Manga: A Decade in Review

Even though the decade isn’t technically over, the years that we call the “aughts” are, so this review is my look back at the aught years, 2000-2009.  And if you had to say anything about manga in these years is that it found itself on the rise.

When the new millennium began, manga was in the same place it had been in the last century.  It was a niche of a niche.  Trying to appeal to comics fans, most titles were published as floppies, their content flipped.  Titles such as Ranma 1/2, Inuyasha, Dragon Ball/Dragon Ball Z, Ceres: Celestial Legend, and Pokemon started this way, and then were collected into trade paperback sized books and priced around $15.  Comics fans treated manga as the red-headed step child and manga fans  didn’t like the price or format.  I know I didn’t.  As much as I wanted to read the Galaxy Express 999 volumes Viz had brought out, the $16.99 price tag was too much for me.  But that all changed in 2002, when Tokyopop literally started off a revolution.

Dragon Knight 1 comicLooking for ways to reduce costs, Tokyopop did three things that helped propel manga, and itself up out of obscurity.  First, they stopped flipping the manga, leaving it in it’s original right-to-left format.  Second, they sized the manga the same as the average paperback, and third, the lowered the price to $9.99.  This last thing is probably what helped the most, but this and the size certainly made manga more attractive to bookstores, and it started appearing on shelves.  This is the time I started noticing manga.  I had just bought the first 6 issues of Dragon Knights, after looking at them for months, when I found out the floppies had been dropped and would only come out in trade format.  Waldens Books was the place to go for the best selection (neither Borders nor Barnes and Noble stores were anywhere around me at the time).  This helped Tokyopop’s success and let them get bigger and bigger booths at San Diego Comic Con.  Viz, known as Viz Communications then, jumped on the bandwagon, and while they keep their floppies going longer (I collected the Dragon Ball comics to the bitter end), they also re-released several of their titles in the smaller, cheaper format, though left big sellers like Ranma 1/2 and Inuyasha in their flipped format.

The success of manga in bookstores got other publishers jumping in as well.  Several smaller publishers as well as heavy weights tried their luck at licensing and selling manga.  Over the years, several of these smaller publishers came and went, making it a “survival of the fittest” environment.  Gutsoon! Entertainment, Ironcat Studios, Infinity Studios, and Broccoli Books are publishers that either started and/or ended in the aught years.  Others like Aurora Publishing, DR Master Publishing and Go Comi started out strong, but have gone quiet in the last years of the decade.  ADV Manga, the publishing arm of ADV Vision tried it’s hand as well, but bit off more than it could chew, licensing dozens of titles, but publishing only a few volumes of them.  Other small publishers such as Vertical, Digital Manga Publishing, Udon and Net Comics made it to the end of the decade healthy, and licensing and publishing more titles.  Traditional publishers joined in with Del Rey starting an imprint and using it’s Random House parent to get licensing leverage.  DC Comics also created an imprint, CMX, which although got off to a rocky start, has matured into a force to be reckoned with.  The latest publisher to join was Yen Press, from the arm of publisher Hachette Book Group, which also absorbed Ice Kunion, a small publisher of Korean manhwa.

This decade also saw the introduction of the manga anthology.  While it could be argued that there were anthologies in the US before 2002, such as Dark Horse’s Super Manga Blast, Viz’s Animerica Extra and Tokyopop’s Mixxzine/Smile, but the first ones that mimicked Japan’s phonebook style came out in 2002.  Gutsoon! Entertainment and Viz Media both ra0announced anthologies that year, with both releasing previews at that year’s San Diego Comic Con.  But the two companies took very different formats that probably decided their fates as well.  Gutsoon! chose to do a weekly format, putting out Raijin Comics at $5 a pop, and a yearly subscription of nearly $120.  I loved the comics that Raijin had to offer, but it’s pricing was far too prohibitive to me at the time.  Viz went for a monthly format with Shonen Jump, anchored by popular properties Dragon Ball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh!, and had a starting “charter” subscription of $19.99 a year.  Raijin folded in 2004.  Shonen Jump has just started it’s 8th year.  Two years later, Viz tried an all girl’s format as well called Shojo Beat, but that folded in the summer of 2009.  Yen Plus, Yen Press’ entry into the anthology market reached its 1 year anniversary in the summer of 2009 as well, and while more expensive than Shonen Jump, is also thicker with a greater variety of both Japanese and Korean/US titles.

