Tokyopop's Changes: The Controversial "Manga Pilot"

TokyoPop started the next iteration of their popular “Rising Stars of Manga” competition with another program called Manga Pilot.

And OEL manga pioneer Lea Hernandez who was not too fond of the idea summed up the thoughts of many creators in regards to the program’s contracts. “What do you know, TP has put a fresh coat of paint on their crappy contracts by launching yet another "We're gonna make you a star!" IP farm. This time, it's "Manga Pilots," where creators, for a flat fee, create a 24-36 page story. But wait, there's more! This contract (which they call a "pact"), is written in twee, simplistic language,” she posted on her LiveJournal on May 26.

“No matter how cute, how hip, how friendly a contract is written, crap is crap. Calling it a "pact" doesn't mean it's not a contract. I am comfortable going on record as saying this is the most childish and disingenuous legal document I have ever read.”

The whole document can be downloaded here.

And it created a long list of backlash from other creators, including Bryan Lee O’Malley, Hope Larson, Joey Manley, and, well, everyone else.

But what about the creators involved with the Manga Pilot program?

A quick browse on the TokyoPop Manga Pilot section revealed that there’re at least six of the Manga Pilot properties, and they are: Newport by George Alexopoulos, The Hidden by Park and Barb Lien Cooper, Daimones by Dany and Dany, Nemesis: Who Me? by Grace, Kathy and deviantART member Royal Flush, Bonny Buccaneers by Sinead Lynch and Leeann Hamilton, and Eye for an Eye?.

What do they really think of the whole program? While we’re not able to contact all of them, we did, however, manage to chat with George Alexopoulos, who was the third place winner in TokyoPop’s Rising Stars of Manga 5 with his entry, “Can I Sit Here?” and is the creator of the Go With Grace global/OEL manga, and Park and Barb-Lien Cooper and asked for their side of the big story.

As an added bonus, we also talked to three others who’re not part of the first wave of the Manga Pilot program but apparently, they’re also developing their properties with TokyoPop: Brandon Jerwa and Rob Guillory on Jason Mason and the Ghosts He’s Chasin’ and Maximo V. Lorenzo on Secret of Noumenon.

Newsarama: When and how did you know about the Manga Pilot program?

George Alexopoulos: I had been pitching my new projects to TokyoPop the "old fashioned" way (telling my editor) since two years ago and after many hurdles, eventually was told they were changing the way they accepted submissions. After some time, I was presented with the Manga Pilot program. I'm told I was the first person to sign it, too...a credit to tenacity, I suppose.

Park & Barbara Lien-Cooper: We became friends with Queenie Chan (The Dreaming), one of the best OEM (original English manga) creators out there. She read our manga scripts, and said we had what it takes, which was nice because we admire the hell out of her.

Because she believed in us, she introduced us to TokyoPop. That was about three years ago. We said to the editors there that, although we'd written a lot of manga scripts just on our own, we knew that some manga fans don't like OEMs, because a lot of OEM creators don't come across to readers as understanding the craft of writing manga as a distinct craft that's different from writing American comics. We told TokyoPop that we wanted to learn how to write real manga, and they took us at our word. They put us to work as manga adapters, which gave us a chance to get into the blood and guts of how manga is written, and we're really grateful for that. So manga's been signing our paychecks for the last two and a half years or so; it's all felt like a giant internship.

We worked long and hard with [Senior Editor] Lillian Diaz-Przybyl, who really helped us improve our manga-writing skills. Very slowly, one obstacle after another fell to the side... The Hidden got an artist, all the editors approved of it, it was finally time for our editor to pitch it to Stu [Levy, CEO and Chief Creative Officer of the TokyoPop Group], Stu liked it but he had a few questions about the proposed ending, we clarified those for him...

And that happened to be the week that everything changed. We were given a choice: The Hidden could enter the new Pilot Program, or enter into a sort of media-preparation-development track. Barbara was devastated. She didn't really want to do The Hidden as anything but a manga, and she didn't want to develop it for another two years just trying to get the story out. But she talked to manga editors she knew in the industry about what the best choice was, explained that we didn't just feel like giving up, that we loved this story that TokyoPop's editors had helped us create, and that we wanted to just show it to the world, to show our manga to everyone out there. We decided that we weren't really in this first and foremost for a book deal, money, or a movie deal, but just to improve our manga-writing skills. We decided that the most honorable choice, after all of our work, and the work of our artist, and all the work of our TokyoPop editors, would be to just let the story run, and to let the real manga fans out there judge the degree to which it was written with respect, and love, and craft. We felt that the integrity that we had to show was toward the story that we'd worked so hard on trying to get out there—that benefit to us didn't matter, that self-serving motivations weren't important, that the important thing was to get the story out there.

