Remembering When West Has Met East

Remembering When West Has Met East

Two of Japan’s manga juggernauts, Shueisha and Shogakukan, co-own American-based manga publisher Viz Media.

The other top manga powerhouse, Kodansha, announced it would be setting up shop in the US early this month.

But what does it mean for the super-hero fan community?

Do manga and super-heroes mix at all?

According to Marvel Comics’ manga guru, C.B. Cebulski, he doesn’t see Kodansha’s arrival on the scene as having “too much of an impact on the US manga market overall, to be honest. Yeah, it will be great to have them here and I welcome them into the market, but I do think it will be business as usual. Many have seen this coming for a while and have been planning accordingly. Two factors that would definitely help them make an impression are: quicker/simultaneous releases when compared to their Japanese publications, which is in their ability to accomplish I would think, and lower cover prices, which will be harder.”

Over the years, the US comics industry’s Big Two publishers, Marvel and DC, have worked with Japanese creators and published manga versions of their top super-hero icons.

Let’s take a trip down Marvel’s (brief) history with manga, shall we?

For the uninitiated, there was Spider-Man: The Manga (or Spider-Man J) by Ryoichi Ikegami (Mai, the Psychic Girl) which basically retold the story of Yu Komori, the Japanese Spider-Man who battled Electro, the Lizard, the Kangaroo, and others. Oh, and the Japanese J. Jonah Jameson was publisher of the Joho Newspaper. Spider-Man J was originally serialized in Monthly Shonen Magazine from 1970 to 1971, and was one of two Marvel’s super-hero icons to receive their own Japanese stories back then.

As for who the other Marvel character was? Well, it’s none other than ol’ Jade Giant himself. Originally published in Japan in 1970 in Weekly Bokura Magazine, Hulk: The Manga was a re-telling of the Incredible Hulk within a Japanese setting by Kazuo Koike (Lone Wolf and Cub) with art by Yoshihiro Morifuji (Microman). Unlike Spider-Man J which has since seen a few translations into the English language (including one which involved the talent of Cebulski, and a more recent one in the pages of Spider-Man Family), Hulk: The Manga has never been translated or reprinted in the States.

The late 80s saw the publication of anime and manga master Katsuhiro Otomo’s most well-known epic, Akira, under Marvel’s Epic Comics imprint. The 38-issue full-color run was published for the first time in the States from 1988 to 1995.

Marvel then attempted to break into the Japanese market again in 1998 with the 12-volume X-Men: The Manga series by Hiroshi Higuichi, Miyako Kojima, Koji Yasue, and others. The stories contained within basically borrowed from the first couple seasons of Fox’s X-Men animated series from the early 90s.

Ben Dunn, one of the first American manga-influenced creators to ever produce made-in-America manga with Ninja High School and other series at Antarctic Press, was approached by Marvel to help launch Marvel Mangaverse, a series of comic books done in the manga style by such creators as Cebulski and Jeff Matsuda on X-Men, Peter David and Lea Hernandez on Punisher, Adam Warren and Keron Grant on Fantastic Four, UDON on Avengers Assemble!, Kaare Andrews on Spider-Man, and Chuck Austen on Ghost Riders. Dunn wrote and illustrated the first and last chapters of the storyline in two bookend editions, Marvel Mangaverse: New Dawn and Marvel Mangaverse: Eternity Twilight. There was also a short-lived Marvel Mangaverse series by Dunn. Other (direct and indirect) sequels and spin-offs included the Spider-Man: Legends of the Spider Clan limited series by Kaare Andrews and Skottie Young, X-Men: Ronin by J. Torres and Makoto Nakatsuka, the controversial X-Men: Phoenix – Legacy of Fire by Ryan Kinnaird, and 2005’s New Mangaverse: Rings of Fate by Cebulski and Tommy Ohtsuka (Slayers), and Spider-Man Family Featuring Spider Clan #1 by Cebulski and Young.

“The Mangaverse was quite a success for Marvel,” Cebulski said. “The original fifth week event spawned an ongoing Mangaverse series, a Spider-Clan mini-series and one-shot, an second Mangaverse mini-series, and an action figure. Many publishers would kill for a track record like that. Plus it helped launch the careers of several comic professionals who are still working in the industry to this day, myself included. Marvel considers the Mangaverse a success on several different levels.”

For freelance writer and former manga editor Jake T. Forbes, he admitted that he did not follow the Marvel Mangaverse very closely at that time> However, based on his background in manga, he illustrated that “if you made a Venn diagram of manga fans and superhero fans, there would be very little overlap.”

Marvel then kicked off the Tsunami imprint in 2003, which featured an eclectic mixture of old and new, with the ultimate aim to energize long-time comic fans and capture the interest of new demographics, an attempt by Marvel to capitalize on the growing popularity of manga in the States. Runaways remains the only surviving title from the imprint, though New X-Men (originally titled New Mutants, then New X-Men: Academy X) has been relaunched (yet again) as Young X-Men post-Messiah CompleX.

Next came Marvel Next in 2005, an initiative designed to spotlight young characters in fresh and exciting ways. One of the titles included Adam Warren’s Livewires. According to Warren in an interview with Newsarama, “Livewires and the other books listed from the 2005 Marvel Next line all pretty much crashed and burned... with the (very) notable exception of X-23, of course. Really, though, it is perhaps not an enormous surprise that the miniseries featuring a attractive, female, teenaged Wolverine clone proved successful. As for why Livewires and the rest of the Marvel Next line tanked... Well, it’s not a particularly bold or daring statement to say that there’s not exactly a huge, burgeoning demand among what remnants of the Big Two readerships for new characters. Let’s face it, while both Marvel and DC regularly release new books with new characters, the long-term survival rate for the overwhelming majority of these titles is very, very low indeed. Livewires, needless to say, did not prove to be an exception to this trend.

