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December 17, 2007


CR Holiday Interview #2: Jason Thompson On His Complete Guide And The Year In Manga

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*****

I don't know Jason Thompson, but I enjoyed reading his Manga: The Complete Guide this year. Thompson's resource about manga not only contains the expected 1000-plus capsule reviews (the number on the cover I'm told was based on an early estimate), it offers a concise history of the publishing industry supporting those comics and descriptions of various important genres and touchstone works. I thought it was solid, and it's helped me to find new works and compare my opinions to more knowledgeable writers about manga I've read. Thompson is also a cartoonist who has recently returned to his major on-line comics project, The Stiff, and a North American manga publishing veteran who seems more than happy to talk about his experiences working for, and now with, Viz Media. I enjoyed asking Jason questions. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about how you ended up with the Manga Guide project? It's my understanding that you were recruited for the gig after it had crashed and burned with its first author.

JASON THOMPSON: I was contacted by Dallas Middaugh in late 2005, and he, together with then-editor Tim Mak, asked me if I would like to write the book. The story about the original author dropping out is true, although I've never had any contact with him (though I'd like to), and apparently he didn't turn in any text. I assume the issues involved were more personal than contractual. Dallas was aware of my previous manga book pitch which I had made to Viz in 2000, and so he knew I was interested in doing something like this. Del Rey's idea for the book was pretty loose -- the only thing they requested was that it be organized by title, not author, and that star ratings be used -- so once I accepted the job in early 2006, I was allowed to pretty much do what I wanted.

SPURGEON: Am I right that it took you about a year to do? This seems like a massive undertaking. Can you provide as much detail as you can possibly stand about how you approached the task.

THOMPSON: Not counting the proofreading, I worked on it from mid-February 2006 to January 2007. I started by listing all the manga publishers and translated works I could think of, and then I calculated how many reviews I would have to write per day to meet the deadline. In terms of getting the manga, I owe a lot to Alvin Lu of Viz, who gave me the entire former manga library of Animerica magazine. They were in a space crunch at the time, so it was all in boxes, and they were considering throwing it out. I also talked to Rory Root at Comic Relief in Berkeley, and he gave me permission to come to the store nearly every day for several months and read manga in the back room. Lastly, there was the public library, and publishers' donations, and whatever I could buy.

imageAfter assigning some of the manga to other writers, I had to write three manga reviews a day to meet my original deadline. Some I was already familiar with, of course, but in most cases I reread them, or I was reading them for the first time. In some cases I went back and re-evaluated and rewrote a review several months later, because I'd read another manga which changed my perspective of it. For instance, I hadn't read much Boy's Love before I started working on the book. After I'd read a bunch, there were a lot of elements in shojo manga that suddenly clicked to me. Or, after I read King of Bandits Jing I realized that Dream Gold was obviously inspired by it. In a way, I was educating myself as I wrote it... filling in the gaps. I hope this doesn't make me sound bad ("Gawrsh! I'd never even read a manga before!"), but I did discover a lot of titles I wasn't aware of. I hardly received any line editing from Del Rey -- they gave me a tremendous amount of freedom.

Unfortunately, I miscalculated just how much manga I'd have to read, because I didn't realize just how many new titles would be picked up for translation in 2006. I also didn't factor in enough time for the articles. So the last few months of the project -- November, December, January -- were really chaotic.

SPURGEON: The book's structure I think is intriguing. The main section is pretty all together and then you have call-outs for specific genres within that grouping. Yaoi and Adult get their own sections. How did you decide on that structure and what effect did you hope for in making the choices you did there?

THOMPSON: I copied the structure from The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986), one of my favorite books from my teenage years. It's an encyclopedic listing of horror films, novels and authors, as well as essays on various topics and subgenres, all mixed together in alphabetical order -- so that under "S" you have "Saki" and "Bram Stoker" and "Surrealism" and "The Shining." Of course, in Manga: The Complete Guide the authors are delegated to the index, so it's just manga and articles in the main section. But I felt that this was a fun format -- the articles break up the text, so instead of having a mammoth block of reviews and a mammoth block of articles with little connection between them, you can read it from beginning to end and encounter a variety of material. And of course the articles are listed on the table of contents and are in alphabetical order so you can find them.

