The Kodansha Fallout II: The Manga Landscape

Looking at the Manga Landscape

Yesterday, we talked to the publishers most impacted by the news about the incorporation of Kodansha USA, namely the Kodansha license holders: Del Rey Manga, TokyoPop and Dark Horse.

Today, we solicited views from the other players in the industry.

Seven Seas Entertainment

Seven Seas was formed by Jason DeAngelis and Dallas Middaugh in 2004 to create and develop Original English Language (OEL) manga or world manga but it has since moved on to publish webcomics such as Inverloch, Earthsong and Chigworth Academy, novels and licensed manga properties such as Boogiepop, Speed Racer, and Afro Samurai (with Tor Books).

Of late, there’ve been unconfirmed reports about the financial health of the company. According to DeAngelis, who’s now the President of Seven Seas, “First off, there seem to have been rumors started about our financial health by an angry blogger in the UK who has it in for us. Please don't place too much credence in his rantings, which are not based on fact. For whatever reason, he doesn't like our company, and has been trolling the boards berating us every chance he gets and spreading misinformation.

“In the meantime, we're still publishing titles each month, from licensed manga to OEL to YA novels,” he continued. “Our big upcoming title that we're really excited about is the Tor/Seven Seas release of the Afro Samurai manga, in September.

“The manga market is certainly evolving and sometimes volatile. With Kodansha entering the marketplace and TokyoPop restructuring, it's hard to predict exactly what will happen. Everyone's aware that there's too much product competing for shelf space, and there's definitely been a market "correction" going on, with retailers and customers being more selective about what they choose to buy. Publishers will have to be more selective as well about what they publish. The approach of throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks clearly doesn't work anymore. I think what we're seeing is a market starting to mature.

“Still, there's no question that the appetite for manga and graphic novel content in general continues to grow and is considered more and more mainstream. There's lots more potential for growth.”

DeAngelis stressed that OEL is Seven Seas’ “core strength. We're definitely seeing much more acceptance of it, and I suspect that the debates will dissipate eventually, although there will always be people who don't accept it, and that's their prerogative. We don't consider manga as only being comics from Japan. We see manga as a delivery system, a certain style of delivering content, whether that content is original stories or adaptations. And that's what we excel at.

“Over the next few years, we plan to continue to push the envelope in the OEL area. Again, we don't want to throw everything against the wall and see what sticks, but hope to provide high quality work that appeals to readers. Some OEL detractors may groan when they see this, but we believe that OEL is here to stay and has a bright future ahead, in one form or another. It's our mission to make that happen.”

Yen Press

Yen Press is the manga and graphic novel division of the Hachette Book Group USA. According to Kurt Hassler, Co-Publishing Director, “The manga market has seen unprecedented growth in the US for years, and although some people seem quick to want to declare that “the bubble has burst” simply because that almost manic sort of growth is no longer the norm, I’m afraid I just don’t see it. It would be completely unrealistic to expect to see that kind of compounded growth in this area year after year. It simply isn’t sustainable because as much as a lot of that came from new readership, a significant portion of it also came from maximizing the dollar of the existing readers. That’s happened. There’s more product being released into the market than the readership can support, so you see the category behaving much more like you would expect to see in other areas of publishing. You have your huge success stories, you have moderate successes, and then you have some material that either won’t make it to the shelves or won’t sell particularly well even if it manages to get there. Does that mean the bubble has burst? Not at all. The readers are still there and ravenous for the material that they want. And there are still new readers coming into the category every day. It just means that publishers and retailers alike have to be smarter about the way they approach their businesses and adjust to the category as it evolves.

”So where do we see the market in the next two to three years? We expect to see a stable, more mature market than we’ve ever seen with a steadier, more natural rate of growth.”