Brandon Jerwa: Well, I've been working with Paul Morrissey for a few years now, developing a few different things that never managed to see the light of day. Truthfully, that was a source of great frustration to me, but it was fairly obvious that the obstacles were not at the editorial level. I also liked working with Paul so much that I was willing to be patient. We really had a fantastic rapport, and I hope that he lands on his feet. He'd be an asset to any company.

With Jason Mason, I had been specifically asked to create an all-ages property. This was well before anyone had heard about the Pilot program, so we were aiming for a regular book release. After a long search, Paul brought me Rob Guillory's art and I fell in love. We had him do some sketches and he nailed it. It was clear we were on the same wavelength, and he moved from artist to co-creator shortly thereafter. Our story is definitely a child of two parents.

Long story short, the hopes for a book deal went by the wayside and we were offered a spot in the pilot program, which I had never heard of before that point. Paul felt that the property had enough stamina to make it all the way back around. So, Rob and I agreed to do it as co-creators and then proceeded to produce our work.

Rob Guillory: I'd been dealing with TokyoPop about a full year before the Pilot program. Our project was well-received editorially, but stylistically, it's a bit more Americanized than most of what the company's known for, so I don't think they were too sure what to do with it. The Pilot program was their way of gauging whether or not it would be accepted by the Manga fans.

Maximo V. Lorenzo: Well I have a friend who's an editor at TokyoPop, and I pester him [Alexis Kirsh] all the time to make sure I'm not missing out on any opportunity, at the time the Manga Pilot had just opened up and I jumped on it right away.

NRAMA: George, can you tell our readers about your Manga Pilot entry, Newport?

GA: It's this nostalgic 80's or 90's Popcorn Movie type of story about a group of skaters living in a city called Newport, where the local government is tearing down a lot of old buildings to build new skyscrapers and luxury apartments. The skaters' headquarters is in one of these old buildings, so in order to save it they have to take someone influential up on a dare which at best is described as crazy--at worst, deadly. The story has a very whimsical flavor to it, so I'm way more focused on "fun" than "drama" this time (in contrast my previous book, Go With Grace).

NRAMA: Park and Barb, what’s The Hidden about?

P&BLC: The setup: A young Middle Eastern boy's parents are murdered. Orphaned, he runs into the night, only to almost become dinner for a pair of evil djinn. A pair of good djinn come to save him, but with great difficulty—the boy has to use his own bravery and intelligence to save the day. As a reward for his assistance, the good djinn promise to visit him again "the year he becomes a man."

In the meantime, he moves to America, where, when some of his peers resist accepting him because of his land of origin, he finds two important friends, a boy and a girl, who accept him without hesitation. However, whether fortunately or unfortunately, the djinn are going to keep their promise.

Some readers are interested in the high school romance part suggested by the end of the first chapter, and some are interested in the part about magical genies. Some readers are interested in both, but some who just like one aspect are afraid it'll turn out to be just a book involving whichever one of those two aspects, the high-school romance or the djinn, they don’t prefer. We hereby say to everyone: don't worry. The ultimate plan for the story will not upset either group of readers. No matter which direction you might be afraid the story might be headed, we assure you that it's not going to be quite like you think. This is, we admit, the story of a young man who would be totally involved in a typical romantic triangle, “who-will-she-choose,” yadda yadda—if not for what happened to him in Chapter 1. Because of that… nothing'll turn out normally.

Remember, the title is: The Hidden. In order to find out exactly why it's called that… we'll all just have to wait and see.

NRAMA: Brandon, you've got a Pilot project with Rob Guillory. What's it about?

BJ: Jason Mason and the Ghosts He’s Chasin’ is about a young boy who carries on his father's legacy as a ghost hunter. With his friends Chauncey Dover and Margarita McGill at his side, Jason uses his wits and his father's science to get the job done.

NRAMA: It's part of the second wave, right?

BJ: That's what the plan was, as far as we're aware.

NRAMA: I did some research and found out that Jason Mason was first mentioned in the All The Rage column back in July 2007. So, it actually started out as a pitch to publishers?

BJ: Nope. It started out at TokyoPop. Oh, oh, I see where the confusion comes in. This was during a time when the TokyoPop book deal was falling apart but they hadn't offered us the Pilot program deal yet.

NRAMA: And Maximo, you've got a Pilot project too. What's Secret of Noumenon about?

MVL: It's about various characters in their unique struggles in a semi-steampunk world that's falling apart, basically I'll have the characters do all the writing for me! But long time fans of my work might remember many of my old characters revamped and rewritten for this story.

