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Tokyopop Returns — But Don’t Call It A Comeback

by  in Comic News Comment
Tokyopop Returns — But Don’t Call It A Comeback

Once the largest manga publisher in the U.S., with the licenses to top-selling manga such as “Sailor Moon,” and “Fruits Basket,” “Battle Royale,” “GTO: Grand Teacher Onizuka,” and “Sgt. Frog,” Tokypop has announced its return, with panels planned for Anime Expo this weekend and Comic-Con International the following weekend. But this is actually just the latest development in a slow-motion comeback that has been going on since just a few months after the company shut down its U.S. publishing operations in May 2011.

CEO Stu Levy announced the latest news in very vague terms on the Tokyopop website, saying that the publisher would be “evolving” into something new. One thing sounds familiar, though: Would-be creators are invited to bring their portfolios to Tokyopop panels.

As one of the most important manga publishers during the boom of the mid-2000s, Tokyopop recruited new talent via its Rising Stars of Manga competitions and its OEL (original English language) manga program gave creators such as Felipe Smith, Becky Cloonan and Amy Reeder an early boost to their careers.

While other publishers, such as Viz and Dark Horse, had been publishing manga in English for years, Tokyopop hit on a formula for mass-market success with its “100% authentic manga” format. Launched in 2002, it featured unflipped (right-to-left) manga with untranslated sound effects, printed in a compact 5″ x 7″ format. Leaving the manga in its original right-to-left format was not just “authentic,” it also reduced production costs (as did leaving the sound effects alone), and the manga were priced at an allowance-friendly $9.99 per volume. What’s more, at a time when conventional wisdom held that girls didn’t read comics, Tokyopop made comics for girls, a move that revolutionized the comics market as a whole. Graphic novel sales quadrupled between 2001 and 2007, and industry analysts such as Milton Greipp of ICv2 gave manga much of the credit.

That wasn’t the only structural change, though. Tokyopop created a whole new path for would-be creators with its original manga program and its annual Rising Stars of Manga competition, an attempt to move beyond the limits of licensed manga and create a homegrown product to which Tokyopop would own all the rights. While the global manga line was not as successful as Tokyopop’s licensed properties, and some observers criticized its contracts and terms, it provided a potential path to publication for many young creators.

Some of Tokyopop’s other innovations were not so successful, in part because they were so far ahead of their time. It launched a cell phone manga program at a time when cell phones still had tiny screens. (Tokyopop actually had manga formatted for the iPhone, but it was only available on the web.) It converted its website to a social media hub filled with user-generated content, a la MySpace, but many users found it unfocused and confusing. Tokyopop was the first publisher to publish manga on digital comics distributor comiXology, though it only offered a single title, “Hetalia.”

The manga market peaked in 2007 before it spun into a sharp decline due to a number of factors, including piracy, the economic crash of 2008, and the Borders bankruptcy of 2011. Beyond those factors, Tokoypop had an additional problem specific to itself, sufferinghe loss of licenses from Kodansha, the largest publisher in Japan, which moved its licenses to Random House and published them via the Del Rey imprint. The other two largest Japanese publishers, Shueisha and Shogakukan, are the parent companies of Viz, Tokyopop’s competitor, so both the number and the quality of licenses available to Tokyopop dropped sharply.

In 2011, Tokyopop announced that it would stop publishing manga as of May 31 of that year. It allowed all but one of its licenses to revert to the original Japanese publishers, and shut down its website, leaving only a Facebook page. Tokyopop didn’t go bankrupt or totally cease to exist, however, and in just a few months, it began flickering back to life.

First, there was a newsletter, focusing on Asian culture in general. The newsletter has been through a couple of different iterations, and was even published by Nerdist for a while, but for the past year and a half, it has been a Tokyopop production.

In September 2011, Levy posted a question on the Facebook page, asking readers if they would be interested in a third volume of “Hetalia: Axis Powers”; Tokyopop had previously published the first two volumes. The response apparently told Levy what he was hoping to hear, because in May 2012, Tokyopop announced it would publish the third volume of “Hetalia,” as well as new editions of the first two, through the anime and manga retailer RightStuf. In 2013, it published additional volumes of the series, the only new Japanese licenses that Tokyopop has acquired since May 2011.

The company has been ramping up the marketing of its OEL manga, however. In January 2013, Tokyopop relaunched its website with an online store, selling a broader selection of its non-Japanese manga in digital and print-on-demand format. At a panel at Anime LA, Levy discussed the company’s plans for a comeback, asking the audience to suggest Japanese titles they would like to see Tokyopop publish. Kickstarter was mentioned in passing, as was the possibility of developing film and television projects from the OEL manga.

Since then, Tokyopop has been quietly expanding its reach, publishing the weekly newsletter and making its e-books available on other platforms, including comiXology, Kindle and Nook. While most of its marketing has focused on titles that were completed before the 2011 shutdown, it did publish a new volume of the OEL manga “Bizenghast” in 2012.

One of Tokyopop’s marketing points in its heyday was “The Manga Revolution.” The company was fast and flexible, launching a lot of new initiatives. Over the past few years, however, Levy seems to be taking a slower, more cautious approach, marketing existing properties and reaching out to the younger manga fans via the newsletter and social media.

The upcoming panels at Anime Expo and Comic-Con International may mark a sea change for the company. It’s hard to predict what Levy will announce (if anything), but the fact that he is inviting attendees to submit portfolios suggests that a return to publishing original graphic novels (or, at least, comics in some format or another) is in the works. If nothing else, it will be interesting to watch Levy bring Tokyopop into its next stage — whatever that may be.

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