Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - A Quick and Dirty History of Manga in the US

by Jason Thompson, Mar 21st 2013

Episode CXLII: A Quick & Dirty History of Manga in the USA

The following mini-history of the US manga industry was originally created for a presentation at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco in 2007. After updating it for the last six years (in this case, "the sting-in-the-tail dark surprise ending") I now present it to H1000M readers. For reasons of embarrassment I've removed the personal anecdotes about how I myself thought manga was "weird" and didn't get into it until I was 16 years old, as well as removing the various old photos of Viz and Eclipse employees with long hair and bandannas doing organic gardening.

1961: The theatrical anime Alakazam the Great (original Japanese title Saiyûki, and loosely based on Osamu Tezuka's manga Boku no Son-goku) plays in American theaters. No one in America knows it's based on a manga, or, unless they're Japanese or they've just come back from Japan, probably even knows what "manga" means.

1963: Astro Boy, the first half-hour anime series on Japanese TV, begins syndication in America. Along with Tezuka's Kimba the White Lion and Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Tetsujin 28-go (aka Gigantor), it's the first of several manga whose anime adaptations are shown across the Pacific. Unfortunately, the comics market is more resistant to foreign material, and all American comics readers get is a made-in-America Astro Boy one-shot from Gold Key comics. But although manga is hidden in the background, anime and American TV are intertwined since the very beginning. (So when are Don Draper's kids gonna watch it in Mad Men?)

1968: Stan Lee goes to Japan and shakes hands with Osamu Tezuka and Go Nagai. Of course, he's there to sell Marvel Comics in Japan, not to find foreign comics to translate into English. The fruits of Lee's trip are things like Ryoichi Ikegami's Spider-Man manga. Lee talks about how he's trying to learn Japanese in "Stan's Soapbox" in the back of Marvel Comics.

1969: An unnamed American publisher offers to publish Takao Saito's samurai manga Muyonosuke in English, but Saito turns them down because the pay is too low. ("I said to him, you gotta be joking. Ten dollars a page, that's a quarter of what I usually get paid. They really look down us, thinking anything Japanese is cheap.")

1970: Fred Patten discovers import anime and manga. As Patten puts it:

"I discovered manga almost by accident. It was at a science fiction convention, WesterCon in 1970, and one of the exhibits was on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. There were a couple of real gung-ho fans who had collected all kinds of memorabilia…and one of the things that they had was the Japanese manga version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E."

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. adaptation (known as Napoleon Solo in Japan) happened to be drawn by Takao Saito. Afterwards, Patten gets into other anime and manga.

1972: Vernon Grant, an American servicemen in Japan, reads Lone Wolf and Cub and writes a glowing article about it in the Mainichi Shimbun:

“Japanese illustrators are the greatest action artists I've ever seen…The great space allowances have allowed the fuller development of cinematic techniques in japanese comics…(Goseki Kojima) has all but accomplished the impossible in placing motion on the printed page!”

Futabasha, the publisher, is so pleased by the review that they ask Grant how well he thinks Lone Wolf would do in America. (Evidently they weren't inspired by his answer.) Vernon Grant later goes on to become a small-press comics artist and self-publisher. Other American comics artists and writers—Wendy Pini, Jo Duffy, Ben Dunn, Joshua Quagmire—also discovered import manga around this time.

1973: Patten and a friend found Wonderworld Books, a Los Angeles-based bookstore that carries European graphic novels and imported (untranslated) manga. Their first offerings, advertised in English in their mail-order catalog, include Tetsujin 28-go, Devilman, and tons of Osamu Tezuka manga.

1974: America is in the middle of a ninja and martial arts craze, with comics like Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson's Manhunter is one of the first American comics influenced by manga, specifically by Kamui. The idea of a white ninja wearing a bright red kimono from the waist up and white-and-red superhero spandex from the waist down fails to take the world by storm. 

1975: The first mass-market commercial VCRs begin to hit America. Pretty soon, Fred Patten and his friend Mark Merlino start to tape anime off Japanese TV and show it at their animation club meetings in San Francisco. The Cartoon/Fantasy Organization becomes America's first anime club. (They also indulge extensively in furry fandom.)

1976: Maurice Horn's World Encyclopedia of Comics includes descriptions of Japanese comics.