The Yaoi and Adult sections were segregated because I didn't want pornographic titles rubbing shoulders with children's material, and because I felt they were distinct enough genres that they could be separated without a lot of argument over what belongs where. Although one reviewer felt that 18+ titles should be moved to the Adult section too, which I think is ridiculous -- Dance Till Tomorrow or Wounded Man may have a lot of sex, but there's no comparison to a Mangerotica or Icarus title. Even Banana Fish has an 18+ rating.

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SPURGEON: How did you approach the general section and what made you decide on that length as opposed to dropping it altogether or running something 10 times as long?

THOMPSON: The length of the reviews was my preference based on reviewing manga for Animerica and PULP. My first editor did ask me to trim the text, so I went through it and cut some sentences on the first proof. At one point I was worried that the articles might get dropped for space reasons, or that some of the more obscure manga (the old Antarctic and Studio Ironcat stuff, the Japanese bilingual editions) might get dropped, so I made sure to do all those reviews first so there was no chance they'd get cut. But in the end none of the reviews or articles were removed, and Dallas was happy with the length, so it all worked out. The only section that got trimmed down from my original plans was the artist index -- I wanted to have bios of many more artists.

SPURGEON: Are there schools of history with manga, different interpretations that you know of? Could anything you've written be seen as controversial or bordering on same?

THOMPSON: There are differences of opinion about manga history -- some people deemphasize Osamu Tezuka and champion other artists from that formative period, for instance. The development of shojo and josei manga is also a huge topic which I could have covered more thoroughly. However, if there are any major controversial points in Manga: The Complete Guide (apart from the reviews, of course), it's probably due to some mistake on my part. There is also the opinion, expressed in Takeo Udagawa's amazing Manga Zombie that manga publishing became more conservative and commercial in the 1980s. I agree with him, but still, I love a lot of modern titles -- I have to be able to see their good points and rate them relative to other books which English readers will actually be able to get hold of.

SPURGEON: How closely did you work with the other writers that were involved? Did you work with them in the middle of the process or go back over stuff with them? Did anyone turn in material that you decided you simply couldn't use? How did you divvy up material?

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THOMPSON: For the most part, I chose writers who I trusted and then let them write what they wanted. To me, the challenge of reading -- or at least becoming familiar with -- every manga in English was something I looked on as an opportunity, so I mostly asked the other contributors to write about manga which I'd already read, such as Ikegami and Tezuka, or manga which I didn't have any interest in reading, such as DiGi Charat and various anime spin-offs.

In the best cases, I tried to assign manga based on the reviewer's area of knowledge. For instance, Mark Simmons, who did the Gundam manga reviews, used to be employed by Bandai as the official Gundam expert. And Patrick Macias loves old-school macho manga, Go Nagai and Kazuo Koike and so on. The risk with this is that someone who is incredibly knowledgeable about a subject may be so in love with it that they are charitable to all their favorites. However, I did break my editorial objectivity and replace two or three reviews because I strongly disagreed with them. Actually, if I updated the book I would like to replace a few more reviews; it's not that I don't like the original reviews, so much as that I have the megalomaniacal need to be involved with as much of the book as possible. I would have preferred to do more reviews myself from the beginning, but the deadline meant that I had to parcel out some of the titles.

SPURGEON: With your own pieces in the book, it strikes me that you've been a lot of things in your young career: a fan, a cartoonist, an editor... how do you think your aesthetic has developed over time?

THOMPSON: I don't know if this exactly answers the question, but... I think my tastes have gotten broader and more accepting than they were when I was first working at Viz, but at the same time I have to be careful and remind myself not to be jaded.

SPURGEON: That's exactly what I was looking for.

THOMPSON: When I was younger I was very much into authors like Franz Kafka and Herman Melville, Jorge Luis Borges and H.P. Lovecraft, who were all about theme and description, rather than character or plot. Theme and mood, or supposedly high-concept "what if" scenarios in the science fiction sense. While I still like those authors, one thing which I think I've learned from manga (and other authors) is, I've developed a much greater appreciation for stories about human characters and human motivations. By this I mean, stories centered on character interaction and believably -- note the emphasis on believably -- portraying all the conflict and emotion and tragedy and comedy which is possible when people interact.

