Category Archives: manga

Interview: Erica Friedman

Sorry to be Absent Without Blogging for nearly over a month.  My final school semester just began on my master’s degree, I’m writing a thesis (or supposed to be…) working on a few other projects, working 20-30 hours at my bookstore job and my GA position on the side.  Life is busy.

Anyway, Erica Friedman is probably the only person outside of Japan who makes yuri a full-time business (and if you don’t know what yuri is, the wikipedia article explains it much better than I could).  Yuri fandom is small, but growing rapidly as people increasingly realize that it’s an available option, with publishers like Seven Seas and Yen Press filling their publishing lines with yuri titles (along with promotional blurbs from Friedman herself).  She operates Yuricon, an online “celebration of yuri in anime and manga,” as well as its’ publishing wing, AniLesboCon (a.k.a. ALC) Publishing, which issues (along with other work) the Yuri Monogatari anthology.  Erica also blogs at Okazu.

To sum up my own thoughts on yuri and yaoi…frankly, it’s not material targeted towards my interests and perspective, and I admit that I’ve read relatively little yuri or yaoi material (I recently, in my first review on this blog, gently panned the recent Yen release S.S. Astro, which I think was more warmly recieved by audiences more favorable to yuri content).  However, it’s ludicrous to think that yuri and yaoi are just about sexual content–the books are far more diverse and complex than that.  Older readers, particularly those who came of age in the age of male-dominated comic shops, will probably be given to scoff at yuri and yaoi titles, but they’re being consumed voraciously by young people under 25.  And remember: they’re going to be voting in stronger and stronger numbers, too–I find it extremely unlikely that anti-gay marriage proposals are going to be a successful wedge issue when these manga readers come of age.  In other words, I don’t entirely buy Erica’s response below that yuri is largely only for tittilation–but, I’m given to think in political terms.

Any rate, enough fawning.  Here’s the interview, conducted via e-mail:

First off, how’s the yuri publishing business?  I’m interested in how you
think yuri as a publishing area is doing right now, plus the status of your own
ongoing projects (ALC, Yuricon).

Well, before I answer that, let me say that my point of view is not the same
as more mainstream  publishers who also publish Yuri. So this should not be taken
as a statement that covers folks like Seven Seas, Infinty, Tokyopop, etc.

In terms of the kind of books we publish at ALC, the market is very good. We’ve
seen significant sales growth in the last few years as Yuri beomes more and
more popular – and as more Yuri fans are looking for stories that ring true in
terms of lesbian experience.

This year “WORKS,” our collection of stories by Eriko Tadeno went into a 3rd
edition, and we’re currently working on “Yuri Monogatari 6.”
I’d love to bring out more books faster, but I’m hampered by a limit on time
and funds. Same as everyone else. 🙂

I read that you went to Comiket, which must have been exciting.  Are there
any interesting differences in social attitudes and fan culture at Comiket
versus American conventions such as Comic-Con or Otakon?

It was exciting. One of the best things I’ve had a chance to do as a result of
creating ALC, in fact. 🙂

What surprised me most was the *lack* of differences between fandoms. The
Japanese are less likely to run through the halls screaming and waving weapons,
and there’s not clumps of cosplayers halting traffics in hallways and doorways,
as there frequently are in American events but, overall, the people are the
same.

Here’s a great story to illustrate this:
I was sitting with Rica Takashima at our table in Comiket. People would come up
to the table without looking up, mumble someting that was meant to be “May I
look at this book” and we’d say, “please.” If Rica said “Please take a look”
they never blinked, but if *I* said it, they’d look at us suddenly as if I had
slapped then, then run away. She thought that was hysterical and kept nudging
me to scare people by speaking Japanese. lol

Two months later Rica and I were at the New York Comic Con and we were doing
the same exact thing. Someone would come up, we’d tell them to please look at
the book. If I said it, they would look or not, but if she said it in English,
they’d look up startled, and run away. The both of us became instantly
hysterical with laughter.

I thought it was  good experiment in how *not* different fans are.

Do you think yuri and yaoi manga are changing the way young people think
about GLBT issues?  I find it interesting that, in 2004 when anti-Gay marriage
amendments were being voted on in the US, that “Gravitation” was one of the
most popular manga available.

