Austen Revisits "The Boys of Summer"

The story of "The Boys of Summer" is a catalog of all the things that can go wrong with a graphic novel, except for one: It started with a stellar team. Chuck Austen is an experienced comics writer whose credits include work on "Uncanny X-Men" and "The Avengers." Artist Hiroki Otsuka, who lives in the U.S., is known in Japan for his ero-manga. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as it turned out. In the mid-2000s, Tokyopop signed Austen and Otsuka to create the title, which combines the two obsessions of young men, baseball and girls, but a series of marketing decisions doomed the book from the moment of its release. The distributor refused to carry it, the publisher didn't support it, and its greatest success -- all three volumes were big hits in Eastern Europe -- occurred literally by accident. Tokyopop even prepared an omnibus edition, then killed it just before it went to print. So although it was named one of the ten best manga of 2006 by Publishers Weekly, "Boys of Summer" remains an oddity, with one volume out of print and the rest never published. And unless Austen can get the rights back from Tokyopop, which has now shuttered its publishing division, it may remain in limbo.

CBR News: Tell us about "Boys of Summer." What's it about, what do you like (and dislike) about it and how did you come to create it?

Chuck Austen: Well -- [Laughs] Wow. That's a lot packed into just a couple questions.

The simple answer is: It's a romantic, comedy, drama about a crappy college baseball team and its star pitcher and catcher, who happen to be a boy, Bud, and a girl, Chrissie. The two are both at odds with each other and attracted to one another, at the same time.

"Boys of Summer" was -- is -- a manga story I'd wanted to write for years. Maybe ten or more years before I finally got the chance. It goes back to a love of Mitsuru Adachi, a creator whose work I've been passionate about since I first found several volumes of "Touch" at a Japanese bookstore in San Francisco back in the eighties. "Cross Game" is his most recent work and it's his first full series that's been translated into English. His work usually centers around sports -- primarily baseball -- and romance. 

"Touch" was revolutionary to me. Years before, Steven Bochco had done a baseball series called "Bay City Blues," which I loved. It was the first time I'd seen anyone take sports and use it as the "action" in a drama or comedy. "Touch" was the first time I'd seen it done successfully, at least financially. "Bay City Blues" was a creative success, in my opinion. But as a comics guy, essentially Mitsuru Adachi had the career I realized I'd always wanted.

Romance and human interest stories have always been more my thing than action or violence. I'm kind of a romantic sap, honestly, which often worked against me while doing superhero comics. But I do like things to move a bit more than they do in your average romance story. Baseball offered a way to create tension, drama and suspense in a comic without the need for violence, and it was something I was dying to get into. I'd done a few on my own over the years -- some published, some not -- but nothing ever took off. I was always "Bay City Blues" instead of "Touch." Instead of discouraging me, though, those "failures" only got me more excited to do it again. I just deeply believed in the formula.

At one point, I was scouted by "Comic Morning" [a manga magazine published by Kodansha and now simply known as "Morning"] in Japan to create something for them, and, of course, I submitted a baseball comic. But it never went anywhere. Some of the editor's notes wound up in "Boys of Summer," ironically. So this is something I've wanted to do for -- I don't know -- twenty years or more. I still want to do it.

What I like about "Boys of Summer" in particular is that it surpassed my expectations. It's a romance about romance, and how the real world interferes with that, about how after the romantic movie ends, things don't always work out. They didn't work out for Bud's parents. But that "reality" doesn't stop him, or us, from wishing for the dream, for the romance and the lifetime of love and happiness that continues long after the credits have rolled. Bud fights the idea of romance all through the three volumes, and finally succumbs to his true romantic nature, and -- well -- hope, really. Just as we all do. "This is it. This time will be different." So I feel the book hit on every level I wanted it to. It's funny, touching, sweet and dramatic. It has that underlying layer of the box of porn as a metaphor for being an observer or a participant in life, which still makes me laugh. It has Manny as the dreamer who can't figure out what to do with himself when the dream fails, and so he retreats further into dream, and the comfort of a protective mother. I'm prouder of that book than most anything else I've created.

On top of that, Hiroki did a brilliant job of capturing mood, humor, and character better than I could have done myself. He brought those characters and situations to life in ways I never could have imagined. Funny, moving, and a great style. Far, far exceeding my expectations, again.

What I don't like is that it's one of my most successful and personally fulfilling creations, and yet it -- technically -- hasn't really been published yet. Probably the only manga ever to be named in the top ten by Publisher's Weekly, even though it's never even made it into an American bookstore. [Laughs]

How did you find Hiroki Otsuka?

I didn't find Hiroki. [Tokyopop editors] Mark Paniccia and Rob Valois found him. I was just glad they did.

In what ways did you think the Tokyopop project would enhance your career?

Only in that it was a project that I really wanted to do, and I hoped to do more like it. So enhance creatively, definitely. I was paid better at Marvel and DC, and I got more rights self-publishing. But "Boys of Summer" was more the kind of thing I really wanted to do, and I hoped it might find me a wider audience and lead to opportunities to create more things like it.

Were you looking to go in a different direction?

