2005 Year in Review
Manga

by Carlo Santos, Jan 11th 2006
Ever since the right-to-left revolution, it seems that each year has supplanted the previous one as "The Year of Manga." The same could also be said of 2005, but in a different way: while previous years saw pure growth, this was a year of flux. So many titles are now available that an increasingly savvy (and increasingly strapped-for-cash) fanbase must choose exactly what they want to read. Gone are the days when companies could license anything and expect it to sell. In that respect, manga now behaves like a proper economic market—no longer a niche, but a regular part of the book industry.

Reaching this critical mass has had its ups and downs—some publishers exploded with new acquisitions and directions, while others did a little soul-searching, and others had to drop out entirely. Expect some more pushing and shoving in the next few years as the market continues to stabilize. Like a teenager's body catching up with those gangly limbs, 2005 was the year that manga grew up.

No other publisher grew more than Viz, which merged with Japanese media magnate ShoPro Entertainment to form a towering giant robot—by which I mean, Viz Media. Their first big move, the acquisition of the Naruto anime, made its impact felt in the manga world when the show's Cartoon Network debut boosted sales for old volumes of Naruto. Throughout the year, Viz announced license after license of seemingly every popular manga ever, culminating one week in December when Bookscan's 10 top-selling graphic novels were all Viz titles. Naruto, Rurouni Kenshin, Bleach, Fullmetal Alchemist, Hot Gimmick... it was like looking into an oracle of every manga series that mattered. Just in case you thought they were turning themselves over entirely to kids and teenagers, though, titles like Sexy Voice and Robo, Phoenix, and Monster guarantee that smart and satisfying manga won't go ignored.

But being a media company, Viz wasn't just about books. The mid-year launch of Shôjo Beat magazine—serializing hit series like NANA and Absolute Boyfriend—provided a refreshing, character-driven alternative to the kick-and-punch action of Shonen Jump. Unfortunately, Animerica magazine was dropped as a result of this, and now exists only as a shell of its former self at anime conventions and Borders bookstores.

While Viz was busy selling the best of Japan, Tokyopop was trying a different tactic: selling international artists who can draw like Japan. Their big push for OEL (original English language) manga met with mixed results, with some audiences accepting it readily, and others writing it off as wannabe hackery. Despite their strong focus on homegrown titles, however, Tokyopop's bread and butter continued to be top-selling series like Fruits Basket and D.N.Angel. (The Cine-manga line, which now relies mostly on American TV properties, exists in a world all its own.) Some of their newer licenses also aimed for more rarefied tastes, like rock 'n' roll series Beck, the apocalyptic and densely illustrated Blame!, and Koge Donbo's cute-beyond-cute Kamichama Karin.

Another business development was the distribution deal with neophyte translation studio Blu, which opened a new channel into the yaoi market with titles like Earthian and Love Mode. Less auspicious, however, was the news that Tokyopop had no plans to renew expired licenses to Marmalade Boy, Kodocha and Sailor Moon. Let's hope you've finished collecting them, because they aren't printing any new copies...

For two manga publishers under the umbrellas of larger parent companies, 2005 couldn't have been more different. Del Rey, a subdivision of Random House, went nowhere but up with their manga releases—if it wasn't Tsubasa and Negima lighting up the Bookscan charts, it was Nodame Cantabile and Love Roma winning the acclaim of critics. Despite their small catalog of titles, Del Rey has been picking plenty of winners, representing a wide cross-section of manga: otaku comedy Genshiken, CLAMP's mystery-horror series xxxHOLiC, and Moyoco Anno's charming but hip take on the magical girl genre, Sugar Sugar Rune. Things look to be even better in 2006 with upcoming releases like School Rumble.