But not just character but plot as well. Too much manga is, frankly, character-focused and static on the level of an American daily comic strip. Like dojinshi, it's just fannish obsessiveness over the supposed charisma of some fetishized character. When I was in college I used to complain about manga which tread water and just recycle the same storylines over and over, but lately I've come to the decision that in some cases, any story is better than no story. To create a story that's actually worth reading (with the exception of a few rare titles supported solely by theme or atmosphere, or exceptionally w ell-written sitcoms and character studies), you need to actually be able to write plot twists, surprises, and developments, which may arise out of the character but also transform the character. I know I'm not saying anything which isn't obvious to any author or editor, but it's important. A story doesn't have to aspire to deep meaning, but if not, it should at least try to generate actual tension and pathos and humor based on (at some level) realistic behavior.

imageI've also developed, or like to think I've developed, a craving for originality. This is simply the result of seeing so many manga which look so similar, and manga which shamelessly recycle from other manga -- O Parts Hunter, Shiki Tsukai, etc. I suppose it's not much different than the similarity between, say, Marvel and DC comics in the 1970s and 1980s, and sometimes I worry that I can't recognize the differences in art style... that I lack the vocabulary to express the subtle, if not inconsequential, differences in style between mainstream manga artists. It's that which makes an artist like Moyoco Anno (though her style was originally derived from Erica Sakurazawa) or Eiichiro Oda so exciting. Of course, originality of story is just as important, if not more important, than the art. Lately I've been really enjoying Yuki Nakaji's shojo manga... for teenage shojo titles they really stand out for their plotting and dialog.

I have a hard time wrapping my head around how some artists can consciously produce work so derivative -- I assume they must be aware of what they're doing but they just want to be able to work in the manga industry. I mean, I've been reading manga for a long time, but I'm sure that most people who are professional manga artists in Japan, who grew up immersed in manga, are much better-versed in it than I am. So they have no excuse for such blatant rip-offs of one another. Of course, to every new generation, the old cliches are new again, and I have to be on guard for just developing a general old-man grouchiness about everything. It's a critic's dilemma. To use an American example: I'm young enough that Art Adams looks like Art Adams to me, not like a follower of Michael Golden. Or perhaps it's a cultural difference -- perhaps a Japanese observer who can read a zillion stories about young-boys-with-secret-power-buried-inside-them looks at Watchmen and Doom Patrol and thinks, "Oh god, another story about caped superheroes, this is so lame, Stan Lee did all of this so much better in 1963."

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SPURGEON: You told Andrew Farago that one of the reasons you were doing The Stiff as a horror comedy is because there were two things you thought manga did well. Why do you think that is?

THOMPSON: This may just be my personal preference for those genres, but I think romances and love-comedies have been popular manga genres for so long, there's a huge pool of excellent material. (Of course, there's many wretched, cliched examples of those genres, too.) When I was first discovering manga and anime in late high school, I at one point theorized that manga had the same sort of nervous, shyly romantic attitude towards sexuality that hadn't existed in American media for decades and decades -- some could call it immaturity, but I as an adolescent adored it.

I think one of the startling things that manga and anime brought to America, culturally, was the willingness to depict pseudo-sexual situations in material aimed at teenagers... and yet there's also that certain softness, that yasashii ["gentle"] style, which distinguishes itself from comparatively crass American teen-sex offerings like Porky's or American Pie. Not that there isn't really crude, raunchy humor in Japanese comics as well. But it was the cross-gender appeal of love-comedy manga like Ranma 1/2 and Oh My Goddess! that helped create the first boom in female manga readers in America, and pave the way for shojo manga. If manga degenerates totally into stories about magical high schools and teenage ninja, and loses its last grip on realism, romances and love comedies will be the last non-fantastic genres to go.

