The Mike Toole Show
by Mike Toole,
The summer of 2002 was an inflection point for anime and manga in North America. Hamtaro debuted on Cartoon Network in June, positioned as a new kids' favorite, complete with toys at major department stores. Tokyopop were ramping up production of their new unflipped “100% Authentic” manga offerings, FLCL volume 1 came out on DVD, and a sample issue of Newtype USA was rolled out at Anime Expo. You could watch Gundam 0083 and Yu Yu Hakusho on Adult Swim, and later, in August, G-Gundam made its debut on Toonami.
The hype train rolled into Manhattan on August 31st, with Anime Expo hosting their first-ever show in New York. This event, a joint affair with Central Park Media's Big Apple Anime Fest, touted luminaries like Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino and Cowboy Bebop veterans Shinichiro Watanabe, Toshihiro Kawamoto, and Yoko Kanno. I was at this show, and to me what sticks out—aside from the crowded, rollicking late-nite broadcast premiere of Inuyasha hosted by Planet Hollywood—was the prevalence of print media. Tokyopop were out in force, Newtype USA were taking subscription orders, and a Japanese company called Gutsoon used the New York show to debut their new English-language weekly anthology, Raijin Comics. Obviously, Viz had something to talk about, as well—they had a brand-new monthly magazine, one that would showcase not one but several of their biggest manga hits. The company had experimented with ongoing manga anthology magazines before, but this one was going to be a game-changer. Featuring popular headliners like Dragonball Z, color pages, pack-in goodies, and a whopping 300 pages per issue, this was a new magazine on a mission. They called it Shonen Jump.
Yeah, yeah, by this point manga fans all knew what Shonen Jump was already; this was undoubtedly part of Viz's strategy. But here was a title that followed Japan's format of thick, dense magazines filled with a multitude of different series. For years and years, the conventional wisdom had been that, while the Japanese model of gigantic “phonebook” magazines was compelling, it just couldn't even be approximated in the North American market. This didn't keep US manga publishers from poking and prodding at the format, though. Viz debuted Manga Vizion in 1995, an anthology that I immediately subscribed to because it was the only place where I could read Black Jack. The magazine also featured appealing Rumiko Takahashi one shots, Kei Kusonoki's Ogre Slayer, a nifty tie-in with Viz's home video release, and my other favorite, Ryoichi Ikegami's quasi-historical epic Samurai Crusader. Have you ever wanted to see a troubled young swordsman travel across Europe with his faithful sidekicks, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso? Samurai Crusader's got you covered.
Viz's experiments continued, both with the more shoujo-focused Animerica Extra, which more or less replaced Manga Vizion in 1998, and with 1997's cool and influential Pulp Magazine. Pulp was absolutely terrific, a cross-section of first-rate manga for adults bookended by thoughtful essays by the magazine's editorial staff; in a time when material like this was scarce, it was the sort of book that you could read in its entirety in one sitting, and then immediately start looking forward to the next issue. The magazine was prophetic, introducing Junji Ito to western audiences long before “this is my hole, it was made for me” jokes bubbled up from the internet substrate, and carrying a rakishly charming series about young men in love in New York called Banana Fish. In the wake of the still-ongoing Banana Fish anime, Viz have brought the classic manga back into print.
Viz weren't the only publishing house trying to make manga anthologies happen in the 1990s, either. We all remember TOKYOPOP as the scrappy little company that stumbled upon a formula for success by offering inexpensive, unflipped manga. But TOKYOPOP started life as Mixx Entertainment, a scrappy little publishing house with their own manga anthology, MixxZine. MixxZine had some notable titles, current and future hits like Sailor Moon and Parasyte. It also had a dauntingly high price tag—six bucks?! In 1997?!?—and some of the enduringly worst graphic design I've ever seen in a magazine. I wish I still had some issues, because there were pages that were completely impossible to read, because they'd printed foreground text on background elements that were from the same color family. MixxZine was also a pretty weird product, a magazine geared towards older teenagers that featured both cute shoujo manga and violent seinen fare. They'd eventually drop the MixxZine title in favor of just calling the magazine Tokyopop, but it didn't help much; the book folded in 2000. Sailor Moon was moved to a somehow-even-worse magazine for teen girls called Smile, which limped along until changing market forces made it impossible to have a profitable manga anthology… in 2002, a couple of months before Viz launched Shonen Jump.
As much as I prized Pulp, I also thoroughly enjoyed Dark Horse Comics' Super Manga Blast, which debuted in 2000 after several successful years of the company introducing hits like Oh My Goddess! and Gunsmith Cats to the comic-reading public via floppy 24-page issues and expensive trade paperbacks. This ongoing anthology usually hosted four or five series, including popular fare like Appleseed and less-popular fare like Club 9. I particularly appreciated the magazine's constant flogging of 3x3 Eyes, a series that they tried like hell to turn into a hit, but it just never panned out. Super Manga Blast wrapped it up in 2006.
The manga anthology game also had a couple of weird fringe players. One of them originated right in my hometown of Boston, where local anime and manga goods store Tokyo Kid dove into the world of manga publishing with Chibi Pop Manga, a series that lasted… oh, maybe five or six issues? I'm not entirely sure, because the company's entire game plan was to license and publish inexpensive, unheralded titles. With absolutely zero hits from Japan (I still carry a little torch for Fubuki the Female Ninja up there, for her charmingly stereotypical character design and charmingly verbose title), Chibi Pop Manga was always going to be a hard sell.
