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Sunday September 23, 2007

Manga outside Japan


CAN manga produced outside Japan truly be manga? Many hardcore fans don’t think so.  

“Some people are really hostile to manga creators who are not Japanese,” Canada-based Russian mangaka Svetlana Chmakova, 27, the author of Dramacon, told The Japan Times in an interview last year. (Review of “Dramacon” Vol.1 on Page 8.) 

The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga edited by Ilya.
“But there are a lot of people who are very supportive and just want to read my manga-style stories, no matter what my nationality is,” she added. 

Manga produced outside Japan is generally referred to as Original English Language manga (OEL). And US manga publisher Tokyopop has one of the most ambitious plans in the industry for OEL manga. The company, according to Publishers Weekly (the US trade magazine for publishers and book sellers), has signed up about “70 new projects” this year. 

OEL vs licensed manga 

Producing OEL has a lot of appeal for publishers. For one, US publishers of Japanese manga translated into English (licensed manga) only have print rights. However, if they produce an OEL, they’ll have a whole range of rights, which means they can make merchandise, TV shows or movies out of the OEL manga. Furthermore, they have a ready pool of authors – who speak English – that can tour and promote their books. 

However, licensed manga still fares better than its OEL counterpart, according to an April 2007 article in Austin American-Statesman titled Manga, American-style. The article quoted Lillian Diaz-Przybyl, a Tokyopop editor, as saying that while a top Japanese manga will sell as many as 100,000 copies in the United States, a best-selling OEL will sell only about half of that. 

In 2001, Kondasha’s Morning published running strips by non-Japanese artists but met with only limited success. Morning has since stopped carrying content by non-Japanese artists.  

Should one then go through all that trouble publishing and promoting an untested OEL mangaka? 

Furthermore, Japan has an almost limitless pool of manga to be licensed and translated. And according to the Publishers Weekly, 40% of Japan’s publishing revenues comes from the Japanese manga market.  

Big publishers such as Del Rey (which partners Japanese publishing company Kodansha) and VIZ Media (owned by Japanese publishers Shueisha and Shogakukon) have a steady supply of Japanese manga to license. Smaller outfits such as Broccoli Books, DrMaster, Digital Manga and Central Park Media will probably engage in fierce bidding wars.  


Megatokyo by Fred Gallagher
In a Publishers Weekly article in 2005, VIZ Media publicity director Evelyn Dubocq said publishers were turning to OEL because they were “struggling to find licensed content”.  

“Manga is Japanese in origin,” she said.  

In an August 2006 Time magazine article, America is Drawn to Manga, VIZ Media went as far as to say that “true manga” was made only in Japan. 

Unsurprisingly, in the same article, Tokyopop CEO Stu Levy disagreed: “Manga is like hip-hop. It’s a lifestyle. To say that you can’t draw it because you don’t have the DNA is just silly.” 

Ilya, the author of Manga Drawing Kit and editor of The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga, also begs to differ. (The second edition of The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga will be out late October.) 

“I don’t subscribe to such limitations,” said the British comics artist via an e-mail interview recently. He has been in the comics business for 20 years, and is one of the rare Westerners who had his work published in Japan, in Comic Morning, a weekly zasshi (newsstand magazine). 

“It was for six pages, less than a blink in manga terms, and I only got in there once,” he said. “... it was a total blast to see my work printed in Japan with kanji (Han characters) all over it.” 

Ilya insists that there is no single “manga style”.  

“It can and does look like almost anything,” he said. 

“Foreign mangaka who purely mimic what is an innately Japanese form of expression are doomed to repetition of tropes and cliches they might never truly encompass nor fully understand. 

“Far more interesting to me are those who take up the medium they love, and learn from it. Bringing just as much of themselves to the drawing table, the works of these creators display their own unique cultural backgrounds and interests. That’s just what (Osamu) Tezuka did; so that is truly manga,” he opined. 

OEL mangaka Tony Salvaggio thinks it’s unfair to label authors like him copycats. 

“It’s pretty poor and short-sighted. You know, spaghetti westerns are no less valid as westerns just because they’re created in Italy. You can’t tell me those guys can’t make a good western,” said the co-author of Psy-Comm in the Austin American-Statesman article in April. 

Said Ilya: “Manga is the best chance comics have to once again become a mass-market medium.” 

Unfortunately, OEL mangaka do not have enough publishing outlets, nor are they paid enough per page, he points out. Despite that, people are still making manga because they do it out of love. 

“For me, manga is like the perfected form of comics: longer, louder, faster and better. We’ve barely seen what manga’s capable of yet, certainly not in the West. So far, only the teen-oriented forms – shojo and shonen – get imported, and people mistake those for the sum total of all that manga is,” said Ilya. 

Nitpicking over what makes manga manga is something he doesn’t like to do. “I’d rather just read the manga. It is what it is and you either like a thing or you don’t. ... If I like the look or feel of a pair of shoes, I don’t insist they’re Italian, you know,” he concluded. 

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