Admittedly, given the amount of realism in typical love-comedy manga, I use the term "non-fantastic" loosely. Most manga are fantasies, and love/sex stories are generally just another type of fantasy -- but it's one of the many areas where manga blossomed while American comics of the same genre were atrophying. Manga, like most Japanese pop culture, has a certain emotional openness which American media often lacks. Americans tend to view everything with a certain hipster cynicism, but manga has that earnestness, that bombast, that heartstring-plucking. (Of course, earnestness can also express itself as a non-ironic willing to pander.) Also, the super-simplified character designs of manga give its romances an element of prettiness and idealism which appeals to many people, including myself.

imageAs for horror comics, I think Kazuo Umezu is the greatest horror comics artist of all time, with Hideshi Hino up there in the top 10 as well (I can't slight Steve Bissette, John Totleben and Richard Corben). The great length of Japanese comics, together with their primarily visual nature -- those "cinematic" techniques everyone always talks about -- are both perfectly suited for horror. This is the same reason that manga does action sequences so well, but in horror, it's coupled with a cultural willingness to confront the terrifying and nihilistic. Furthermore, unlike action manga, horror sequences are usually unburdened with speedlines and screentone overkill and big sound effects -- good horror manga (note that I don't mean "action horror") is just pure visual storytelling without too much flash or text, like those text-heavy old EC Comics.

As for how all this relates to my comic The Stiff, the answer is, perhaps not much -- I'm from a generation that was raised unfamiliar with love-comedy comics, so to me, The Stiff is a tribute to manga, simply being the virtue of being a relationship-themed comic and by giving the main characters that nervous, shy feverishness of adolescence (as opposed to, say, the prematurely burnt-out teen sexuality of, say, Charles Burns' Black Hole, which I also love in a different way). And I do try to mimic the techniques that I enjoy in Japanese horror comics. But in the end I'm just as much, or more, influenced by American autobiographical/indy comics. I try to write comics which depict relationships in a realistic fashion, rather than intentionally drawing something to a particular formula. And psychological realism is an area where translated manga has fallen behind. Another area where all manga tends to be lacking is originality of artwork... magazines such as Margaret and Nakayoshi have house styles as strict as a straitjacket, and there is little variety in most of the popular "otaku/moe" art styles either. There are good Japanese underground comics, both professional and dojinshi, but we see so little of them... indy comics make up a proportionally larger amount of the American comics market.

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SPURGEON: You may have already answered this, but why a star system, again?

THOMPSON: That was Del Rey's request. I originally just wanted to have the reviews in the text. But I'm happy with how the stars turned out -- I think it adds a certain aura of authority to the reviews, even if it's just an imaginary authority, like saying that Goku in Dragon Ball has a power level of 8000 instead of 7000. It's something to chew on, and it did lead me to ponder for many hours whether Guru Guru Pon-chan was objectively equal to Parasyte, and whether Night of the Beasts deserved two stars or two-and-a-half stars, and so on.

SPURGEON: How's the book been doing?

THOMPSON: Not bad, the amazon sales have been steady and it's gotten a lot of positive coverage. The biggest criticism I've received was a review from otakubooty.com where, although they liked the reviews and the general writing in the book, they essentially asked, "Is there really anyone who wants to know about manga who doesn't already know about it? And is there really a market for encyclopedia-type books in the age of the Internet?" Well, good questions. I'd like to think that Manga: The Complete Guide has a tone and personality and a frame of critical reference which is lacking on Wikipedia or Anime News Network, but I did keenly feel the competition of the Internet while I was writing it.

As for their first criticism, well, I hope there are still people who might like manga who haven't discovered it, or there really is no seinen and josei manga market in America. I wish there was more coverage of the book within the mainstream non-comics media, but I'm sure everyone who's written a book about comics wishes the same thing. I wrote the book hoping that it would on the one hand appeal to fans, and on the other hand, introduce some people to manga who weren't familiar with it previously. I don't know if it's succeeded at the latter. I've gotten positive reviews from places like the Library Journal, at least.

