Anime Expo 2009
Industry Roundtable, Day Two: Can Manga created in the US be commercially successful?

by Evan Miller,

Panelists: Robert Le (UC-Irvine), Northrop Davis (UC-Irvine), Lillian Diaz-Przybyl (Tokyopop), Luis Reyes (Nexon America), Robert Napton (Bandai).

The panel started with a few questions submitted via the internet. The first question dealt with the different foundations between the manga industry in the US and Japan. Diaz-Przybyl talked about the way that Japanese artists are "apprenticed" with editors to develop their style, whereas the US market has no such system. "The manga market in the United States has only developed their own manga over the past decade," said Diaz-Przybyl, who also mentioned that the desire of publishing companies to see a profit from an artist's work immediately differs from the Japanese system. Reyes mentioned that former Tokyopop artist Felipe Smith was eventually recruited to do manga in Japan and has become the first westerner to publish there. Since that system can recognize talent, Reyes argued, it is possible that working over a long period of time can yield an artist with high-quality skills. Both Reyes and Diaz-Przybyl touched on the fact that in Japan, the first manga a creator works on is rarely their most successful.

Napton talked about the old school Dirty Pair comics, which fused a Japanese and American style. These days, the influences on artists are less mixed, and imitation of styles is happening. "Artists need time to grow their style," said Reyes. The panel also spoke frankly on the terminology used to describe manga-influenced work by North American creators. Reyes said that manga has been used as a "marketing buzzword" in the USA, adding that Japanese readers refer to all comics as "manga" - even American comics.

The panel often returned to the subject of what artists can do to improve their skills. Diaz-Przybyl suggested that aspiring manga artists need to "look beyond the visuals" of popular manga and consider elements such as sequential styling, timing, and other artistic flourishes. Reyes used the example of how talented artists can affect the emotions of the reader just as much by drawing a single teardrop in one panel as they could with a shot of someone crying. The panelists mentioned that finding artists with the right balance of "drawing chops," storytelling and pacing skills is difficult, and that has been a barrier to launching successful titles.

This topic led into the next question considered by the panel, which is why "OEL" manga hasn't been all that successful. The panelists challenged the notion that there is a prejudice against non-Japanese creators. Reyes declared that the percentage of successful OEL titles is equal to the percentage of successful Japanese titles, although the smaller market share for OEL makes it seem like things are worse than they actually are. "The anime component has helped drive marketing," remarked Napton, with other panelists adding that the relationship between the anime and manga industries in North America has made launching titles without an anime tie-in tricky. However, there are reasons to be optimistic. Reyes referenced the success of the Oni Press title Scott Pilgrim, which only became a popular title after a few volumes were released. However, many publishers have trouble waiting for a title to "find an audience," so following the lead of Oni Press may not be the best option for all publishers. Furthermore, "it costs four times as much to develop your own graphic novel than it does to license an existing title," said Reyes - an amount that represents a big gamble for publishers.

Diaz-Przybyl touched on the potential of serializing a title in a publication. Only one title, Svetlana Chmakova's Nightschool, has received this treatment. The title is currently running in the Yen Press magazine Yen Plus, and the first volume was released earlier this spring. Sales numbers should offer a better look at how the format could work. Another program for aspiring artists, Tokyopop's Pilot Program, was also mentioned, but the panelists said that the value of the program is difficult to ascertain due to the huge cut in staff that the company suffered shortly after the program was launched. At this point, online distribution appears to be one of the more viable ways that non-Japanese manga can find readers and become profitable. Napton and Reyes referenced Fred Gallagher's successful Megatokyo series as an example of how this system could work. However, Diaz-Przybyl warned that the online format does create its own problems in terms of how a piece flows, since everything is done page by page instead of as a whole chapter.

The last part of the panel focused mainly on what artists need to do to improve their skills. Reyes declared frankly that "OEL" isn't profitable yet, and suggested that talented artists look into other lines of work where they can build and cultivate their talent. Writer-artist creative teams are one way people can balance out each other's skills, but earning enough money to support two people with graphic novel work is admittedly difficult. The panelists agreed that any artist in the industry needs to be able to take criticism and not be offended, be able to critically analyze their own work, and above all have confidence in their abilities.

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