NRAMA: Is it part of the second wave as well?

MVL: Hmm… It's in progress still but put on hold until I finish this urgent project I'm on.

NRAMA: Okay, guys. There've been much debates about the contract, or rather, "the pact". We're not going to go into legal terms and what-not here but what're your initial/general thoughts on the whole arrangement?

GA: The moment I saw it I thought the language was extremely patronizing. I knew it was a legally binding contract of course, anything you sign your name to is, but it seemed as if they were trying to get me to focus on the language rather than the "fine print". (Like how a magician executes a trick by distracting the audience.) To their credit, it worked. In my desperation to get my next story published I signed, believing I could endure whatever they threw at me for the sake of earning some money while doing what I love.

P&BLC: We think that that's the business of the creators and the company. First of all, in American society, nothing is considered to be more impolite, intrusive, and invasive of one's privacy than to inquire about one's salary or one's business dealings. Since the only people who are affected by this contract are those who chose to enter into it, which is less than a dozen people so far, it was shocking to see how it seemingly became everyone's business. If one isn't interested in doing business with a publishing company, don't do business with them—that's one's right. We could name five comics companies which take at least a good portion of the creator's rights, but because of NDAs, we, the comics readers, don't really get any details on them, and perhaps that's just as well, because there's no need for those to be our business. What's sad about the controversy over the contract is that that controversy is overshadowing some fine works in the Pilot Program, as well as how hard those creators have worked, what a sense of accomplishment we all feel, and how many people over there are enjoying reading them. The Pilot Program gives readers a chance to say which works really appeal to them… it's like Rising Stars, Take Two: On The Web. All this controversy over the company shouldn't mean that the works themselves—and any that may come after—may risk their chance to be fairly judged. It's a little like feeling so angry because of what happened to Steve Gerber or Siegel and Schuster that one will never appreciate anything from Marvel or DC again. How fair would that be to the other creators, who just want to get their stories out there to the audience?

RG: It was what it was. Honestly, there are worse contracts out there that I've seen at way bigger comic companies. They just haven't been posted on Newsarama yet. Nuff said.

BJ: The contract didn't bug me. There's been a lot of talk about the wording and the terms and a million other reactionary points, but there was nothing so uncommon in there. I think the presentation was more off-putting than anything else. I had no problems with it, and neither did my contract attorney.

MVL: Basically as I understand it, was that they'd pay me a very low page rate, but I get to keep all the rights to my own work provided I don't try to publish it with another company for a year. I may take a hit on the pay and time, but it's totally worth it to get these characters on paper I've been dying to do, and it's much much easier to work on a project full steam when you have a way to pay bills for the month. You always have to be willing to give up something in this industry to receive, whether it be rights, money, time, quality, distribution, promotion, etc. Although this trade off works for me, it might not work for everyone.

NRAMA: Have things changed since then?

GA: When the Manga Pilot program launched, it seems there was a sudden explosion of backlash from many people in the comics world. Reading their interpretations of the contract opened my eyes to how imbalanced the agreement was/is in TokyoPop's favor. Of course, I already signed it so everyone's protests and warnings to avoid it only led to anxiety, anger and finally despondence on my part.

P&BLC: If you're asking about the future of the Pilot Program, people at TokyoPop would be the best persons to ask about that. If you're asking if our personal situation has changed, well, we're doing more work adapting manga for Viz and editing manga for Del Rey because of the restructuring…

BJ: Not really. TokyoPop has been more than agreeable in dealing with us since the situation changed on their end. The contract had zero to do with our decisions.

MVL: I've been so busy I haven't quite had the time to keep up on the issue of the Pilot program, but it’s definitely the least of my worries at the moment!

NRAMA: How are things proceeding with TP now, post-the restructuring exercise? In other words, what is the fate of your Manga Pilot projects?

GA: Not well. Prior to the restructuring I was barely receiving responses to my e-mails, now I've been getting that much less attention. I have no reason to think the situation will improve; the majority of their (emphasis on their) readers' reactions to my new project doesn't exactly encourage TokyoPop to come banging down my door... which is probably a good thing at this point.

P&BLC: We don't know, we aren't in the inner TokyoPop-post-restructuring circle—we're just freelance. All we know is that we have had truly great editors there, and we wish them nothing but the best, and we hope, for the sake of our fellow freelancers, that things stabilize for TP as soon as possible.