SPURGEON: Andrew Farago's interview with you at TCJ.com was very good in tracking where you were and what you were doing and a general sense of American manga history along the way, and I don't want to repeat that stuff, but a couple of things sprung to mind. First of all, what was it like working at Viz just on a basis of the office atmosphere or the interpersonal relationships? Was it a warm place to work, or very business-like, or very supportive and enthusiastic? Was it young-seeming; old-seeming? How would you describe what it was like where you worked in a way that maybe didn't touch on what you were doing? And did that change?

THOMPSON: When I started there, Viz had already been in existence as a company for 10 years, but it was a much smaller company, and I felt like I was a bumbling guest at a private party. Eventually everyone warmed to me, and vice versa. At the time, Satoru Fujii, who was the editor-in-chief, had a close relationship to the small pool of editors. Most of the manga titles they picked were either his personal favorites or favorites of some of the editorial pool. There were company dinners, karaoke, that sort of thing... it was a warm little clique. It was a good place to work; several editors, including Ian Robertson, Urian Brown, and Patrick Macias, worked their way up from the shipping department to the editorial department, based chiefly on their personality and their passion for manga.

Later, around the time that Pokemon became a hit, the company grew a lot and things became more bureaucratic. It was the editors vs. the marketing department, or the editors vs. the supervising editors who didn't actually work directly with the manga. Most of the older people, myself included I guess, got pushed aside or could not adapt to the new bureaucratic system and the new layers of management. The censorship, the increasingly complicated approvals process and oversight from Japanese licensors, and so on. And frankly, with the merger between Shueisha and Shogakukan around 2002-2003, the Japanese side brought in a lot of management people over and really "cleaned up shop' and changed a lot. Cross promotion with merchandising and anime became a lot bigger, and more major decisions were made in Japan and imposed on Viz from overseas. Which was surely always the plan at some level -- it was always a wholly owned subsidiary of a major Japanese corporation. As companies go, it's still a very good company to work for, but very different from what it once was. How could it not be? It's got 10 times as many employees now.

Incidentally, when they changed to VIZ Media, LLC a few years ago, they officially "turned the clock forward" as a company -- they now celebrate the anniversary of VIZ Media rather than the anniversary of Viz Communications in 1986.

SPURGEON: The other thing that strikes me when I hear you talk is how young the manga business is, where people are just figuring out things that work really well three to five years ago, not decades. Do you think the North American manga industry is well-established, or are there any big changes left to come?

THOMPSON: I'm sure it's going to change, but I can't predict how. Manga-reading teenagers are growing up... e-books and webcomics are challenging print, unsuccessfully so far... people are out there constantly negotiating distribution deals, tie-ins, cross promotions, trying to launch new publishing lines. The only way in which the market is currently set in stone is that most of Japan's major manga-publishing players are already on the field, Shogakukan and Shueisha through Viz and Kodansha through Del Rey. There's still a lot of smaller Japanese players that haven't fully committed to one company or another -- for instance, Kadokawa, which owns Kadokawa Shoten and MediaWorks, might try some big venture -- but the major Japanese shojo and shonen licenses are increasingly put on the fast track for American publication. Josei and seinen and assorted specialty manga, on the other hand, are still relatively neglected, so that's an area that might see growth.

imageSPURGEON: Manga as a business has been driven in certain ways by the success of various formats. I've been seeing a few big omnibus books like the Azumanga Daioh one. What are companies thinking with something like that? Is it a price point issue? Do you think that format will have a longterm market presence?

THOMPSON: I think the Azumanga Daioh omnibus is a great value, and I know Viz is working on similar ventures with the Viz Big line. Though it's worth mentioning that both of those are financially supported by the fact that they're just reprints of already-translated and lettered material. Furthermore, the fact that they're reprints will ensure that they don't make as big a splash as the initial printings. However, I'm sure that similar experiments will proliferate. From the perspective of Japanese manga publishers (such as the Japanese Shonen Jump editors), American releases are still too expensive, even at $9.95 for 200 pages. If they can make it work economically, I'm sure they'd love to make the page-per-dollar point even more generous, in the hopes of luring new readers.