No, not really. I was looking to go more in my direction. Which I suppose is a different direction to the one I'd been going. [Laughs] So, yes!

I've been more a manga fan than an American comics fan for most of my adult life. Adachi wasn't just a favorite of mine, he was -- and is -- the only creator I follow religiously. Whatever he does, I find. "Touch," "Nine," "Miyuki," "Jinbei," whatever. Manga has always been more about the kinds of stories I want to tell, the way I want to tell them. I love the more expanded storytelling, where a moment can be shown entirely visually over a page, or two, or seven, if need be. The last pitch of the big game in "Touch" is a great example. It's a more filmic approach, and I think a more involving experience for the reader. By giving them the beats visually, you bring them in deeper emotionally. 

I think that's why more women like manga. Manga is unafraid and unashamed to go for the heart and the mind. Women are more discerning in that way then men, who are just happy when things blow up. Women need more. Which is really what all good storytelling should do -- give more. The movie "Rocky" was a smart fight movie and a romance. I work in storyboards and have for most of my career, and you never get a stronger reaction from your audience than when you build up the tender moments as powerfully as you do the comedy and the action. Manga is more like that, partly because the longer page-count allows you that latitude.

What did you think of the contract you were offered?

Mine was a traditional book contract, definitely slanted toward Tokyopop, which is typical for a first project. I got paid, on time and what we agreed to. And in exchange, I think I gave them a terrific three-volume series. It wasn't perfect -- neither the contract nor the series -- but the first one never is. I think we all hoped it would become a big enough hit that it would mean coming back to the table for a second deal. And a third. The thing with contracts is: you don't have to sign them. There are always other options. You give, in the hopes of getting something in return. I signed. End of story.Did you attempt to negotiate any of the terms?

We negotiated a bit. But I wasn't looking for much. Specific terms, extra copies of the books, which became a moot point. I just wanted a fair page rate, and compensation in the event of animation or movie deals. Toys, that kind of thing. I felt it was fine. I mean, honestly, even for Tokyopop, "Boys of Summer" was quite a gamble, so I wasn't expecting a great deal. It's not like people were knocking down anyone's doors begging for sports/romance manga.

Once you were on board, how closely did your Tokyopop editor work with you?


Did you have more than one editor while you were working on the book?

I had three, officially, and I worked closely with all of them, and liked all of them. Rob Valois and Troy Lewter I got to know better because I worked longer and closer with them. I loved working with both of them, and they each brought something to the book. Troy perhaps a bit more so since he was my main editor on the second and third volumes. My conversations with Rob and Troy were some of the highlights of my work on "Boys of Summer." They each had suggestions and ideas, but they let me do it my way, ultimately. They trusted me and they gave me good suggestions, and I think they liked and were proud of what we did. They said so at the time. They also listened patiently when I lost my temper about "Boys of Summer" languishing. They were great to me.

Did your editors see "Boys of Summer" as different from Tokyopop's other global manga in terms of adult content?

Not really. Rob certainly didn't. He and I talked about it a lot. So did Troy and I. But it did become a problem. We thought we were within the boundaries of what was being published, but apparently the distributor disagreed and had issues with the first volume. That's where all the trouble began.

What was it rated?

OT. Older teen, sixteen plus. But the distributor felt is should have been given the next higher rating, or have interior pages and the cover changed. I have teenage daughters, and they watch racier stuff on cable. "Real World" -- whatever. Of course, the problems with the first volume wound up changing the tone of the entire series. Eventually, when Tokyopop decided to continue the book, they asked us to push the adult content -- "Go for it," we were told -- because they intended to raise the rating. It was much tamer before that.

Was it marketed differently than their other books?

No. It wasn't really marketed differently. Ultimately, it wasn't marketed at all. Not in the States. Some in-book house ads, and some promotional card giveaways that I still have a stack of. There may have been more. I didn't see it.

What happened when the first volume was released?

It never got to bookstores. The distributor had issues with -- from what Rob and Mark told me -- the cover being too sexy, and some nudity and sexuality in some interior pages, so he wouldn't put it through to the bookstores. He suggested changing the cover -- either make it less sexy or slap a sticker on it with a higher rating and shrink-wrap it in a way that would obscure the controversial imagery. Or put a new cover on it and revise the objectionable material inside to keep the rating it had. We didn't really get it. She's wearing a bikini on the cover, but I suppose it could be seen as a bra and panties under a baseball shirt. 
Mark called me in a bit of a panic, wanting to know if Hiroki and I were cool with changing things so they could get it into bookstores. I told him "no problem." Hiroki and I were open to any option. We weren't trying to be controversial. We just did what we thought worked for the audience and never imagined we'd crossed any kind of line. There was a lot of nudity in other books of a similar rating. Often, more than we had. Mark and Rob obviously never thought we'd crossed any kind of line. If they had, I'm sure it never would have gone to print in the first place.

So Mark went away and told me he'd let me know what decision they made, and that it would be in the stores within a month. But it didn't happen. Nothing happened. Ultimately, no decision was made. It just lay there in Tokyopop's warehouse and hard drives for years.

Was it offered for sale in any venue?

