Last year, TOKYOPOP began their ambitious 100% Authentic Manga initiative, which saw all their Japanese originated comics published in their original right-to-left format and in affordable, $9.99 graphic novel formats. The plan was an absolute success, with sales going through the roof in bookstores and the company gaining a respectable foothold in comic book stores, thereby making 2002 the year that TOKYOPOP became a force to be reckoned with in manga. CBR News recently caught up with Marcom Manager Kristien Brada-Thompson and John Parker, President & COO of TOKYOPOP, both of whom were glad to discuss both ’02 and the plans for ’03 as they relate to the successful company.
“Overall I think it was a pretty good year,” says Parker. “The economy wasn’t all that good and for us, we more than doubled our revenue and made a profit for the year. Given the fact that manga is exploding in popularity and that anime continues to be popular, I’d say that we were pretty happy with how things turned out.”
That level of success experienced by TOKYOPOP is something Parker is proud of, but he isn’t about to point fingers at other manga companies for not reaching the same level of achievement. “I don’t know where others necessarily failed- certainly we’re very happy that our right-to-left launch was a big success in April. Some of the things we focused on have had a big effect on us: really improving the quality of our product, better distribution, although we did have one our bigger distributors go bankrupt, we were able to maneuver our way around that and lastly, continually being able to acquire really good titles.”
There’s also a fundamental difference between TOKYOPOP and other manga publishing companies such as Dark Horse and Viz, explains Parker. “Well, both of those companies are great competitors and we have a lot of respect for what they do, but Dark Horse isn’t exclusively publishing manga: they publish American comic books as well, superhero comics, which I’m sure are of great interest to the direct market including a lot of your readers. But overall Dark Horse really doesn’t do that much manga, whereas we have Viz, who does do a lot of manga, though most of their product does come from one licensor in Japan whose kind of renowned for the shonen manga for boys. Then you look at our range of products and you’ll see that we try to have a broad array of products for all demographics between the ages of 7 and 25, boys and girls, and we think continuing to expand our product with more and more options for girls as well as boys and young men puts us in a better position to serve a broad audience.”
A recent article on ICV2.com showed that the quantifiable success of TOKYOPOP’s strategy- they have 33 of the top 50 best selling graphic novels in book stores and it seems amazing that in such a short time, this company has conquered the book stores. “Well, I hate to think of us conquering,” says Parker. “A lot of the other products there are doing pretty well and we just happen to be doing a little better. Part of the reason that we think we’ve been doing well is because of our effort and interest to partner with the bookstore retailers. They historically have not embraced the manga, format but in the last year and half or so have really been interested in expanding their offering in that area, so they’ve been very open to working on new types of merchandising programs and pricing programs to introduce the manga to new clientele. We feel like there’s enormous potential there and we’re just getting started. We need to improve in the direct market and when you look at the rankings from Diamond, we’re only capturing a small portion, and we think that because we bring in girls and younger kids to bring in manga, this is a great way to increase their revenue if they give our product a chance. So for all those kids who are coming in to buy their ‘Yu-Gi Oh’ cards, these are products that can be marketed to the same audience and really be successful.”
Even though Parker feels TOKYOPOP can be more successful in comic book stores, the bottom line is that the company has made a huge impact in a short time and jumped ahead of established juggernauts like Marvel Comics and DC. What can they learn from TOKYOPOP? “Obviously we can’t give away all our secrets,” laughs Parker. “What we can say is that there is a price sensitivity in that some of the companies you’re mentioning have priced their books at a level that is too high for some of the new customers to embrace. We’re certainly interested in increasing the interest of this art form and we think by reducing the barrier to entry, by having a decrease in price, there can be a lot more interest in the product.”
For those fans who attended the Comic-Con International in San Diego last year, you undoubtedly saw the tremendous response to TOKYOPOP’s “GTO” series and Parker says that in 2003, there will be even more offerings relating to the Great Teacher Onizuka. “Well ‘GTO’ is really getting started, it’s a long series and there’s an enormous amount of stories. We’re working to get it onto cable, so you’ll get some broadcast support for the television show and we’ve got some other products lined up too. I can’t give you too much detail other than that the ‘GTO’ series was not the only series done on that character and we’re interested in expanding the offering to all those fans who want to see more of the adventures of Onizuka. We’ve looked at the live action series and we think it’s a little early to say anything, but we’re monitoring the situation there and given the right circumstances, we’d certainly consider that.”
When CBR spoke with TOKYOPOP founder Stuart Levy last year, he was gushing about the manga and anime series “Initial D,” but so far the company has been quiet in terms of releasing the series. “With ‘Initial D’, we’ve really only given fans a peek at this huge series through publishing the first few volumes of manga,” says Thompson. But Parker is quick to add, “We’re close to getting a broadcast deal with it and we have a national retailer onboard to support this. In the fall of 2003 we’re going to have a huge launch in over 7000 stores and we’re going to go a long way to make it one of the premiere anime properties ever launched in America. We’re finalizing our plans now and we’re ramping up for a huge fall launch, no pun intended.”
