Manga Publishing: Trends in the United States



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Manga Publishing: Trends in the

United States

Ono Kôsei

Japanese Book News Number 16

It was a good four years ago that a popular Singaporean

manga artist told me that Japan’s Ôtomo Katsuhiro could

be counted among the world’s top five comic book

artists. Ôtomo’s reputation among comic and animation

fans around the world spread with the translation and

publishing of his long comic novel, Akira. Today, in fact,

there are a number of Japanese manga artists who enjoy

tremendous popularity, sometimes even more than in

their own country, among American comics fans.
Akira and Computer Coloring

Prominent among them, Ôtomo found success first with

the publication of an English edition of Akiraby Marvel

Comics (known for Spidermanand X-men) in 1988. The

fact that the work came out in full color was an important

element of that success. Comic magazines in Japan have

few color pages and even when a manga first serialized

in a magazine is published in book form, it rarely includes

color pages. In Europe and the United States, by

contrast, full color editions are the general rule. Marvel’s

Akirawas the pioneer in computer-aided coloring of

comic books. In the late 1980s, applying color using

computers was still a novelty, but the energetic computer

colorist employed for the job did work far more subtle

and skillful than ever before. The original Japanese edition

(Kôdansha) was in plain black and white, and production

of deluxe color editions like Marvel’s was

probably impossible in Japan at the time. The Marvel

color edition was reprinted in France, Italy and other European

countries as well, and its repute grew all the

more.

It is very likely that Akira would not have achieved

such wide popularity if it had been first published overseas

in black and white. Interestingly enough, after the

success of the Marvel edition of Akira, computer coloring

of comic books gradually became common practice in the

United States and AkiraÕs colorist, Steve Oliff, became

instantly famous and his work in extremely high demand.

Today, computer coloring of comic books is general

practice and the name of the color technician is included

among the credits on the flash page.

In contrast to the Japanese book edition of Akira, publication

of which was completed two years ago in six

volumes of 400 pages each, the individual volumes of the

Marvel edition are only 32 pages each, and it took seven

years before the full story was completed in 1995. Some

readers ran out of money before collecting the entire set

and stopped buying volumes as they came out, which

made the final stages of publication of the U.S. edition

very precarious.

Of course, the popularity of Akira lies in its original

content. Ôtomo’s skillful lines depict the landscape of the

city of the near future and the world inside that landscape,

the groups of young people who live there and the

freakish humans created by that unique city and its mechanisms.

It is something like the world of the X-men,

which deals with the “mutants,” young superheroes who

also enjoy broad popularity all over the world. However,

the content of Ôtomo’s saga goes into much further depth

than the American costumed heroes comic books, and the

realism of Akira’s final scene in which the mutant young

man seeks a higher existence by merging himself with his

surroundings is splendid. Today, Ôtomo has joined the

international group of manga artists who create Batman,

sponsored by DC Comics (of Superman fame) and is responsible

for eight pages.

Shirô and Ghost

Another internationally popular Japanese manga artist is

Shirô Masamune (who publishes as Shirow Masamune).

This unusually gifted artist was first noticed when he did

a long original science fiction work entitled Appleseed for

a small Osaka publisher. This story, too, depicts the

world of the near future. It revolves around a special

forces team of fighting cyborgs, but we are never really

sure to what organization they belong or what group their

enemies represent. Four volumes of this manga have

come out, and the series continues to be published. In the

United States, Dark Horse has published the same 4-

volume set in English in the same format. The popularity

of this series, which is in black and white, easily attests

to the fact that its readers tend to be even more maniacal

than those of the color edition of Akira, and this can be

said of all Shirô Masamune fans in Japan. Shirô is also

famous for his K.kaku kid.tai [Tank Police] series first

serialized in Young Magazine and later published in book

form. Its English edition was published by Dark Horse in

1995.This work was released as a full-length animation

film directed by Oshii Mamoru under the English title

Ghost in the Shell and its English-dubbed video version

is now selling well in the United States.

Content-wise, Shirô’s SF comics belong to the cyberpunk

SF genre, in which electronic brains are depicted as

having a kind of spirit that becomes a “ghost” and goes

in pursuit of its identity. The members of the “special

tank forces” frequently discover that the people they are

fighting are members of other branches of the same government

organization to which they belong. In these stories,

the line between good and evil is characteristically

blurred, and characters are often at a loss about their own

identities in a world of shifting political circumstances.

Within Shirô’s cartoon blocks themselves, however,

the portrayals are detailed and articulate. Women (though

their bodies are mostly mechanical parts and plastic) are

sexy, and the dialog humorous. Another characteristic of

Shirô’s work is the large amount of dialog. The considerable

amount of information he packs into each short page

sets them apart from those of Ôtomo and other artists

who try to keep the reader going as fast as possible by

minimizing text. In other words, Shirô expects the reader

to devote time to savor the work and provides art that

keeps the reader entertained in the process. This technique

resembles that of American comic books, which

have relatively extensive texts but fewer pages, and this

may be one reason Shirô has many avid fans in the

United States.

Manga-Anime Mania

Among the Japanese comics recently being published by

DC Comics is Yamada Masashi’s Gon. This manga,

about a rambunctious, often-violent young dinosaur,

which is serialized in Kôdansha’s Sh.kan Morning,

started appearing in Spanish four years ago. This comic

contains no text, which eliminates the need for translation,

and all an overseas publisher has to do is reverse the

page order (Japanese books read from right to left; all

Ôtomo and Shirô’s manga are published in reverse order

overseas as well). One of the reasons that the strip appearing

in Sh.kan Morning started to appear in color in

July 1996 is clearly to match the way it is published

overseas. The little dinosaur Gon is very popular as a

stuffed animal as well.

Japanese comics are no longer a novelty. San Francisco’s

Viz Communications published an English edition

of Miyazaki Hayao’s popular long work Kaze no tani no

Naushika [Nausica. of the Valley of the Wind], and the

popularity of Takahashi Rumiko’s Ranma Half, with dedicated

Ranma fans turning up in costume at almost all

competitions and Japanese comics fan meetings, is legendary.

While Japanese animated cartoons are not often

broadcast on network television or shown in movie theaters,

the United States has its own comics fans, who

form a surprisingly large and enthusiastic following of

the English editions of Japanese manga (especially for

these fans, “manga” is now part of international parlance).

However, almost all of these manga are black and

white editions, and in the United States black and white

comic books generally sell only about 3,000 copies.

Japanese comics are doing much better than the average,

selling 10,000 to 13,000 copies, but mainly to a limited

number of manga fans. So far, Japanese manga are still

largely unknown to the general American reader.

Early in 1996, a small New York publisher named

Blast Books produced Comics Underground Japan, an

anthology of short manga stories by Hino Hideshi,

Maruo Suehiro, Hanawa Kazuichi, and others, mainly as

serialized in the monthly comic magazine Garo. The

print-run was very small, but it represents the first introduction

in the United States of Japan’s “alternative

comics,” suggesting that interest in the Japanese manga



genre is still growing.
(Ono Kosei is a film and manga critic and SF writer.)




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