Let's just say there were some oddities in the VICE article about TOKYOPOP that makes it a head scratcher. Let's break it down!
Once upon a time, there was a U.S. manga publisher called Mixx Entertainment. This company would eventually change its name to TOKYOPOP, and it released many well-known titles like Fruits Basket, GTO, Love Hina, and Sailor Moon as well as anime and original English manga (OEL) titles. However, TOKYOPOP’s North American publishing branch would close down in 2011. As a result, many manga series were left incomplete.
Years passed, and at Anime Expo 2015, TOKYOPOP announced its plans on restarting publishing titles in North America. Much ado has been made about what this relaunch entails, but perhaps the most recent article on TOKYOPOP’s reemergence is Vice’s “The Resurrection of TOKYOPOP, America’s Most Influential Manga Company”.
The Vice Article’s Title
Firstly, is TOKYOPOP “America’s most influential manga company”?
Well, it’s hard to argue they weren’t influential.
The Vice article notes that “TOKYOPOP’s early brand was built on authenticity, bringing Asian literature to English readers uncompromised.” And they did: starting in April 2002, the company was the first publisher to release all its manga titles in the right-to-left format. In February of 2002, TOKYOPOP’s Director of Marketing touted, “This move will revolutionize the U.S. manga industry. … [W]e will give fans the most authentic experience possible, minimize their wait from title to title, and do it all for an industry-leading price point of $9.99 per book. That’s unheard of when you consider that most competitors charge $12.99 to $16.99 per book.”
Any person who takes a walk down the manga section of their local bookstore will no doubt see the majority of Japanese comics are still published “unflopped”. In fact, it was TOKYOPOP that helped push manga into bookstores in the first place. As for pricing, over a decade later, many companies still sell titles at or around $9.99 MSRP. There’s no doubt they did create a “manga revolution”.
Vice goes on to say TOKYOPOP “printed and licensed titles that represented the very best of the manga experience … selecting titles that bridged the gap between Western and Eastern cultures”. While “the very best” is subjective, many of TOKYOPOP’s series were — and still are — so popular that other companies have rescued them (Cardcaptor Sakura, Fruits Basket).
But there’s another major aspect of their success that Vice fails to mention: females. Before Mixx/TOKYOPOP, comics were seen as a male-oriented medium. As Comics Alliance explained, TOKYOPOP saw a market opportunity, and girls “responded by joyfully consuming manga in huge quantities … and the notion of the typical comic book reader changed dramatically.” Shoujo series like Sailor Moon and Fruits Basket set records for manga in the U.S., and statistics show females make up a significant part of manga sales today.
So was TOKYOPOP influential? Absolutely.
Was it the most influential? That’s a bit more debatable. After all, they weren’t the first to bring over manga, and there’s the recent digital and simu-pub revolution, so what company is the most influential is up to personal opinion.
The Downfall of TOKYOPOP
TOKYOPOP effectively closed in 2011. But why did the one-time manga leader collapse while rivals like Viz Media and Seven Seas Entertainment have continued to survive?
The Vice article goes through a bit of TOKYOPOP’s history during its restructuring and eventual closure: graphic novels sales dropped, Kodansha licenses were lost, and Borders went bankrupt. These all factored into TOKYOPOP’s decline. The Great Recession had an impact on the economy as a whole, forcing everyone to make cutbacks. The loss of Kodansha titles left a large hole for them to fill.
In a statement from 2013 (and also cited by Vice), Stu Levy, the founder of TOKYOPOP, pointed the finger at other sources. He blamed the company’s closure on piracy and the Japanese publishers not countering it quickly enough. Firstly, there’s little doubt scanlations can negatively affect sales. Former TOKYOPOP editor Lillian Diaz-Przybyl said Gakuen Alice was very popular on scanlation aggregate sites, but sales of the manga were much lower than they expected. Yet scanlations continue to persist today, and manga sales have been growing (up 15% so far in 2015 according to ICv2).
So what did happen to TOKYOPOP?
The first problem Vice fails to mention is oversaturation. TOKYOPOP was, at one time, publishing 40+ books a month. While not all books were Japanese-imported titles, this was still quite a number. With many readers being teenagers and young adults who had limited disposable income, their own titles were competing against each other, not to mention against rival series. Other companies made changes to their pricing or quality of their releases in order to catch up to them. Viz Media undercut TOKYOPOP’s pricing by selling manga for $7.95 and $8.95. Del Rey launch title Negima! had altered dialogue and several errors, but Del Rey later hired a new team to make it more faithful to the original Japanese version and please fans. Now-defunct companies like ADV Manga licensed titles that had a popular anime like Azumanga Daioh and Full Metal Panic!. Manga readers suddenly had a lot of choices. TOKYOPOP eventually learned not all its titles could become the next Fruits Basket or GTO. Many series lost money. The company’s slumping financial situation meant TOKYOPOP had to halt publication of many manga (Manga Sutra, Immortal Rain) and light novels (Slayers, The Good Witch of the West).
