It seems that it’s only in the past few years that manga seems to have picked up steam even if it’s had a presence in the
If you wanted a glimpse of what manga was back then, then I suggest you look at Dark Horse comics. Dark Horse, of course, has been one of the pioneers in the manga industry. While they’re not limited to manga titles, they have, over the years, published a lot of non-mainstream and mature content. And in a way, they were ahead of their time. A point of contention right now among manga fans is “non-authentic manga” (a.k.a. Ameri-manga), which is manga that was not made by a Japanese creator. Right now TokyoPop, a leading publisher of manga titles (and perhaps responsible for the current manga paradigm shift but I’ll get to that later), is getting a lot of heat for their release of “original manga” but Dark Horse has been ahead of the game in that department. Just look at Adam Warren’s run of Dirty Pair under Dark Horse as far back as ‘98. But getting back to the topic at hand, manga titles wasn’t packaged in its present format but was originally presented in the way most comics were released back then. Instead of the collected volumes we now see or even the anthology of manga titles every month, manga titles were released in the singles format on at least a monthly basis. For those not familiar with comic jargon, singles are those slim, nearly A4-sized comics that had anywhere between twenty plus pages to forty. Pick up any superhero comic and you’ll see what I mean. And in a certain way, that tradition of distributing manga continues on. Just look at Dark Horse’s Blade of the Immortal series, which comes in that format if you want the latest chapter.
Of course Dark Horse wasn’t the only pioneer back then. I’d say Viz is in the same category as well. Much like Dark Horse’s business model, a lot of their comics was released in the same format, such as their Dragonball series. However, I will point out one problem with their business model (and to a certain extent, still plagues them in the present). Some of those manga “chapters” which got released in the
In the late 90’s, some of the publishers also experimented with
Eventually Mixx, an unlikely publisher in the scene, managed to gather some steam, publishing phenomenal manga titles such as Rayearth or the lesser-known Parasyte (which has now been acquired by Del Rey). Eventually, they started releasing manga graphic novels not just in the right-to-left format but also in a smaller, leaner package that despite its size, was affordable: the $9.99 price tag. This, I think, gave them the edge of their competitors like Viz, who had similarly great titles like Ranma 1/2 and Nausicaa but were nearly twice as expensive. Of course manga veterans will know Mixx by its present name—TokyoPop. Around this time, anime was also at its peak in the
Perhaps a testament to TokyoPop’s efficiency isn’t just in its popularity, or the fact that it’s still publishing presently. It lies in the fact that others have adapted to its format. Take Viz for example. Its manga collections have been scaled down but are priced more cheaply at $7.99 per issue. And it is gaining popularity—just look at the Shonen Jump line. Of course another strength of various manga publishers right now is visibility: whereas manga was usually found at the comic shelves, now it has a wider presence from bookstores to online. I think the fact that it’s in bookstores has made a big impact, drawing upon an untapped customer base. Of course US comics have made it to bookstores in the form of trade paperbacks (a practice that has been in the US for quite some time but only gained popularity in the 80’s with the likes of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series but is the main comic model in Japan) but I think manga is outselling its US counterpart in that arena.
One of the biggest, most important transition in the US manga industry, I think, is the acceptance that they shouldn’t work with the US-comic business model—their markets are different (although of course there are overlaps, and I’m proof of that as I read both US comics and manga). In fact, only few manga titles right now are being released as a single on a monthly basis—the closest you have are the anthologies like Shonen Jump and perhaps what’s saving it from premature doom is that it is an anthology and thus drawing a diverse crowd rather than one specific fan market (i.e. fans of both Naruto and Death Note are forced to buy the same publication to get their regular dose of translated manga). There’s also the fact that the
So the next time you look at the next big thing, whatever it may be, aside from taking the artistic and aesthetic considerations (I don’t think Viz failed in that department yet it bestow upon them TokyoPop’s success), one should similarly play close attention to the business model you’re working with. Arguably TokyoPop’s model might have only acted as a catalyst to manga’s inevitable success, but few people in any industry will deny that having a good business plan isn’t a factor in their success.