Category Archives: The State of Affairs

It’s not just about feminism, it’s about safety.

The current top two posts at Rachel Edidin’s blog highlight a problem that I think has been coming to a head for some time. Comic and pop culture conventions are becoming less of a safe and accepting environment, and are increasingly a place for some people to abuse and harass women.

Rachel recounts a personal incident in which a guy at Comic-Con International in San Diego, carrying a “free hugs” sign, approaches her for a hug despite overwhelming objection and, short of a violent response, resistance. I remember seeing these things unfolding at the Con: Wednesday night, I saw one guy carrying a “Free High Fives!” sign, which got a lot of laughs and a generally positive response. By another day, there were plenty of imitators. By Saturday, things were starting to get out of hand–plenty of “Free Hugs,” “Free Glomps,” “Free Lovin'” and the like. Despite my misgivings, there wasn’t any particular official response from the Con. I wondered whether it would only be a matter of time, and other bloggers have done a bit to keep this story alive.

Secondly, Rachel and others repost a piece from Comics Oughta Be Fun discussing outright abusive behavior at Comic-Con, and the absence of an organized, official response to the problem:

Overheard at San Diego Comic-Con while I was having lunch on the balcony of the Convention Center on Sunday July 27: a bunch of guys looking at the digital photos on the camera of another, while he narrated: “These were the Ghostbusters girls. That one, I grabbed her ass, ’cause I wanted to see what her reaction was.” This was only one example of several instances of harassment, stalking or assault that I saw at San Diego this time.


I don’t understand why there’s no such written policy about what is not tolerated and what to do when this happens. Is there anyone at Comic-Con able to explain this? Does a similar written policy exist in the booklets for other conventions (SF, comics or otherwise) that could be used as a model? Can it be adapted or adapted, and enforced, for Comic-Con? As the leading event of the comics and pop culture world, Comic-Con should work to make everyone who attends feel comfortable and safe.

There’s a lot of avenues to discussing the feminist ramifications of all of this. The convention environment objectifies and sexualizes women as a way to attract increasingly fickle and distracted eyes on the exhibit floor. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to dress sexy in an environment where one could draw a lot of personal attention, or with wanting to create good, sophisticated sexually-oriented artwork.

However, any discussion about how sexualization and objectification contribute to abusive and negative behavior is entirely beside the point that this is a major safety issue. Comic-Con doesn’t really have policies or guidelines for addressing this sort of behavior, and the convention staff and security don’t really seem oriented towards handling this.

I think that’s an oversight from the convention organizers, but not a malicious one.  I suspect that the organizers of Comic-Con genuinely try to keep everyone’s best interests at heart, but in an environment increasingly focused on heavyweight Hollywood media promotion, I can imagine the difficulty at micromanaging smaller aspects of the convention.

Still, I hope this is something they can address before next year, instead of waiting for these nuisances to escalate to a serious incident.

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.

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!