Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Manga and the Mainstream: A Tempestuous Affair

A few weeks ago we discussed the collapse of American manga powerhouse Tokyopop, and the lessons spelled out in that end for publishers of both comics and mainstream books. This week, we’ll look at how comic books have interacted with the mainstream print industry, and how the loss of a manga megalith might affect the comics world at large. With the #1 company that primed manga readers (especially female readers, a huge chunk of the trade industry’s market) out of the picture, what will become of the illustrated novel?

The relationship between America’s mainstream trade industry and the world of illustrated novels has been rocky from the start. Censorship under the Comics Code Authority, established in 1954 to protect readers from inappropriate content, pushed the industry underground and spurred widespread prejudice against comic books. For almost fifty years after the code was created, comics were marginalized. “It’s really only in the last decade that the negative impression of comics and graphic novels in the States has changed,” Yen Press Publishing Director Kurt Hassler told Publishing Trends in 2009.

According to Publishing Trends, it wasn’t until 2005 that a large number of trade presses began to attend Comic Con, and finally began to recognize that illustrated novels might offer a piece of the publishing pie worth having. The comic book industry can thank Tokyopop for much of that attention. The teenage girls courted by the company made up one of the few readerships to consistently crossover to trade novels, and their interest in the genre certainly got the attention of mainstream publishers—particularly publishers of Young Adult fiction.

That attention helped comic book creators to emerge from the underground into the mainstream market. In 2006 Tokyopop partnered with HarperCollins to co-produce and distribute graphic novels. “Our partnership with HarperCollins will allow us to take the Manga Revolution to the next level,” Mike Kiley, Publisher of Tokyopop, said in HarperCollins’ press release announcing the partnership. And he was right—kicked off by Meg Cabot’s Avalon High, the comics that Tokyopop and HarperCollins launched together enjoyed great success. Both book-to-manga adaptations and original creations attracted a group of readers manga may never have been able to reach in the hands of independent presses. And though the partnership ended in January 2011, Matt Blind predicts that should HarperCollins ever decide to create an in-house comic book imprint, the company will find ample fodder in what’s left of the partnership’s books.

But despite the success of manga’s many interactions with the mainstream industry, publishers were predicting the death of manga in America as early as 2007. Though the niche market for manga remained and remains strong, it would seem that the growing rift between different types of comics was separating manga from many of the markets only recently opened to it. Graphic novels emerged as the “literary” form of comics most widely embraced by mainstream publishers—and mainstream readers.

So though it seems likely that Tokyopop’s apparent disinterest in its fans’ needs helped spur the company’s demise, it may have been doomed from the start. And if that’s so, then as a female reader and aspiring editor of stories for children and young adults, I can’t help but ask myself where that leaves the readers Tokyopop was so instrumental in winning over to comic books: teen girls. Where does the decline of Tokyopop’s immensely popular series—and manga as a whole—leave young women and the publishers who work to reach them?

Read the rest of the article at Publishing Trendsetter.


  1. (waves hello)

    I stopped reading manga a few years ago, and there were a lot of reasons for that. The ones that I think are most relevant to "Why is T-pop gone?" are:

    1. They tried to push American-made manga. As a long-term lover (also) of American comic books and graphic novels, that looked risky to me from the get go. There is not as much overlap between the manga audience and the Western graphic novel audience as you might think. And I'm guessing there still isn't, if T-pop could not bridge that gap.

    The Japanese-ness of manga is part of its hook. Its use of its own stock of tropes and stereotypes -- NOT the Western ones that we've grown up with. All of the imitation manga I've read ends up trying to straddle the two.

    2. T-pop was importing successful titles from Japan for the American market. They were locked into contracts, IIRC.

    This is where an old saying proves itself true: 95% of EVERYTHING is CRAP. This includes manga. There is just as much overuse of tropes and stereotypes there as in Western entertainment. And many of them have inherently icky/oogy/offensive overtones to American readers... which brings a tasty dash of the forbidden the first half dozen times you read it. After that, well... the twelve year old girl aggressively pursuing her adult male teacher gets creepy, okay?

    It's a different storytelling culture. I found it fascinating, and when I'd had my fill I put it down.

    Guess a lot of people have had their fill by now. Still, I'm sure there will be a core audience for manga and anime in the future. Sorry to see T-pop go.

    (Sorry for the long post!)

  2. Thanks for the great insights, L! It's interesting that Tokyopop's production of American-made manga, one of the aspects that set the company apart and made it successful initially, could also be its downfall.

    I definitely agree that cultural differences between America and Japan are pretty apparent in a lot of manga, and can be a huge turn-off to American readers -- particularly women, who haven't always been portrayed in manga (or comics, for that matter, as this great article points out) in a way that is accessible to them.

    I feel Tokyopop has to have been doing something at least partially right in order to win as many female readers as it did (I discussed some of what I think the company did well in my last article on this subject), but in the long run maybe it's not surprising that even the company's best moves couldn't complete overcome the cultural gap. And as comics and manga re-invent themselves, it seems we're solidifying an American style of graphic storytelling that's accessible to both men and women. I'm excited to see where that takes us!