Not really. Both Yaoi and Yuri are basically meant for titillation. Sure there
are some gay men or lesbian women reading, writing or drawing in these genres,
but the larger body is created by straight women/men for an audience of
straight women/men and hardly even touch upon anything remotely like a GLBT
issue.

In fact, issues of being gay or lesbian are mostly cloaked by any number of
tropes – “I’m not gay, I love *you*,” is a popular one. Characters often simply
ignore the issues of being gay, or are portrayed  – especially in Yuri – as if
their relationship is somehow pure, by which they mean not physical, or just barely
post-pubescent. Also, by making it a school story, based on admiration of an
older character, it puts it into that space where it’s just a crush or a phase.

In other words, it’s portrayed as not a  “real” relationship.

In fact, one of my personal working definitions of Yuri (not the official ones
I use for Yuricon or Okazu, but something I think in my head) is that Yuri is a
story with lesbian content, but no lesbian identity. This has exceptions, of
course, but as a rule of thumb it works.

Have you had any relations with other manga publishers, for example Seven
Seas or DMP?  Obviously, ALC and Yuricon are completely separate entities, but
both companies are significant publishers of yuri and yaoi, respectively.

I do. I try to play nice with any other company I encounter – and I’m a big
believer in good relations with my neighbors. I’m sorry to say that I don’t
know DMP as well as I’d like, but the guys at Seven Seas and I have a great
relationship – at least, I’d like to think so! lol

Have you read any non-manga comics or graphic novels that explore lesbian
themes–for example, “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel?  What are your thoughts on
these?

Yes, I have and I’ve reviewed some of these on my blog Okazu. I thought “Fun
Home” was brilliant, but not for the lesbian content specifically. Just
overall, it was really quite exceptional. I don’t care for Bechdel’s “Dykes to
Watch Out For” series, so I was especially impressed by her prose.

My tastes range pretty far and wide, and when something does address lesbian
issues or is a GLBT work that I think might be of interest to Yuri readers, I
preview it on Okazu.

This is an easy question–what do you think yuri is doing for feminism?  I
know a lot of women aren’t always satisfied with how romance and sex are
portrayed in a non-heterosexual context.

I can’t even begin to start to answer that! LOL And when I do, I’m sure to
enrage someone. Oh well, here goes.

If I had to approach the issue I’d say that the institutionalized sexism and
harassment in Japan is reflected in manga – the fact that most “strong” female
characters in anime and manga are almost always eroticized means that they have a
feminism score of 0. Josei and shoujo manga are *filled* with male leads that verbally, physically and emotionally brutalize the women who love them and it’s
portrayed as entertaining drama – or worse, as comedy. (I particularly find
shoujo comics in which boys flip girls skirts up and then torment them about
their underwear as *comedy* completely enraging.)

Yuri is no better. So often the “lesbian” is simply a male pervert in female
guise. They treat the girls they “love” with no unconcern for their feelings –
and are often portrayed as doing things that, if a male character were to do it
would be seen as completely unspeakable.

Just as Yuri rarely has any connection with “lesbian” there’s just about the
same gap between anime and manga’s “strong” women and feminism.

What do you think are the best manga titles to recommend to someone who
isn’t familiar with yuri?  Why do you think so?

I always hesitate to do lists like this, because my tastes and yours may not
jibe in any way. Every year I post a top ten of the year on Okazu. Feel free to
check those out!

And it’s hard for me, because my actual top manga are frequently untranslated.

But here a few *popular* Yuri titles that are available in English. In no
particular order:

Iono-sama Fanatics
Kannazuki no Miko
Strawberry Panic
Rica ‘tte Kanji!
Kashimashi Girl Meets Girl
Last Uniform
First Love Sisters
Hayate x Blade (coming out this fall)
12 Days
Steady Beat

All of these are available through the usual methods, or on the Yuricon Shop,
if a person is feeling particularly lazy or wants to see some other choices. lol

Where do you see yuri, and your involvement in it, in five years?

You know, I’d LOVE to say that I see a big change. I do see a *little* more lesbian identity in Yuri, driven primarily by ALC and some of the work
from the lesbian artists drawing for Ichijinsha’s Yuri Hime magazine, but I think those will remain overshadowed by the hordes of “pure” Yuri and moe seekers, who want their Yuri de-lesbianized, between barely pubescent girls, or who want their lesbians to have huge chests, wear short skirts and be openly pervy.

Any upcoming books/projects that you’d care to plug?

