Manga man explores right-to-left brand cortex

Only a few years after starting up Tokyopop with licensed titles from Japan, founder Stu Levy floated the idea to bookstores of publishing manga in the original, right-to-left format.

“And they said, ‘You’re out of your fricking minds to even think about it,’” says Levy, CEO and creative chief of the Los Angeles-based company.

But when Tokyopop began publishing right-to-left manga in books with uniform size, design, branding and pricing, the reorders came flooding in. “We ran out of stock really quick,” says Levy, who recalls thinking: “My God, maybe it’s working!”

And it has worked, as manga has turned into a particularly bright spot for the book industry, with dozens of publishers now following Tokyopop’s lead in content, format and price.

Tokyopop’s origins can be traced back to 1989 when Levy, a self-described geeky kid who preferred Dungeons & Dragons and videogames to comicbooks, made his first visit to Japan. “I fell in love with that culture and how multimedia it was, how futuristic it was,” he says.”Having one building be the trendiest club in the world and then the next building, literally right next door, is a tiny little temple.”

Immersing himself in Japanese culture, Levy launched an interactive company called Japan Online before discovering manga and its role at the heart of Japanese culture. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow! This is the origin to everything,’” he says.

Seeing manga publishing as a way to build a catalog of content to take into the digital realm, Levy founded Mixx in 1997 and soon changed its name to Tokyopop.

In the early days, Levy says, getting manga licenses from Japan was easy; it was getting manga into stores that was difficult. While some comicbook publishers had tried manga in specialty shops, Levy says that market was too much of a niche to be the company’s sole outlet. “I was always thinking about the malls,” he says.

Waldenbooks was the first to bite. The market then grew steadily, but it took the introduction of right-to-left manga for the category to really take off.

In bringing manga to America, Tokyopop has adapted its dominant role in Japanese pop culture into the “manga lifestyle.” Defined by Levy as “an appreciation for things that are from that East-West connection,”

the manga lifestyle has evolved from traditional anime fans to a wide array of people the company reaches out to through original manga, animation and fan-created content on its website and MySpace page as well as cell phones.

“You have some people that are really serious about manga as literature; other people that are really into the look and style, the visual element of it; you have people that like something that’s different; and then you have people who are appreciating the storytelling and the risk-taking aspects of manga as an entertainment form,” says Levy, who spearheaded original manga format comics by Western artists in 2003 and co-created the company’s signature character, Princess Ai, with rocker Courtney Love.

The next step for Levy is by far his most ambitious: He looks to take his company into the film and television realm, with the ultimate aim of turning Tokyopop into a global brand, comparable to Marvel or Disney.

For Levy, it’s a do-or-die proposition. “Either we truly make it and we’re a worldwide brand, or we won’t be here,” Levy says. “And if we fail, well, we’ll all start looking for jobs.”

For more conversation with Stu Levy, go to Variety‘s Bags and Boards blog

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