My Manga Highlights: Hiroki Otsuka and Manga at BEA

I blogged a few weeks ago about interviewing Hiroki Otsuka who has a residency at Japan Society in New York City.  It’s a long interview (feel free to read the entirety of it here, on the Publishers Weekly website) and I have a few favorite parts.  The entire interview had a sense of commerce underlying it, and the necessity to embrace the business of creativity – or at the very least, recognize and respect it.

The gallery people are looking at my work as money. You need to separate yourself from the value of your work. Some artists take six months to do a painting; I understand that. But I’m a cartoonist, I’m an entertainer.

The other thing that Otsuka said that I found hilarious and honest, is the manga business as a popularity contest.

It’s a business, honey. Popularity is important. I look at Kuniyoshi, he didn’t become a popular artist until his 30’s. How did he survive until then?

Speaking of survival, manga still continues to permeate the U.S. market, further proven by the wheeling and dealing at BEA last week.  With the cutbacks at VIZ Media and the closing down of CMX, there seemed to be this sentiment that manga is dying in the U.S.  Manga publishing is not dying.  It’s thriving.  Unfortunately, it’s thriving in a bullshit “content should be free” environment.  If this stuff should be free, then should aggregators  – and not creators – make money off of it?

P.S. That’s a rhetorical question, by the way, and the answer is “no.”



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Sadness, CMX, giving DC the finger

Last week we were shaken by the news of layoffs at Viz Media and the quiet shuttering of Go! Comi.

And this week, we’re bitter.

Here’s reaction from news to DC’s shut-down of their manga imprint, CMX: the take-away is a general and overall mood of “FUCK YOU, DC!”

Brigid Alverson gives DC the finger over at Mangablog.

David Welsh throws his hands up in dismay – and turns his nose up to DC.

Kate Dacey has the metrics on Manga Critic.

Julie sheds a tear at Manga Maniac Cafe.

Simon Jones has a complete round-up of reactions at Icarus Publishing, and thoughts on the business model itself, as well as quite possibly the biggest “fuck you” of all:

The biggest absurdity of all is that amid all the troubles for the industry, there are more manga readers than ever.

That insult/fact isn’t directed at DC, however, but at the industry as a whole it seems.  And it sounds a lot like it’s coming from fans.

Brigid points out Rich Johnson’s entry “Does Manga Not Make Money Anymore?“, noting the absurdity of it using Naruto as an example.

I agree with Brigid but I’m going to push the Rich Johnson question a bit, because if manga is no longer lucrative in the U.S., eventually the quality will sink (which we’ve seen) and the only pipeline that will exist will be cheap scans and dog-eared library copies of Oh! My Goddess.   And there will be no market for this material, so instead of creating a new manga for America, we’ll have a new generation of lawyers and doctors and bankers.  Because making manga will become another passing dream and not a viable career option.

We’re already there.  It’s not just the publisher’s, guys.  Don’t get me wrong – fuck DC for not giving CMX its due, but fuck you fans for letting Tenjo Tenge continue as a barrier to all the greatness that CMX did license and put on the market.

Manga’s got the strongest kick in the comics universe, but it’s strongest when publishers and fans work together.  We’ve made it this far, haven’t we?

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Handmade

It’s Sunday, it’s beautiful out, we’ve got deadlines.

Let’s procrastinate.

An interesting thought came up last week in the wake of the Viz Media lay-offs – that naturally led to thoughts on pirated/online content – which I had been confused about, and that is the idea that technology (hardware and software) is one and the same.

Heidi McDonald brought this to mind when she described Japan as “a society that has consistently pioneered the gadget-filled lifestylebut approaches digitizing content with such trepidation.

I tend to confuse gadgets with technology.  But there’s a mistake here in confusing the two.  Last year I read an article (can’t remember where and don’t have the link) that reported on Japan’s tendencies to focus on hardware at the expense of software.  Differentiating the two was a bit of a leap for my mind since, in America, there is a direct correlation between hardware and software, the hardware, essentially, being an outgrowth of the software.

At least, that’s the way Apple tends to do it, and it’s been a symbiotic, if not successful, relationship. The iPod to funnel content from the iTunes store, the iTunes store now open to apps that are to be funneled to the iPhone and iPod Touch.

