Problems with Anime and Manga

One column that I follow from time to time is the Hey Answerman! column at Anime News Network. It’s generally interesting and as close as one could get to a miscellany of current thought on anime and manga in the US.

The current question of the week being discussed is this:

In the past few years, what do you think is the biggest mistake the [North American] anime industry has made?

Obviously, this is very topical in the current economic climate among anime and manga licensers and publishers. Tokyopop continues to hang on after a drastic restructuring and cost-cutting initiative, which unfortunately leaves a lot of licenses and extremely talented creators hung out to dry, so to speak. A.D. Vision, the publisher of such lucrative anime titles as Neon Genesis Evangelion and the Rurouni Kenshin (a.k.a. Samurai X) OVAs, as well as manga titles like Azumanga Daioh, Gunslinger Girl and Cromartie High School, may wind up out of business by the end of the year: their print publishing division appears to be indefinitely suspended, they’ve had two failed magazine projects in the past year, and their anime licenses are being resold gradually to Funimation.

In terms of manga publishing, which is my primary interest here, the market for licensed titles in the US is consolidating away from smaller operations and new start-ups into large media-conglomeration publishers, specificically:

  • Viz, formerly an independent who partnered in the 1980s with publishers like Eclipse, is a full American subsidiary of Japanese mega-publishers Shogakukan and Shueisha, possibly Japan’s largest overall publisher of manga. Viz continues to control the anime market with repeated high-profile successes (Dragon Ball Z, Inuyasha, Naruto, Bleach, Death Note), has very deep pockets and endless access to licenses through its’ parent corporation.
  • Del Rey Manga, a surprise success story, Del Rey is Random House’s science fiction and fantasy imprint. Del Rey played the conservative tortoise in the tortoise-and-hare race of manga publishing and won. Their publishing efforts are built on a backbone of perhaps four or five ongoing titles, and their overall count of licenses is probably dwarfed by any of the other publishers so far, but it helps that two of their successful licenses are from CLAMP (Tsubasa, and XXX-Holic) and one by Ken Akamatsu (Negima).
  • Yen Press, a company that not many have heard of, is definitely one to watch. As ICEkunion, they published rather banal-looking manhwa, but they’ve been consolidated into Yen Press, which is a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group. Hachette was, until the past couple of years, the major publishing division of Warner Bros., but have since gone independent, taking authors like James Patterson, John Grisham [My mistake–Grisham publishes through Dell], Dean Koontz and others along with them. They’re just starting a new manga magazine to rival Shonen Jump, Yen Plus. Some of their original publications include manga adaptations of Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz and Maximum Ride by James Patterson.  [Editorial note: See below regarding my corrections here.]

At any rate, part of the reason I’m interested in this Answerman article is what one of the respondents said to the above question:

In addition to my love for anime, I’m also a lifelong science fiction fan, so to resolve the current issues in the R1 industry I’ll employ one of my favorite s.f. staples; the time machine. First, I’d travel back about nine years, right as studios were beginning to gorge themselves with licenses in anticipation of the likes of Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon igniting a nationwide anime craze. After providing proof of my identity, and in violation of any number of temporal protocols, I would hand over evidence to the heads of ADV, Pioneer, and other studios that this road of rabid expansion would eventually lead to their ruin, and that they must find and destroy the future creators of “Youtube.” Thus, instead of licensing every title in sight, they would conservatively track, through surveys and Japanese ratings, which shows would yield the most profit. I would also appear to the heads of companies like Tokyopop (or Mixx, back then?) and demonstrate that they also need to exercise restraint when licensing, and that trying to farm domestic talent would render naught but barren coffers. After forcing a pinky swear that they would only troll for hits and leave any would-be American Toriyamas flapping in the wind, I would return to the future, confident in my salvation of domestic anime for everyone.