BJ: Jason Mason will be back in our hands. It was really quite a painless procedure: I made contact immediately, they responded very quickly and it was settled in one long phone call. They definitely did their part to get us to stay, but the decision was ours to make and they respected that. We ended the call with me re-affirming my willingness to work on a project that Paul had contracted me for, should it survive the process. I don't know if anything will happen with the Star Trek, Starcraft or Warcraft pitches I turned in to other editors over the past few months, but this certainly isn't a burning of bridges with TokyoPop.

RG: We're shopping it around at a few different comic and book publishers, and reaction's been strong. So, it's just a matter of where we'll end up and when.

MVL: The fate of my Pilot program is still the same as I intended it to be, I just want to do a killer original sample to show people what I'm capable of, whether it gets published by TokyoPop, published by someone else down the line, forgotten and then resurrected later, I'll still have set out what I wanted to do. I don't feel like I should try to depend too much on things I can't control.

NRAMA: What are your hopes for your own creation?

GA: In all likelihood I will not be making much progress with Newport any time this year, which I'm sorry for. I've been promising my small readership something new for a while, and regret that things went in this direction. For now I'm probably going to lay low and weather the storm but that said, I've also invested a lot of time, energy and heart into this story and its characters, so I will try to pursue its completion in the future. Please keep your eyes and ears open for news of that, if you're interested.

P&BLC: We hope people like it, we hope people see the great respect we have for manga, we hope that people can see the work that was put into it and how we didn't want frustrated manga fans to have another project they could feel was a "manga pretender."

The Hidden was a great idea for a series, but that's really all it was―an idea. It wasn't our only "baby," nor the only thing we ever wrote, nor the only thing we'll ever write. All we wanted was for our story to excite and entertain a reader for a little while… that's what a good story is really for. We come from an industry where comic book companies often close up before even a mini-series can conclude! We've had six American comics companies fold up under us before the audience even got to see anything.

Our graphic novel Half Dead was set to be published by Speakeasy, which then deep-sixed. We were fortunate enough to have it picked up by the Dabel Brothers, then Dabel/Marvel, and then they had a parting of the ways with one another. Fortunately, Desperado Publishing agreed to help, and so now it's available through them.

But when it's like that—where anything that you write could disappear at a moment's notice—you start getting exceedingly grateful that anything gets out at all. Barbara's comic Gun Street Girl is published on the web, so we're certainly not mad about TokyoPop trying out the potential opportunities of the web-- we've always counted digital comics as "really counting." In the end, if you can get anything out there to the readership, anything you can feel proud of, anything that entertains or communicates, then you're ahead of the game.

RG: To move forward, of course. I think this was all for the best. From the beginning, I always figured if the Pilot program didn't work out, we'd at least come out of it with a finished chapter of out story to shop around. And we did. Now, it's just finding the right home for it.

BJ: What can I say? I've found a wonderful collaborator in Rob, and we believe in our property whole-heartedly. We want the best outlet, and we'll find it.

MVL: Well, my plan is a little ambitious but hey, why not?... I'd like to tell a great story with strong unique characters and from there branch off my characters (as new main characters) to tell more stories... Think of a crossover series only backwards! That way I'd be busy forever in the same way a lot of manga do things but I could end story arcs more quickly. And just to add a little zest, I'd like to have a soundtrack for it.

NRAMA: George, am I correct to say that Newport is... dead for now? Did you even finish writing, drawing the required 24-36 pages?

GA: I completed the first chapter--it's been up on TokyoPop's website under their Manga Pilots program or whatever. Because of the...finer points of our agreement, I haven't drawn anywhere beyond 24 pages but I have finished writing the story, so it's been ready to go. I've just been waiting for the green light. If the project is "dead", however, it isn't by my hand. I've been building this story for three years! There's no way I would turn my back on it willingly.

Regardless of how jaded I sound, I'm very grateful to everyone who encouraged and supported me through this experience. I'm not sure when I'll be producing my next project (Newport or another), but I encourage whoever's interested to please keep an eye on my website,, where I'll post any updates."

NRAMA: Finally, for you, Maximo, I understand that even though Bombos Vs. Everything is now cancelled, you've got another TokyoPop project in the works? Can you spill the details?

MVL: Bombos VS. Everything wasn't my story ( I think a lot of people are confused about this). I only did minor editing to the story and a little more to the layouts, and took care of the artwork as a freelancer. So it's a book owned 100% by TokyoPop, it's really up to them when or if they want to continue the story, but all I can tell you for sure is it's not currently in progress.

Oh, about my current project, well, I submitted constantly to any of TokyoPop's would-be projects, and finally one went through, a Ghostbusters anthology for this fall... it's a series I've loved ever since I was a kid and I'm fired up, guns blazing to give it my all to produce my best work yet for this book!

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