Other than publishing licensed manga properties from Japan, Yen Press is also developing OEL/global manga properties such as Nightschool by Svetlana Chmakova and Y Square by Judith Park. However, Hassler explained that he’s “never really cared for the whole debate over “manga vs comics” or what to label material created by someone clearly influenced by Japanese manga who doesn’t happen to hail from Japan. It isn’t a concern I’ve ever heard expressed by professionals in Japan with whom I speak, and if they’re not purists on the subject I can’t imagine why anyone else should feel the need to be. If anything, my experience has been that publishers and professionals in the manga industry in Japan tend to be excited by the prospect that their efforts are influencing young artists around the world now. And well they should be. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery! Can you reasonably expect that someone growing up reading and adoring Dragon Ball or Fruits Basket or Naruto wouldn’t be influenced by and want to emulate the material that inspires them as they develop their own artistic style?

”If you really want to get down to the bones of the argument, I think a lot of it isn’t so much about whether it’s Japanese or American or not but whether it’s good or not,” he added. “Let’s face it, we’re only now beginning to see the first generation of domestic artists who actually grew up with this material and aren’t just mimicking it at a very surface level. (And for manga enthusiasts wanting to protect manga’s good name by disassociating it from sub-par work, I can understand the sentiment.) Even as you have this first generation talent emerging here now, though, they still lack a lot of valuable resources to help them fine tune their abilities. You don’t have studios here where new talent can learn under the wing of a professional manga-ka. You don’t have a lot of art schools or instructors particularly well versed in manga. You don’t have editors with experience working with professional manga-ka on original work who can help guide new talent. Over time I expect we will see more and more of these things just as over time I expect to see the quality of original material created here continue to improve. It’s already happening very gradually, and yes, I do feel that the resistance to original material is diminishing in almost direct proportion to improved quality. I look forward to the day when it vanishes altogether!”

UDON Entertainment

The Toronto-based company, headed by Erik Ko, continues to publish new and licensed Street Fighter comics and manga. At the same time, it has acquired the rights to publish Range Murata’s popular Japanese anthology series Robot and began distributing the fourth volume last December. The fifth volume came out last month.

UDON has also entered into partnerships with Korean publishers, Haksan and Seoul Cultural Publishers, to translate and distribute manhwa titles in North America.

“The manga/manhwa market has become oversaturated with titles, with several of the larger publishers trying to monopolize shelf space by flooding the market with more titles than the market can reasonably absorb,” Jim Zubkavich, UDON’s Project Manager, said. “We're now seeing that aspect of the market shaking out. Strong material will stick around while the glut of titles will fall away. The readers and the book chain buyers are becoming more careful about what they pick up. Publishers who focus on a handful of good titles have a better chance of weathering the storm. It's a "quality over quantity" issue.

”UDON is in a unique position in that several of our artists have worked on Japanese language video game and comic releases and are well regarded overseas,” he added. “We have a proven track record of material with anime properties like Street Fighter, Darkstalkers and Robotech and many of our comics originally created for an English language market have now been translated into Japanese. In addition, we've forged strong bonds with Asian publishers and are publishing high quality translated titles, like Range Murata's Robot anthology series, here in North America.”

Zubkavich also revealed that they have “some plans for original properties we're developing in-house that could be considered "global manga" of sorts, but we're determined not to release anything until we can guarantee that it's high quality and ready to compete with other strong titles on the market.”

Bandai Entertainment

Bandai Entertainment entered into the world of publishing in 2006 when it announced the publication of the first volume of Eureka Seven, which was adaptation of the anime series by Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou originally serialized in Kadokawa Shoten’s Monthly Shonen Ace in Japan. The company has also published a series of “manga sized” digest essential collections of two of Top Cow Entertainment’s best selling titles, Witchblade and Tomb Raider, as well as two volumes of the manga version of Witchblade called Witchblade: Takeru, which was originally serialized in Akita Shoten’s Champion Red magazine in Japan.

