That’s what Yen Press’ “Twilight: The Graphic Novel” sold in one week on the shelves. And while that March debut certainly came thanks to an already dedicated fanbase for Stephanie Meyer’s novel series (the art on the graphic novel courtesy of Young Kim), the sales nonetheless showed that publisher Yen Press is now a major force in the manga market, especially in these rough times for Japanese comics.
“We are absolutely thrilled with how it’s doing,” Yen publishing director Kurt Hassler told CBR News of the “Twilight” numbers. And as part and parcel discussing the launch, Hassler went in depth with us for a two-part installment of our FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK series where CBR News speaks with comic publishing’s biggest names. While Hassler may not have “editor” in his title, the former book buyer for Borders and early manga adopter keeps a hands-on role in the selection and presentation of Yen’s entire line including adaptations of prose hits like “Twilight” and “Gossip Girl” (a collection of which arrives in August), original manga-styled graphic novels and a host of popular Japanese comics including hits like “Yotsuba&!” and “Maximum Ride.” Today, Hassler explains how the adaptations fit into Yen’s larger publishing schemes, what it took to make “Twilight” work in comics form and how he views criticisms of the volumes lettering.
CBR News: To start, I wanted to ask how you feel Yen Press is doing these days. I know the past year has been rough compared to recent years for the manga market in the wake of its initial, expansive growth. In general, what do you think the health of the market is?
Kurt Hassler: The manga market is definitely strong. It has seen some contraction over the past two years – I look largely at the problems publishers have been having with illegal scanlations over the past few years as probably the major contributor to that at the moment – but the business is still strong. If you look at Bookscan sales, last year I think manga made up about 60% of the total graphic novel sales per Bookscan, so it’s not like this is going away. But there are definitely some issues that publishers need to address to keep the business moving forward.
Looking at the list, you had “Gossip Girl”serialized earlier in the year with a collection on the way and now have “Twilight.” Your connection to a larger publishing house seems to have helped there, but are there other books that you think can fit in this mold without having to have such a big brand name leading the way for sales?
We aren’t averse to doing original material. Certainly, we’ve done Svetlana Chmakova’s “Night School.” She had such great success with “Dramacon” published by Tokyopop in the past, and we’re very pleased with how our book’s doing. It’s a great book. So we’re very much open to trying to find new talent. In terms of the state of the market as it is, it’s much easier to go to buyers and accounts with a recognized property because, given the trends of the market, they’re being much more cautious in their buys, and understandably so. So when you have something that is immediately recognizable with a history of success in other areas of the book store, they’ll tend to be more supportive of those ventures.
With “Twilight,” sales were big as expected. In fact, I think the press release for the book could have just been “Yen Press Signs Contract To Print Money.”
[Laughs] There is definitely a ravenous fanbase out there.
Then for you, when you were deciding how to put that book together and picking the talent to work on it, how do you work to not take that for granted? Were there certain areas you wanted to be more careful with in order to say “We’re doing this and that right in terms of the novel?”
Certainly when you’re doing something that’s going to have that much attention on it, you have to spend much more attention to be sure you’re doing it right. It’s not enough to say, “We have a big property. We can do anything.” You really do have to give it the care and attention the project demands. It was a long process of vetting all kinds of different artists, getting Stephanie Meyers’ vision of the characters and finding someone who could translate it to the page so that her vision was coming across to the fans. Then you’ve got that authentication for them so that when you read the book, you recognize, “This is not just something that was thrown together. It was not something that was just meant to capitalize on a popular franchise.” The goal was to get inside the author’s head and give the fans her vision of the property as closely as we could. It’s a great process. It was gratifying to do that. And the response we’ve gotten from the fans tells us we’ve been very successful at accomplishing it.
One of our writers on our Robot 6 blog had said that Twilight is essentially “shojo manga in goth drag.” It really does seem to fit in with that model of story that’s already so popular in manga form. Have you guys found out who the audience is – well, we know the majority of the audience are established “Twilight” fans, but are you seeing if there’s any crossover in terms of who’s coming to it because it’s “Twilight” or because it’s manga? Is there any outreach you can do on either side of that fanbase?