We’re working on “Yuri Monogatari 6” right now, as I mentioned. It’s going to be especially wonderful, since we are including a story by popular lesbian novelist J.D.Glass. This is a side story to her upcoming novel “American Goth” so we’re very excited to have it.

*****

Thanks to Erica for taking the time to answer a few questions.  Don’t forget to check up with Okazu for reviews and other content, check out Yuricon and the Yuricon mailing list, as well as the Yuricon store.

Review: S.S. Astro, v.1

S.S. Astro: Asashio Sogo Teachers ROom by Negi Banno

Published by Yen Press, 2008, ISBN 9780759528987

The obvious comparison for this book is to Kiyohiko Azuma’s series Azumanga Daioh, and that’s not an unreasonable suggestion–even Yen’s site for the book name checks AzuDai. Obviously, there have been plenty of yon-koma manga, and plenty of manga with a school setting. However, the book is also considered “slice-of-life” also along the lines of AzuDai. The only significant quality of “slice-of-life” that I can see is that it doesn’t use the complicated fantasy-based character structure one finds in a lot of manga–no supernatural characters or plot McGuffins like all too many other manga, but I’m skeptical of the term. Just because something isn’t abnormal doesn’t mean it’s normal.

Yen clearly sees promise in exploiting the popularity of yon-koma in the comics market post-AzuDai. At least a couple of their other licensed titles are yon-koma, including Sunshine Sketch. Outside of Yen, the anime release Lucky Star is similarly influenced by AzuDai‘s plotless “slice of life” format.

Unlike AzuDai, which focuses primarily on students, though it gives a considerable amount of storytelling time to teacher characters, S.S. Astro focuses strictly on adult teacher characters. In AzuDai, the characters started as “types” (shy cat-lover, hyperactive girl, ditzy girl, child prodigy, and so forth) but get fleshed out with genuine depth through humorous and serious moments. By contrast, the types in S.S. Astro are more complicated–secretly pervy gym teacher, coquettish secret lesbian, sadistic nurse who likes video games. Instead of adding depth, the characters are compounded with additional quirks. There isn’t really any seriousness to be found, if that’s what one goes for.

Also, the art is good–a good deal better than Kiyohiko Azuma’s illustrations, although I’m not sure if that level of sophistication is preferable for this format. I have some reservations in comparing this book solely with Azumanga Daioh, but obviously this book only has presence in the American marketplace because of AzuDai‘s success. Obviously not every yon-koma needs to have simple, clear-line art and a plot that aims for character depth and a range between light and serious, but AzuDai is an exemplary work that satisfies fanservice-oriented otaku, serious manga fans who aren’t as interested in fanservice, and casual manga readers. Short of Usamaru Furuya, Azuma is responsible for some of Japan’s best short-form manga. That’s going to inspire comparisons as well as imitations.

But, enough about Azuma…

Overall, S.S. Astro is a dense read, particularly for manga. The limitations of the yon-komi form are pretty obvious–despite the fact that most yon-koma strips rarely serialize individually (or so I’ve heard), the creators still aim to turn a gag per strip, seemingly emulating American comic strips. If so it’s a shame, because on one hand, American comic strips are hardly worth emulating in any market, and on the other, the various formats that manga appear in allow for vastly more compelling forms of the comic strip to appear.

Perhaps the editorial position regarding most yon-koma is that they’re a sort of bonus feature for hardcore readers? A good portion of S.S. Astro is relatively difficult to comprehend, and I’m a relatively casual reader of manga. Not that many standard manga require the type of footnotes as S.S. Astro, and the staccato and overexcited action within the panels seems to show that most of the readers to whom S.S. Astro is directed are a lot more adept at coping with this type of storytelling. In short, the book isn’t really for me, and I’m not it’s intended audience anyway.

Edit to add: Check out this interview with the publisher of Yen Press by Bridgid at MangaBlog.  It pretty much confirms what I’d suspected, Yen is deliberately trying to specialize in yon-koma.

Edit to add 2: I can’t remember why I thought the term was yon-komi, but it’s actually yon-koma, go figure.  Spelling corrected.

Further news on TokyoPop’s OEL creators

Newsarama posts a thorough round-up of most of Tokyopop’s OEL line and the status of its’ creators and books. Of course, the chopping axe is still coming in for some material, but for the most part, things look better than they did previously.