I’m not sure that’s the way that it is in Japan.  When the iPod came out back in the 2000’s,  there were a ton of mp3 players on the market – many of them much better than what Apple had to offer.  But none of them had the software, the platform that Apple had, of iTunes. So the iPod was junk, it looked funny/ugly, and lasted about 18 months before it died and you had to go out and buy another one.  So why do so many people buy iPods if they die so easily?  If you’ve got a library of music in iTunes, and it doesn’t have to be 10k songs, it can be a measly 80-100, do you really want to go through the hassle of building that library again?

If you’re looking for a Japanese iTunes, it’s pretty much iTunes Japan.  I’m sure there’s a Japanese equivalent, but iTunes is really taking the world over.  I’m not sure that Japan is less interested in software, but more a point that Japan is heavily invested in hardware, the handheld stuff.  Gameboys?  PSP’s?  DS-lite’s?

Roland Kelts was kind enough to point out to me that craft, and handmade, is an enduring tradition.  So is process.  Japan is a process oriented country. There is a process to everything: it takes three years to properly learn how to cut and make sushi; three hours to properly dress in a kimono.  That attention to craft and attention to detail, meticulous and studied, carries over to gadgetry and physical, handheld devices like books.

Ever seen the Japanese edition of Mari Okazaki’s career-woman/romance, Suppli?  I wish I had a copy to show you.  Larger trim-size, beautiful book cover design including a mylar jacket.  It looks like a book that a woman would buy, not a teen-ager, and speaks volumes about how much value the publisher places on the content.  They put a certain amount of attention into the presentation and packaging, so that consumers will pay attention to it themselves.

So here’s the conundrum.  Japan is a country of people who read.  They read and they read and they read books.  Lots of them.  John Fuller, manager of Kinokuniya in New York City, once told me that if I wanted to read books from every corner of the world, I should learn Japanese, because so much of it is translated and available in Japan.

The problem for Japan – and for all publishing – is that e-books and reading devices like the Kindle completely flatten the content, essentially devaluing it.  Right now, the debate continues for how much content is worth.  Can you put a dollar amount against a story?  How much does the story cost the writer?  The publisher?  The distributor?  At what price can it be sold?

It’s hard to value when it’s boiled down to black typeface on a grey background.

When my friend, Ed Lin, had his third book, Snakes Can’t Run, published by St. Martin’s Press, I was so excited for the story, but saddened by the physical book itself.  Ed’s second book, This is a Bust, was published by Sunyoung’s outfit, Kaya Production, and designed by spoon+fork.  I’ve done work for Kaya in the past and am currently doing work for spoon+fork, so this may just be bragging, but This is a Bust won the American Graphics Award for Excellence in Book Design.  St. Martin’s isn’t going to win shit for book design for Snakes.

I loved reading This is a Bust – Sunyoung pays real close attention to typesetting and creates this reading experience by way of wide margins and narrow boxes of text.  A lot like manga, it focuses and directs the eye.  St. Martin’s Press…not so much.  I look at this thing, Snakes Can’t Run, and it’s like the print version is an afterthought.  I may as well be reading this on some e-reader because no thought has been put into the physical book itself.

Bryan Ong told me that he loves books – and this is why spoon+fork does book design – because it’s the last thing that people actually read, that people care enough to read.  So why not care about the packaging of the book and delivering a reading experience?

Japanese anxiety towards digital is an anxiety because digital questions and forces traditions and culture to change.  My pushback is that it change can also mean alter.  Alter, as in, alternate, not dominant.  Maybe digital will be dominant, but it doesn’t have to be.

For the future of publishing, I’m going to look to Japan for cues.  Digitizing the bellyband, the book jacket, trimsize (somehow).  And a continuation of the buyer incentive.  The beautiful book, the mylar covers, the paper stock, the french-flaps.  We like to pretend that we don’t live here, but we do.  We still live in a physical world.  We love the convenience of things, but we also still love the thing itself.

We still love the thing itself.

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More thoughts on Viz Media

In the aftermath of the Viz layoffs, there’s some great analysis out there this morning.

