that I’m not doing! It’s another thing to write off all of the books. I don’t get that. I honestly didn’t expect some of the vitriol that has been spewed at OEL when we started creating our books.

“Spaghetti Westerns didn’t need to be made in the US to be cool Westerns, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal gave us Metallica and all these cool metal bands. Rock and Roll from the states and the UK influenced the Pillows, and New Wave begat Visual Kei bands. While we argue about nomenclature (and I do see some of the arguments about that and marketing being true), we negate that there are many artists like myself who just want to make cool comics that show our influences, and we’ve been given an opportunity to do that. Who wouldn’t take that chance?

"I don’t call myself a manga-ka here in the US, although I have friends from Japan who describe me as that to their friends. It makes more since than comiksu writer. Those same friends know that I can keep up with them in lots of manga trivia (especially older stuff). The best compliment I had this year is that I loaned a friend from Japan Psy-Comm. He is very picky about manga and I was expecting him to tear it apart, just because he is so passionate about manga, especially sci-fi stuff like ours. Weeks passed by and he comes in my office and says “You should be proud, I was skeptical when I hear about this, but you have made a real manga. The only difference is it is in English, which I almost never pick up. It was great.” I was so happy; he couldn’t believe I spend half my time trying to convince people I know what I am doing. In general, people are going to like it or not. However, I am looking forward to the day when it really doesn’t matter and all people care about is if it is a good book or not. Myself, I’m still going to pick up Berserk, Conan, Scott Pilgrim, Empowered, Judge Dredd and Eden. Because I dig all of those books.”

“Creatively, I tend to look at it all as a continuum of styles, influences, and approaches to the material,” Stuart Moore said. “Earthlight is kind of a hybrid... I'm so steeped in Western comics that it has some of that feel. Chris pulled me toward more of a manga writing style in Volume 1, which was good; and I think I absorbed some of that as we went along. Hopefully, the book embodies some of the best aspects of both worlds.

“One thing that's very nice, is simply to have 160 pages to stretch out and write,” he continued. “It allows you to push and pull scenes, adjust the pacing in ways you simply can't when you're writing 22-page Western comics.”

TokyoPop had, over the years, initiated bold (and often times controversial) attempts to capture the manga crowd and more of the marketplace. Begining in 2002, there was the Rising Stars of Manga, or RsoM, competition. “[It] was part of a bold, new company plan to find, nurture and publish manga talent in the U.S.,” Jeremy Ross, who was then TokyoPop’s Editorial Director told Newsarama in a 2005 interview. “The goal was to identify great new artists who through their work would help us to expand the definition of manga and establish it as a world phenomenon. Every winner was offered a chance to pitch a graphic novel series to TokyoPop. We figured this was a great way to jump-start our program for publishing manga created outside of Asia.”

Much effort and many resources were put into making the global/OEL manga line a force to be reckoned with. Thus, the line saw a dramatic expansion from 12 books published in 2004 to 28 in 2005 and it was expected to have doubled in 2006.

Titles like Van Von Hunter, Peach Fuzz, Mail Order Ninja and Undertown were serialized in the Sunday comics section of various American newspapers through the Universal Press Syndicate.

Rising Stars finalists’ stories were also prominently featured in manga viewers for user voting that resulted in a People’s Choice award (along with other awards from the company’s staff judges) when the TokyoPop website was revamped and relaunched as "TokyoPop 2.0."

As Salvaggio mentioned earlier, despite all the attention that the global/OEL manga line/initiative garnered, it was not without its fair share of controversies. Not everyone was ready to accept the various titles/properties developed by creators who showed genuine enthusiasm for all things Japanese as the real deal like, say, CLAMP’s Cardcaptor Sakura and Chobits, Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket or Shuichi Shigeno’s Initial D. And the debate as to whether manga is comics or not and whether global/OEL manga is the real deal is still going on even to this very day.

“Stupid debate is stupid,” M. Alice LeGrow, whose entry “Nikolai” was runner-up in the second RSoM, said. “Whether you're influenced by manga, move to Japan and draw comics and call them manga, refuse to call anything but Japanese comics manga, call everything slightly manga-ish manga... doesn't matter in the end, because it's all comics. I kinda wish people would get this worked up over the definition of a clementine over a tangelo. Get some good fruit-related arguments going there.” LeGrow is also the creator of the global/OEL manga Bizenghast.