Part of this is true, undoubtedly many of the companies producing manga produced titles in a spaghetti-on-a-wall fashion, in the hopes that if enough material were released at one time, the accumulated sales data would be enough to pinpoint hits to fall behind. Alas, in Tokyopop’s case, they were never able to re-create the voracious sellers that they had with titles like Chobits, Love Hina and Fruits Basket, and of those, only the last is continuing to release new volumes. But, serious data of this sort can be hard to get. Hardcore fans don’t watch anime or read manga for all of the same reasons as casual fans, and obviously it’s never been an easy task to pick what could be a runaway bestseller instead of a flop.

Could Tokyopop have exercised more restraint in licensing? Of course, but it’s easy to forget that the manga “boom” lasted about six years–from the 2002 release of the first wave of Tokyopop’s “100% Authentic Manga” format, to the 2008 corporate restructuring. Six years is a long time in the publishing business–certainly long enough to know that this was more than just a fad, but a very significant trend. Even with the recent downturn, there’s no reason to suggest that the actual popularity of anime or manga is less than it once was. Simply put, it’s not correlating to dollars and cents, where it counts.

Perhaps what Tokyopop should have forseen is the inevitable difficulty to keep up the incredibly high standards that readers in the early manga boom had accommodated themselves to. In the beginning of the manga boom, publishers had the ability to cherry pick the best possible licenses of the past twenty or thirty years of manga publishing. Naturally, the industry offered wall-to-wall blockbuster titles at first, apparently without much concern that there would be a time when immediate blockbusters wouldn’t be as available as licenses. Obviously this means a lowering of expectations–more redundant and less compelling work has increasingly filled the void between the blockbusters.

Where I part ways with a lot of hardcore manga fans is the perception of Original English Language (OEL) manga, work created specifically for the English-language book market by Western creators. As the above excerpt illustrates, hardcore American manga fans have always largely resented OEL manga, for no justifiable reasons. Too many manga readers would treat some amazing books, such as Steady Beat, East Coast Rising, Off*Beat and Dramacon with outright contempt, while at the same time opting for an increasingly pedantic selection of Japanese manga.

The contempt that hardcore otaku have for OEL is yet another instance of the serious end of this fandom wanting what is clearly against even their own self-interest. As Japanese licenses become less reliable, the rise of OEL becomes more and more inevitable, particularly considering the quality of most OEL works. Resistance to change is detrimental, and these fans missed out on a lot of amazing work at the expense of unrealistic and ridiculous standards of “Japanese-ness.” Perhaps someday publishers can reconcile their own interests with those of the serious otaku fanbase, but I don’t think it’ll be as likely until the manga readership has reduced itself to only the more enlightened and open-minded readers.

Editorial note: Perhaps I should do more fact-checking before I post?  Either that or stop posting single-draft blogs very, very late at night.  As noted above, John Grisham isn’t published by Hachette, and neither is  Dean Koontz.  Del Rey is in fact the pubisher of In Odd We Trust, and of course more information can be had about the book here. I didn’t get to put together my thoughts about how manga-format licensed works seem to be a good new solution for OEL, check for that soon.  Thanks, Queenie Chan!

34 responses to “Problems with Anime and Manga

  1. Pingback: Problems with Anime and Manga

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  4. Personally i think it’s more a case of companies trying to pass off OEL’s as manga that p’s people off. It’s insulting, especially whne 90% of them are clearly western.

    They should have marketed them as their own independant brand, rather than trying to pass them off as manga. Tokyopop are famouse for this, they have both korean and a few chinese titles that they’ve tried to pass off as manga, as well as their OEL’s.

    They should have marketed manga as manga, manhwa as manhwa, manwha as manwha and OEL’s as OEL’s.

    It’s a matter of trust, you buy a manga expecting it to be japanese, but when you later find out its korean or american, you feel cheated, and that the publisher broke that trust.

    What surprises me is that they havenn’t gotten into truble with consumer agencies over this, since it is in effect blatant mislabelling. Selling something as one thing, when you clearly know it’s another, is illegal (at least over here in the UK).