SPURGEON: A few weeks ago by the time this sees publication, a Books-A-Million location hit their local news with a really poorly-reported story about a parent's complaints regarding the location of a manga within the store. Some manga fans I know just assume that it's a matter of time before something fairly filthy will generate trouble in a market that's fairly conservative and there will be a sort of legal apocalypse. How do you feel about manga's ability to skirt this kind of controversy? And if one happens, will it be a big deal?

THOMPSON: Since, as I indicated in my answer to the love-comedy question, I think the promise of violence and sex is one of the appeals of manga to American kids, I have to admit I'm surprised this sort of thing hasn't happened more. I think most publishers are a little frightened of it too, which is why there's been so much more censorship of manga in the past five years. But Viz is as cautious as any publisher, and it still happened. Yet I take comfort from the fact that it seems to have been an isolated incident, and hasn't led to any huge backlash or media inquiry (at least as far as I know -- it's always possible that some big distributor or retailer is even now getting cold feet and calling Viz on the Censor-Phone Hot Line demanding changes or else). I predict more caution and censorship on the part of the major publishers, but not necessarily any big backlash. More disturbingly, manga censors are on the prowl in Japan as well... Comipress has posted a number of articles about it recently.

imageSPURGEON: Is there anything we can take from Viz's Fall of publishing lots of Naruto other than the fact that Naruto is really popular?

THOMPSON: I think the company is reacting to what it knows from experience with titles like Dragon Ball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh!: "strike while the iron is hot." The merchandising life cycle for manga and anime is fast here, with titles often on the way out in Japan just as they're becoming popular in the U.S., and that window of opportunity is all-important. Back when manga publishers would release a graphic novel every six months or so, we knew to our chagrin that we were continually dropping farther and farther behind the pace of the Japanese series. I remember back in the 1990s calculating how long it would take for us to finish Dragon Ball Z and Ranma 1/2 and estimating that we'd be finished in the far-future year of 2008 or thereabouts. Nowadays, the pace of manga translation is much faster, and I think it's a better situation for readers (if they can afford to buy all those books, that is). Manga which is originally published in a weekly or biweekly format, in particular, reads best in large chunks. And you always run the risk of a fickle public deserting a long series in the middle if it takes too long. On a more cynical level, admittedly, I'd rather see Viz focusing more attention on some of their lower-selling series rather than putting everything into producing as much of their best-seller as possible... but that's just business.

SPURGEON: This may be a stupid question, but why isn't there a North American equivalent to dojinshi? Or if there is, why isn't it bigger?

THOMPSON: There is, you just can't find it at comics tores or bookstores. It's technically illegal, after all, and one of the main reasons dojinshi is so accepted in Japan is because their copyright laws are stricter than America's -- Japanese publishers don't risk losing their rights to the work because they knowingly fail to prosecute dojinshi artists. Most dojinshi produced in America is sold at anime conventions, or it's simply done as webcomics. I have a friend who does professional Boy's Love comics and is also involved with an American print dojinshi circle, Studio Plug N' Play. Actually, Studio Plug N' Play acquired some infamy because they were threatened by Shogakukan over an Inu-Yasha dojinshi not too long ago. In terms of dojinshi which are closer to the indy-comics scene but sort of have a dojinshi spirit, I guess you could count Life Meter and perhaps even Elfworld... or, going back a few years to the point where the dojinshi resemblance is only coincidental, the Marvel issue of Coober Skeeber.

But it's true that, even setting aside distribution and legal issues, Japanese fans produce much more dojinshi -- both original and parody -- than their American counterparts. Why this is, is a good question. It's probably due to the greater awareness of comics in Japan, although one wonders whether Japanese fans have a better work ethic. Although frankly, most dojinshi is pretty trivial stuff intended solely as a hobby, stuff which comes from a totally different aesthetic than the American indy-comic perspective... what Bill Randall called the Artist Hero aesthetic in the 2005 Comics Journal Special Edition. When I think of American indy comics I feel that most of the artists -- or at least the ones I like -- are very consciously trying to Be Original or to Say Something Important, even if they just feel that this is something they should pose at, and while there are some dojinshi artists doing this, the majority of them are just playing around with parody-tributes, making it closer to fanfiction or fanzines than the indy-comics scene. I'd love to see a small publisher arise that's dedicated to translating the best Japanese original dojinshi; so far only ALC Publishing has really done anything like that.

