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Tokyopop's Stu Levy Appearance at AX Draws Ire from Artists

posted on by Lynzee Loveridge

North American manga licensor Tokyopop's founder Stu Levy was announced as an Annex Guest of Honor at next week's Anime Expo convention on Wednesday, drawing criticism from artists and manga readers across social media.

Levy, who is attending the convention with Swedish artist Natalia Batista, is offering sign ups for portfolio reviews for aspiring artists. This practice is drawing criticism due to controversy regarding the way Tokyopop handled contracts with artists for its previous English-language comic releases.

Pop culture news website Polygon reached out to Anime Expo and Tokyopop regarding attendees concerns. Anime Expo provided Polygon with the following statement:

While noting the concerns regarding Levy, brought to our attention recently via social media, we had invited him because over the years TokyoPop has done so much to promote the manga genre. He will be joined by manga artist Natalia Batista, as Annex Guests of Honor, and they will each be conducting portfolio reviews. However, they are not the only two hosting a Portfolio Review session — we are pleased to have other established artists hosting sessions such as Santa Inoue (creator of Tokyo Tribe), artist and animator Sean Danconia (SupaPop Studios), along with representatives from Collateral Damage Studios, and Ruwen Liu of Sizigi Studios.

Tokyopop itself did not reference the concerns in its statement to Polygon.

Anime Expo is TOKYOPOP's hometown convention and we're excited to be back again this year with our booth, International Women of Manga panel and special guest Natalia Batista, a super talented artist from Sweden. As manga publisher and writer-producer, our founder Stu Levy often travels to meet fans and artists at events around the world, but he's particularly excited to be doing portfolio reviews back home this year at AX. We're looking forward to an amazing weekend.

British writer Alex di Campi wrote Kat & Mouse with artist Federica Manfredi for Tokyopop in 2006 and the comic ran for four volumes. Campi wrote on Tumblr in 2015 that she had to "call a rights-reversion clause" to get the last volume published. She stresses the the problems with the company were not due to its editors, but solely founder Stu Levy.

The editors were never the issue. Stu Levy was. The contracts were abominable too, but I'll get to those in a sec. First, Stu, aka DJ Milky, aka Tokyopop's founder. Stu was a fabulous entrepreneur, but terrible at running a business. Tokyopop was full of great ideas and almost none of them were followed through with any rigor or consistency. Each was shuffled off incongruously to gather dust in a corner when the next big idea came through.

Campi writes that OEL comics at Tokyopop received little marketing support and fans became reluctant to purchase them because Tokyopop's reputation for poor quality releases had tainted the output. According to Campi, OEL artists were paid US$25 per page for 180-page books, but payments stopped and series were dropped after the bubble burst and Borders bookstores shuttered. She also elaborates in general about comic contracts.

Campi's post lays out how rights, royalties, and reversions works in comic book contracts. Reversions specify when and how the rights for a work revert back to the original creator. Typically this happens when a book goes out of print or when a publisher goes under. According to Campi, Tokyopop asked her to pay "back the full amount of advances and editorial costs to get rights back." She states it isn't uncommon for a company nearing bankruptcy to sell off IP rights for cheap to keep them from reverting back to the original artists, but doesn't directly state that this is what Tokyopop did in 2011.

Campi is not the only formerly published Tokyopop artist to speak out about their experience. In 2015, Stu Levy held portfolio review slots at San Diego Comic-Con. This once again brought focus on the company's previous contract deals, including an instance in 2008 where the company's “Manga Pilot” program, a follow up of its "Rising Stars of Manga" initiative, included the following clause:

““MORAL RIGHTS” AND YOUR CREDIT “Moral rights” is a fancy term (the French thought it up) that basically has to do with having your name attached to your creation (your credit!) and the right to approve or disapprove certain changes to your creation. Of course, we want you to get credit for your creation, and we want to work with you in case there are changes, but we want to do so under the terms in this pact instead of under fancy French idea. So, in order for us to adapt the Manga Pilot for different media, and to determine how we should include your credit in tough situations, you agree to give up any “Moral rights” you might have.”

This clause essentially asked creators to give up the right for their name to appear on their work. The contract went furter to state:

WHAT WE CAN DO WITH YOUR CREDIT And, speaking of your credit, customarily we give you credit for your work as the writer and/or artist of the Manga Pilot. However, we may have to shorten or leave out your credit when the space available or the conventions of a format won't permit it or if it would have to be too small to read (for example, when the Manga Pilot is viewed on mobile phones). You're OK with this.

The contract drew sharp criticism from Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O'Malley, Icarus Publishing's Simon Jones, Crossplay comic artist Niki Smith, Viz Media's consulting editor-at-large Chris Butcher, DC Comics' Ray Fawkes, and The Prince and the Dressmaker's Jen Wang.

The contract also included stipulations that any disagreements must undergo mediation and arbitration within Los Angeles, thus requiring artists from out of state (or in some cases out of country) to front costs to fly to L.A. to make their case. The contract stipulation also required artists to waive their rights for litigation.

Steady Beat creator Rivkah wrote in 2008 that her first two books "received practically no editorial oversight" and her art received no feedback. She wrote, "The only reason I believe the writing improved from the first volume to the second was because I realized with the second book, I was going to have to edit it myself and therefore spent more time going over the dialog after it was completed (before sending it in for approval), but I still felt a lack of confidence in the quality of either when they were published."

Other claims include Queenie Chan's plans for The Dreaming were affected by the requirement that her story run for three volumes and that Sophie Campbell (Jem and the Holograms comics) lost rights to her characters from The Abandoned after leaving Tokyopop in 2007.

Source: Polygon (Julia Alexander ), ComicsBeat, The Daily Dot (Aja Romano), Comics Worth Reading (Johanna)

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