Most of the creators involved with Tokyopop are going on to other projects, or were involved in other projects already.  Tokyopop is claiming that most of these projects really are on hiatus, as opposed to implied-cancelletion, and here’s hoping that they follow through on this.

There are still losers.  Obviously the art loses by not having some good series reach completion, but the cost for creative people is hard to measure.  Tavicat are announcing that their series, Shutterbox, has been cancelled just prior to the release of volume five of what was intended to be a six-volume series, meaning that a whole volume that is already complete won’t see publication.  Tavicat had a pretty swanky contract with Tokyopop, as well as a long history with the company as OEL creators.  Considering their long and reliable history as creators and slew of personal connections, I find it hard to believe that Tavicat books won’t be on the shelves at some point in the relatively near future.

The future of Jen Lee Quick’s wonderful series Off*Beat remains uncertain.  The series has a good cult following and the third volume would resolve a lot of major character and plot questions that Quick was building through two very well-written and well-drawn volumes.  Quick seems to be staying largely quiet, though whether it’s because she’s busy or because she’s keeping business relations between herself and Tokyopop as amicable as possible remains to be seen.  Her most thorough post on the subject on her Deviant Art journal otherwise suggests that, unfortunately, options for her aren’t entirely so great right now:

at the end of this year, i will have a better idea if comics will be something i can afford to do full time or part time (or worst scenario no time) and that will affect if my next project will be novels published quarterly, yearly, or sporadic self contained single issues. i will also be giving this time to tokyopop, should off*beat have any chance of revival, i will not be caught in another long story arc. i will post more detail about this soon. issue one is mostly complete and should be available in mid/early september. […] in short- i’m going to put a rather big risk, give this whole comics thing one last big effort before i throw in the towel, and resign myself to a future of retail.

The Tokyopop restructuring is hardly the first (or the worst) time this has happened in the comics business, but it’s always very saddening to see some creators actually have to face the possibility of leaving the comics industry because of corporate business decisions.  Say it ain’t so, Jen–I hope things improve for you, and I’ll gladly buy anything you put out, and I say so as someone who bought the very-overlooked Once in a Blue Moon.

However, I think it’s important to remember that it’s important not to blame Tokyopop too harshly for what’s happened to them.  Obviously, any large company has a lot of hands guiding it in often different and less-than-compatible directions.  They couldn’t control the economy, or the fact that Borders and Waldenbooks returned substantial amounts of their stock in order to stave off their own corporate woes.  Tokyopop made OEL a headline publishing effort, for which they deserve immeasurable credit.

Speaking of Manga–OEL and the tie-in business

Building on my previous post, there are a couple of interesting trends in American manga publishing I find interesting.

The first point is that manga publishers are consolidating into larger companies, in most cases with direct connections for licenses in the Japanese market. Viz has access to it’s parent companies’ licenses, and Del Rey has its partnership with Kodansha. Yen/Hachette doesn’t seem to have a similar deal at this moment, but more on this later.

This sort of consolidation is good or bad depending on your position. The diverse types of manga publishing to be found from the late nineties up to 2005 is long-since gone, which means less of a diversity of editors in control over the industry at large. On the other hand, it’s not an easy task to license and establish business with Japanese manga publishers–I suspect most people don’t have the venture capital, cultural expertise and business knowledge to pull off such a feat these days. On top of that, Japanese publishers know that the American market is possibly more lucrative than even the domestic Japanese market, depending on the property. Stuart Levy managed to license several titles on a nearly individual basis for his magazine MixxZine, which is probably the last time anyone would have been able to pull off such a feat.

One publisher I hadn’t mentioned is still doing very well, largely by doing the same thing it’s always done: Dark Horse. Dark Horse hasn’t really changed its’ business plans with regard to its’ manga licensing and publishing in years, because they’ve hit a formula that works. Dark Horse continues to rank in the top on manga sales in the direct market, and their work has a devoted audience that, as a publisher, they understand well. They still publish manga in the standard American comic book format from time to time, which Viz and Tokyopop haven’t done in at least seven years. They’re also known as a publisher that can handle adult-oriented stories and action material very well, particularly in light of their successful partnership with Studio Proteus. Proof of that is DH’s publication of Gantz, a sophisticated-looking action title originally published by Shueisha, Viz’s parent corporation. I don’t know if this model could be imitated, or if it’s even worth it, but they’re doing something right.

