Answerman Why Did Shonen Jump Succeed In America?
by Justin Sevakis,
In Japan, a huge amount of manga is serialized in magazines. But in the west, the only such magazine was Shonen Jump. Why did Viz and Shueisha take this chance, how did it manage to keep running for nearly a decade, and why was it the only magazine of its kind here?
There were several attempts at launching English-language serialized manga magazines by various companies over the years. Manga is, predominantly, a serialized magazine artform in Japan (with tankoubon, or graphic novel versions, coming about later for most series). Trying to compile manga into a magazine for American readers was a natural thing to attempt.
Early manga publications in the US were mostly modeled after American "floppy" comics, and were monthly (or bi-monthly) 32-page large-format pamphlets that were sold for $3-5 each. Viz's Animerica Magazine included an installment of one of their internally loved but harder-to-sell series like Five Star Stories and Area 88 as a special manga section for most of its run, much like Newtype Magazine did in Japan.
Sensing that long, black and white series were just not really suited to short floppy American comics, Viz made their first attempt at a manga magazine back in 1995. Called Manga Vizion, it launched with three titles: Rumiko Takahashi Anthology, Ogre Slayer, and Ryoichi Ikegami's Samurai Crusader. Later, it added Moto Hagio's A, A', several short shoujo stories by Keiko Nishi, Spriggan, Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack, Kia Asamiya's Steam Detectives, as well as Striker. It was never a huge seller, but it had a good run, and lasted until 1999. It didn't quite die, but was reinvented as Animerica Extra, and slowly started veering in a more shojo direction.
In 1997, Viz launched a second magazine called Pulp, aimed at adult readers. Featuring manga like Taiyo Matsumoto's Tekkon Kinkreet (re-named "Black & White"), Uzumaki, Banana Fish and Dance Till Tomorrow, as well as some truly great editorial content, Pulp was a modest hit and ran until 2002.
Tokyopop, originally called Mixx Entertainment, started its life as a bi-monthly manga magazine called MixxZine back in 1997. MixxZine was kind of a bizarre hodgepodge of manga series for completely different audiences, and never really found a clear identity for itself: its launch titles were Sailor Moon, Parasyte, Magic Knight Rayearth, Ice Blade and Harlem Beat. The manga was printed with a two-page spread of manga placed sideways on each page of color magazine, with a garish color border. Cover art often veered towards urban and graffiti motifs. The English text was typeset in a bunch of different fonts. It was a very strange magazine, and it only lasted a year before Sailor Moon was spun off. In 1999 it was relaunched as a free magazine called Tokyopop, which rotated between Rayearth, Mobile Suit Gundam: Blue Destiny, Parasyte and Sorcerer Hunters. The relaunched magazine lingered for another year before being discontinued.
As for Sailor Moon, it was spun off into a new magazine called Smile, which was aimed at teenaged girls. Adding Peach Girl, Juline, and a bunch of brightly colored pages on fashion and such, the magazine had limited success, and lasted from 1998 until late 2000.
With magazines in this era, we must remember a few things. First, manga was not yet well accepted or understood in North America. There were fans, of course, but the market had quite far to go before it could reach critical mass. The giant expansion into bookstores was also not yet something that was happening on a large scale, so these magazines were predominantly only sold in comic stores, which severely limited their accessibility. More importantly, large-ticket advertisers, by which magazines live and die, had not yet entirely warmed to putting their ads in a magazine filled with manga. (Tokyopop tried to do something about this by adding a lot of editorial content, and it worked to an extent.)
Shonen Jump launched in 2002, right as the manga market was really starting to explode. Shonen Jump is the most popular manga magazine in Japan, and many of its biggest series were (and still are) also quite big in the US. As, by this time, Viz was partially owned by Shonen Jump's Japanese publisher Shueisha, the company was able to go all-in on a big US push, with titles that fans already knew and loved (Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, Bleach, Naruto, etc.), a big name that screamed "authentically Japanese", and low-priced unflopped paperback graphic novels to match. With the launch of such a big title, Viz was finally ready to approach bookstores and go big into news stands. With a bunch of new publishers also going big with bookstore pushes, this was probably the moment of "peak manga".
It was an immediate success -- so much so, that the first issue had to have three printings, finally selling over 300,000 units. With initial circulation numbers like that, Viz had an easy time courting advertisers. Even as late as 2008, at a time when the print magazine industry was basically burning to the ground, Shonen Jump USA still boasted 215,000 readers (half of which were from subscriptions).
However, with the rise of scanlation sites and other not-so-legal ways of reading manga, it soon became clear that the long lead time required to produce a print magazine was just no longer acceptable to many fans. In order to facilitate simultaneous release of new manga as it appeared in the original Japanese Shonen Jump, the company launched a paid online version. This was further bolstered by the appearance of the iPad, and later, similar Android devices, which enabled online manga consumption on the go. Much of the user base switched to the online version in early 2012, and within only four months, the print version was history. The print advertising market only got rougher by that time, so I'm sure that also hastened the print version's demise.
The manga bubble also had its share of other manga magazines, but none were anywhere near as successful as Shonen Jump. After scuttling Animerica Extra, Viz launched a shojo companion magazine with Shojo Beat, which lasted for about four years but only managed to pull in about 38,000 subscribers. (It was suddenly dropped in July 2009.) New Japanese-backed startup Gutsoon! Entertainment made a big splash at the same time as Shonen Jump launched, with their short-lived Raijin Comics magazine -- which was supposed to be published weekly! A mediocre line-up and flat-out awful design killed the mag within a year. Yen Press launched Yen Plus as an anthology for manga, manhwa and OEL comics, which lasted two years in print and another three online before folding in late 2013.
Also noteworthy is Dark Horse Comics' Super Manga Blast! anthology, which ran from 2000 through 2005. As Dark Horse always specialized in a small stable of critically loved manga, it's not altogether clear to me how the trajectory of that magazine went. I'll have to make some inquiries and do a deep dive some other time.
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