The Mike Toole Show Manga in the USA
by Michael Toole, Jan 1st 2012
It's the New Year, and you know what that means! It's time for a year-end retrospective, to sum up the ten best, the ten worst, and throw in numerous other top ten lists. I'll cover top ten OVAs, top ten toy commercials disguised as TV shows, top ten characters based on historical figures, top ten My Little Pony mashups, and top ten director cameos. We-- wait a minute. I don't like top ten lists all that much. They're the junk food of the internet! Are you telling me I'm writing one now?! Well. I'm going to put a stop to that right this instant.
A few columns back, I went on at considerable length about Area 88. One of its distinctions is that it was one of the first manga to see publication in English in the US - and specifically, it's part of a group of titles that was the first to be sold to North American readers very specifically as manga, as largely untouched, unaltered, and un-repackaged popular Japanese comics, not as exotic foreign fare. What's interesting and kind of staggering is that, prior to Area 88's initial publication in 1987, English-language manga had virtually no footprint at all. When you look at the vast selection on Amazon or remember that the New York Times has a manga-specific bestseller list, it's difficult to conceive that things were once that meager. Looking at my floppy Area 88 comics, I begin to wonder: what was the earliest English-language manga? Well, let's start working our way back, shall we?
Let's start in that same year of 1987. Viz's first three books, Area 88 (already covered), Mai the Psychic Girl, and Legend of Kamui, hit the stores in April. Kamui is definitely the odd one out - both Kaoru Shintani's Area 88 and Kudo & Ikegami's Mai were sleek and refined, while Kamui, a historical epic by gekiga tastemaker Sanpei Shirato, had a much rougher look to it. Shirato's character art is fairly amazing and expressive, but his penchant for spare scenery and his unflinchingly violent tale of Edo-era Japan really stood apart. Historical manga epics are well-loved nowadays, but Kamui was one of the first that really carried cultural cachet (it was the first serialized story to appear in Japan's trendsetting Garo manga magazine) and had a story that mixed fearless social criticism with its tales of ninja derring-do. Viz's release featured beautiful, more modern-looking color covers by Shirato and his studio, and they did take the series into book form in reprints, but the vast majority of the voluminous 23-book series remains unreleased in English.
In that same month, First Comics published Lone Wolf and Cub. This title was so popular (as noted by Jason Thompson - dude, you're making this too easy for me!) that it went to reprints over and over. I bought the book when it came out, and I remember three things about it. First of all, Frank Miller's cover was great, but it didn't match up with Goseki Kojima's artwork all that well. I loved Miller's art, and was vaguely disappointed that the inside didn't match. Second of all, First really did a good job of playing the pusher, giving the initial issue a whopping 100+ pages and pricing it attractively at $1.50. The pagecount would drop and the price would go up soon, but that deal was completely irresistible. Finally, I remember going to get it on the long-established New Comics Wednesday at about 3pm. Before I left the store, all the copies were gone. If I hadn't gone to get it immediately after school, no Lone Wolf and Cub for me. No introduction to great manga at a tender young age. My god, if not for that, I might still be reading ROM: Spaceknight! (Not that there's anything wrong with ROM: Spaceknight...)
If you jump just one year prior to Viz's entry in 1987, you'll find a few odd little gems, as well. Way back when I wrote about Golgo 13, I discussed LEED Publishing, artist Takao Saito's company, and their experiments with getting Golgo 13 to English-language readers - first in 1986 with a series of handsome trade paperbacks that are still fairly easy to find, and then in 1989 with a pair of cheap, poorly-printed, and generally wonderful 24-page comic books. These days, when a Japanese company goes plunging headlong into the US market without thinking too hard about adapting to our unique market conditions (e.g. Toei USA and Bandai Visual USA), I tend to remember outfits like LEED. I don't think their Golgo 13 release was a disaster, but after collaborating with Viz on a short series of colored Golgo 13 comics in the 90s, the publisher drew back from the American market. What did they hope to achieve? It's a mystery.
