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.