SPURGEON: Is there any story about manga that struck you as important that maybe wasn't reported on? Do you feel that side of the industry is accurately and thoroughly reported on? What could be better in terms of serving those readers who are interesting in that kind of news?

THOMPSON: There's so many bloggers commenting on manga news that I think the field is pretty well covered. I love Ed Chavez's Japanese manga magazine reports and publisher updates on mangacast (I loved them even more when he was showing the covers of every new publication, which was apparently incredibly time-consuming). One thing I am surprised by is the fact that there is no regularly updated, comprehensive database of censorship and alteration to U.S. editions of manga. Maybe it's such a colossal task that no one wants to do it, or maybe the field is just too scattered and has no central identity of fandom anymore -- people who enjoy underground art-manga or dirty adult manga don't care enough to comment on changes to some manga aimed at 13-year-olds, and so forth.

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SPURGEON: Are there a few titles either ongoing or just out of print that you would suggest for comics-savvy but manga-experience light reades? Maybe somethng that doesn't get brought up a lot. From what I hear from people, I think finding on-ramps into the material is a problem for certain comics fans who might not have the time to sprawl out on the floor at Barnes & Noble.

THOMPSON: Comic Geek Speak asked me the same question, but I always have a hard time answering this one. We're talking about an entire country's comics output, and I don't really know if there is such a thing as "must-read" comics or manga which transcend genre; it's much easier to recommend something within a given genre or demographic. Having said that, some of my personal favorites for adult readers are Fumi Yoshinaga's Flower of Life and Antique Bakery, most of the Fanfare/Ponent Mon output, Blast Books' out-of-print Comics Underground Japan, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Honey and Clover, Paradise Kiss, Cromartie High School, Junko Mizuno, Hideshi Hino's Panorama of Hell, Maison Ikkoku, Moyoco Anno's Flowers & Bees and (though it starts out slow) Happy Mania. The former are mostly underground comics and shojo/josei (women's) relationship stories. Then there's classics like Lone Wolf and Cub, Samurai Gishiden, Osamu Tezuka's MW and Ode to Kirihito and Black Jack and Phoenix, Swan, To Terra, Please Save my Earth, Dr. Slump, Barefoot Gen, Golgo 13, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, and Kazuo Umezu's Reptilia and The Drifting Classroom (which I must admit that I am the editor of). Among current commercial boys' action-adventure titles I'd recommend Yuji Iwahara's King of Thorn and Chikyu Misaki, Death Note, One Piece, GTO, Shaman King, Eyeshield 21 and Jojo's Bizarre Adventure (another one I edit), and among men's action titles, Hellsing and Berserk.

SPURGEON: Where do you think in broad terms the manga industry might five years from now that people wouldn't expect? What will you be doing?

THOMPSON: I wish I knew. My ears really perked up at Al Kahn's fan-baiting comments at this year's icv2 conference: "Manga is dead, bookstores are inconsequential, we're looking outside Japan for next big thing," etc. It seems like he's embracing his role of manga fandom's new bogeyman, since the third google listing on his name is a petition of how to kill him for making changes to shows like One Piece. My reaction to his total dismissal of graphic novels and manga is kind of "Bring it on, sucker, let's see what non-Japanese licensed property you manage to take over the world with." In a way I was glad to hear him say that because it kind of draws a line in the sand between manga and merchandising: if manga won't be driven by merchandising and anime tie-ins forever, then we'll just have to cross our fingers and see if it can stand up on its own two feet.