Go Nagai's Dynamic Planning also have a history of experimenting with the domestic market. In 1986 the first volume of Nagai's famous Devilman was released stateside - like LEED's Golgo 13, as a handsome little paperback, flipped for Western release but otherwise unaltered. I only became cognizant of this release recently, which stunned me - I was a voracious comics reader in 1986, and while my 10-year-old tastes skewed towards GI Joe and Justice League, I greedily scoured every corner of my local New England Comics for whatever looked interesting, and definitely would've flipped through Devilman if I'd seen it. Maybe they kept Devilman behind the counter - I certainly wouldn't have blamed them! Our own Jason Thompson talks about this release at length here. But Devilman wasn't the first step into the American comics market for Go Nagai. That was Oni.
It's easy to joke about how POW! BAM! COMICS AREN'T JUST FOR KIDS!, but in the early 1980s this was still a fairly revolutionary concept. Underground comix artists like R. Crumb and Gary Panter were quietly becoming folk heroes, but the market was still dominated by safe, general audiences fare. But Marvel Comics, naturally, wanted a piece of that "for mature audiences" pie, and so they launched EPIC Magazine, a rag more than a little reminiscent of Heavy Metal that featured house Marvel artists doing more raw, edgy fare. Along with Marvel regulars like Chris Claremont and Jim Starlin, the magazine would often commission stories from well-known artists outside the superhero pantheon. The magazine drew in several short manga stories - Heart and Steel by Kaze Shinobu, Landed by Keiichi Koike, plus profiles of heavy-hitters like Shotaro Ishimori and Go Nagai. But easily their most prominent manga offering was Oni, a short story commissioned especially for the magazine by Nagai himself. Looking at the artwork, it's clear that the master really had his elves at Dynamic working overtime - the character designs and story are undeniably his, but the artwork has a painterly quality that is so much more developed than his iconic works. Nagai has done a series of paintings (this set recently surfaced at an auction I desperately wish I was at) over the years that display this talent, but it's rare to see it so meticulously presented. We'd get more of that painterly stuff later in the decade, in First Comics' weird Mazinger USA.
Along with Epic, manga stories popped up occasionally in other periodicals. RAW, the comics zine by Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman and editor Françoise Mouly, published an issue with several manga stories in 1985. I can't find a copy, have you got one? I'm really curious! Sadly, the story with English-language manga from this era is often like this; I've found reports from old USENET posts and a listing on Japanese aggregator Bunkoudo that Shogakukan published several bilingual Urusei Yatsura books in the mid-80s, but I haven't been able to locate any myself. Anyway, we're back around 1983, which was the year that Fred Schodt's Manga! Manga! was published. A studied look at the then-unknown phenomenon of Japanese comics, this volume contained translated bits of Tezuka's Phoenix, Ikeda's Rose of Versailles, and Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen, all of which saw other publications in English. Oh, and also Ghost Warrior by Leiji Matsumoto, which has not. This book was instrumental in turning "manga" from a crazy foreign word and idea into something we all know and love; it has served as an incredibly valuable gateway to manga for myself and countless other fans for more than 20 years. Best of all, it's still in print, and it's still relevant! If you don't have it in your personal library or at your local library, you're doin' it wrong!
1982's most notable manga release on these shores would be I Saw It!, a one-shot straight autobiographical tale by A-bomb survivor Keiji Nakazawa; his more famous Barefoot Gen is a fictionalized account of his own real ordeals. I stumbled across this book last year, and was terribly intrigued by it; it's clearly manga by the esteemed Mr Nakazawa, but it's presented in a form and format that I hadn't encountered much of before - not just flipped, retouched, and in comic-book size, but colored! Aside from that weird Golgo 13 release, the only publisher I can remember doing that is Verotik, and they sucked at it! After receiving it via eBay, the nation's attic, I decided to do some more digging for books from the publisher, Educomics. Almost immediately, I found them: two single-issue releases of what was unmistakably Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen, retitled Gen of Hiroshima.