”Hard to say whether or not Livewires’ somewhat manga-influenced look and feel hurt the project, given that the other, non-manga-influenced books in the Marvel Next line sold just as badly, if not even worse. At the time, I thought the whole “manga look and feel” dealie might be a turnoff to readers, after stumbling across the occasional bout of Marvel-fan “manga hateration” online...”

Of course, in between all of that, we had Kia Asamiya (Nadesico, Silent Mobius) on Uncanny X-Men, Tsutomu Nihei (Blame!) on Wolverine: SNIKT!, and Shin Nagasawa on Wolverine: Soultaker. Other manga-ka who’d done covers and illustrations for Marvel included Katsuya Terada (Blood: The Last Vampire), Takehiko Ito (Outlaw Star), Studio Gurihiru’s Chifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano, Mizuki Sakabayashi, Tomoko Taniguchi, and others. Lone Wolf & Cub co-creator Kazuo Koike had even returned to write a Wolverine story which appeared in X-Men Unlimited #50 with art by the legendary Paul Smith.

Cebulski has also written X-Men Fairy Tales, Spider-Man Fairy Tales and Avengers Fairy Tales where he adapted fairy tales and folktales from around the world, including a retelling of the Japanese legend of Momotarō, and featured artwork by Japanese artists Sana Takeda, Kei Kobayashi and other manga-influenced artists, including Takeshi Miyazawa, as well as industry legend Bill Sienkiewicz and animator Kyle Baker.

And then there's the "upcoming Marvel/[Junko] Mizuno madness" that Cebulski'd (un)officially announced on his Chesterfest blog. “[They] have all been wonderful experiences. And I will continue to work with Marvel to bring more Japanese creators into the mix to work on more of our characters in the coming year. Stay tuned...”

As for DC’s “manga” projects? Well, we had Batman: Child of Dreams (originally serialized in Kodansha's Magazine Z) by Kia Asamia in 2000, Batman: Hong Kong (manhua?) by Hong Kong’s “King of Comics” Tony Wong Yuk-long in 2003, and most recently, Batman: Death Mask by Yoshinori Natsume.

And who could forget Jiro Kuwata’s Batman manga, soon to be released in the Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan hardcover/softcover collection designed by uber-designer Chip Kidd and Saul Ferris, published by Pantheon Books.

There’s also Vertigo's Death: At Death's Door, a Sandman spin-off done in the manga digest format by Jill Thompson who revisited the "Season of Mists" storyline from Death's point of view, and the Neil Gaiman-written and Yoshitaka Amano-illustrated The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, which won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Illustrated Narrative.

DC has CMX, its own manga imprint that was officially launched in 2004. The line now includes Fred Gallagher’s Megatokyo series.

Minx, an imprint devoted to reaching the shojo-loving teenage girl reader spearheaded by Shelly Bond and Karen Berger, was announced in late 2006. The line features works by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg, who co-created The P.L.A.I.N. Janes; Mike Carey, Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel’s Re-Gifters; Andi Watson and Josh Howard’s Clubbing; Derek Kirk Kim and Jesse Hamm’s Good as Lily; Carey, Louise Carey and Aaron Alexovich’s Confessions of a Blabbermouth; Alexovich’s Kimmie66; and Ross Campbell’s Water Baby.

Since we’re at it, a Japanese version of Top Cow’s Witchblade has also been serialized in Champion Red magazine under publisher Akita Shoten. The manga by Yasuko Kobayashi, head story writer for the Witchblade anime series and artist Kazasa Sumita has since been translated and co-published by Bandai Entertainment and Top Cow as Witchblade: Takeru.

Archie Comics has also given Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Josie and the Pussycats a manga makeover, thanks to Tania del Rio, one of TokyoPop’s Rising Stars of Manga contest winners.

With more and more publishers jumping in on the manga revolution bandwagon, could we be looking at a showdown between Japan’s Big Three and Marvel and DC in the near future? “At the moment, nothing,” Cebulski said. “Marvel has long maintained a healthy relationship with Kodansha and we plan to keep it that way. I have many friends in many departments at Kodansha and they all know I support them and this move into our market. It's a natural progression for a publisher of their size and caliber and I wish them the best of luck.”

What about the possibility of Kodansha (or Viz/Shogakukan/Shueisha for that matter) doing a "reverse Mangaverse"?) Instead of Marvel hiring/working with Japanese manga-ka on such properties as Spider-Man, X-Men (and let's not forget Marvel/Del Rey's X-Men and Wolverine "manga", or rather OEL manga projects scheduled for release next year), what if the Japanese publishers initiate the same business/editorial model and exclusively engage US writers/artists to work on their properties instead and distribute them to the English speaking markets in the U.S., Europe, and Asia? Shueisha probably kick-started this reverse OEL manga process by announcing a Stan Lee and Shaman King's Hiroyuki Takei manga project entitled Karakuridōji Ultimo last year. “I think something like this, if even possible, would be a long way off,” Cebulski said. “There are all kinds of ownership and copyright challenges that would have to be overcome first, making it a difficult venture. Not impossible, but hard to pull off.

“A creator of Stan's caliber can pull this off, especially in the marketing department, due to his legacy and body of work,” he continued. “It's easier to market given the caliber of both and Takei-sensei's names. There are only a handful of other US creators who are even known in Japan, and then only in small circles, but none on Stan's level, so again, this would be a difficult goal to accomplish.

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