  5. comicsstructuralist

    They should have marketed them as their own independant brand, rather than trying to pass them off as manga. Tokyopop are famouse for this, they have both korean and a few chinese titles that they’ve tried to pass off as manga, as well as their OEL’s.

    I have to wonder how they would be able to adequately mark the difference. The problem is, general readers aren’t as sophisticated as most manga fans that one would meet online, and explaining the significant differences between manga, manhua, manhwa and OEL get to be pretty difficult. Tokyopop uses the term just to simplify the matter. Manhua, manhwa and OEL are clearly inspired by manga and use the same format and storytelling techniques.

    However, what is it about the presence of OEL that is disingenuous? Not everyone has to like these books, you can take your money elsewhere. It’s relatively clear which ones are the Japanese titles. Otherwise, if you find a Korean, American or Chinese title you like–what’s the harm?

  6. There’s nobody stopping you from looking at the cover to determine the country of the author’s origin, if that’s really what you’re basing your purchasing on. I mean, usually the western authors have western names (unless they are themselves of Asian descent. Or except in the cases where the Japanese creators have pen names that aren’t Japanese; ie, Monkey Punch, Oh! Great, etc. Isn’t that misrepresentation, too?) Or you could always look on the inside cover to see if it was original published in a Japanese-sounding magazine…doesn’t all manga published in the US have this info?

    I don’t buy the “tricking me into buying something I didn’t want to buy argument.” It takes less than a minute to determine country of origin.

  7. comicsstructuralist

    I kind of wonder if some fans aren’t mistakenly thinking that the presence alone of manhwa or OEL is depriving them of more manga? Just because it’s from Japan doesn’t automatically make it better.

  8. Pingback: Tiamat’s Manga Reviews » Blog Archive » Is the hate against OEL’s really unjustified?

  9. It’s very easy to tell them apart. Hell even my next door neighbour who has never read a manga can tell them apart.

    Manhwa and Manwha are not just copies of Manga, they’re inndividual and from different countries. OEL’s are the american take on manga, therfe’s nothing wrong with that, no one is saying it is wrong. What is wrong however is to bill it as manga.

    That is where it crosses the line. It’s like me selling my car, i market it as an original porsche but it’s really a kit car just built to look like it. That’s wrong, dosent matter whether it’s a car costing 10k or a manga costing a few pounds; wrong is wrong.

    The tricking thing is a solid argument, it’s not upto the buyer to have to research the thing they’re buying. It’s on the publisher to clearly state whats being bought.

    I go into a store and pick up a title that has manga plastered all over it, i expect it to be manga. If i buy a car with ford plastered all over it, i expect it to be a ford.

  10. Something that not too many fans seem to realize is that part of the complexity of the licensing issue includes “bundling.” A Japanese company my bundle one extremely successful and popular series with several other smaller, less well-known titles. In order for American company XYZ to get super-popular title A, they had to also license – and print – title G, Q and Z. Sometimes, when you look back and a company and say, “why on EARTH did they license and print such an ill-advised title?” ….well, that’s the reason why.



    Hungry for Yuri? Have some Okazu!

  11. I agree that calling OEL manga is largely responsible for turning me off of it. If they simply said “And here’s our line of graphic novels!” I would’ve been much more inclined to give them a chance instead of having an automatic “grr, that’s not manga!” reaction.

  12. comicsstructuralist

    To both Tiamat and Jun–

    I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on the naming issue of manga versus manhwa/manhua/OEL. I mean, all manga is already billed as “graphic novels” from a publishing context anyway. However, look at DC’s Minx line, or most of the books published by Oni Press? Neither of those companies markets its’ books as “manga,” but there’s clearly a connection in format.

    I don’t think your legal analogy is going to work very well, Tiamat, but what is it about manga that’s so sacred that the term can’t even be used
    as a legitimate and useful description?