Meanwhile, DC Comics' manga division CMX proved that even America's most prestigious comic company can screw things up. The popular fight-and-fanservice series Tenjho Tenge should have been their high-profile release of the year—and it was, just not in the way they imagined. CMX's heavy editing of the first volume caused a major fan uproar, with entire websites being dedicated to pointing out the redrawn panels, sneaky zoom-ins, and cover-ups of objectionable visuals. Readers asked for an unedited version, or at least an "edited content" warning on the cover, but CMX's response was no response at all. The company's stonewalling at a San Diego Comic-Con panel further damaged the confidence of readers. After a management shakeup, it seems that the company has corrected their ways in newer releases like Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne, but it will take a lot more hard work to win back the trust of disillusioned fans.

As manga's major players continued to duke it out, mid-sized and smaller publishers tried to survive an increasingly competitive market. ADV Manga, which claimed to have acquired a thousand titles last year, faltered when layoffs and poor sales caused many series to come out late, or not at all. With their first wave of hits like Azumanga Daioh, Chrono Crusade and Full Metal Panic! finished or near-finished, ADV Manga has had trouble following them up; only Yotsuba&! seems to have won over manga readers lately. Series that dated all the way back to 2004, like Tactics and Gunslinger Girl, were crippled by a one-year lag between volumes.

Other companies suffered even worse misfortunes. Studio Ironcat closed down entirely, but at least they announced it; Gutsoon's Raijin Comics line, which had declared a "hiatus" a year ago, just quietly disappeared. ComicsOne, best known for Iron Wok Jan!, seemed to be on the verge of collapse, but parent publisher DrMaster took over and the company re-emerged with a new name and new titles including Stellvia and Tsukihime.

Even longtime manga stalwart Dark Horse made some cost-cutting moves: Super Manga Blast! magazine called it quits, and Oh My Goddess! was switched to a $10 unflipped format. However, marquee action series such as Trigun and Hellsing continued their strong performance, and there was still room for exquisitely illustrated new releases like Ghost in the Shell: Man-Machine Interface, Katsuya Terada's The Monkey King, and Eden.

For some of manga's non-powerhouse publishers, the best way to stay financially afloat was to capitalize on yaoi/shonen-ai/boy's-love—well, whatever you call it, guys doing other guys was decidedly hot. Digital Manga Publishing led the way, even going so far as to sell the infamous "yaoi paddles" at conventions. (There's a yuri one too, and heaven help us if there should ever be a lolicon paddle.) Plans for the future include J-Boys, a periodical anthology of boy's-love stories that will be the first of its kind in America. Fans of more serious manga will also recognize DMP as the publisher behind Range Murata's Robot, a highly acclaimed full-color volume that's part manga and part artbook. In this way DMP has walked the line between high smut and high art, even throwing in some "Let's Draw Manga" instructional books for good measure.

If DMP's yaoi line wasn't satisfying enough, CPM Manga's Be Beautiful imprint provided plenty more man-on-man action. Although priced at a premium ($14-16), the larger page size and explicit content of these titles made them worth the extra dollars. Paradoxically, CPM had to put its mainstream manga and manhwa titles on hold for the rest of the year and will be resuming those releases in 2006.

With manga companies trying to adjust to a changing market, many of them branched out into Japanese publications that weren't necessarily manga. Viz Media, with their intense focus on releasing, well, everything, published a handful of artbooks for popular series like One Piece, Inuyasha, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Howl's Moving Castle. Tokyopop, not to be outdone, released CLAMP's career-spanning North and South Side artbooks, while the collectible Clamp no Kiseki magazine/artbook/figurine set got plenty of attention for the adorable chess pieces of classic characters like Mokona and Cardcaptor Sakura.

On the opposite end of artbooks were franchise-based prose novels: could manga fans raised on visual narrative adjust to the idea of reading words? Tokyopop had already made some inroads with serial novels like CLAMP Paranormal Investigators and Slayers, but 2005 might finally be the year that "lite novels" became mainstream. Fans looking for entertaining adventures could turn to the .hack//AI buster or Fullmetal Alchemist novels, while those looking for more serious fare had Vampire Hunter D and Ghost in the Shell: The Long Goodbye, a "mid-quel" between the first and second Ghost in the Shell movies. Viz also tried out conventional novels like Socrates in Love and Kamikaze Girls, both of which were popular enough in Japan to spawn manga series and live-action features.