Only at Amazon, and in foreign translations. I did see copies in a Kinokuniya once, in Los Angeles.

How did you come to complete all three volumes anyway?

Ha! That was weird. The book was -- for all intents and purposes -- dead. Or so I thought. I'd stopped calling to ask when it would be out, and my editors had given up in frustration. Around this time, Mark left for Marvel. Then one day Rob calls me and says, "Hey. We want you to finish out the story in three volumes." Originally, it had been pitched as ending in three, six, or twelve, depending on how good the sales were.

I was surprised and asked Rob what had changed Tokyopop's mind. This all seemed rather sudden. The book had lain dormant for -- I think years at this point. Why finish it now?

He told me that some foreign rights distributor had come to them asking for OEMs [Original English Manga] to publish in Eastern Europe, and they had given him a stack of their books. He came back and said the only one he wanted was "Boys of Summer." "And what's funny," Rob told me, "is that they weren't supposed to give him 'Boys of Summer.' He got it by accident. No one figured a baseball manga had a chance in Eastern Europe." To top it off, I guess the distributor only wanted the series if it came to a conclusion, so Tokyopop was suddenly caught flat-footed and had to get me and Hiroki to finish a series they hadn't thought about in years or lose their deal.

Troy told me all three volumes sold surprisingly well for the guy, whoever he was. Some very, very smart man, apparently. [Laughs] Volume two was the number two best-seller on release, and three was number one. For him. In Prague.

Whose idea was the "Boys of Summer" omnibus?

It was [Tokyopop's]. I'd asked, of course, about getting it printed somehow, but knew better than to expect much. I guess they figured they had the thing in house and complete, they may as well letter it and put it out in English. Printing is the least of the expenses on a book. Troy said people around the office had been reading it and were really, really liking it. It was becoming an in-house favorite. He seemed proud. I know I was. He and I and Hiroki had gotten that thing over the finish line through some tough times. It was amazing that it would actually -- finally -- see print.

Were the omnibus editions ever actually printed? Are they sitting in a warehouse somewhere?

No. It was at the printer when it got canned. Lettered, proofed, finished -- dead. I'd been on the edge of my seat. Troy had told me, "It comes out in June," or whenever -- and the days were ticking down. He called me and said, "Got the corrections in and it's gone to press." He was giddy. I was giddy. It was finally going to be out. Then, two days later, Troy called me, despondent. He really sounded defeated. They'd pulled it from the printer. I was floored. A week earlier and we'd have gotten into print. We'd gone through so much on that book, and now it was really, truly dead. No question. Tokyopop was changing strategy and would no longer be doing OEMs. If we're lucky, Troy told me, they'd release it online. I don't think they ever did.
Ironically, I found out later -- after all that -- that we'd been named one of the top ten manga of 2006 by Publisher's Weekly. This was the end of 2009, I think. I read it in an article. No one had even told us. Any other publisher would have put that on a cover in fifty point type and put the book in a dump in every Barnes and Noble. We couldn't even get printed. Some of it was timing. Some of it, well -- I consider it karma. There's really no other explanation for it. Even when Tokyopop was doing things right, it all went wrong. Some things are not meant to be, I guess.

Now I hear Tokyopop is deader than they were before. Troy's gone. Breaks my heart. There were a lot of really good, really talented people up there. People who really believed in what they were doing and worked hard at it. It's sad, really.

Have you or Tokyopop had any discussions about licensing Boys of Summer for other media or markets?

Yeah. There was some interest in a movie at one point. I know, because my wife met with the producer who approached them. He wanted to make a teen sex comedy with some depth to it, and it was perfect for him. I haven't heard what happened to that. There was also talk about sending it over to Japan. Never heard if that went anywhere, either.

What are your hopes for Boys of Summer now?

I just want to see it printed and out there. My daughter wants to see it printed and out there. She loved it. Still asks about it. It still exists. Maybe it will see the light of day in one form or another. Life is funny, that way. You never know.

Do you hold the copyright?

The copyright, yes.

The print rights?

Not at the moment. Tokyopop still has those.

Would you like to get the print rights back?

Sure. I'd self-publish it myself, if I could. Print On Demand makes that easier than ever. I'll explore all possibilities.

In retrospect, would you have done anything differently?

I'm not sure I could have done anything differently. Tokyopop wouldn't have done it differently, and I couldn't have afforded to do the thing myself at the time. Besides, I never would have been paired with Hiroki, and that would have lessened my life and my experience on the book in so many ways. Great things come out of bad experiences.

I'm not looking at this as a be-all or end-all situation. I have lots more ideas in me, lots more stories to tell. I can and will do more, at some point. "Boys of Summer" hurts, because it was so special. Hiroki did a brilliant job. I'm very proud of my work on it. But it's not the end of my world. It's not even the worst creative situation I've been in. Ask me about "Tripping the Rift," sometime. [Laughs]. Hiroki and I talk about doing something else together all the time. I'd do greeting cards with the guy. I love Hiroki! I just got an e-mail from him telling me someone just asked him about "Boys of Summer," that they loved number one and when they could expect to see 2 and 3!  AAAAAGH!

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