I was curious enough to look up the publisher, Leonard Rifas, on google. Happily, Mr Rifas was easily located and keen to talk about his comics label, Educomics, and his experiments in manga publishing from way back in the day. His interest in bringing the works of Keiji Nakazawa to American readers wasn't a strictly commercial one; he was (and is) a peace activist who envisioned comic books as a valuable tool to encourage learning and foster discussion. Rifas first encountered a few pages of Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen in a pamphlet passed out at a 1978 peace rally in Berkeley, California. The progenitors of that pamphlet, a group called Project Gen, were out to spread Keiji Nakazawa's true-to-life vision of the consequences of atomic war. Gen is a powerful parable. it is not sympathetic to Japan, depicting rows of average joes getting ready to literally fight to the death against American GIs with bamboo spears, but it is equally adamant that the US atomic bombings, despite averting this grisly outcome, were themselves atrocities. Barefoot Gen has never been a widespread success in the English speaking world, but to me, it's no surprise that it's still in print in English. It is too important to leave behind.
But what of Mr Rifas? He had published a variety of comics before being drawn to Project Gen and the possibility of bringing Nakazawa's potent anti-war tales to American readers; in 1977, he published Corporate Crime Comix, a recounting by artist R. Diggs of the suspicious death of Karen Silkwood, and found himself intrigued by the idea of telling true stories in comic form. Given that, along with the vital anti-nuke movement of the 70s and 80s, Barefoot Gen was a natural fit for his company. Interestingly, after winning the rights to Gen, he decided to make some alterations to render the manga more recognizeable to western audiences, a trend that would continue right up until the manga boom of the early 2000s. "I localized Gen of Hiroshima #1-2 for American readers by adding gray tones with zipatone (Letraset) screens," comments Mr Rifas. "For I Saw It!, I hired underground comix artist Rebecca "Becky" Wilson to design a color plan, which the people at World Color Press translated into color proofs. Again, that was to localize it for American readers who believed that "real" comic books were printed in CMYK." The result is striking, a piece of work that is simultaneously a colorful comic book and a piece of Japanese-to-the-bone manga.
When Viz and First Comics started regularly pumping manga out in 1987, they were hoping to spread a unique comic art form, but beyond that, their interests were largely commercial; they were in it to make money. What continues to intrigue me about these Educomics is that they weren't; they were, first and foremost, meant to educate the reader, a lofty goal indeed. But of course, any publisher would want their book to recoup costs, so the message could be spread further. How did Gen and I Saw It! do? Not that well; the direct comics market as we know it was still in its infancy then, so Mr Rifas sold his books both directly and through a loose network of independent stores and, hilariously, head shops. Hey man, that was where you went to get underground comix in the late 70s and early 80s! While the first printing of Gen of Hiroshima # 1 sold out, this just made it harder to shift copies of #2 - and despite receiving notable critical acclaim and, bizarrely, an angry rant from Virginia Congressman Thomas J. Bliley, who'd seen the comic and wrongly assumed it was made for schoolchildren, I Saw It! didn't sell enough to break even. Still, Mr Rifas muses: "Success can be defined in different ways. Nakazawa has fought, through creating his Hiroshima comics, to help eliminate the threat of any further use of nuclear weapons. I republished his work, not only because it was a groundbreaking example of the potential of comics to make a strong message, but also because I agreed with that goal. His work has become a canonical manga, but we were aiming higher than that." You can still order copies of I Saw It!, a fine companion to Last Gasp's edition of Barefoot Gen, from Mr Rifas. He's at [email protected]
We're not home yet! 1981 would give us two English-language volumes of Riyoko Ikeda's world-famous Rose of Versailles, presented bilingually by Sanyusha in Japan. The omnipresent Fred Schodt translated these books, but good luck finding them - they're so rare that Fred himself can't locate any copies! In the previous year of 1980, the year that saw the election of Ronald Reagan but more importantly, Superman II, Heavy Metal magazine flirted with Japanese artists, running a story by Kaze Shinobu entitled "Violence Becomes Tranquility." Like the manga from EPIC magazine, this stuff is recognizably manga, but profoundly different, almost otherworldly - Shinobu delights in gigantic splash drawings and tableaus, and the work, unlike most manga, is presented in brain-smashing 3-color printing. I scored this one from eBay as well, and it cost me twenty bucks! It's probably because there's some crummy Vaughn Bode comic in there. Who cares about Vaughn Bode? Not me! Anyway, Heavy Metal also courted a young artist named Hajime Sorayama in 1980. Maybe you've heard of him? That's right, he's the sexy ladybot guy!