Secondly, TOKYOPOP spent a lot of time — and money — trying to expand. The company released OEL manga (more on that in a minute), anime, manga adaptations of Disney and Nickelodeon shows, manga about NBA players, magazines, and even a TV show. Former TOKYOPOP editor Tim Beedle noted that “… the company’s interests and priorities seemed to shift. All of a sudden, we weren’t simply manga editors — we were film developers, magazine contributors, social media website operators and reality TV producers.” The range of products grew, yet the quality of releases were mixed. Their manga were often filled with errors like inconsistent romanization and swapped speech bubbles. The paper in later volumes was also quite thin. Titles like Fruits Basket and Tokyo Babylon used honorifics, a debated practice. Their anime release of Initial D was Americanized by changing character names and even the soundtrack. Many of their experiments were financial flops. TOKYOPOP, for lack of a better term, became a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.
TOKYOPOP and OEL Manga
Vice leaves out a big aspect of TOKYOPOP’s past, one that still affects many people to this day: original English language (OEL, aka OEM) manga rights.
Years ago, many artists signed onto TOKYOPOP to create their own manga-inspired comics. Most contracts gave TOKYOPOP 50% ownership of their works. Even after the company has stopped releasing their titles (or any titles at all really), creators to this day do not have — and cannot get — full rights to their OEL manga. As Sophie Campbell of The Abandoned said in an interview, “It was a 50/50 deal but that basically means they own 100%, since I can’t actually do anything with 50% of a property.” The contract for their later Shining Stars Program was met with much scorn. The most disturbing part to many creators was the issue of rights. The pact’s terms stated:
“Moral rights” is a fancy term (the French thought it up) that basically has to do with having your name attached to your creation (your credit!) and the right to approve or disapprove certain changes to your creation. Of course, we want you to get credit for your creation, and we want to work with you in case there are changes, but we want to do so under the terms in this pact instead of under fancy French idea. So, in order for us to adapt the Manga Pilot for different media, and to determine how we should include your credit in tough situations, you agree to give up any “moral rights” you might have.
And, speaking of your credit, customarily we give you credit for your work as the writer and/or artist of the Manga Pilot. However, we may have to shorten or leave out your credit when the space available or the conventions of a format won’t permit it or if it would have to be too small to read (for example, when the Manga Pilot is viewed on mobile phones). You’re OK with this.
Essentially, they could make any unilateral changes to submissions, and artists and writers had no guarantee their name would even appear on their works.
In addition, Campbell and other creators complain their titles had no editorial support, marketing, and no royalty payments. Some say their titles were doomed to failure before the first volume even went to print.
So while Levy claims the new POP Comics will allow creators to be “in complete control” of their works, Vice does not add why many people are skeptical of TOKYOPOP’s latest initiative.
The Future of TOKYOPOP
A few mixed comments from Redditors were posted in the Vice article. Vice states fans “can expect … a new approach.” Is that really so?
Digital submitted comics? TOKYOPOP uploaded the manga they received from their Shining Stars Program for people to read, rate, and discuss.
Raising awareness of Asian pop culture? Lots of companies do that through anime, manga, games, and novels.
Working with Disney? TV shows? Films? TOKYOPOP originally published the Kingdom Hearts manga and released cine-manga adaptations of Disney properties like Cinderella and Hannah Montana. Levy directed (and hosted) America’s Greatest Otaku. Their manwha title Priest was made into a live-action movie. While TOKYOPOP’S expansion may not have been to the extent Levy would have liked, in many ways, the “new” TOKYOPOP has a lot in common with the old one.
However, the new one’s focus is on OEL titles, with Japanese-originated manga taking a backseat. Some would argue that the old TOKYOPOP did just that in the past; it’s just that this time it’s stated outright.
Vice correctly points out the manga market has been growing the past couple of years. Manga sales are up. Companies like Yen Press and Seven Seas Entertainment are expanding. Even new sports manga (long thought to be unsellable in the U.S.) have been licensed. So Vice is right: this might be the best time for TOKYOPOP to make a return.
However, “once again position itself as an industry leader in manga”? That’s much more of an uphill climb, especially when the article a) ignores many of the reasons why TOKYOPOP itself was behind its fall and b) that many of its latest ideas are not new.