“The publishing market in the US is in a bit of a flux, which undoubtedly will impact manga,” Bandai’s Director of Marketing and Sales, Robert Napton, said. “However, the form itself is strong and an entire generation of people perceives sequential art in the form of manga and they are going to grow up reading manga into adulthood, so I see manga as a form continuing to be strong

As for what’s new on the horizon, Napton said that Bandai Entertainment has landed the rights to Code Geass, which is three manga and a line of light novels. “We just announced The Girl Who Leapt Through Time manga, based on the anime, and we are working on several new licenses.

He also added that he believes that “OEL such as it’s termed can be successful” and gave the example of Megatokyo as one of OEL’s success stories. “It’s been very successful, first online and then in print, so I personally believe in OEL, but its like anything else, it’s about story and art.” However, Bandai Entertainment has no immediate plans to enter the OEL market. “Our focus is still importing manga from Japan, preferably with a tie-in to our anime, but if the right project came along, I could see us embracing OEL.”

Yaoi Press

Founded in 2004 by publisher Yamila Abraham, Yaoi Press specializes in original English-language yaoi (i.e. boys love titles). Could developing specific titles that cater to the needs of a niche market be the most logical publishing plan?

“We are the company where non-Japanese manga-style creators can have their yaoi projects published starting back in 2004,” Abraham said. “It's definitely an advantage for us when Japanese companies are deciding to start their own US companies rather than give licenses to their properties.

“However, Yaoi Press is decreasing the number of new releases starting in 2009. We will be concentrating in licensing out our existing properties into other languages (we've sold licenses in German and Italian for Yaoi Press books so far) as well as expanding digital distribution for our back-list. We will be offering pay-per-view delivery of Yaoi Press titles in Russian starting in February 2009.

”The biggest negative we see on the horizon is the demise of Borders books,” he continued. “When they picked up our titles in 2007, we had to double our print runs to keep up with the demand. Now that Borders has decreased orders it's exacting a heavy toll on our business. Our budget for new titles has been drastically reduced due to this.

”FYI: Yaoi Press creators Dany&Dany are part of the Tokyopop Pilot program.”

Icarus Publishing

Another leading English-language manga publisher, Icarus Publishing, only licenses and publishes Japanese erotic manga, also known as ero-comi. Its publisher Simon Jones is certainly not concerned about Kodansha entering the US market. In fact, he hopes for “[three] more years of sustainable, steady growth!

”With all the publisher chaos at the moment, it's easy to overlook the two most important elements... the manga and manga readers themselves. I see no indication that manga is losing readers. As long as the fans are still here and supportive, and publishers avoid bone-headed mistakes, the manga market will stick around and weather just about anything... even a bad bookstore climate.

”That said, another large publisher that treats manga as its core business would bring some welcome stability to the market. Everything about Kodansha fits that bill.”

He also says that Icarus has no plans to develop original property. “I don't think any porn comics publisher not run by the primary creator does that in-house.

”I know where this question is going... I'm not actually worried about licensors pulling titles, contrary to anything I may have said in the past in jest. The very nature of the material we do and the size of the market insolates us from that sort of thing, and I think you'll hear that sentiment repeated by other publishers that specialize in niche manga. I'd only start worrying when we break into Diamond's top 20.”

Drawn & Quarterly

Chris Oliveros’ Canadian comic book publishing company focuses on graphic novels and underground or alternative comics such as Jason Lutes’ Berlin and Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve. “For D+Q, publishing Japanese authors had nothing to do with the current popularity of manga within the US as we treat each author on his or her own merits,” Peggy Burns, Associate Publisher, Marketing & Sales, said. “Adrian Tomine read Yoshihiro Tatsumi while he was a teenager in the 80s, and we were delighted to publish him when Adrian asked us to, as we felt that Tastumi very much fit in with D+Q’s publishing platform of graphic novel literature, not with current market trends. When a colleague recommended Red Colored Elegy to us, it was a similar scenario, as we fell in love with the Seiichi Hayashi’s story, not as a way to expand our gekiga line. We will continue to publish graphic novel literature from international authors regardless of publishing trends.”