1978: Project Gen, an antiwar/antinuclear activist group, translates Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen, the first commercial English translation of a Japanese manga.

1979: Monkey Punch, creator of Lupin III, goes on a trip to America, where he hangs out with comic artists in San Francisco and speaks to the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization in Los Angeles. He goes back to Japan laden with swag from his favorite American artists like Alex Nino, and writes a three-page comic about the trip in Animage magazine.

1980: Osamu Tezuka, Monkey Punch, and some other, more obscure mangaka are invited to San Diego Comic-Con as the first official Japanese guests of the convention. OH YEAH! NOW IT'S FOR REAL! Also around this time, some Japanese artists' work begins to appear as one-shots in American 'adult' comic anthologies like Heavy Metal and EPIC Illustrated. Sometime between 1980 and 1982 some Japanese artists raise the money to publish a whole book of this sort of thing in English, a portfolio piece titled simply Manga. The work in Manga, Heavy Metal and EPIC is all highly detailed, European-esque science fiction and fantasy manga. Artists with a more cartoony style, like Tezuka and Monkey Punch, and of course all shojo artists, are shafted.

Also in 1980, the film Shogun Assassin, based on Lone Wolf and Cub, is released in America. Young Comic artist Frank Miller watches it and, thanks to his friend Jo Duffy, soon discovers the original source material, He introduces ninja into the Marvel comic Daredevil, contributing to the '80s ninja craze, and leading to countless imitations and parodies in everything from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to The Tick.

1981: The Rose of Versailles is the first shojo manga published in English, albeit in a bilingual Edition aimed mainly at Japanese speakers, and with limited distribution.

1983: Frederik Schodt's Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics is the first English-language book on manga, and still possibly the best. Schodt had discovered manga as a college student in Japan in the early '70s. As a tall blonde long-haired white guy who speaks Japanese and loves manga, before this was a thing, he quickly becomes a personal friend of Osamu Tezuka and other artists.

1984: America is in the middle of a giant robot/mecha craze, from commercial megahits (Transformers, Shogun Warriors) to the more niche and obviously Japanese (Robotech). Untranslated Japanese shows are becoming increasingly popular in fandom (through fansubs). American artists start to make their own OEL/global/whatever-you-call-them mecha comics, like Dai Kamikaze and Dynamo Joe, and their own manga-influenced high school martial arts rom-coms, like Ninja High School.

It's the mid-80s, and America is obsessed with Japan, either in the negative ("they're taking over") or positive ("they're so cool!") sense. Ian Buruma's Behind the Mask: On Sexual Demons, Sacred Mothers, Transvestites, Gangsters, Drifters and Other Japanese Cultural Heroes is one of many trendy books on Japanese culture. Although not specifically about manga, it has tons of manga info especially about '70s stuff.

1986: Takao Saito self-publishes several Golgo 13 graphic novels in English. Even more are published after Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode comes out for the NES in 1988.

1987: THE BIG YEAR!! First Comics translates Lone Wolf and Cub (with covers by Frank Miller). This would be the first manga ever published in English, except that in the same month, Viz Comics jumps out in front of them and releases three manga: The Legend of Kamui, Mai the Psychic Girl and Area 88. Viz, still a mere fledgling chick, actually "co-publishes" with Eclipse Comics, a more established indy/small-press comics publisher.

The origin of Viz Comics is shrouded in mystery. James Hudnall, an American manga fan working at Eclipse Comics, claims that he had been writing to Japanese publishers for several years, trying to convince them to sell their manga in America. According to Hudnall, one of those publishers, Shogakukan, was so intrigued that they got in touch with some of their people in America, and the rest is history.

On the other hand, Seiji Horibuchi, the first publisher of Viz (a wholly owned subsidiary of Shogakukan), tells a different story. Horibuchi had been living in the US for several years, partly in a commune in the California hills along with his friend Satoru Fujii (Viz's first editor-in-chief). According to Horibuchi, he and a Shogakukan executive came up with the Viz idea themselves, and he brought in Fujii, the real manga expert of the three of them. In his untranslated Japanese book on the history of Viz, Moeru America, Horibuchi writes “My experiences with manga that left the strongest impression on me are…“Domu” (1983) by Katsuhiro Otomo. It is a SF manga masterpiece that portrays a world with supernatural powers in an everyday landscape, but the other reason that it left such an overpowering impression on me is most likely because I myself had been strongly influenced by the New Age movement so active in America during the 1970s."

