Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - The Saga of Shonen Jump Part I

by Jason Thompson,

Episode CXXXVI: The Saga of Shonen Jump Part I

Ten years ago in January 2003, when I was a fresh-faced young lad who didn't even know the word "scanlation", I was the first editor of the American edition of Shonen Jump magazine. On Monday, January 21, Shonen Jump Alpha became simultaneous in Japan and the US, so it seems like a good time to look back on the Ultimate Manga Magazine. In the world of manga, Shonen Jump is like DC & Marvel combined; it's like manga's Disney (and soon it'll even have a Disneyland). Bringing it to the US was the biggest, most ambitious manga project I've been involved in.

2002 was the year manga went big. I was one of about a half-dozen manga editors (by which I mean, people who laze around all day reading tankobon, flipping through Japanese magazines, proofreading books, and pestering late translators) at Viz, which was then a smallish company of about 50 people, stuffed into a converted warehouse office in San Francisco. Just a few years before, Viz had been half that size, but they'd grown a lot thanks to Pokémon, a manga & anime license the Viz executives had presciently gotten in 1998. But by 2002, the Pokémon party was finally ending as the money dried up. In search of The Next Pokémon (tm), Viz tried various new things, but finally set itself on one goal: to make a new manga magazine and duplicate the Japanese magazine model in the US.

Sure, we'd tried other manga magazines in the past (Animerica Extra, Manga VIZion, Game On! USA, PULP), and they hadn't succeeded—and sure, the magazine model was declining in Japan, even back then—but we hoped to do better this time. One key was getting good distribution: i.e., distribution in places like supermarkets, bookstores and newsstands, where people would see (and hopefully buy) it, as opposed to the relatively small market in comic stores. We often wondered what magic power let a handful of digest-sized comics like Archie and Disney Adventures get sold on supermarket checkstands; one person swore to us that the answer was "mafia connections." But who knows? It had always been nearly impossible to convince big stores to buy manga, until Pokémon hit big and we realized the answer was three shining, holy words: MASS-MARKET CONTENT. Retailers who would punch you in the face if you'd uttered the words Ranma 1/2 had ordered hundreds of copies of Pokémon, because Ranma 1/2 had nudity and was direct-to-video in America, and Pokémon had adorable critters and daytime TV slots. After briefly considering a really tame magazine for elementary school kids, a la Corocoro Comica dubious proposal because kids that young don't have much money to go around buying stuff—the Viz execs decided to do a tween/teenage magazine focused on Shonen Jump manga.

This was a dream come true, since I, like most of the local Viz nerds, had always loved Shonen Jump. Shonen Jump had an aura. As an anime fan who came of age in the '90s, it made me think of over-the-top '80s and early '90s manga like Bastard!!, Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, Fist of the North Star, Video Girl Ai, and of course Dragon Ball. (Of course, there's other Jump manga that are even older and more obscure than that, that have almost zero Western fandom: I was amazed once when an Italian guy at Anime Expo asked me when Viz was going to translate Kimengumi.) But back then, Viz couldn't get the rights to publish many Jump titles. One reason was that Shonen Jump had a strong editorial policy that manga should not be "flopped" left to right for English translation. At the time, Viz was publishing a handful of "unflopped" manga, like Dragon Ball, but the general feeling around the office was that it was a bad idea and turned away readers ("Sure, Dragon Ball sells 20,000 copies a month, but imagine how many MORE copies it'd sell if it was left-to-right!"). It wasn't until Tokyopop started publishing "unflopped" manga and making bank that we realized that by "flopping" manga we weren't reaching a wider audience, we were handicapping ourselves. (Of course, I still occasionally run into older people who say they don't like reading unflopped manga, but IMHO, that's probably just an excuse and I seriously doubt they'd rush out and purchase all of Naruto if everything was suddenly backwards.)

Another reason that Viz didn't publish more Jump titles was just politics. Shueisha, the Japanese publisher of Shonen Jump, was a rival of the publisher Shogakukan, which at the time was the owner of Viz. (Now they are co-owners.) To get the two companies to work together seemed to require some insane stunt, like having the daughter of the president of Shogakukan pretend to fall in love with the son of the president of Shueisha. But at the time in 2002, Shonen Jump anime ('90s stuff like Dragon Ball Z, YuYu Hakusho and Yu-Gi-Oh!) was in heavy rotation on American television, so we realized, WE NEEDED SHONEN JUMP. Thus began the long process of wooing the Shueisha executives so the two companies could mate and produce the Kwisatz Haderach of Manga Magazines.