Fanfare/Ponent Mon

Fanfare/Ponent Mon is a UK/Spain manga publisher. According to Amiram Reuveni, Publisher of Ponent Mon, “Personally I think what TokyoPop or Kodansha are doing is of not much consequence for us as we are dealing with a minority adult oriented product while they all compete for the likes of Naruto and Death Wish...

“I am not a prophet but if you want to know where it's heading you can look at the Spanish market which is somewhat older and where manga is now in complete domination with half (or more) of the market. What is happening is that old publishers as well as new ones, have all moved into publishing manga. Now there's a glut. Too many titles are being published. The shops don't have shelf space for it all. Customers don't have the money for all these titles. So only the very strong series sell but publishers are having to fight for them offering big sums which means big risks and the end of the story is being unfolded... And with recession setting in nobody is sure where it's taking us. The only luck this industry has is that we are dealing with a minority market but of very loyal type of customers. I am not sure [if] Kodansha will be successful and I don't believe manga freaks will settle for US developed properties. Japanese manga can't be faked. I don't think [so]. Hey, those guys are something else. It's another mentality.

“I think Fanfare/Ponent Mon can do modestly well catering for adults who want something of more substance than the TokyoPop and the Kodansha Corn and I don't think neither will dare touch what we do as they will never be able to reach the print runs they need. Too small of a business...”

Sweatdrop Studios

Sweatdrop Studios are a collective of UK’s OEL manga creators who publish manga-styled British small press comics. Two of its members are Sonia Leong, second place winner of TokyoPop’s Rising Stars of Manga UK & Ireland, and Emma Vieceli, a RSoM UK & Ireland runner-up.

“Big changes do seem to be afoot, don't they?” asked Vieceli, who also illustrated a manga adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet for SelfMadeHero. “That's great news about Kodansha, and not surprising. I'll also be looking with a keen eye to see what the larger book publishers make of this opportunity. Random House have already caught whiff of an opportunity and are doing amazing things for UK comics with the DFC by breaking down the barriers between what is manga and what isn't to young readers; SelfMadeHero have been scooping up UK RSoM winners where they can for their books since the start (which many are grateful for as they really instilled a sense of opportunity into the UK's manga scene), I wonder how many others are ready to spring into action in TokyoPop's wake? In my opinion, the last time the UK felt a really big change in manga was back in the nineties when Viz had to all but pull out of the UK. We were left thinking this was the end for the UK as Viz had really held such dominion over the supply of manga comics back then, but what happened instead was that the gap in the market was filled by several new and exciting publishers - TokyoPop amongst them... maybe this is a natural cycle?”

“There will always by stubborn purist fans of any niche/cult hobby, which is what manga started out to be in the West, but that is changing as more and more young people are exposed to anime/manga style, thus resulting in more people recognizing it and drawing what they like,” Leong, who drew Manga Shakespeare: Romeo & Juliet for SelfMadeHero, said. “That's what it comes down to - drawing and reading what one likes.

”As manga is reaching a wider audience, there are more open-minded fans than stubborn purists coming into the scene, so yes, I could say overall that there is less of a debate now. One could also say that as OEL creators have matured and improved over the past few years too, now there isn't so much drama over "Japanese manga is better than OEL manga" as "Japanese manga can look a little different from OEL manga depending on the style of the creator". Nowadays, it is much more a question of categorization, for sales purposes - where does it go in the bookstore? If it looks like manga, it goes into the manga section, if it doesn't, it goes into comics/graphic novels. But that in itself can spiral out of control - what about Korean or Chinese manhwa/manhua etc? French Bande Desinée? There is a lot of crossover in style.

”If a bookstore is more forward thinking, they'll not bother with separate comic sections and just put them all on the same shelf in alphabetical order! Ultimately, manga is komikkusu is comics.”