With companies like Tokyopop and CPM championing the cause of manhwa, you'd think that Korean comics would have caught on by now—but it seems that the Korean wave has stalled on its way to Western shores. Have the strategies of American publishers fallen short? Maybe it's time for Korea to step in: ICE Kunion, a conglomerate of manhwa publishers, announced their plans in mid-year and started releasing new titles like Chocolat and Angel Diary. Another Korean publishing group, Netcomics, jumped in right at the end of 2005, so if 2006 is to be the year of the manhwa explosion, ICE Kunion and Netcomics will have to ignite it.

One of the most contentious issues of the year was the emergence of original English language manga, or OEL. Western comic artists have been adopting the manga and anime "look" for years, but when Tokyopop started releasing left-to-right books and hosting Rising Stars of Manga contests (which recently expanded to the UK), the phenomenon reached a new level of visibility. What was once called "Amerimanga" developed a more inclusive name after the realization that there are more countries in this world than Japan and America; Tokyopop has signed creators from Canada and Australia while OEL-only publisher Seven Seas boasts artists from the Philippines.

The OEL oeuvre has been a mixed bag, ranging from critical successes—Dramacon and MBQ were among Publisher's Weekly's Best Comics of 2005—to big-eyed, pointy-chinned slop. Even non-manga publishers, releasing titles like Scott Pilgrim and Daisy Kutter, are promoting a generation of young artists for whom the manga influence comes just as naturally as superhero adventures and newspaper funnies. Speaking of which, Tokyopop has gone so far as to syndicate two of its original series, Van Von Hunter and Peach Fuzz, for serialization in American newspapers.

Perhaps the poetic Engrish on the Aichi Expo manga contest website says it best: "Manga is an universal culture that originated from Japan. It is now time for Digital Manga to go overseas. You are the hero!"

Of course, no discussion of manga would be complete without considering its country of origin. The manga industry in Japan is so huge that it would be ridiculous trying to cover all the goings-on, but a poll in the entertainment magazine Oricon Style provided a quick rundown of the year's five most "attention-grabbing" manga:

1. NANA
2. Hana Yori Dango (Boys Over Flowers)
3. Death Note
4. Dragon Sakura
5. Hachimitsu to Kuroba (Honey and Clover)

Apparently, the conventional wisdom of adapting a manga to an anime series has been trumped by live-action adaptations. Pop-culture phenomenon NANA reached its peak when the movie starring J-pop chanteuse Mika Nakashima premiered in September. Hana Yori Dango got a fourth lease on life (number two was the anime series; number three was the Taiwanese drama Meteor Garden) when it was adapted into a live-action drama. Dragon Sakura was also a drama series, and while Honey and Clover ran as a surprisingly successful anime in 2005, it will be adapted into a live-action movie in 2006. Probably bubbling just under the list was Initial D, which got the live-action movie treatment from Hong Kong. That leaves Death Note as the only manga series that's popular just for being a manga. But who knows? Maybe they're scouting for boy band singers right now who could play Light/Raito and L.

2005 was a learning experience for manga publishers in North America. Corporate maneuvers, a shifting market and companies in crisis taught them that the license-everything mentality no longer holds. As the industry matures, what new approaches will succeed? Is it manga-related Japanese media that goes beyond comics? Is it manga-related comics that come from beyond Japan? This rapidly growing industry, this pop culture wunderkind, has much more to explore in 2006—and watching it develop will be just as exciting as any manga storyline.

discuss this in the forum (23 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

back to 2005 Year in Review
Feature homepage / archives

Around The Web