There were many late nights at the office. We debated everything from the lineup (eventually choosing Dragon Ball Z, YuYu Hakusho, Yu-Gi-Oh!, One Piece and Sand Land, with Shaman King and Naruto following immediately) to the price and page count of the magazine. (250ish pages for $4.95 doesn't seem like a great deal now, but Animerica Extra, Viz's previous most successful manga magazine, had been 128 pages for that price.) Even the title was up in the air: at one point we considered Manga Typhoon (possibly influenced by a certain Raijin Comics). Eventually we stopped trying to pretend and just called it what it's called. We managed to put together a Shonen Jump minicomic sampler for San Diego Comic-Con (where my feelings became very confused as 20-year-old women were paid to dress in Krillin kigurumisuits), and we aimed to put the first issue on the market at the end of 2002.

Shonen Jump was probably the biggest magazine or book launch in the American manga industry. In contrast to other books I'd worked on (no one wants to be the marketer assigned to sell a book called Bastard!!), there was tons of advertising money (even TV spots!!), and Viz hired a New York-based marketing firm to supervise the preparations. One of the first things the P.R. firm did was to ask me to role-play a sample interview, in which the pretend journalist asked me about Shonen Jump and then unleashed the hard questions: what about this DECAPITATION SCENE?? Wasn't there a lot of BLOOD AND VIOLENCE in this magazine for 13-year-olds? THINK ABOUT THE CHILDREN!! Caught off guard, I started quoting Gerard Jones' book Killing Monsters about how a certain level of violent entertainment was healthy for children; after the interview they told me I sounded "like a psycho" and I wasn't allowed to do any Shonen Jump interviews unchaperoned. Anticipating parental concerns over violence was pretty smart, actually, but on the other hand, the same P.R. firm suggested that, since the Shonen Jump USA Launch Party was in early December, Akira Toriyama should say a few words about Pearl Harbor Day. ("We shall never forget the victims of the tragic actions of the Japanese Imperial Navy, 60 years ago. Now sit back and watch as SHONEN JUMP INVADES AMERICA!") We thankfully shot down this suggestion. On December 7, 2002, Toriyama and the American staff stood on a New York pier on a blustery winter day, watching a few hundred New York teens line up through the snow to get into a heated Shonen Jump tent where booth monkeys were selling subscriptions, showing off Jump-related video games and merchandise, giving away shikishi and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. The interpreters said that Toriyama had a very dirty sense of humor in Japanese, but he was very polite and friendly in English and didn't make any dirty jokes about the "DBZ hummer". That very evening, some American movie executive met us for after-dinner drinks and told Toriyama how much her kids loved Dragon Ball and how it would make such a great live-action movie.

The Japanese side, i.e. Shueisha, had their own strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, unlike American marketers, they actually understood manga, and they wanted to make sure we understood manga too. They meant well, but still, they didn't need to make the US staff attend a lecture where they talked slowly and earnestly about how the MOST IMPORTANT PANEL on every two-page spread was the LOWER LEFT PANEL because THAT'S THE ONE THAT MAKES THE READER TURN THE PAGE OR NOT. (C'mon, I read Understanding Comics!This is basic stuff!) After years of unsuccessfully trying to get certain big American anime, video game and CCG publishers to return Viz's phone calls, it was very satisfying to watch Shueisha executives go over to those publishers and tell them that they'd better do everything Viz says, pronto, or their precious Shueisha licenses would be stripped from them and given to Jimmy, a random 6-year-old kid who would gladly do whatever Shueisha tells them to. Their controlling tendencies were less enjoyable when we were on the pressure end. Yet despite their extreme nitpickiness in other matters, they deferred to American marketing people as to what ought to be censored. They were running a business, after all. On the whole, though, Shueisha brought two major things to the table: (1) lots of money and (2) determination to launch Shonen Jump in America and make it as successful as possible (at least long enough to crush Raijin).