According to Vieceli, Sweatdrop is “kind of like an island unto itself. Despite our seemingly extended reach in recent times, we still operate as a circle essentially: our members create their own work as individuals and print it using the Sweatdrop branding. The group then shares the load on distribution, events and marketing. For all of our members it's still very much a hobby group right now (though watch this space as we're never against the idea of evolving) - even those of us who are actually professional comic artists for a living view Sweatdrop as our chance to self indulge and print our own work on our own terms. Most Sweatdrop readers know that we're not doing it for the money, but for the love of making comics; because of this, we've always been fairly lucky when it comes to scrutiny of our titles. We've also now built up quite a large forum of young creators and appreciators and that has extended our bubble as it were. In Sweatdrop land, no one is allowed to throw accusations at anyone and we try where possible to break down any preconceptions that exist about style and genre. We encourage people to draw what they feel naturally, rather than force a manga look.

”As Sonia said, because of the sheer level of manga styled visual stimulation over here now, what feels natural often is in a manga style,” she reiterated. “This is leading to more natural and original styles and less opportunity by critics to say 'errr -your stuff looks like Yu-Gi-Oh!'. It can only be a good thing. So yes, I think acceptance is really growing over here, but partly by merit of the fact that the creators are also evolving out of the mimicking phase and into a more interesting meld of styles.

Vieceli acknowledged that the debates are still there when it comes to labeling comics as manga and vice versa. “As I don't venture out on the web much, I think more and more recently the Sweatdrop forum community and several groups linked to it seem to have grown tired of it,” she said. “There are some who have started to even resent the word 'manga' at all because of the burden that can come with explaining it away, but the bottom line is that in the professional world the term 'manga' is needed by publishers and by marketing levels to define the category - as Sonia said. I have started unconsciously referring to myself now as a comic artist, not a manga artist. Not because I don't admit that my style is influenced by manga and could be placed into that category far more easily than into - say - the 2000AD pool, but because it makes it easier to defend myself if people do try it on. But to be honest, I very rarely come up against that kind of criticism these days and that makes me glad. I'm always eager to work with people outside of the manga bubble and more and more creators are doing the same crossing of the lines these days. Amongst creators, there feels to be no prejudice at all. It's a great scene. Readers and fans are now starting to catch up to where the creators are, so it's hopefully only a matter of time before debates finally dwindle.

”Essentially, if someone looked at my work and had to put a label on it, that label would be 'manga'. I don't label myself, I let others do it - as they always will,” she continued. “I think most of Sweatdrop operates in the same way. We just do what we do and enjoy it. Of course, the fact that our site still says 'original UK manga studios' goes against this a little and is testament to how much things have changed since we began. It has to be remembered though that when we started, this debate didn't exist. We predate TokyoPop in the UK even; things were very different back then. Nowadays we all have to think more carefully about our wording. When did comics become so complicated?

”In an ideal world we would all take a leaf out of Thoughtbubble's book. They're a Leeds-based comic event who simply call themselves a' sequential art festival'. Perfect. I am a lover of sequential art, no matter what shape, size or style it comes in. Many people are. The term 'manga' won't go away because it is a perfect marketing tool and is handy for categorization. Until the day comes that the only categories we need in sequential art are genres, it will still have a use.

”And I have to end as always with a fantastic quote Sonia and I heard when we went to Japan to promote the Manga Shakespeare titles: 'I can't help but think that you English spend far too much time talking about what manga is and not enough time simply enjoying it.'

”So say I.”

Café Digital Studios

For Paul Sizer, he has been influenced by a lot of manga, and the results are the manga-looking works such as Little White Mouse, Moped Army and B.P.M..

However, he admitted that he’s not interested in creating manga. “I'm interested in creating good comics,” he said. “If manga readers enjoy them, that's all good. My books have always been a hybrid of American and manga styles anyway, so I don't feel the need to specifically create a manga-style comic for the market. We saw what happened when Marvel tried to manga-fy it's books a few years back; nobody cared.

