Foreign flavors grow readership

Imports add variety to industry

Whether it’s manga from Asia or bande desinee from France, international comics have arrived on American shores with unexpected success the past few years.

Leading the way is the massive explosion of comics from Asia, called manga, from the Japanese word for comics. Published in thick pocket-size books that sell for about $10, manga has grown from about a $60 million market in 2002 to between $90 million and $110 million in 2003, with double-digit growth forecast for this year, according to ICV2.com, a comics industry Web site.

Selling to a younger audience — many of whom undoubtedly cut their teeth on Asian culture with the Pokemon fad a few years ago — manga’s diversity of genre stands in sharp contrast to the superheroes that dominate at domestic comicbook publishers.

While manga’s presence has grown at the specialty stores that are the main outlet for American-style periodical comics, it has been most successful in bookstores, reaching a young mainstream and female audience that showed little interest in superhero comics and likes manga’s fast-paced kinetic storytelling and stylized artwork.

The explosion of interest in manga has led to a plethora of publishers in the field, from longtime importer Viz to new imprints from established U.S. publishers such as Del Rey, all mostly mining decades of material primarily from Japan, where manga has sold millions of copies a week for decades and is a $4 billion-a-year business.

“I like saying manga is probably the last great untapped source of pop culture in the world,” says Carl Horn, manga editor at Dark Horse Comics. The Oregon-based company has published manga since 1988, bringing such classics as “Lone Wolf and Cub” and Masamune Shirow’s “Ghost in the Shell” to American readers

Horn says Dark Horse tries to publish the best material it can get and build interest in manga organically, hoping to expand the readership into the older demographics that read manga in Japan. “Build up the artist and the category will build itself,” he says.

Los Angeles-based TokyoPop has had huge success importing manga, but it is looking to create new manga from licensed and original properties. The company has turned fare such as Disney’s “Finding Nemo” into Cine-Manga — which retell film or TV stories using photographs and comicbook-style word balloons — and has plans for “Star Trek” manga.

But it’s original fare such as “@Large,” a hip-hop manga by Los Angeles artist Ahmed Hoke, and the Courtney Love creation “Princess Ai,” that CEO Stuart Levy sees as the future of TokyoPop.

“Certainly, the mining phase of this business is more or less over and next is the creation phase,” says Levy, who founded the company in 1997.

TokyoPop also sees its manga publishing as a way to develop properties for film and TV. “Manga is perfect for young audiences, who are approaching film, TV, books with a very visual and modern storytelling eye,” says Rene Garcia, VP of film and TV. The company approaches each property as a complete business of its own and tries to find the right match for it. Among its current projects is “Priest,” a Gothic horror-Western story from South Korea that TokyoPop and Union Entertainment are partners in producing a film version of.

The success of manga has not been lost on the big two American comics publishers, Marvel and DC Comics. Manga has been more of an indirect influence on Marvel, which has used Japanese creators and manga formats.

DC has become a nexus of East and West, planning an imported manga line called CMX for the fall and striking deals this year with European comics houses Humanoids in France and Rebellion in the U.K. to repackage their material Stateside.

Paul Levitz, president and publisher of DC, says that while he doesn’t expect this material to be a phenomenon the way manga is, the form’s diversity should bring more readers into comics. “You never know what may attract new readers, but new flavors generally work best.”

Longstanding relationship

The European connection makes sense for DC, as the company has been recruiting talents such as Alan Moore from Rebellion’s long-running 2000 A.D. magazine for two decades.

Both the Humanoids and Rebellion material require some repackaging. In France, comics are sold as oversized, 48-page hardcover books that American buyers in the past have found too expensive and thin. The DC editions will be softcover comicbook size and collect multiple volumes.

The Rebellion books offer different challenges in that that many of the stories were originally serialized in weekly black-and-white magazines, so DC will collect and color them for their U.S. release, Levitz says.

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