Gia Manry at Anime Briefs says “Don’t panic” while Brigid Alverson at Mangablog reminds us that manga sales are genre sales, and Melinda Beasie takes a trip down memory lane at Manga Bookshelf and reminisces over the time when Viz was scorned by fans and thought of as “a necessary evil.”

The idea that Viz laying off 40% of its staff is an indicator that the company is on its way out seems like an overly dramatic assumption,  and one that I didn’t think of when Gia pointed that out as a possibility.  I suppose it’s because other institutions from the New York Times (which has hacked and slashed it’s newsroom staff by 50% and continues to do so – I’ll find the link in a minute), to Random House, to Harper Collins, to Simon&Schuster, have all cut their staff.  Hell, at Publishers Weekly, we went through our own bloodbath.

Is manga publishing any different?  Of course it is.  It’s a much smaller, younger industry, where its titans, Viz, TokyoPop, Del Rey, have all experienced some serious bumps in the road.  Other smaller publishers have hit the bump and died (see yesterday’s post for Go! Comi news).

But while manga publishing is different, Viz Media is the exception.  There’s a reason why I mention those century old institutions in the same graph with Viz and it’s because Viz is an extension of two of Japan’s most powerful and established publishers – Shueisha and Shogakukan.  Okay, maybe they’re a decade short of a century in age, but the way I see it, the only way Viz would go away is if its parent companies pull the plug.

Japan’s publishing industry is flagging itself and the obstacles its facing in wrestling with new media mirror the challenges that American publishers and old media establishments are faced with.  That said, manga publishing in Japan has begun looking outside of its local market for readers, addressing the popularity of manga abroad, and finding ways to capitalize on it.  I doubt that Sho-Shu will be pulling out its American arm because the American market, as depressed and recessed as it is, is still a market that they’re interested in.

Last week, Anime News Network reported that 30% of manga from Japanese publisher Kodansha was rejected from Apple’s iTunes store.  (Largely due to depictions of “excessive cruelty” and a bath scene where a character is topless.  I guess most Americans bathe in their underwear.)  While this news is sad, it does point to the fact that Japanese publishers are on their way to digital distribution, something that (given the number of pirated manga scans/fansubs online) publishers in Japan were wary of and resistant to.

Which is not to say that Japanese publishers are open arms about digitizing their content.  Shueisha, Kodansha, and Shogakukan, as well as 31 other publishers in Japan, have organized to form the Electronic Book Publishers Association of Japan, largely, as it’s reported in the story, to regulate and slow the expansion of the e-books market in Japan.  At the same time, 2010 has been dubbed the inaugural year of the e-book, especially with Amazon’s Kindle now available in Japan.  As one of the above article points out, Japan has no lack of content with approx. 80k new titles published per year.  (links via Anime News Network)

Will this save Viz?  Will this save manga?  Digital distribution could make all the difference in the world – especially as teens are given more credit-card-esque options for making purchases.  Even once the economies in the U.S. and Japan return to a state of health, digital distribution demands a large number of eyes (you can only charge so much for e-content) and the wider the distribution, the better off these publishers are.

At this point, we all need to think like Jack and be both nimble and quick.  I don’t necessarily believe that manga is going anywhere in either Japan or America, but I’d hate to see it hit some all new low.

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Endless Day: Otaku Road Rules, Viz Media Lay-offs

Man, the otaku are taking to the road, Viz Media is restructuring, Go! Comi has gone south.  It’s been an endless day and to steal a line from my favorite drift-racing manga, Initial D, my hemorrhoids  are killing me.

First off, Tokyopop is taking their brand on the road in a reality show.  I put a few questions to Stu Levy, founder, CEO, and COO of TP for the deets and he describes the tour as such:

The Tokyopop Tour is actually two things with one united purpose. It is an outreach program and also a reality show called “America’s Greatest Otaku”. It’s purpose is to meet fans nationwide.

Outreach?  Do manga and anime fans need some sort of intervention?  Read the full article over at Publishers Weekly for more info.  I describe the Tokyopop Tour as the otaku version of Mtv’s reality show, Road Rules.  The interesting thing is that Stu Levy himself will be participating as a member of the group on the bus touring cross country and visiting summer anime/manga conventions.