“Given the current state of American manga publishing in the US market, I'm more committed than ever to steer clear of it.

“With creators (and especially young creators) being seen as sweatshop labor for producing content for certain US manga publishers, as a self-publisher, I want nothing to do with these companies. They want clip-art, ideas and images that they own and can re-purpose to whatever end they see fit. Which is fine as long as the creators understand from the beginning that is what they are creating and that is what they are being paid for, nothing more. Promises of publishing and working together on a property seem to mostly be smoke and mirrors; the companies only want content to use as they see fit. They are telling creators how long their books can be, and excluding them from any say if their property goes beyond the printed page. The usefulness of the creator ends when the company gets what they want; at that point, the creator is just a loose end, something to be discarded. Over the last couple of weeks, I've been amazed at seeing how certain companies treat their workers. I've talked with creators who have produced work for the companies and am shocked with how they treat the creatives, even to the point of working to turn an artist and writer against each other to get the artist to work more and to dump their responsibilities toward the writer. These companies know that the generation of artists and writers who will be supplying them with work to sell are mostly younger people, and using the "carrot on the stick" strategy to lure them into working with them for "the opportunity to be published" is really underhanded. Just because they are probably a first time creator is no excuse for treating them like sheep.”

That’s why he took publishing of his own properties into his own hands in 2005 when Café Digital Studios was incorporated. “My Little White Mouse and Moped Army books came out under my own publishing imprint, and through better and worse, they remain my properties, my responsibilities and my work.”

He acknowledged the hard, cold facts of self-publishing and that it, by no means, provides a guarantee for success. “As a self-publisher, I've taken it on the chin with book returns, printing errors and cashflow,” he added. “But I've also gotten all the accolades, the good reviews, the profits, the industry awards and the success of those books. It may be a leaky, rusty little boat, but it's [i]my[i] leaky, rusty little boat. I have a good relationship with my distributors, I deliver on-time, and they know the quality of work I produce. They also know who to talk to for any questions they have. They know I will stand behind my product; I personally replaced over 100 copies of Moped Army that had binding problems, out of my own pocket. It's a pain to do, but my business integrity is very important to me. I also only have one employee to pay; me. I realize that bigger companies have more people to provide for, but when it's at the expense of the people who make their product, that's when I turn away.

“I do hope my work leads to bigger and better things; I hope it makes me money and allows me to continue on as a creative person. I also want my work to be mine, to allow me to stand behind it and take responsibility for it. I want to be around in 10, or even 20 years as an artist and writer. Placing all my hope on grasping one bit brass ring seems very short sighted. The American Idol approach to appealing to the next generation of artists and writers by these companies will only attract one trick ponies, rather than what publishers really need; good, smart creatives who can stick it out and produce for the long run. Burning our wave after wave of talent just leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth.

“Here's what I say to new artists and writers who want to get published: do it yourself. On the web, at your local copy shop, through companies like Ka-Blam and Comixpress. Make your own stuff. Nobody will be a more motivated salesperson than yourself. No one will have a more vested interest in getting your books out to the public and into the hands of new readers. Start out small, grow as you're able. Plan for seeing any success as a long term plan, not as a "get rich quick" plan. And when you produce something that's great, something that a movie or TV producer really wants, you will be in the best position to barter, because it's yours,” he concluded.

Antarctic Press

Probably the first American publisher of OEL, or rather American manga or Amerimanga as the publisher used to call it, Antarctic Press was founded by Ben Dunn in 1984 and the publisher had produced works by Dunn, Fred Perry, Rod Espinosa, Joe Wight and others. Notable Amerimanga titles include Warrior Nun Areala, Ninja High School, Gold Digger, Twilight X and more.

Antarctic’s Submissions Editor Rob Espinosa said that, with Kodansha actively publishing manga in the US, it’s probably “game over, man. Marvel and DC will be the only ones left (with Dark Horse, Image and Antarctic. AP's hard to kill -- like that cockroach in Wall-E.)