  13. It’s the same as dubbing a quad bike a car, just because it has four wheels and an engine.

    Also it’s a question of respect, towards the creators and the fans. Manga comes from Japan, it dosent come from america or the UK.

    Trying to pass OEL’s off as manga is disrespectful to three parts, the creators of true manga, creators of the OEL’s, and the fans.

    What makes it worse is that several publishers (Viz and TP) have gone out of their way to promote ‘authentic’ manga, but they don’t seem to want to offer that respect to OEL’s and other national art, such as Manhwa and Manwha.

    As for why it can’t be used, go ahead, use it. May as well list Batman and Superman as manga as well. The problem comes in getting the fans to accept it, and as TP and others have found, the fans don’t want it.

    If OEL’s were marketed as OEL’s they could build their own fanbase. Many people i know like OEL’s more than manga and want it differentiated as much as manga fans do.

  14. comicsstructuralist

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Erica, and of course sharing your expertise.

    I’m inclined to think that a lot of Tokyopop’s problems right now are just those of the current economy, but a lot of what I said still applies. As I’m sure you’re aware, publishing takes either a lot of money or a lot of credit, and those are pretty difficult to come by these days. Tokyopop probably would’ve done some things differently if they had it all to do over again, but things didn’t look like they were going to get this bad, this quickly, for so many people.

    Also, speaking of Yuri, I’m reading S.S. Astro right now. I’m hoping to review it here soon.

  15. comicsstructuralist


    Pushing this as a consumer issue just won’t work. You have to demonstrate actionable liability and real deception. Book publishing doesn’t work like that–at most you’re out ten dollars (or, as it were, seven pounds). If you don’t like what’s in the book, well, tough–it’s not like you’d be the first person who disliked something they’d purchased and read.

    I think you’re also misinterpreting what the significance of Tokyopop’s “100% Authentic Manga” label was for. Tokyopop was the first company to switch its’ entire line of Japanese-licensed titles over to the unflipped format, along with unretouched sound effects. Similarly, Tokyopop doesn’t flip or retouch sound effects in Korean manhwa–in the former case, it isn’t necessary.

    Calling Batman or Superman comics “manga” is of course ridiculous. They don’t share any format similarities, and come from two largely separate storytelling traditions. The same is not true of Chinese, Korean and Japanese comics.

    I’m not clear at all whether your problem is that Japanese comics are unique and special, or that you have a problem with manga becoming a general term.

  16. A great article, but I have a correction. The Dean Koontz manga (a collaboration between myself and him) is NOT from Yen Press, but Del Ray. Its name is “In Odd We Trust”, and it’s NOT an adaptation, but a prequel to his series of 6 novels.

    It came out in the last week of June, and people have either classified it as a graphic novel, or an OEL manga. Either way, it was the #1 best-selling graphic novel in the week it first sold, and is #7 on the top-selling graphic novels list in July (which includes manga).

    So really, what you say about the inevitability of OEL manga is true. The most important thing for me, and for alot of other people, is finding an audience for manga that is outside the hardcore anime/manga fans. And from the sales of “In Odd We Trust”, it seems to be working (at least a little).

  17. Just want to correct something that’s always annoyed me.
    OEL is not an American thing!
    Madeleine Rosca (Hollow Fields), Svetlana Chmakova (Dramacon, Night School), and Queenie Chan (Dreaming) and not American.

  18. comicsstructuralist

    Queenie Chan–

    Thanks for the comment, of course, and note my edits to the OP.

    Your point about how success for OEL might mean finding audiences outside of hardcore fans is interesting. Is that conventional wisdom among OEL creators, I wonder?

    Best of luck with “In Odd We Trust.”

  19. comicsstructuralist


    OEL is not an American thing!

    Of course that’s not what I mean to imply. However, the post looks at OEL in the American book market and manga community, hence the term “American.”