According to Boys of Summers’ Chuck Austen, “It’s just semantics. It's graphic storytelling. Whether you're talking about manga, or comics, or cave drawings. From Persepolis, to Monster, to Naruto, to One Piece, to Sakura Refugees, to Maison Ikkoku, to Lieutenant Blueberry... it goes by different names, lengths, printing quality, color, and number of times through a press. But at it's core, it's one family.

“That even includes digital comics. It's visual storytelling, or the visual communication of ideas.”

According to Benjamin Roman, he has never really thought of I Luv Halloween as a manga. “I had never read a manga until I went into TP's office and got a bunch of free swag,” he admitted. “I grew up reading Batman and Spider-Man, so to me I Luv Halloween is just a "comic". I don't consider I Luv Halloween a manga, at least in the traditional sense that most people think of, anyway.”

“The word manga really seemed to turn into a marketing term for [TokyoPop]. I mean ‘Manga Revolution’ is such a great slogan for an ad campaign, and it shot them to number one even though companies like Viz and Dark Horse had been licensing manga for a longer period of time,” Becky Cloonan, creator of [b]East Coast Rising/b], said. “What TokyoPop was really doing differently when I signed with them was that they were hitting the book stores harder than most other publishers. I think they deserve a lot of credit to opening up that market. They also took more chances on first-time creators than most other companies, of course giving way to the theory that they wanted to lure in naive, inexperienced artists. Either way they broke a lot of new ground.”

For Steady Beat creator Rivkah, she “stopped considering my work "OEL" a long time ago. I write graphic novels in a style that's highly influenced by the manga I've read that has gradually, over time developed into my own style. I've retained the expressive eyes and broad layout and pacing, but I've also implemented a much more cinematic view in my storytelling that I feel is highly influenced by moving media and modern American comic artists. I like camera angles and utilizing them to create dramatic pacing and affect.

”My typically "manga" drawing style has also changed over the past few years to reflect--I feel--more Western facial expression and body language. I've almost entirely abandoned the use of symbology (such as sweat drops and other signs and figures) in favor of leaving more of the internal emotions of my characters up to the reader. For a look at how my style as changed and progressed over the past four years, compare my short story "Pink" with an example from Volume 3 of Steady Beat. Inked and toned example of the first chapter coming up later this month.

”However, I still use tones like Japanese comickers do and far less dialog than is traditional in American. I feel that screentones allow me to express certain emotions that lines alone cannot and that they assist in leading the eye across the page, pushing the reader's eye exactly where I want it to go.”

While Rivkah doesn’t consider herself an OEL creator now, Bettina Kurkoski, co-runner up in the second RSoM contest with her collaborative work “Axis Lumen: The Golden Dragon Awakens” and creator of My Cat Loki is not about to let go of her image as an OEL creator. “I’ll definitely not abandon doing OEL manga altogether, as I’d love to pitch a new series to several prospective companies. But at the moment I’m still working kinks out of a few pitch ideas and, yet again, I’m up to my eyeballs in licensed property projects.

Perhaps Poison Candy’s David Hine sums it up best. “There's a problem with the perception of originated non-Japanese manga which I'm coming to think of as insurmountable. Comics fans, by and large, will not buy manga and vice versa, and fans of Japanese manga often won't buy what they see as a bastard version of manga, produced by American/European creators. There are an awful lot of Narrow Minded Gits out there who consume by label, whether it's clothes, music, movies or any other kind of culture. Country and Western fans won't listen to rap music, Marvel fans won't buy manga etc etc. There are a few honorable exceptions, and the creators themselves tend to be more broad-minded but the NMG's rule the marketplace.

”That, plus a glut of inferior product and a downturn in the economy that has dealt a serious blow to the book trade, is making the future look anything but rosy for manga right now.

” To look on the positive side, TokyoPop's attempt to publish original material has resulted in some great books and given a voice to a whole group of creators who might otherwise never have seen print,” the writer who’s written such titles as X-Men: Colossus – Bloodline, Civil War: X-Men, District X, X-Men: The 198, Daredevil: Redemption, Son of M, and Silent War for Marvel, concluded.

Tomorrow: The current state of the global/OEL manga projects and… is there life after TokyoPop?

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