In any case, Viz hired James Hudnall as one of their first rewriters, and they worked together for many years. Viz's relationship with Eclipse didn't end so well; after about a year of copublishing, Viz felt confident enough to go it on their own and broke off from Eclipse, who retaliated in 1989 by publishing Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters Massacre the Japanese Invasion in which the hamsters beat up Mai the Psychic Girl, Kamui, Astro Boy, etc. Eclipse went out of business several years later, although Cat Yronwode, one of the Eclipse's copublishers, is now a folk magician who runs the Lucky Mojo Curio Company and Magic Shop out of the old Eclipse offices in Northern California. Meanwhile, James Hudnall, who had formerly worked with this bunch of hippies, is now a writer on several right-wing libertarian websites.

1988: The black-and-white comics boom caused by the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crashes, taking Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters and many other black-and-white comics flaming down to the pits of unpopularity. Manga also suffers, and Viz has to cut back their twice-a-month monthly titles to once-a-month. It's the beginning of lean times for Viz, now a small company in San Francisco. They experiment with colorization and other techniques in an attempt to improve sales. First Comics goes out of business a few years later, without finishing Lone Wolf and Cub.

Meanwhile, Viz has new competition. Toren Smith (1960-2013) had been introduced to manga and anime in the early '80s by his friend James Hudnall and spent a year in Japan as a starving gaijin trying to make connections in the business before forming his translation and localization company, Studio Proteus. Initially Studio Proteus and Viz worked together, but after a disagreement (rumored to have been over who got to translate Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) Smith went it alone and started to work for other companies. Studio Proteus' two biggest clients were Dark Horse Comics, for whom Proteus selected and translated almost their entire manga line, and Fantagraphics Books, for whom Smith started their adult manga line, MangErotica. According to Smith, he and his wife, Tomoyuki Saito, pioneered the ways in which manga were localized in America, including how to reletter the sound effects, and "flipping" the manga left-to-right so Americans could read it more easily.

1989: Marvel Comics (through their EPIC imprint) begins to translate Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira in a colorized edition. It becomes the bestselling manga in the US. However, the last issues are delayed for several years for unknown reasons, and Marvel never translates any other manga.

Late 1990s: Companies like A.D. Vision, Central Park Media, Manga Entertainment, Streamline Pictures and AnimEigo (who actually started in the late '80s) start to popularize direct-to-video anime releases. Meanwhile, the manga market slowly grows again, and ton of small manga publishers dot the landscape: Antarctic Press, Sun Publishing, CPM Manga, and others.

1990: Viz begins publishing Ranma ½, the first shonen love-com in English, several years after Ben Dunn had started his Ninja High School, his popular OEL Ranma ½-Kimagure Orange Road love-com parody. (Confession: I, and most manga fans I knew in the early '90s, actually read Ninja High School before I read Ranma ½.)

1994: Studio Proteus and Dark Horse enters the love-com game with Oh My Goddess!. Dark Horse executives are so skeptical about Oh My Goddess! that Toren Smith has to promise to pay the costs himself if it doesn't make money. The result: sales are great, and it's Dark Horse's longest running manga, still being translated today.

Although Ranma ½ and Oh My Goddess! aren't shojo manga, they have heavy crossover appeal to female fans. Due partly to this growing female fanbase, also in 1994, Matt Thorn is able to convince Viz to publish some shojo (technically josei) manga, starting with Promise by Keiko Nishi, and later They Were Eleven by Moto Hagio and X/1999 by CLAMP. Matt Thorn, now one of America's biggest shojo experts, still translates manga for Fantagraphics and also teaches manga and graphic novels at a college in Japan. 

