Another note regarding changes.

The title of the blog used to be “Comicsstructuralist’s Weblog,” then I changed it to “Rob’s Comics Weblog,” which is about as generic as you can get.

I’ve changed that again to “Rob’s ComicsStructuralist,” which is at least identifiable. There shouldn’t be any more changes there. Also, I’m trying to figure out how to make my profile info publicly available. I’d like to have my contact info available for people to use. Anyone know how to do that on WordPress?

Edit to add:  Broke my promise on no further layout changes.  The problem being, I need a design that allows my sidebar widgets as well as a link to my “about” page built in to CSS.  I want people to be able to contact me.  Besides, black-on-white is better for reading anyway.


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.

Regarding the custom image header…

It’s from Mark Leggett’s photograph called “Comic Book Window,” so never let it be said that I disobey the terms of a Creative Commons license.  Thanks, Mark!

Sorry about the repeated changes in theme

I’m trying to find one I like that’s customizable and readable, plus has a few format things that I want.  I think I’ve got it set for now.

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!

Kirby’s 2001 adaptation

Jack Kirby’s work on the 2001: A Space Odyssey series for Marvel Comics holds a special place for me because it was my real introduction to Kirby’s work–quite literally, as I’d discovered the series as a youngster before I’d heard of who Kirby was. I haven’t yet gotten the entire 10-issue series, but one of the best finds from my recent Comic-Con trip was a copy of the 1976 “Marvel Treasury Special” adaptation of the film that Kirby did, which led into his work on 2001 as a regular Marvel title.

I haven’t read through all of it, because I’m being very delicate with it. Transporting it home in carry-on luggage was bad enough, but I don’t have anyplace decent enough to store it yet, or a good area of my house to fully absorb it in. It’s big–roughly full tabloid size, give or take. It’s about 12 inches wide by 14 inches high, which opens to a spread of about 24″x14″–a big book no matter what, and one that’s filled with delicate and slowly aging comic book paper stock. It’s actually in great shape, very good but not quite near mint. I paid eleven dollars for the thing, marked down on “Sunday” discount (heh!) from about fifteen, and apparently Mile High Comics charges just over $100 bucks for the thing. This is why it pays to buy comics at a convention.

However, last night I found this article by John Alexander which appeared in TwoMorrows’ Jack Kirby Collector. It touches on a lot of the problematic aspects of Kirby’s adaptation. The primary problem is that Kubrick’s film doesn’t lend itself to this type of adaptation–Arthur Clarke’s book is a sort of parallel work, and Clarke was notoriously against tie-in fiction, so that work stands on its own merits.

In all three versions of 2001–Kubrick’s film, Clarke’s novel and Kirby’s comic– we have a primary auteur who approaches the same storyline and concepts in different ways. All three are known for being big thinkers, undoubtedly among the most respected artisans of their respective fields. In Clarke’s case, the story is approached on scientific terms. Clarke preferred reasonable explanations, but his grasp of scientific knowledge was so enormous that this allowed him to have dreams that were at the same time big and plausible.

Kubrick of course isn’t interested in science, but rather in doing what I think great filmmakers do–understanding and crafting good drama in order to create an aesthetic visual experience. When Kubrick avoided discussing the meaningfulness in the very confounding ending to 2001, I’m inclined to believe that it was in some part for the reason that Kubrick didn’t really have explanations for the jarring things that happen in the film. That’s not because Kubrick hadn’t thought things through, of course, but that having realistic interpretive answers for what happens isn’t something that is necessary to provide as an artist.

Kirby, of course, was somewhat as realistic as Clarke, but not as inclined towards science. Nor was he as committed to the artistic ambiguity that Kubrick offered in the film. Instead, Kirby is both concrete and pragmatic in his approach to adapting 2001. Kirby’s use of captions moderately mutes the visual impact that could have been achieved along the lines of Kubrick’s film, and offers straightforward interpretations of the material that could arguably be wrong. Kirby interprets the creation of the film’s “Star-Child” (referred to in the Marvel Treasury adaptation as “New One,” and in the series as “The New Seed”) in almost dreadful, comic-booky literalness, as if he had to formulate exactly what was happening on the fly, to answer for Kubrick’s jarringly ambiguous contrast of dying old man to fetal human life.

Moreover, as Alexander points out, Kirby’s telescoping of the plot areas centering on the crew of the Discovery leading up to the breakdown of HAL-9000 destroy the careful plotting that Kubrick creates in leading up to the film’s climax. Kubrick wanted us to visually absorb the tedium of life aboard a long-term spaceflight, and we are almost never informed of the normal state of affairs that makes the breakdown of HAL so particularly shocking.

There are numerous other problems to be found in Kirby’s work here, the least of which include:

  • Repeatedly drawing spacecraft incorrectly, such as drawing the NASA Space Shuttle in as a surrogate for the sophisticated Pan-Am spaceliner in the second act of the film, or drawing the Discovery off-model in some other areas. This can be excused for the fact that there is little source material to go by for referencing, but it’s still frustrating to see.
  • Botching plot points, such as Bowman’s helmet-less crossing of space into the Discovery’s emergency airlock, which Kirby illustrates with a helmeted (and presumably entirely safe) Dave Bowman. Or, for another example, the death of Frank Poole: in the film, the HAL-controlled space pod severs Poole’s air line, and Bowman attempts a rescue mission, only to discover that Poole is dead. In Kirby’s version, Poole is killed by being crushed in the pod’s claws, and Bowman is never able to retrieve Poole’s body.

Otherwise, I generally think that this book is a lot more successful than Alexander gives it credit, although I think a lot of Alexander’s points of contention are something I agree with. Alexander criticizes Kirby for not drawing the actual actors’ images in the roles they play, but I’ve never seen Kirby characters with recognizable (human, unmasked) faces. The art appears tight enough for me at the given format, as well, and I don’t think the nearly one-to-one ratio compromises the appearance of the work. In fact, this book is chock full of Kirby at some his best art of the 1970s. Even despite the book’s problems, it’s a fun read by a big thinker, and well worth a look.

Actually, I forgot…

My Comic-Con presentation got a very nice mention from the good folks at David Mack Guide, which you can peruse here, here and here. I couldn’t be more grateful for their support.