He added that they have been “watching with growing interest this OEL movement from the sidelines. Antarctic has been in the business of American made manga since the 80's. It is my observation that the owners and chief editors have learned many things about this market over those years and why the existing models don't seem to be working.

”To be honest, if anyone was going to break the mold, we were hoping TokyoPop might. But they are "restructuring". So I guess even they failed to find out exactly "why".

”If TPop's OEL sales are any indication, the guess would have to be that OEL still does not sell well to manga purists and fans.

According to him, doing OEL is not Antarctic's secret to surviving. “Nor do we really see it as the "way forward". It just is. We just happen to have a bunch of dedicated artists who happen to draw Japanese influenced artwork. The "secret" is ridiculously simple. Antarctic, like most companies in trouble today, reached it's zenith and overreached as well. When we did not go under, we learned ... Fiscal responsibility. That's pretty much it. Never, ever, ever] try to play Marvel and DC's game of page rates and massive promotions and hiring all these "superstars". It's never worked and it only gets you into a financial hole. CrossGen learned that lesson, so did Alias and so many others.

”To be honest, I cannot blame purists, really. I'm guilty of being a manga purist as well. Kind of makes me a manga "Uncle Tom"... But let me explain why.

”I may be mistaken or I hope someone else brought this up already, but I think most comic book pundits miss a very important point when it comes to this original manga vs. OEL debate.

”Right now, the OEL market is filled with mostly young artists and writers. While the stuff may survive a cursory glance because it appears like real manga, the original Japanese manga are written and drawn by professionals with decades (yes –decades) of experience under their belts. The Japanese writers and artists out there in Japan have a system in place which no single student just fresh from art college could possibly match. Quality-wise and story-wise. And story is very, very important.

”On some gut level, the "purist" can sense the story's not really "all there". I can relate, actually. The longer you have been in this business, the sooner you can smell when the story ain't working. And for most part, the stories on OEL's -- on some level, aren't working. Otherwise, you'd see one title already making gangbusters.

Echoing what some of the others had said, it’s quality that matters. And accept no imitation. ”Essentially, OEL's still carry the stigma of "fan art". That is why purists scoff at it. It's amateur night and they know it. Don't get me wrong: The art's wonderful and creative. Very promising stuff. But what makes Japanese manga and anime are the stories -- and the freaking cool concepts behind them. You just cannot just make up something similar to Naruto and expect it to sell. We get tons of stuff that is derivative that way. We get what amounts to "fan fiction" of titles like Fruits Baskets, Death Note or whatever... We still get stories that are complete rip-offs of Dr. Slump. In short, it's gotta be original and well thought out. What will convince the hard-core purists is when the OEL's eventually match or surpass the original Japanese model.

”The bottom line is this: Right now, local artists and writers are just mimicking the surface of manga -- the large eyes, the expressions, the sweat beads... but they still don't know how to use the tools right. Give them time, though. Unfortunately, storytelling experience cannot be Googled and downloaded into your brain. It needs years. The question is: who is willing to work and practice that long? Can it be done? Why do we seem to be flailing uselessly against the Japanese juggernaught?

”Here's my two cents: First off, Asians have a hive mind culture. As every artist who has gone there and looked at how their studios work will tell you, they have an apprentice system over there. Over here, it's every artist for themselves. Everyone's just doing their thing, willy-nilly without any attempt at organization. No master to learn from, no leader to lead.

In short, we are a very talented but disorganized and inexperienced army. One or two among us may make a few hits here and there, but collectively, we find it hard to win. The Japanese come from the mentality that they are all together in this. If the group wins, everyone wins. The Japanese manga artists are like the Roman legion. They all have roles to do and have a system in place so that every artist "graduates" and eventually becomes a star in their own time. Japanese are ultimate craftsmen. This is the same culture that would spend a year making one samurai sword. This is a culture where artists understand they have plenty of things to learn under a master storyteller and may spend years learning under his tutelege. They have less of what I call the American Idol mentality --where everyone expects to be a star overnight. Some do become stars overnight here. But to consistently bang out hits, you need organization, unity and cohesion. A studio and more importantly, an entire industry working like a well-oiled engine. Otherwise, it's no contest and it will always be no contest.