This decade saw the birth of domestic manga-esque comics, mostly commonly called OEL, or Original English Language manga.  Tokyopop spearheaded it’s creation, starting with their Rising Stars of Manga competition, which solicited short stories from American creators, the winners of which were published in an anthology trade, and the grand prize Rising Stars 1winners got their own 3 volume series.  Tokyopop took a lot of flack for their contracts with creators, but they did manage to start a genre.  Seven Seas Entertainment, a small publisher started out as an OEL publisher, and remains so mostly, though they do have some licensed titles as well.  I still hold hope against hope that Captain Nemo might some day get another volume.  Both Seven Seas and Tokyopop sought partnerships with tradition publishers Tor and Harper Collins, to create adaptations of popular novels.  Del Rey in the last few years have published OEL titles of already established properties such as X-men and Cartoon Network shows Ben 10 and Bakugan, while Yen Press has found success with both adaptations such as Maximum Ride and original titles like Nightschool: The Weirn Books.

The growth of online media such as blogs and podcasts really helped manga extend its reach and audience.  The increase of blogs, both covering news and doing reviews grew at exponential rates, and helped to create a community where readers could go and get good and timely news and recommendations they could trust.  Among these are Manga Blog, and Manga Worth Reading (and this blog!).  The iPod, which was first released in 2001, saw the creation of podcasts, usually short audio programs about a specific topic.  Mangacast was among the first to use this technology to bring manga reviews to the medium, which also included a collaboration with Manga Blog to create the short lived MangaBlogCast.  The last few years have shown a growth of manga only podcasts which will hopefully continue into the next decade.

Manga publishers were slow getting online though, with sites that were more utilitarian than useful to readers.  Tokyopop was the first publisher to create a real fan-friendly site that combined info on books with social media.  Getting involved with the blogs on not only introduced me to sites such as Mangablog and Manga Recon at Pop Culture Shock, it also let me experiment with blogging and reviewing, and gave me the confidence to strike out on my own.  In the last half of the decade, publishers seemed to catch on that the internet wasn’t just a fad, and we started to see preview chapters of titles at first.  Net Comics, a Korean manhwa publisher started to pay-by-the-chapter model which had been popular in Korea for sometime.  Tokyopop was also first in publishing full volumes of manga online for free legally, and showed that doing so didn’t mean the death knell of printed books.  Viz took this idea one step further and created two sites that published free manga, Ikki Comics and Shonen Sunday, with fan support deciding what titles would see print.

But there’s a price to the digital world, and that’s the possibility of piracy.  Not that this is anything new, as dedicated fans of manga had been translating their favorite manga and posting them online for others to read.  But with the improvements in digital software, it became faster and easier for these “scanlators” (scan+translators) to put their work online for free.  Existing in a grey area, these groups were left alone as long as they didn’t do titles licensed by US companies.  The problem with this is that not all groups respected this unspoken rule, and not only continued to scanlate licensed titles, some just scanned in already published US editions.  The growth of content management systems, such as blogs are based on, also allowed for the proliferation of sites like Onemanga, and Mangafox, that didn’t just let readers download titles, it let them just read them online.

Manga has seen a lot of change over the last decade, and it’s had its shares of up and downs.  But as we stand at the beginning of a new year and a new decade the future for manga only seems bright.  Though publishers have either had to scale back or have gone out of business completely, those that remain are stronger for weathering the economic storm that ended the decade.  The subsequent slow down in releases doesn’t spell the end of manga, but a correction that will make the market more stable and viable for years to come.  The growth of titles for older readers follows the aging of it’s reader base, who will hopefully continue to follow these new titles and let manga grow out of the “it’s just for kids” peg and flower into something for everyone.

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