Well, just to clarify, we never set out with the intention that this is “manga.” It’s not our feeling that this would be representative of what is stereotypically referred to as manga in this market. This is not a manga artist, per se. She’s not Japanese, and she comes from a more of a fine arts background. I understand what people mean when they compare it to what’s referred to as shojo manga, but that’s more about the demographics of the people reading the material. And when you start to look at American comics, I think the reason this gets tapped as manga so much is because there isn’t much of an American equivalent for that type of storytelling. Young, female readers are not necessarily the main readers of American comics, so that becomes an easier label to apply to it.
Now, looking at the crossover potential and what other graphic novels this could bring in, I certainly think there is a gravitation towards manga because there is more kinds of storytelling focused on that type of reader represented in material coming out of Japan and Korea than you’d get from domestic American comics publishers.
What have you done in terms of trying to roll some of those non-graphic novel readers who came for “Twilight” into some of your other titles, if there’s anything you can do at all?
Really, the best thing you can do is make sure you’ve got other books you’re publishing that appeal to that same readership. We’re not approaching it with the idea of “This is a springboard to other material.” Obviously, we’d like to see that, but this book was done for a certain fanbase and is meant to appeal to them. The idea that we’re going to launch off of that into other success is sort of a crass commercialization of the work itself, which we’re not going to do. At the same time, we do want to make sure that what we’re publishing contains books that those readers are going to find and appreciate at the end of the day.
There’s one last thing I do have to ask about in terms of the “Twilight” book, and that is that there are certain people in the comics industry who were a little non-plussed with the lettering in the graphic novel, both in terms of it not looking like more traditional letting in its technique and in terms of there being some awkward placement and such. How did some of those production issues and choices come about?
Well, those weren’t production issues. There seems to be a misconception within the comics community here about how that was put together. When you’re working in American comics, yes, it is standard to go out and assign a letterer to letter a book, but that is not what you generally see in Asian markets. It’s not what you see in Japan and in Korea. So for the original books that we work on, we ask the artists to do the book themselves. This was not a book that was lettered by a letterer…this was lettered by the artist.
And as far as the balloon work goes, a lot of what I heard was “Oh, these are just randomly placed.” That is absolutely not the case. When you’re talking about a professional letterer working in comics, the role of the letterer is to stay out of the way of the art. You would absolutely never see a case where the letterer is allowed to place a balloon over a character’s face. When the artist is doing the balloon work and she’s selecting where that lettering is, if she places a balloon over a character’s face, there’s a reason for it. I’ve seen one panel held up time and again as “How was this done?” Well, it was done because the artist had a very specific reason for putting it there. [Laughs] It’s funny, because I see a lot of the comments, and I’ve seen some people speak to that because they recognize what she did. But people aren’t looking at the book and trying to ascertain why the book was done that way. They’re putting the presumption of how things are done in this industry and trying to apply it to a case where it’s the artist making that call.
One of the key questions is that it seems you’ve had a bit more success with American created comics that are made and formatted in the manga style. Some of the hardcore fans will say those are inauthentic and what have you. Is there a chance in that segment of the market, where the fans who were once just readers and are now aspiring creators, are they more willing to try material not brought over from Japan?
I think the resistance comes down more to the quality of the material. What you saw in the early days were not really expert attempts to mimic a style without fully understanding it. I think there’s still a challenge in that. I think where you break down a resistance is that, when we established Yen Press, knowing we wanted to do these kinds of books, we had to recognize that we weren’t the experts on that material, editorially. So we did bring in our senior editor JuYoun Lee from the Korean market in Seoul to come over and be our expert on that front. She’s got a great eye for talent, and a lot of that success we’ve enjoyed is because we’re not just trying to find someone who can mimic a style, but has some expertise and can tell a story in the way it should be told. I think that’s where that success is being driven. Once you present that material in that way, a lot of that resistance goes away.
Check back with CBR next week for part two of our discussion with Hassler where we talk about the manga side of Yen Press including the next big title from CLAMP and the future of “Yen Plus” magazine.