How the Digital Comics Revolution Is Helping Manga's American Growth

The manga industry panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego kicked off with two announcements of new licenses, both classic series that have never been published in English before: Fantagraphics will publish Moto Hagio’s The Poe Clan, and the digital publisher Media Do will publish 31 volumes of Keisuke Itagaki’s martial arts manga Baki in August, in advance of the release of the anime on Netflix’s premium anime service this fall.

The Poe Clan is the latest volume in Fantagraphics’ line of classic manga, which is curated and translated by Rachel Thorn. The second volume of Hagio’s surrealistic sci-fi tale Otherworld Barbara, also published by Fantagraphics, was nominated for an Eisner Award this year. Thorn described The Poe Clan as “a series of interrelated stories that are not necessarily linear. It’s very philosophical and it also features beautiful vampire boys.” The first of the two volumes will be out in 2019 or 2020.

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Daihei Shiohama, President and CEO of Media- Do international, announced the Baki license. Baki is the sequel to the 42-volume Baki the Grappler, which was partially published in English in the Raijin Comics anthology in the early 2000s.

Erik Ko of Udon Entertainment had an update on the release of another classic title, The Rose of Versailles, which was announced in 2015. “You will be seeing the reveal of the covers next week,” he said, to applause from the audience. “Next week there will be some news about it. It’s happening, I just want to take the time to make sure I do it justice.”

The Manga Insiders panel at SDCC: Ben Applegate (Kodansha Comics), David Brothers (Viz), Rachel Thorn (translator), Erik Ko (Udon), Christopher Butcher (Viz), Daihei Shiohama (Media Do International). In front: Moderator Deb Aoki

The industry roundtable, led by journalist Deb Aoki, is an annual event that always features a lively discussion about the business of licensing and localizing manga. This time, Aoki turned the spotlight on the licensing side, asking the panel what they look for when licensing manga for the American market.

“I look for stuff that will serve underserved people, but also stuff that is going to be popular and sell as well,” said Christopher Butcher, editorial consultant for Viz Media. Since Viz is co-owned by the Japanese publishers Shueisha and Shogakukan, they already have a pipeline for manga, especially shonen. “It’s no secret that as a gay dude, I want there to be more gay manga,” he said. “For me, it’s looking for things that are outside of what’s already being done to look for ways we can expand the audience, engage new fans. A lot of people age out of manga. Shonen and action-oriented seinen and shoujo are so prevalent, but at some point you age out of those stories. Some people have loved Dragon Ball for 40 years, and in Japan they move on to manga that speaks to them when they are living the life of a 40-year-old salaryman.”

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Digital media is diversifying the manga scene in Japan, Thorn said: “You are getting to a point where there aren’t any massive hits now like there used to be, like Dragon Ball. Instead you’ve got lots of little hits, that are made possible through digital… Tiny publishers and unknown artist are finding a market these days, and I hope they are going to eventually work their way into the English market.”

In Japan, readers can get the first volume of any manga for free online, Thorn said, and Viz editor David Brothers pointed to Kodansha Comics as an American publisher that does a lot of digital-first series. “Tokyo Tarareba Girls was digital first, and it’s my favorite book,” he said. “Digital is much less expensive, so there is a lower barrier of entry. As e-readers get better and cheaper, we will see more.”

“Last year the amount of money paid for digital manga exceeded that for paperbacks,” Thorn said. “There are more people reading manga now than when manga magazines [were at their peak].”

Digital publishers still have to bear the costs of translation and localization, Shiohama pointed out, although he held out the possibility that artificial intelligence could help with translation in the future. Still, he said, “Japanese publishers want to come abroad. As long as you support the digital program, that is going to happen.”

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