As to how the tour fits into Tokyopop’s company objectives (i.e. selling more manga) Levy replied:

We are more than a publisher—we’re a lifestyle and media brand. This is core—it’s about reaching out to our fans and getting to know who they are. They are the reason we exist.

The approach is a bit vague and I’m not sure how this will influence sales of Tokyopop product, but given the state of manga today, it’s probably a good idea to reach out to fans and remind them that publishers are still here.   I’m not sure the bus is going to do the trick but I’m a skeptic by nature.

Given the news of Go! Comi that Brigid reports over at Mangablog, it looks like an intervention (or resuscitation) couldn’t come sooner.  Go! Comi’s website has expired and Gia Manry points out on Anime Briefs that Go! Comi hasn’t published anything since October of 2009.

But the big story of today is Viz Media’s layoffs – approximately 60 staffers, which equates to 40% of the publisher’s workforce, has been cut.  This is coming as a big surprise.  I’m sure more details will emerge and add to this story.  In the meantime, twitterati and manga lovers  throughout the ethernet are wishing everyone who has been laid-off the best of luck.

On the brighter side of news Anime News Network is looking for summer interns and editorial content for both the ANN website and ProtoCulture Addicts!  Applications for interships are due May 14th so get on it if you want to learn more about the business of anime entertainment and filing news for a fast paced online publication.  Pitches for stories/content should be pitched to Zac Bertschy (zac@animenewsnetwork.com)

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Kuniyoshi+Hiroki Otsuka @JapanSociety

I’ve been chasing after an interview with Hiroki Otsuka for Publishers Weekly for the past month, Otsuka  (of Boys of Summer, ero-manga fame)who has been named Japan Society’s mangaka-in-residence. This in conjunction with the Utagawa Kuniyoshi exhibit and everything manga that Kuniyoshi’s woodblock prints have inspired.

Otsuka is at the Japan Society every weekend, starting on Fridays (5-9), Saturdays and Sundays (11-5), where he’s set up in a fishbowl office to work on his own Kuniyoshi inspired manga for Japan Society, Samurai Beam.  Samurai Beam is being serialized online at the Japan Society website with Otsuka adding about 4pages per week.

I’ve visited Japan Society during Otsuka’s “office hours” to get an idea of how Otsuka works, how the manga is progressing – and to see how people interact with him while he’s at work.  The way the fishbowl works is that people can come inside the office and interact with Otsuka, ask questions, watch him draw, etc.  But Hiroki also does this thing where he slides the glass doors closed.  When he does this, you’ll notice a few passers-by pressing their hands and faces against the glass panes with fervent curiosity.

The other thing I noticed is that Hiroki works with a stop-watch.  I couldn’t help but ask about it and basically, the stop-watch is a way for him to terrorize his assistants (he’s got between 1-3 working with him at a given time).  I don’t have a measurement for what it is that needs to be completed per 20 second/2minute increments (for example) but Hiroki will keep an eye on the watch, and his assistants, and if they’re talking too much or spacing out, he’ll pick it up and wave it at them and say “You’re not working fast enough.”

Speed, like inspiration, can be a fickle bitch.

Here’s an interview that the Japan Society did with Otsuka, where he says “Every day I would start with a story and sit and work for 16 hours to complete over 100 pages in one month.”

Channel Thirteen also has a video on Kuniyoshi where Otsuka weighs in and gives his opinion of Kuniyoshi’s work.  “Check it out, Girl.” Otsuka pointed it out to me, “I’m on t.v. talking like a bitchy queen.”

I’ll be spending the day with Otsuka, and if you haven’t already experienced it, the Utagawa Kuniyoshi exhibit will be at the Japan Society for one more month.

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Godzilla for your thoughts?

My son says some funny – and thoughtful – things from time to time.
One of our most recent conversations took place when I walked in on one of his greatest creations: a city of his making leveled and destroyed.  Matchbox cars strewn among rubble of Lego walls and wooden blocks.  Godzilla, meanwhile, was taking a time out on the sofa.

Me:  What’s Godzilla doing smushed between the sofa cushions?

Iñaki: He’s mourning.

Me: Why is he mourning?

Iñaki: Geez, Mom, he just destroyed an entire city!

I do enjoy Godzilla’s introspective nature and sense of remorse.

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