I mentioned above that Anime Expo 2002 also played host to the launch of Raijin Comics. If Viz's strategy for Shonen Jump—a fat monthly 300-page comic, full of big hits and extra goodies—was bold, Raijin's was completely outrageous. Raijin also offered a thick, phonebook-like newsprint magazine… but theirs was weekly, just like in Japan! Each issue was $4.95, so just picture spending $20 per month to keep up with titles like City Hunter, Fist of the Blue Sky, and Slam Dunk. I had a lot of pals who appreciated what Raijin was trying to do, but it was tough to keep up with a fairly pricey weekly that would stack up in the corner like Raijin back issues would. Raijin only survived for about a year, briefly switching to a monthly release schedule to stem the red ink before folding altogether. I think what I miss the most about them is the way they aped the gaudy, garish graphic design of their Japanese parent magazine—lots of red and gold titles, lots of giant text blocks with MULTIPLE EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! all over everything. My favorite Raijin-related product was their release of the full-color Fist of the North Star reprint, which neatly sums up the company's difficulties—it's a lavish and compelling release, but one that came way too early for manga fans' sensibilities, and it was never going to succeed—even the Japanese release of the full-color Fist reprint got cancelled!
Let's get back to the main story, here: Shonen Jump. In the crowded and cutthroat world of magazines and direct-market comics, how did Shonen Jump fare? Well… pretty spectacularly, actually. Viz had initially hoped for about 100,000 copies of the first issue to sell through. After numerous trips to the reprint mill, the book ended up shifting more than 300,000 copies, in an era when only a handful of comics regularly broke the 100,000 mark. Sales dropped off after that, but only a bit, with the magazine routinely selling a quarter million copies as it introduced western readers to hits like Naruto, Hikaru no Go, and Slam Dunk (yes, the old Raijin mainstay!). Viz launched a companion magazine, Shojo Beat, to showcase more shoujo and josei manga. That magazine wasn't quite as robust as Shonen Jump; it folded in 2009. You could probably ascribe some of that lack of staying power to the sad, weird fact that, as a demographic set, shoujo manga has faded a lot over the past decade. There's not as much of it being made anymore, because an awful lot of young girls who used to read stuff like Absolute Boyfriend now just read the likes of One Piece and Nisekoi. Viz has kept the Shojo Beat imprint alive, though, which is good news—as long as they keep using the name to publish Skip Beat!, I'm happy.
With Shonen Jump, Viz proved that a bigtime monthly manga anthology could succeed. But in order to do so, that monthly anthology kinda needed a few monster hits to anchor it, stuff like Naruto and One Piece. Yen Press experimented with a monthly book of their own, Yen Plus, and while it featured notable hits like Soul Eater and Black Butler, they entered the market late—in 2008—and never built much momentum. The 100,000-or-so copies that would go out to newsstands and bookstores wasn't enough to keep the operation going.
Viz's aggressive launch of Shonen Jump in 2002 was a power move, one that could only be topped by a more powerful move. That move came in October of 2011, when Shonen Jump editor-in-chief Hisashi Sasaki hopped online and announced that the monthly Shonen Jump would cease printing, to make way for the weekly Shonen Jump Alpha—which would be online-only. This was a ballsy thing to do—Shonen Jump was still selling well in excess of 100,000 copies—but the publisher made it work by going all-in, making it cheap (an annual Shonen Jump Alpha subscription was $20-25, and came with special Yu-Gi-Oh cards that were easy to flip on eBay, making the endeavor a cash-positive one for readers like me), and sticking to it. Even the print magazine's exit from the market had some positive effects; Wal-Mart, eager for a similar magazine to place in their racks, started ordering a lot more of Otaku USA, helping guarantee that the US market would have a print anime magazine for the foreseeable future.
The launch of Shonen Jump Alpha (note: the ‘alpha’ was a marketing gimmick tied to the online relaunch, and was soon dropped) was when I started reading Shonen Jump regularly, because it was so damn easy. Every Monday, the comics would simply appear on the web and in the apps, looking great and ready to read. All I had to do was remember to renew my subscription every year. Since then, I've enjoyed keeping up with hits like World Trigger and non-hits like my precious, disrespected Cross Manage. But there was just one small problem: I'd sometimes forget to make my annual renewal, and gaps in my reading would form. I'd miss a few months of One Punch Man or World Trigger, and tell myself that I'd get back to reading them later. But getting back into a series when you've fallen behind can be tough.
A far greater problem has been the simple prevalence of pirated manga, hosted online on vast, ad-supported, constantly-shifting scanlation aggregators. Filesharing traffic for anime has gradually ticked downward, as massive global portals like Crunchyroll and Netflix have made it easy to keep up on the medium for cheap or for free. But manga's higher volume and higher portability means that, to this day, if you type a popular title into a search engine, you're probably going to find links to pirated manga scans on the first page of search results. This remains the biggest problem the industry faces by far, and this month, Shonen Jump is doing yet another power move by going free-to-read, in a bid to beat the bootleggers at their own game.
I won't go into too much detail about the new Shonen Jump attack plan, because I don't want to sound too much like a damn commercial. Suffice it to say, I'll be catching up on the 700 or so One Piece chapters I need to read to get current. (I quit after Nico Robin joined the Straw Hats, which, according to my research, was initially published in Japan… in the summer of 2002.) I think this is a good move, though. The launch of Shonen Jump in 2002 inarguably got more people to start reading manga. When the magazine shifted to an online-only (but crucially, still reader-friendly) format, it got more people to start reading manga. The magazine's leadership seems to have always understood one simple truth: the promise of good comics, straight from the source, is going to get people to read manga.
What could be next for manga anthologies? If Shonen Jump's angle proves to be successful, I'm rooting for companion subscriptions to other popular manga periodicals. I'd happily pay an additional nominal fee to keep right up with hits like Golden Kamuy and Kaguya-sama. And dammit, where's my Big Comic Online subscription?! I need to be able to read about how Golgo 13 was secretly the cause of this year's political scandals!
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