How Did American Manga Releases Become Right-To-Left?

by Justin Sevakis,

Carlo asks:

When I first started reading manga in the late nineties, a lot of the books were printed in left to right format instead of right to left. What was it that made US companies decide to change to the Japanese style?

Prior to 2002, the vast majority of manga released in English was "flopped": the artwork was mirrored so that each page read naturally left-to-right, like any other English comic book. While this was done for obvious reasons back before most people knew what manga was, it definitely took away from the authenticity of the work. Manga artists hated it, because it completely threw off their artwork. Direction-heavy things like baseball and sword play got completely messed up in the process. And fans definitely noticed the problem. A few art-centric manga had been released right-to-left, but these were mostly art-centric books like Masashi Tanaka's Gon series -- and these were mostly outliers.

Manga also didn't sell in huge numbers in that era, since they were entering the American market as graphic novels, alongside Western publications. These were often on premium paper, and were seen as upscale collector's items. Most English manga was priced at around $16 to $20, and sold well but didn't set the world on fire. A lot of manga was still sold as single issue comic books for $3-5 per monthly installment.

The changeover from English manga being published as flopped, expensive trade paperbacks to cheaper, unflopped manga volumes we know today happened pretty suddenly back in 2002. Tokyopop, who was still a relatively new entry to the manga market (having published two anthology magazines, MixxZine and Smile), announced that they would be drastically changing their release strategy. They would be relaunching their graphic novel line as "100% Authentic Manga".

The new books would be modeled after Japanese tankoubons, and would be $10 each -- far cheaper than the $16 that American fans were used to paying. The size would be slightly smaller, the paper would be pulpier, and the artwork would be unflopped and mostly untouched. And they would be tripling or quadrupling their output, releasing 15 to 20 new books per month.

Everyone else in the business thought they were absolutely nuts. "How are they going to pump out that many books that fast?!" I remember people marveling. "Quality is really going to suffer," people predicted (correctly). But the fact was, they were really onto something. Rather than going through Diamond Comics and all the mom & pop comic book retailers for distribution (who were in major decline by this time), Tokyopop made a big push into book store chains, especially Borders and Barnes & Noble. This new way of doing business quickly bore fruit, and sales were through the roof.

The rest of the industry was suddenly stuck playing catch-up. It took Viz a few months to transition, but seeing the huge potential of manga, they quickly rebranded their graphic novel line. They had already been planning to launch an American edition of anthology magazine Shonen Jump, and low-priced mass market paperbacks were something that fit the mainstream audience they were building quite well. Viz set their prices even lower -- $7.99 for Shonen Jump books, $9.99 for everything else.

And thus, began the manga bubble. For the next 6 or so years, Tokyopop, Viz, Del Rey, CMX and others would release thousands of books, some of which sold and some of which didn't. Bookstores would become filled with "manga cows", fans who would clog up the manga isles reading the latest books without buying them. Naruto and other hit manga could be found for sale at drug stores.

Eventually, of course, the bubble burst. Tokyopop, CMX (owned by DC Comics) and Del Rey left the business. Borders went out of business. But manga had seen its glory days, when they were mainstream, and they were in a form closer to the way the Japanese artists intended. The format worked, and it was here to stay. The bad old days of companies trying to force manga into Western comic book formats was gone for good.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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