I already talked about this a bit in other forums, but the two biggest questions I have now about manga's future are: (1) will the tween age group continue to make up the majority of the U.S. market and (2) will manga lose its "Japanese" identity entirely. This is partly my age talking, but to me, the area that's most ripe for translation is seinen and josei manga aimed at adult men and women -- stuff like Morning, the Big Comic magazines, and a greater variety of women's manga. The way I see it, fandom in America could go in two directions as the fans get older -- they could start thinking, "Gee, I'd like to read manga which is more realistic and has more diverse, less fantastic subject matter," or they could start thinking, "I'd like to read a new Naruto manga, where Naruto is older and has a new costume." Guess which path I think American superhero comic readers have already chosen? I'd like to be encouraged by the grownup manga market in Japan, but even in Japan, tween material produces the majority of sales and merchandising money.

imageWhen I talked to Eijiro Shimada of the venerable Morning magazine, I asked him why there weren't more "mainstream" manga magazines like Morning, and he said, "We don't consider Morning to be 'mainstream' manga, we consider it to be 'manga for general audiences.'" Which could be a translation error, but what is suggests to me is that even in Japan, a title like Morning, which is aimed at people in their twenties and up, is not something which is mainstream in the sense of Naruto. It's not something which necessarily evolved out of reader demand. Perhaps it's more like something created by the publisher to sort of dangle in the faces of non-manga-reading adults, trying to entice them to read manga. Perhaps the frequent adaptation of Morning titles into live-action TV series should not be seen as a sign of Morning's influence, but rather, a way for "normal" Japanese people to experience these stories without having to actually undergo the excruciating act of reading manga. A form of merchandising, like Spider-Man movies in America. This is speculation, of course; I hope I'm wrong, and I don't mean to misrepresent Shimada, because he was a great interview subject.

Manga has rejuvenated -- or really, created -- the American comics market for children and teenagers. It's been such a sweeping transformation that I can understand if Marvel and DC, and indeed anyone who doesn't associate themselves with "manga," is freaked out. I think the people who may have the most to lose are people who do "all-ages" comics in a non-manga style, people like Jeff Smith -- he's been drawing for years in that Disney/Walt Kelly style to try to "bring kids into comics" and along comes manga and it's like the bar scene in Bone when everyone is buying beer from Phoney Bone and no one's buying from Lucius. On the other hand, manga hasn't really made much inroads in the indy/experimental/adult comics market, partly because that's not manga's greatest strength, and partly because American manga publishers would rather focus on sure things like Naruto and Fruits Basket.

Of course, new OEL manga publishers are springing up all the time too, and a hybrid style is forming. What'll become of this, I don't know. There are OEL artists whose work I really admire, like Svetlana Chmakova, Felipe Smith and Tintin Pantoja, or Bryan Lee O'Malley, to go farther afield from "manga style." But it's clear that a lot of publishers are fixated on manga because it's "what the kids are reading" or worse, because "it's easier to get kids to read manga than real books." And frankly, getting back to my critical snootiness, the more manga becomes synonymous with "young adult paperbacks," the less interest I have in it. When I hear some huge screaming press release about X-Men manga, or Star Trek manga, or Maximum Ride manga, I have absolutely zero interest whatsoever. Because of course, good comics are original material, not spin-offs. Otherwise we're back in merchandising territory.

The generation that's now reading manga is also a generation that's drawing manga, or comics, or whatever word people call it, but the works that are really going to interest me are the less genre-oriented, more personal works. Some creators are doing these works now, some will do 'em when they're more experienced, and some will never do them. If a bigger pool of comics creators, and translated manga, produces more of these kinds of works, I'll be happy. I would like it, however, if some publishers were able to push these seinen and josei and underground works successfully and expand the public definition of manga. To those who say that publishers can't affect trends, I'd say, look at Tokyopop with their "authentic manga" line in 2002, which is now the industry standard. I'm talking now about my personal wishes rather than what I think is most likely to happen, but that's what's on my mind.

*****

* please note a higher than usual likelihood I blew one of these
* cover to Manga: The Complete Guide
* King of Bandits: Jing volume cover
* from Bananafish
* from Ryoichi Ikegami
* work from Mayoco Anno
* panel from The Stiff
* study from Kazuo Umezo
* more The Stiff
* that Azumanga Daioh omnibus cover
* a volume of Naruto
* Morning magazine
* still more The Stiff

*****

* Manga: The Complete Guide, Jason Thompson, Del Rey, 9780345485908, 590 pages, 2007, $19.95
* The Stiff

*****

image

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