  20. However, look at DC’s Minx line, or most of the books published by Oni Press? Neither of those companies markets its’ books as “manga,” but there’s clearly a connection in format.

    It’s actually the Minx line that I was thinking of when I said I’d give it a chance if they didn’t call it manga. I have a couple of titles from Minx. I have zero OEL that is billed as manga.

    Although I have to say, Off*Beat does look interesting. Too bad its final volume is on indefinite hiatus.

  21. comicsstructuralist

    It’s actually the Minx line that I was thinking of when I said I’d give it a chance if they didn’t call it manga. I have a couple of titles from Minx. I have zero OEL that is billed as manga.

    Why blame the artist/author for an editorial policy for the company? You’re the one missing out on some really amazing stories.

    Although I have to say, Off*Beat does look interesting. Too bad its final volume is on indefinite hiatus.

    It is very good, and the first two volumes are definitely worth your money while they’re still available. It was very sad to hear that her project had been waylaid by Tokyopop’s trouble.

  22. Why blame the artist/author for an editorial policy for the company? You’re the one missing out on some really amazing stories.

    Well, I can honestly say that if I thought something sounded interesting enough, I’d pick it up and call it a graphic novel and have done with it. Until reading about Off*Beat the other day, no OEL has really captured my interest.

  23. Honestly, I remember the sad days being a weaboo and the biggest thing then (mind, this was back when I was in high school in 02-04, and the climate around manga in fandom has changed since) was that OEL manga was “copying” the Japanese. As if being inspired by a certain type of art that came before it not only devalued the product, but also rendered any other qualities it could possess completely irrelevant. It’s a strange and powerful loyalist mindset I’ve only ever seen taking up the majority in the fandoms for Japanese media.

    Also, damn babycakes. You’ve gone e-popular!

  24. I think tokyopop’s real first mistake was to publish
    “Peach Fuzz”. Omg. i looked at that book, i read the description and thought, “Who cares?.” I was excited by the idea of Americans creating their own works, and i just thought that the premise was dumb. so far DramaCon is the only OEL that i’ve thought was awesome.
    Do the japanese have a special term for the spiderman comics? or do they call it manga as well? cuz last time i heard, manga meant comicbook. A name is a name, if the OEL’s had really been as great as some say, people would have read them.
    How many people who read manga try to draw it? Quite a few. and even more of those people would love to make their own, so why would they shun people for doing what they themselves would love to do, simply based on the “it’s not japanese” prinicple? because that’s not why. it’s because they just weren’t that great.

  25. @ame – Why are they just not that great? Why are Japanese manga that have the same tired old tropes again and again held above OEL as somehow better?

    Honestly, if it was about letting people enjoy what they enjoy and, also, supporting them in their enjoyment, then why are there dub v. sub battles? Surely there are a lot of fans that would like to voice act, but there is still a HUGE chunk of fandom that despises the very idea that their anime of choice will ever have American voices, or that certain Japanese cultural references will be changed for a western audience.

    Yes, some dubs are horrible. So are a lot of the original voice tracks. It’s a quality standard that I’ve only seen in these fandoms specific to Japanese media.

  26. @gidget – for me personally ,i don’t regard OEL as worse than really bad manga that is from japan. I don’t care if it’s japanese, korean, english speaking, if it’s not good its just not good. The plots were paced poorly, the art just wasnt up to par, even some pretty bad manga’s have better art work than a lot of OEL. You know, it wasn’t that all the stories seemed bad, i just couldn’t bare to look at it.
    Now other people don’t like the fact that it looks slightly different and all the really popular titles are Boy’s action series so they are so accustomned to the crappy series, because they give them what they want, that don’t know how to tell the difference. The majority of anime/manga fandom in the US just isn’t that sophisticated. It sucks for the rest of us who want more variety, but how many of those tokyopop OEL would be fit to run in Shonen Jump? Boys fighting Boys, or Boys Kissing Boys, oh yeah, and trivial highschool drama series, thats where it’s at.