”What I am mostly afraid of is if we keep going this route of "I gotta have it now", artists and writers may become frustrated and impatient and just move on to other livelihoods where they can get whatever they think they need to feel "successful" -- be that money, fame or whatever,” he continued. “When that happens, who is left but the next new wave of "newbies" who will once again have to be taught, and will once again flail against the Japanese Roman Legion and wonder why they're getting nowhere.

”If what you say is true, that Kodansha will be moving into the US, well, that'll be like when Nintendo came over and began the everlasting rule of Asia over the video game market. If they are coming, they will be unstoppable.”

Antarctic had previously licensed, translated and published manga properties from Japan. But as for why did they stop? He cited paying “exorbitant licensing fees” as the main reason. “Why do you think Antarctic stopped publishing original Japanese manga? Do you think that, AP being among the earliest to do so, that we'd quit doing that if it was sustainable in the long run? Of course, there are companies that made it work. Dark Horse, for instance...

”The OEL market as I have told you, is in its infancy. We have and will be taking casualties. And it won't be pretty for a long time. If what I fear comes to pass, that OEL creators with some experience under their belts eventually go off and do other things like website design or do video games, then it's a stalemate. You're never gonna get people with enough experience to stick around.

”Antarctic is staffed by a team of dedicated artists, writers and editors. It's not like most companies. We don't see ourselves as hired mercenaries. It's become over the years -- more of a college fraternity. There's loyalty and trust. We don't jump ship the moment there's troubles ahead like others do (and did). There's no loyalty in that. There's no room here for complainers or people just out for themselves. We're like a family here, the Mob. There's an inner circle that is hard to penetrate.

”We can smell losers many miles away. If we're not that friendly to you, that means we know you're gonna fold when you realize you have to do real work! We don't waste time on people who have this ridiculous sense of entitlement. You wanna be in comics? You must be willing to work hard... really hard (especially now).”

So, what does the founder himself has to say? For the uninitiated, Ben Dunn sold off Antarctic Press to his brother, Joe, in 2003. “I wish Kodansha the best of luck especially in this economy. If they can approach with a measured restraint and not over saturate the market with product they should do well with steady growth. If the economy does not improve I see the book market stagnant as more people have less disposable income,” Ben Dunn said.

“It depends on the stories and talent that enter the market. I still see purists who will not accept manga in any form other than their narrow definition. However, I have always believed that a good product will always find an audience. This will never change.

He is currently writing the back-up in Ninja High School and drawing both the back-up and the main story. And he said that he has long grown past labels and just accept what he does as his stories. “I do not care what they are called. I leave that to others. NHS is NHS to me. If someone wants to slap a label on it then who am I to argue with? As far is AP is concerned there has to be a new model for us in order for us to grow. The monopolistic nature of the single distributor is a hindrance to AP's growth and a new model needs to be found. We are working on several ways to increase our exposure and sales but they are yet untested.”

He had the satisfaction of working on his own creations as well as the Marvel Mangaverse bookends (New Dawn and Eternal Twilight) in 2000, based on an original proposal to Marvel, and the shortlived Marvel Mangaverse series. “On Marvel Mangaverse, I think that the timing was right but the execution was wrong,” he said. “My original intent was to start from scratch and build origin stories using manga sensibilities and story telling techniques. I think it could still work if all new characters were developed and a new approach was taken. I do not think it [was] a failure initially as sales were good but failed to capture its intended audience: the manga reader.”

What does the Viz Media, which was awarded the “Manga Publisher of the Year” Gem Award by Diamond Comic Distributors last year, think of the “competition”? Check back on Monday.


The Kodansha Fallout I: More Manga Changes?

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