Tokyopop’s Fall From Grace

There’s been one company in the manga industry that has come under a lot of scrutiny from the media and otakushere lately, and that would be the mighty Tokyopop. The company first received some flack when it was revealed that the terms of the contract to their potential Original English Language (OEL) manga artists granted the company full “moral rights” to the artist’s works. The contract was immediately blasted by Fred Gallagher and Bryan Lee O’Malley, two highly successful OEL creators not on Tokyopop label, which generated an outcry from the community. Just when the buzz was starting to go down, the company then announced that it would be going through some major reconstructions, including layoffs and production cutbacks. It’s amazing how the once mighty publisher has just simply crumbled over the past few weeks.

For those of you new to the manga scene, let me give you a bit of a history lesson:

Tokyopop made the US manga industry.

In the pre-Tokyopop days of the 90′s and early 2000′s, companies like VIZ, Dark Horse, and ComicsOne released manga flipped, expensive, and heavily Americanized. As the selection and availability was very limited, manga was very hard to come by. You’d probably see only see a shelf of these books at your local bookstore. Tokyopop started off like this, but then they decided to start a line of, as they put it, “100% Authentic” manga. This meant that they would release their books unflipped, leave the sound effects untranslated, and sell at a third less than the standard price point at the time.

The line was fortunate enough to launch with two titles that had already established a huge fanbase in America because of their popular anime versions. Cowboy Bebop was becoming huge through Cartoon Network and the new Adult Swim lineup, and Love Hina was becoming a star through the budding fansub community. But Tokyopop allowed fans of these series to introduce themselves to the manga version and become totally hooked into the unique experience of reading manga.

The “100% Authentic” changes brought out a completely new novelty of the medium specifically to the American audience. Readers had to train themselves to read the book from right to left, and found it amazing that they could actually comprehend a storyline by reading in such a ridiculous way. Having sound effect written in the Japanese language with its illegible characters added an exotic mystery to the books. Leaving in words like “ronin” and “senpai” to the text taught the new readers a little about a culture completely unlike their own.

Tokyopop’s “100% Authentic” line and its novel appeal was the greatest thing to have ever – and probably will ever – happen to manga in America. It jump-started interest in the medium and grew the market exponentially within years. Tokyopop had also set the new standard in manga publishing. Pretty much every company has imitated their “100% Authentic” strategy since then. I’m sure many of today’s manga readers have probably never seen a “flipped” manga book before.

So what was the turning point for Tokyopop? When did they stop becoming the trend setters and started being left behind in the market?

I would have to say it was when they lost their partnership with Kodansha. The Japanese company teamed up with Random House to create the new Del Rey manga label, which left its properties unavailable to other publishers in the US. Two of the most popular titles for Tokyopop during their “100% Authentic” revolution were Chobits and Love Hina, which were both titles that they obtained through Kodansha. When they lost Kodansha, they lost CLAMP and Ken Akamatsu. Not surprisingly, Del Rey skyrocketed to the top thanks to releasing the latest series from those two artist.

Negima, Tsubasa, and xxxHolic all launched for Del Rey in May 2004. At that point, Tokyopop had two volumes of its experimental Raising Stars of Manga out with the third shortly on the way. Riasing Stars was a competition for American amateur artists to submit their 20-page stories to Tokyopop for a cash prize and a chance to get their entry published. The first contest had such a good response that they made it into a semi-annual event.

These competitions set the framework for Tokyopop’s newest strategy to establish dominance in the now crowded manga market. In January 2005, eight months after the launch of Del Rey, the first prize winner of the 2nd Raising Star competition, a cute comic called Peach Fuzz, was released into a complete graphic novel with a 3-volume deal already signed. Peach Fuzz was the first in the new line of OEL comics from Tokyopop, which the company decided to dedicate most of its time and resources into promoting and growing.

It was the beginning of the end for the once great publisher.

Now let me just say that just because a manga is created by a Westerner for a Western audience does not mean that it is a bad comic. The aforementioned Fred Gallagher and Bryan Lee O’Malley both produce two phenomenal series. I’m even planning on writing a post about Scott Pilgrim in the near future because it’s so good. Even looking at Tokyopop’s OEL titles, you will find a fantastic gem called Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova. These series are light years beyond most Japanese manga, and they should not be overlooked simply because they’re not Japanese.

Unfortunately, OEL manga is just not all that popular. OEL manga is only going to appeal to those already interested in Japanese manga, which is a very small niche market to begin with. You are not going to be going outside of that demographic because the black-and-white nature of the comics aren’t going to appeal to fans of more traditional American comics. However, many fans of Japanese manga do not like OEL titles because they lack those exotic novelties that made Tokyopop huge in that “!00% Authentic” revolution.

So if you have a niche of a niche, that’s going to be a very limited market that you are aiming for. Unfortunately, that was the only market that Tokyopop was devoting itself to.

If you have attended any Tokyopop convention panels since the release of Peach Fuzz, you will notice that most of presentation is dedicated to them hyping up their OEL releases. At their New York Anime Festival panel last year, the company showed off how they were going to bring these titles into various new media, including cell phone integrations, drama CDs with full soundtrack and voice acting, and CGI created video episodes.

“Looking at all these promotion videos and projects you’ve been doing with your OEL titles,” interrupts a reporter during the presentation, “it appears that you are dedicating a lot of time and resources to this. Isn’t that a huge financial risk?”

The Tokyopop industry rep sweats a little in his seat. “Yes, but we are expecting it to pay off in the long run.”

It did not pay off.

So what has Tokyopop been doing with their Japanese titles during this time? Not really much. The only huge seller from the company has been Fruits Basket, which does not come out frequent enough to make the company stand out while VIZ and Del Rey continue to top the sales charts. The company has just been releasing it’s current Japanese catalog volume-by-volume until those series have reached their conclusions. They pick up a couple of small titles here-and-there and have quietly been releasing them. But in my opinion, they have been spending so much time working on OEL material that they have simply not made any huge Japanese acquisitions for years now.

Well, that is with one major exception…

Earlier this year, Tokyopop released an completely unique Japanese title called Manga Sutra. This “guide to getting it on,” as the company puts it, has been a huge hit in Japan for many years and is completely unlike anything out right now in the American market. As I wrote in a piece earlier this year, the title has the potential to make it big in America because of its novelty. However, Tokyopop squashed all hope for it reaching a wide audience by not selling the book at national book chains and hiding it from the general consumer. If you wanted to get the book, you would have to activity look for it online and have it mailed to you.

One of my best friends visited my place recently. My friend has known about my love of manga for as long as I’ve been a manga fan, but he’s never had an interest in it at all. On this visit, he noticed my copy of Manga Sutra sitting on my desk. Intrigue by the title, he picked it up and scanned though the pages.

“Whoa, this is awesome!” he said as he saw the sexy images, detailed diagrams, and interesting statistics on any given page of the large book. After noticing him struggling a little, I explain to him that you have to read the book from right to left, and showed him the diagram that explained how to do so.

“Really? Cool.” After reading through a few pages in this new way, my non-otaku friend closes the book and asks me, “Hey, do you mind if I borrow this?”

***

Tokyopop’s fall from grace has been a painful one for this fan to watch through out the years. They built the manga industry by introducing the novelity of Japanese manga to the American audiance. While OEL was worth experimenting with, it has clearly not caught on no matter how much time or resources the company puts into it. That is why the one mighty company has come crumbling down within the past few weeks. As long as they keep on beating that dead horse of a market, the company might soon become just as hard to find as a $15 flipped manga book.

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