Similarly, Vertical Inc. has made good business out of publishing Osamu Tezuka’s backlist titles in intriguing, graphically sophisticated packages. Viz actually canceled the translations of Tezuka’s Phoenix halfway through, although the series was eventually brought back and completed. It seems, however, that the “big two” manga publishers, Viz and Tokyopop, don’t entirely have a lot of faith in vintage material. Vertical made it the basis of their publishing line, and they’re winning awards and acclaim for it. It’s a lot like the business plan of labels like Rykodisc, a music label that issues relatively little original material–they make most of their material instead on repackaged backlist titles from artists with large cult-type followings, like Frank Zappa.

Another area that domestic manga publishing seems to have a lot of faith in is domestic licenses, specifically licensing movie, book and television franchises for manga tie-ins. This isn’t a new business at all, but it makes a lot of money and provides a lot of great writers and artists with work. Even in comics this is hardly new, there have been movie tie-in comics since virtually the beginning. Dark Horse has been a recent leader in making tie-ins a constructive part of their business model. The Star Wars, Buffy and Aliens franchises have basically covered a lot of Dark Horse’s expenses for years, allowing them to invest in interesting and risky material–manga, Paul Chadwick’s Concrete, Sin City, Hellboy and so on.

Tokyopop is doing a lot of licensed material these days, relating to their HarperCollins partnership. Where Tokyopop is different is that they target the teenage book market with tie-ins to middle-school and young adult level books, such as Erin Hunter’s Warriors and Ellen Schrieber’s Vampire Kisses.

Tokyopop is also producing more typical licenses, such as Starcraft, Warcraft and Star Trek manga. Warcraft volumes are written by Richard Knaak, who also writes tie-in Warcraft novels, and they’re skillfully illustrated by Kim Jae-hwan (King of Hell). In the case of Star Trek, there’s a rotating roster of creators, but Wil Wheaton (of Next Generation fame) has notably penned a story in the most recent volume.

One title that Tokyopop has recently released is interesting: The Mysterians by Chuck Russell (screenwriter of The Scorpion King and Michael Uslan (every Batman movie since the 1980s). It’s also scripted by Jay Antani and drawn by Matt Hentschel, albeit in smaller print. I haven’t read it, though it looks like an interesting enough science fiction thriller type story.

A bit more worrisome about this book, it makes me wonder whether Tokyopop will be less likely to farm ideas for completely original titles from open submissions, and will move instead to titles with obvious name attachments. That’s basically what Tokyopop did with Princess Ai, though I can’t for the life of me perceive any involvement from Courtney Love since the promotional push for the first volume, years ago. The days of relative new talent coming in and making a splash at Tokyopop might just be over, unfortunately the infamous “Manga Pilot” program seems to be taking the place of a more standard and judicious editorial policy.

Of course, Del Rey and Yen Press are getting in on the licensing business. As I discussed previously, Del Rey is publishing a prequel to Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas illustrated by Queenie Chan. Yen+ is also serializing chapters of a tie-in or adaptation (haven’t read it, so I’m not sure) of James Patterson’s Maximum Ride, illustrated by Narae Lee.

The tendency towards tie-ins may be good for the manga business, but is it the best for creators? When a creative person works for a franchise, or does a story with corporate-owned characters, obviously they don’t own those characters. The comics business has moved to much better grounds on creator ownership–at least at a company like DC, if you create a character, you retain some rights to the character, at the very least in terms of royalties, though they don’t offer much in the way of editorial or creative control of the character when it’s out of the original creator’s hands. Tokyopop offered a relatively small share of ownership, particularly compared with publishing through Image or Slave Labor, but they had, and have, a phenomenally large readership, and big distribution into the bookstore market, so some would say that what these creators potentially lost in terms of publishing through Tokyopop instead of another publisher, they gained in terms of promotion and notoriety.

Is the old deal better, or will the new push towards tie-ins be better? It’s hard to say conclusively. Tie-ins bring money, and I think the most immediate goal for comics creators is the ability to make a livelihood on making comics. Tie-ins arguably make that more possible than promoting books that are completely unfamiliar by new creators. Still, it was a long haul by creators to make creator-ownership possible, and to see the rights on that possibly regress in the American manga market is unfortunate.

Hopefully the worst of Tokyopop’s troubles is behind them, with a gradually improving economy and bookstore market. The next year will be interesting in the OEL manga business.