Tokyopop has come back to life, sort of: The manga publisher unveiled its revamped website a few days ago, and the company is once again selling books, in partnership with Right Stuf (for print) and Graphicly (for digital). The only Japanese manga available on the new site is Hetalia; Tokyopop's licenses for other series lapsed, and most of them probably aren't coming back, although CEO Stu Levy dangled the possibility of some new licenses in a panel last week at Anime LA. What's left is a good-sized collection of Tokyopop's Original English Language (OEL) manga and a few graphic-novel imports from countries other than Japan.
Although Tokyopop's OEL line earned a fair amount of derision at the time, many of the books were actually pretty solid. In addition, they provided paying work for many young and veteran artists. Here's a look at six that are of interest either because of the creators or because they are so strong (or both).
East Coast Rising: Becky Cloonan's first full-length graphic novel, this urban-pirate story earned a nomination for Best New Series in the 2007 Eisner Awards. Alas, there was never a second volume.
Dramacon: Svetlana Chmakova's first full-length work, Dramacon is a romance set at an anime con. It's a nice, quirky story that takes some affectionate pokes at the world of comics and manga fandom. Dramacon was nominated for Eisner and Harvey awards, and happily, Tokyopop published all three volumes as well as the omnibus edition.
Off * Beat: Jen Lee Quick story combines Harriet the Spy with a bit of yaoi and places it in an urban setting: A 15-year-old boy becomes obsessed with his mysterious neighbor, and it does seem like there is something odd going on. This was my absolute favorite of all Tokyopop's OEL manga, because Quick's characters and storytelling are first-rate. Tokyopop published two of Quick's intended three volumes; only vol. 1 is available on the website but you can get Vol. 2 for four bucks on Amazon. Quick has said on her DeviantArt page that she is working on a third volume, and it will eventually be published in one form or another.
Orange: Technically, this isn't OEL manga, because it was originally published in China, but the Tokyopop folks aren't picky about categories so why should we be? Anyway, the story of a suicidal teenager who develops a strange obsession with a drunken artist is fairly standard melodrama, but the lushly colored art (all "painted" digitally) is amazing, and that's what sells the book. At $14.99, it's a bit pricey for such a slim volume, but RightStuf has it discounted to less than $12 right now. They also carry another Benjamin graphic novel, Remember.
Divalicious: Written by T Campbell and illustrated by Amy Mebberson, this story of a 17-year-old pop sensation has more story to it than you might think from the premise. Campbell's witty writing and Mebberson's fluid cartooning make this a delight to read. Only the second volume is available on the website, but you can get the first volume on Amazon for a penny (actually, you can get the second volume there pretty cheaply as well). The story is complete in two volumes, although Campbell and Mebberson had actually planned for it to be longer.
Boys of Summer: This book made Publishers Weekly's top manga of 2006 list and was a bestseller in Eastern Europe, but Tokyopop couldn't get it off the ground in the United States, in part because retailers balked at the racy content. Writer Chuck Austen, who talked to me at length about it in an interview for Comic Book Resources, thought of it as a sweet homage to Cross Game creator Mitsuru Adachi, but everyone else found the cover a bit ... distracting.
Some other quick recommendations: Josh Elder's Mail Order Ninja, which was just the subject of a successful Kickstarter, is a great choice for kids, as is Alex De Campi's Kat and Mouse. My daughter couldn't get enough of Rikki and Tavisha Simons' Shutterbox when she was a teenager, and they are finishing the series on their website. Queenie Chan's The Dreaming is a great ghost story set in the Australian outback.
The booby prize, so to speak, goes to Tantric Stripfighter Trina. The blurb says it all: "Tantric Stripfighter Trina fights an evil space federation... by taking off one piece at a time!" This book is so out there that I couldn't bring myself to review it, so I had Erica Friedman do my dirty work for me.
And finally, it's interesting to see what's not on the list: Ross Campbell's The Abandoned (he was critical of Tokyopop's handling of the first volume); the excellent high school-based fashion comedy Fool's Gold, by Amy Reeder (Madame Xanadu); Sho Murase's me2, a very stylish high school revenge story done in a strikingly graphic black and white style; and the superb one-volume story 12 Days, June Kim's strange tale of a woman who mourns her dead lover by drinking her ashes in a milkshake every day for 12 days.