There's more. No no, I'm serious: there's more. An artist named Masaichi Mukaide spent a merry few years contributing to a couple of magazines, STAR*REACH and Imagine. Both publications were agreeably weird little fantasy/SF prose + comic magazines. I'm not really sure how or why Mukaide arrived, or why he stuck around, but I stumbled across one of the Imagine magazines years ago and his artwork is pretty great. By now, we're back to 1978, and the flow of manga in English is at an absolute trickle. Hey, remember Project Gen, the guys who exposed Leonard Rifas to Keiji Nakazawa's work? Well, that group did indeed succeed in publishing a book-length volume of Nakazawa's noted story - and they adapted and published another one! But then, after those two volumes, they got no farther. Nevertheless, that rare Barefoot Gen volume 1 book, released in 1978, remains the first squarebound manga ever published in English. How's that for the answer to a tough trivia question?
There's more, right? Oh come on, there's gotta be more! I couldn't find any more, though, but Leonard Rifas forwarded me some old correspondence that pointed to this jaw-dropping stuff:
It's a student journal. From 1968. Nineteen. Sixty. Eight. Granted, it's not entirely clear if the original manga is professional comics or amateur work, but it is professional retouched and lettered in English. The correspondence also hinted at a New York-based Nichiren Buddhist newsletter that reprinted old Mitsuteru Yokoyama Suikoden comics in English, but inquiries to the Sokka Gakkai New York office have yielded me no reply. That Concerned Theater Japan piece was uncovered by a fellow at Google (of course) named Ryan Sands. Obviously, I had to have more, so I turned to the one guy who probably could supply more: Frederik L. Schodt. Fred remarks, "The subject of early manga in English is... rather dear to my own heart. It's really hard to pin-point the ‘first’ of anything created, because just when you find something that you think is the ‘oldest,’ there is always something 'older.'" I can dig that - when I first had the idea for this column, I knew that there had been manga in Heavy Metal, but I couldn't have told you which stories, and I certainly didn't know about Educomics or Project Gen. Fred goes on: "Depending how you define manga, things get really complicated. In Japanese, single-panel cartoons, and also comic strips are all called "manga." If you include those, there are lots of translations of works that go back to the 1860s/70s/80s."
Fred actually touched on this in Manga! Manga!, a point that had eluded me completely when I started my research. And in that point, I think we have a fairly good answer to what might be the first manga in English. It's not quite The Four Immigrants Manga, the extremely unique hybrid Japanese-English tale of a Japanese expat's life in early 1900s San Francisco by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama. That book, another Fred Schodt translation project, is still in print, and worth reading. No, I think we can go back and start here:
What you're looking at above is a cartoon from Tokyo Puck, a humor and society magazine by a gadfly who called himself Rakuten Kitazawa. Tokyo Puck had tons of cartoons like these, and an awful lot of them were presented not just in Japanese, but in English, and sometimes even in Chinese. I suppose you could say that Kitazawa was a jet-setter before there were jets! Anyway, single-panel political comics were old hat by the 1900s, but comics that told a sequential story were still a bit new - while folks like Winsor McKay were popularizing the format in the west, Rakuten Kitazawa was breaking that ground in Japan, contributing to newspaper comics pages and then drifting from magazine to magazine before starting the popular Tokyo Puck. He referred to his comics as "irresponsible pictures;" he wasn't the first to describe comics that way, but his persistent use of the term led to it being adopted by other magazines, and then by the public. In Japanese, they called it manga.
So with that: Happy New Year! Now it's your turn - what did I miss? What stupid mistake did I make this time? Do you think manga could've done better if it splashed down in the 80s like it did in the 00s? Tell us your viewpoint in the comments, and until then: Make Mine Manga! Excelsior! Wait a minute, who said that?
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