Late 1990s: Japanese video games and direct-to-video anime continue to grow in popularity. The names of companies like U.S. Manga Corps and Manga Entertainment confuse thousands of anime fans who think that "manga" means "anime." Joe Madureira, X-Men artist in 1996, tells Wizard magazine: “If I can have my way, I want to have more special moves, flashier powers and cool effects…slowly but surely, we'll transform X-Men into a cool manga book.” Manga Entertainment's "Manga Man" appears on VHS cases and T-shirts. Todd MacFarlane releases a series of "Manga Spawn" action figures. Billy Tucci releases Manga Shi. Yet the apex of this horror comes not now, but 15 years later with Manga Claus (Amazon.com reviewer: "Most youngsters these days play ultra-sophisticated video games and read "manga-style" graphic novels. So it's fun to see Santa Claus make the jump into a contemporary role for kids")

1997: Stu Levy founds Mixx Entertainment and publishes their first manga magazine, Mixxzine. Viz had previously tried a manga anthology in the U.S., Manga Vizion, but Mixxzine had a much better price-per-page-count (248 pages for $4.95 instead of Manga Vizion's 128 pages) and better distribution. "My dream had always been to have a magazine just like in Japan that millions of people would read in America," Levy writes. Levy is mocked by older manga fans, including me, for calling manga "motionless picture entertainment" and for his over-the-top editorial persona ("Watzup Mixxers!! Now that most of you who are lucky enough to still be students are back in class for more edewkashon (oops, did I spell that wrong?), we here at Mixx thought it would be kinda cool to give you EVEN MORE drop-dead, slammin', jammin', tear-jerkin', heart-yankin', funky-butt CONTENT for you to take with you to class!!!")

However, Mixxzine makes a big impact, particularly because it's the first company to translate shojo manga for at YA audiences—Magic Knight Rayearth and Sailor Moon—rather than the classic, older-audience stuff favored by Matt Thorn and released by Viz. It's also because times are changing: Sailor Moon has played on American TV and created thousands of future fangirls. Mixxzine magazine folds after a few years, but Stu Levy renames the company "TokyoPop" and continues to go boldly where no manga publisher had gone before.

1998: Inspired by Mixxzine, Viz launches Animerica Extra and Dark Horse launches Super Manga Blast!. The "manga anthology wars" truly begin.

Also in this year, Viz releases the first Pokémon comics, which immediately become super-bestsellers. Super-bestselling also leads to super-censorship, due to all the extra parents' eyes looking at the manga. Nonetheless, all the extra Pokémon money lets Viz double the size of the company in a few years.

2002: THE SECOND BIG YEAR!! Two major manga anthology magazines, Raijin Comics and Shonen Jump, both of which I've written about in other columns, launch this year. Animerica Extra and Super Manga Blast! both suddenly look kind of small by comparison and fold within a few years.

However, an even bigger event this year is Tokyopop's "100% Authentic Manga" campaign. Rather than just sneaking unflopped manga onto the market quietly like Viz had done a few years prior with Dragon Ball and Neon Genesis Evangelion, Tokyopop advertises their change. "No more flipped images! No more watered down manga!" shouts a two-page advertisement in Diamond PREVIEWS. "Imagine if Captain America suddenly started carrying his shield in his left hand, or if Nick Fury had a patch on his left eye instead of his right. Imagine looking at an Alex Ross painted Superman comic where another artist redrew the "S" emblem in every panel. Imagine if DC went back and added Jack Kirby style sound effects into Watchmen. A casual reader might not notice these things during a quick read, but any comic book fan or creator would definitely notice the difference."

The resulting graphic novels start a debate among fans and retailers. Toren Smith speaks out in favor of flopping: "“Why flop the pages?…Just as a subtitled movie is unlikely to reach a large audience, unflopped manga would certainly sell only to a very small portion of the current audience. Secondly, the storytelling of the comic would suffer…any English language reader is going to have a hell of a time reading English forward and the pictures backward.” Stu Levy shrugs and says “I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair and I saw that the Germans were doing it unflopped and it was hugely successful…And at the same time there was a new Japanese licensor, Shueisha, and they really wanted us to do the unflopped version. And so we decided as a company to basically bet the farm.”

The bet pays off. Tokyopop's 100% Authentic Manga makes tons of money, and, for the most part, the only people who complain about having to read manga right-to-left are people who don't read much manga anyway. Also, not coincidentally, doing manga unflopped with untranslated SFX saves Tokyopop as much as $20-30 a page based on previously industry-standard lettering and translation rates. (Some unscrupulous manga publishers save even more money by scanning the manga directly from the Japanese tankobon, instead of ordering expensive photographic film from Japan, which isn't included in the licensing costs.) Soon, for the new generation of anime fans, unflopped manga is a no-brainer.