With all the good in 2002, there had to be some bad and Parker explains that TOKYOPOP did face some problems. “The obstacles we face are usually of our own making. As a small, growing, young company, we have certain limitations to what we can do and those wouldn’t apply to the bigger companies you’ve just mentioned. We don’t have a feature film making eight hundred million dollars and advertising our products for us. We had one of our distributors collapse this year, as I mentioned before, but we were able to get around that. There’s also been the fact that we’ve been unhappy with how we’ve moved into the discounters- we think there’s a lot of potential for us to sell our product at Target and Wal-Mart, and other big national discount chains, but we haven’t really made a lot movement in advertising and marketing there.”
So, now that TOKYOPOP’s done so much in 2002, what’s left for 2003? “Well, we have a number of initiatives for this year, but one of our most important ones is that we’re going to release over 300 titles this year across all product lines for the coming year and that’s DVD, manga, cinemanga, etc,” reveals Parker. “We’re going to put a lot of effort behind our Cine-Manga™ format and we’ve already released a couple of titles in that format and in the coming months we’ll have a couple more series, ‘Lizzy McGuire’ and ‘Kim Possible,’ a number of others that are coming not only from Disney but also from other major studios. Additionally, we have our first show on broadcast starting in February which is called ‘Reign: The Conquerer,’ the animated story of Alexander the Great; in fact, I was just look at a rough cut of it today and it looks fabulous. We think that it’s going to be a big, big thing for us. The last thing we have is our ‘Rising Stars of Manga’ campaign, which Kristien spoke to you about a couple of months earlier, and we received hundreds, hundreds and hundreds of submissions before the December 16th deadline. It’s all original manga, by U.S artists and we’re going to be choosing the top ten submissions and publishing them in a book nationally in April. We’re so excited by what we got- the quality of the book is amazing!”
“I’m still amazed by just how much incredible manga came from all different parts of the United States!” says Thompson emphatically. “It’s very likely that we’ll do another Rising Stars’ contest this year.”
“In manga, there are three properties that we think will be big: ‘Lupin III,’ ‘Scryred’ and ‘Gatekeepers,” adds Parker and then provides the following solicit for each series:
Monkey Punch’s Lupin III franchise follows the exploits of master thief, Lupin III, and his fellow partners-in-crime, Jigen, Goemon, and Fujiko. Over the 35 years since the first installment of Lupin’s exploits appeared in print in Japan, the franchise has spun off a total of 3 separate manga series (comprising dozens of volumes) and hundreds of animated TV episodes, theatrical features, and original video productions.
Take a healthy dose of James Bond, add a splash of The Thomas Crown Affair, filter through the warped prism of Mad magazine … stir thoroughly … and multiply by about 12 … the resulting cocktail might just begin to capture the irrepressible lunacy of Lupin III.
22 years ago a mysterious seismic phenomenon rocked the Yokohama district, thrusting it miles into the sky and effectively separating it from the rest of Japan. In the following years, a fraction of the newborns in this fledgling world began to develop extraordinary powers, each unique to the personality of the possessor. These mutated humans became known as Alters and were responsible for turning the former Yokohama into a chaotic wasteland.
Now, as the former metropolis continues to re-build itself, the Alters have fallen into two camps – those who have joined HOLY, a dogmatic organization that hopes to re-establish order and morality, and those who wish to lord over the comparatively weaker humans. Only Kazuma, a powerful Alter who’s really only interested in looking out for himself and an orphan girl named Kanami, stands between them, suspicious of both sides and unaware that he may hold the key to harmonious co-existence.
Unbeknownst to him until he attends a special school for gifted students, Shun possesses incredible psycho-kinetic powers. So incredible, even, that the Director of A.E.G.I.S., an organization formed to defend Earth from alien invaders, asks the youth to lead a team of like teens against their formidable extra-terrestrial foes, placing the fate of mankind in the hands of The Gatekeepers.
While both Parker and Thompson are both savvy members of the business community, they’re also manga fans and one of the perks of working for TOKYOPOP is reading a lot of free manga, so when asked about their favorite series, they can name a few. “Well ‘Lupin’ is my favorite because it’s politically incorrect,” laughs Parker. “As a guy who grew up in the 70’s I love the fact it just flies in the face of political correctness. And you can never go wrong with ‘GTO.’ All the elements of ‘GTO’- whether it’s the comedy part, or the fact that he’s the teacher or the situations he gets himself into- are ridiculously funny.” When Thompson is asked the same question, she finds the question an easy one and replies, “I’d have to second John and say ‘GTO.’ It always keeps me laughing.”
For those fans who aren’t sure about TOKYOPOP’s offerings, wondering whether they should take a chance on this young company, Parker has some words of advice for you. “Well, we really don’t look at it as taking a chance. We think we have so much product to choose from and so many interesting stories and characters, something for everybody really, that when someone goes to their local store and opens a TOKYOPOP manga, they’ll find something they’re interested in. Of the 100 different properties we have, and there’s a synopsis on our website of each series, I know they’ll find something they like.”