The peak of the chaos came at the end of 2002 when the American staff were invited to Japan for Jump Festa. There, we schmoozed with mangaka and Jump editorial staff (people who appear as themselves in Bakuman), the designers stayed up all night in a hotel room making last-minute changes to the magazine, and I went out to late-night hot-pot restaurants where publishing executives got drunk and mushy. Meanwhile, we were producing the entire magazine with a full-time staff of only six people: two editors, two designers, and two master editors/facilitators/translators. It was good times, if your idea of good times—and mine is—is staying up late day after day with a group of people working hard on a project. Strange decisions were made due to lack of time and resources. Shueisha asked us to come up with more "fun" features in the magazine, rather than the info-dump interviews-and-data features I tended towards, so I hired Adam Burns, an illustrator friend of mine (he is now a tattooist) to draw a feature called "OK! Jump Guy," about a ninja pirate. (In his backstory he was also a shaman and bancho.) Adam Burns' artwork didn't look even vaguely "manga-like," but who cares? My co-editor Drew Williams wore himself out coming up with the most obscene double entendres in Jump Guy's dialogue, which somehow passed unnoticed by the censors, probably due to the language barrier. One idea I pitched was having a contest for American creators to submit their work to Shonen Jump, but the Shueisha execs were wary: they were worried they wouldn't get enough high-quality entries and that it'd be embarrassing for the magazine. (They eventually did do an art contest, in 2011, as the Shonen Jump Storyboard Contest.)

I quit working as the editor of Shonen Jump in 2003, burned out and wanting to try something new, like drawing my own comics. (My faithful parents, however, kept subscribing to Shonen Jump all the way until it stopped being published.) From that point on, I was only peripherally aware of what was going on in the magazine, and although I read it, I didn't get to hear about all the secret sales & marketing ups & downs. I did notice that it got more and more censored as Scholastic Books and other major sales outlets started to flex their muscle. If you look at the early issues of the American Jump you'll occasionally see words like "Damn!" and "Bastard!" Soon we were lucky to get away with "Darn!" Shonen Jump undeniably made an impression on American comics publishing (and "children's magazines"; I know a pediatrician who bought it for his office), but over the years, like most manga, its successes and profits were eclipsed by the ever-growing mass of scanlation websites, and perhaps, by a general trend away from reading printed magazines.

One of the interesting things about the Shonen Jump launch was that in 2002, most of the scanlators were Viz's friends. The admins of Toriyamaworld.com, which had been the #1 site for Jump scanlations, happily worked to help promote the magazine and sell subscriptions (!!), and one by one they took down their titles when Viz asked them to, leaving their site stripped bare like the kindly traveler in the Buddhist fairytale who gave away all his possessions and clothes and bodyparts. They were super psyched about Jump, and they basically quit doing scanlations to help Jump succeed; some of the editors even moved on to work professionally in the manga industry. I suppose some jealous scanlators would call them sellouts, but honestly, if you're a scanlator and you say you wouldn't accept a legitimate job in the manga biz if you had the opportunity, either (A) you're lying or (B) you're lowlife, "information-must-be-free"-misusing, bootleg-merchandise-selling pirate scum (and not in the cool One Piece way). Anyway, now that that's established: Toriyamaworld was so cooperative, it seemed for awhile that scanlation wouldn't be a problem. But they were just one site, and soon after they left, the scans market was taken over by sites like Narutofan that had no interest in promoting some abstract idea of "the manga industry", let alone Viz or Jump, at no benefit to themselves.

Since early 2012, Shonen Jump has been digital only, existing only as Shonen Jump Alpha. And now, finally, most Shonen Jump Alpha manga chapters come out the same day as their Japanese counterparts.Maybe the most surprising thing about a digital Shonen Jump is that it's taken so long. I remember a lunch meeting in 2002 where some Viz marketing guy asked me and a few other focus-group manga fans if we'd pay money to read manga online. I told him never; it wasn't a good experience reading things on a screen, there was no sense of ownership, etc. Looking back a decade later, I guess I was short-sighted. Then again, a decade ago I didn't have a smartphone or even a laptop with WiFi, and if I'd been alive 100 years before that, I'd probably have been driving a car with a fake horse's head sticking out of the engine. Times change. Had Shonen Jump been able to keep up? I bought a subscription to Alpha to find out.

NEXT WEEK: PART TWO!! I check out Shonen Jump Alpha! Do I like it? Do I get all misty eyed and start crying like a mewling baby as I continue thinking about old-timey Shonen Jump days? Or do I get hyperactively excited and start punching people? TO BE CONTINUED!!

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