2004: Toren Smith retires from manga translation. In an interview with The Comics Journal (apparently not online anymore), he predicts that the current manga boom is unsustainable and there will be a backlash due to too many "crap" manga flooding the shelves.

Also around 2004, Kurt Hassler, graphic novel buyer at Borders and Waldenbooks, puts his full weight behind the new manga boom. "“Some publishers were uneasy about right-to-left paging. I was in a position to say, ‘If you make this change, Waldenbooks will support what you're doing.’” Hassler would later leave Borders to found Yen Press.

Mid-2000s: Tons of new publishers jump into the booming manga market: CMX, Del Rey, ADV Manga, Aurora Publishing, Infinity Studios, Seven Seas Entertainment, Digital Manga Publishing (who had previously sold CD-ROM manga in the 1990s) and others. Other companies, such as Dark Horse and Netcomics, start to experiment with Korean manhwa (which Tokyopop had pioneered with titles like Ragnarok, Priest and Island in the 1990s.)

Around this time, DMP and CPM's Be Beautiful imprint start publishing Boys Love manga in the U.S., and it's a raging success. In the words of DMP CEO Hikaru Sasahara: "When I went to Japan four years ago, I went to a company called Tokuma Shoten, they published Only the Ring Finger Knows. I had the chance to meet with the president of the company and he asked me "Do you know this manga called yaoi?”…And he told me I had to try it because it was selling so well in Japan. I said, no way, there's no market…But he was very stubborn and very insistent, so I said, "Okay, but only the one title"...But when it hit the market, it was BOOM, and I said, "What? Damn!”

2007: In terms of sales, the height of the manga market in the US. However, dark shadows are already on the horizon. The collapsing anime video/DVD market has crippled ADV Films, and ADV Manga (which, admittedly, also had the worst translation and lettering of any manga company) along with it. Fewer and fewer new anime are being shown on American TV, cutting off a potential source of new manga fans, since really popular manga in the US has always been linked to anime releases.

At the 2007 ICv2 Anime and Manga Conference, while everyone else is cautiously optimistic, Al Kahn, CEO of 4Kids Entertainment, slags on the future of manga and anime. "“I think basically it's over in Japan, for the moment…I think Japan is tired, I think manga is tired…Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Dragon Ball Z have really sustained. But what's new? What can we point to in the last 10 years? For us if the merchandise is not going to work, there's no point…In your little world, you might be great, but in the real world, it's not working.”

2008: Manga sales begin to fall. The first major company to lay off staff is Tokyopop, followed by Viz in 2009. Some blame scanlations, others blame Borders' financial troubles, others blame ebooks and new digital media, others blame a general anti-manga backlash. One by one, manga publishers go out of business or severely cut back their releases.

2013: Manga sales are still falling. Viz and Yen Press are now the biggest publishers, although Yen's bestselling titles by far are adaptations of English-language YA novels. JManga, the Japanese publishers' webcomic collective announced with much fanfare in 2010, just went out of business. (Too bad they couldn't get the rights for more popular titles.) And though there's still tons of manga in public libraries across the US, thanks to the mid-2000s manga boom, there's a lot less on bookstore shelves.

On the other hand, the news isn't all bad. All the major manga companies now have ebooks or some sort of online manga initiative. Viz's Shonen Jump is now online and simultaneous with Japan. You can read classic Shotaro Ishimori manga on Comixology. What manga has lost in popular, mass-market titles, it's gained in niche and art-comix appeal: smaller companies like Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf and PictureBox are now releasing beautiful, hardcover editions of manga like The Heart of Thomas, Kitaro, Ax and The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame. It's almost as if, now that manga isn't popular anymore, it's cool enough for the indy crowd again! But since I like indy comics too, and sometimes I think I've read all the friendship-perseverance-victory YA battle stories and love stories I can handle, it's all good.

It's been a long 36 years since the first translated manga, but manga still lives. I hope in a few years I'll be able to do an updated version of this history with a twist ending in which it resumes its dominant position in the market, perhaps due to mahjongg manga. Like in 20th Century Boys, the doomsday prophecies for manga are NOT inevitable! The future CAN be changed! See you next week!


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