  27. I would imagine that the author of the “graphic novel” would have to decide if their work is a “comic,” “manga” or even graphic novel.”

    I realize it’s a slippery slope, but I think it’s something that can be defined at least in the author/artist’s heart.

    Because, I’m sorry, something like Dramacon clearly doesn’t follow the same tradition as Spiderman.

  28. @ame – Look, I’m not talking about you personally. I’m talking about trends in overall fandom when it comes to Japanese media.

    Also, how are the most popular OEL’s boys action series? What examples do you have of this being the trend?

    Also, how do you equate a lack of sophistication to reading lower quality OEL but not make the connection to lower quality Japanese manga?

  29. “Also, how are the most popular OEL’s boys action series? ” i never said that. i said that the OEL were not boys actions series, that they were not fit to be put in Shonen Jump

    “Also, how do you equate a lack of sophistication to reading lower quality OEL but not make the connection to lower quality Japanese manga?” okay, i’m struggling to understand this question, as well it sounds like u aren’t really reading my posts. but whatever.

    So, i’ll just explain myself better, i guess. OEL do not currently have the kinds of stories that are very popular in todays Japanese Mangas. That is why they are avoided. However i think that mangas like Naruto, Bleach, suck already. So if u were to think of another title that u think sucks more i would still say they are on the same playing field of suckage. They can’t tell the difference though because they already like crap.

    For example:
    I don’t drink though i can,It’s like asking me to pick the best tasting wine out of a bunch of selections. First off, since i don’t drink wine, my choice my end up being one that is cheap, or i may not like them at all. However, find an offical wine taster and they would probably be able to, by taste, pick out the most expensive one, and the highest quality. Most people, would probably be like “whichever one gets me drunk”.

    i did not say that people who read OEL lacked sophistication. i said that the ones who read crappy japanese manga did because they would never venture out of their comfort zone and try OEL.

    you missunderstood me entirely.

  30. i didn’t say that the most popular OEL’s are boys action series. i meant that of manga series in general, those are the most popular kinds.
    I did not say that people who read OEL lack sophistication, i meant that those who read the crappy Japanese mangas did. i guess i did not specify enough that i was switching back and forth between japanese manga and OEL in the same sentence.

  31. Ame–

    I was dancing around the better vs. worse artwork argument generally in OEL vs. Japanese manga, simply because I think it’s a matter of taste. A lot of OEL isn’t trying to fit manga style. I think generally a lot of American comics art isn’t well liked in Japan.

  32. Erp–Ame, seems that your previous comment got caught in the spam filter.

    Let me know if you want me to change anything, eh?

  33. @ame – If you want me to respond to what you intended, then please communicate your intent more clearly.

    And, going by your wine tasting example, I’m going to just have to bow out and tell you that if you don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t bother. I’m asking these questions because I KNOW I don’t know what I’m talking about, since (as I said in my first comment) I’ve been out of manga fandom for nearly five years. Back then, most of the things that were popular among my fandom circle were things like Paradise Kiss, Kimi wa Petto, Fushigi Yugi, and Demon Diary. Not all of them particularly groundbreaking (though ParaKiss holds a special place in my heart) but none of them manga that would have appeared serialized in Shonen Jump.

    @Rob – The difference between OEL and Japanese manga is that, unless there’s something I’ve missed, OEL isn’t looking to export itself to Japan. They’re western artists and writers writing to a western audience. It’s the same thing with DC/Marvel/etc. western comic fans not being fans of most manga, since it’s made by eastern writers and artists for their own specific cultural audiences.

    Not that any of that has much of anything to do with your post. I just like going off on tangents at you.

  34. OMG. i never said i didn’t know what i was talking about. THE wine example was NOT FOR ME. it was to describe the majority of manga/anime fandom.
    AND for the past 5 years i’ve done nothing but read manga. so i don’t know really know why you think i don’t know anything about it.

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