By Jason S. Yadao
In the beginning, there was Sailor Moon.
Then there was the “100% Authentic Manga” initiative, pushing manga out of niche corners of comic book stores and onto the shelves of bookstores in mainstream America.
Once that succeeded, the self-proclaimed “leader of the manga revolution” wanted us all to live the manga lifestyle in all of its multimedia flavors.
And now, in the midst of broadcasting the search for America’s Greatest Otaku, that very heart of the “manga revolution” — the manga itself — is being ripped out. As Heidi MacDonald first reported over at The Beat, Tokyopop is shutting down its U.S. manga publishing operations on May 31. Tokyopop’s German division will remain open, as will the film division, so those of you looking for, say, Professor Layton und seine lustigen Fälle — hmm, the fact that a Layton manga actually exists and has never been officially translated into English will probably depress tag-team partner in fandom Wilma J. to no end — or hoping there will one day be some sort of Princess Ai movie won’t have all of your hopes dashed right away.
But for the rest of us, it’s a sad, sad day. This means the Hetalia manga is effectively dead in the water. So are a bunch of pleasantly quirky titles that Tokyopop has picked up over the past year or two, including Future Diary, Skyblue Shore, Neko Ramen, Deadman Wonderland, The Secret Notes of Lady Kanoko and many others that I’ve been intending to review if I ever had the time to read and write reviews these days.
It was through series like those that I actually felt Tokyopop had turned a corner and was on its way to becoming a respectable publisher again after losing its way in the mid-2000s. It was around that time period that the publisher, in trying to become all things to all people, became nothing to a lot of those same people. If you wanted manga, they had it. If you wanted manhwa, they had it. If you wanted manga drawn by people outside of Japan that may or may not have qualified as “manga” per se other than the fact that they were rendered in black and white, they had it. If you wanted those same manga drawn by people outside of Japan in your newspaper’s Sunday comics section, you had it. If you wanted light novels, they had it. If you wanted Flash animations, 15 different wallpapers for your computer or phone, notebook paper, jigsaw puzzles, pencils or other swag of Bizenghast, you guessed it … they had it.
But you know what the inherent problem with much of that was? Hardly any of it was good. I can remember a time back in those days when we were on Tokyopop’s mailing list and got huge envelopes every month or so with 10 to 15 first volumes of series — titles like Menkui!, Kamen Tantei, Magic Moon, Beautiful People, Grenadier and Battle Vixens. If you ever read these series or books and liked them, I apologize for what I’m about to say, but … these are the types of series for a very select audience: people who write about manga and try to warn others away from them. No one would buy them of their own free will. Heck, these are the series that you’ll most likely find these days in the “please, please, please, please, PLEASE buy these manga” section of the table in the dealer’s room at an anime convention for $1 each … and even then, actual sales are an iffy proposition.
Perhaps it was through financial hardship and necessity that Tokyopop realized that it had to start focusing on quantity versus quality again. Perhaps it was Kodansha taking its talents to Del Rey/Random House that forced Tokyopop to start looking for gems elsewhere. Whatever the case, it seemed like the ship was righted.
And then longtime editor Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl, along with one of the guiding forces of CMX who was later picked up by Tokyopop, Asako Suzuki, were summarily dismissed earlier this year. And now we’re left in the same boat as when CMX shut down, and Aurora, and Go!Comi, and ADV Manga, and Broccoli Books, and many other manga publishers over the years, wondering if anyone will sweep in and rescue the series left behind. Viz, Kodansha USA, Dark Horse, DMP, Vertical, Yen Press and Seven Seas will be the major players left after May 31, and I honestly would feel fortunate as a manga fan if all of them combined rescued five of Tokyopop’s series.
I find it strangely fitting now that I was chatting online with Wilma yesterday morning about the state of current state of manga in the U.S. We were actually basing our conversation around Viz’s premature end of Gintama and what it could mean for the future of a long, ongoing series like her cherished Case Closed, but it could certainly apply to this situation: The era of 100 percent guarantees that a publisher will finish a series it starts, particularly those that are longer than five volumes, is gone. It’s probably been that way for several months now, if not years, but that scenario has definitely come into sharper focus. With Borders slowly sinking in bankruptcy, manga publishers are facing the same dilemma anime publishers faced when Tower Records shut down and FYE/Suncoast ran into financial trouble: There aren’t nearly as many venues picking up and selling their products as they used to. There has to be more of an emphasis on what exists in a publisher’s catalog that can sell at this point, rather than cherry-picking through a defunct publisher’s remains looking for what might sell. And that’s what could hurt the chances of favorite Tokyopop series ever being finished.
So farewell, Tokyopop manga. It was a love-hate relationship over the years, for certain. But you’ll be missed.