Friday, April 22, 2011

Essay: The Impact of Tokyopop on Western Fandom

Brigid Alverson (of the indispensable MangaBlog fame) has a post on Robot6 detailing how Tokyopop changed the (Western) comics world. (And if you're not up to date on the latest happenings, she also has a compilation of links relating to the demise of Tokyopop here). I'd like to think that this blog entry is more of a supplement to that piece.

I'm not exactly the biggest fan of Tokyopop, but the influence it has in the Western manga--and comic--industry is huge. A lot of people will interpret influence as "success" (especially commercial success) but that's not necessarily the case. Any retrospective on Tokyopop should view it from the lens of a scientist, a pioneer that experimented with various mediums, methods, and marketing. Some worked while others didn't. But what's more significant for me is how other publishers have learned from Tokyopop and refined those same techniques or eschewed some of their practices.

A lot of today's manga fans might remember Tokyopop for its impact in the 21st century but for me, the real innovation started as far back as 1996. Back then, at least as far as English-translated manga was concerned, the only major players in the market were Viz (especially with their Ranma 1/2 and Dragonball titles) and Dark Horse. Moreover, the focus of both companies tended to be on the Shonen ("boys") and Seinen ("men") respectively (although series like Ranma 1/2 appealed to both genders). It was a time when manga was sold either as pamphlet (much like most of your weekly US comics) or expensive graphic novels/trades ($15.00 and upwards--more when you start factoring inflation). Tokyopop--then known as Mixx--would release its bi-monthly manga anthology Mixxzine, which is not-quite patterned after Japan's massive "phonebook directory mangas". To set the record straight, Mixx wasn't the first one to do so: that honor belongs to Viz and it's monthly Manga Vision anthology. What did set Mixxzine apart was its content, as two of the four serials were drawn from Shojo titles: Sailormoon and Magic Knight Rayearth. Now the Sailormoon franchise was a milieu into itself, while Magic Knight Rayearth was a popular title during its time. (It's also interesting to note that the other title featured in the original Mixxzine launch, Parasyte, would later be picked up Del Rey.) other titles that would eventually be part of Mixx's pre-2001 stable include Gundam Blue Destiny and Gundam Wing, as well as Card Captor Sakura.

Now Mixx wouldn't escape 2000 unscathed. It had its fair share of failures (a foray into gaming for example) and Stuart Levy was already a controversial figure back in the day. You can read more about Mixx's early history in Anime Fringe's "Full Circle: The Unofficial History of MixxZine". But aside from introducing female-oriented manga titles to a Western audience, there are some important highlights I want to mention. The first is how Mixx released its "pocket Mixx" line, which is pretty much the predecessor of today's cheap but small manga volumes being released by nearly everyone else. The second is how Mixx started a division and website named Tokyo Pop, which would later be the title that Mixxzine and Mixx would adopt.

It's interesting to note how the magazine anthology format always struggled. Right now Viz is the bookend--the alpha and the omega so to speak--of the medium and while Tokyopop couldn't solve the long-term feasibility in the US market, it did help shape the contents of such magazines (and how Viz's magazine anthologies are specialized [i.e. group into "shonen" and "shojo" categories] as opposed to being diverse).

One of the slogans of Tokyopop would be "100% Authentic Manga" (whether that's true or not is a different matter altogether), most notable for its right-to-left manga orientation. Again, they're not the first one to do so--Viz's Dragonball actually was published right-to-left (at the behest of Akira Toriyama himself)--but they're one of the first to implement it to their entire line. Not that it's entirely altruistic of them as "flipping" is an extra expense in the production process, but it's a trend that carries on to many of today's English manga.

In the past decade, manga was one of the more visible comics in bookstores, and Tokyopop has to take credit for that. It's not just about the concept of bookstore distribution--which other comic publishers like DC and Marvel were discovering--but the fact that at one point in time, Tokopop was releasing a lot of titles, hence occupying a lot of shelf space. Fans need to remember that the Viz of today, with popular franchises like Death Note and Naruto flooding the market, wasn't the same Viz that started out where its flagship manga titles was solely Ranma 1/2 and Dragonball. Now-defunct manga publishers like Del Rey and CMX didn't start out until mid-2004 while Dark Horse had a stable but modest lineup (Oh My Goddess! and Blade of the Immortal).

A controversial issue--at least among purist fans--is Tokyopop's Original English Language (OEL) line (and to a certain extent, non-Japanese manga like Manhwa). Whether you love it or hate it (and it's certainly not a new phenomenon: in terms of fandom, it's a never-ending debate between subtitles vs dubs or non-Japanese anime), one can't deny the impact Tokyopop has in the proliferation of OEL. Although again, to clarify, OEL didn't originate with Tokyopop (that honor goes to Viz), but rather they popularized it.

In the past few years, Tokyopop has had a mix of failures and successes. There was their website's attempt to create a social media network slash online comics reader for example. Or how it lost its license to some of its popular or ongoing titles, in addition to those that went to competitors. Or its foray into the Initial D multimedia franchise and subsequent whitewashing. For good or for ill, many in the industry have took note of Tokyopop's progress and demise.

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