Unbound: The webcomics that changed the world

The title is a bit of a stretch, but bear with me.

The folks behind the manga site ComiPress have just unveiled Inside Scanlation, an impressive website that chronicles the history of scanlation, that is, bootleg fan translations of Japanese manga (and later, Korean manhwa as well). It’s an amazingly detailed and textured history, complete with interviews with scanlators and industry figures, a glossary, and a timeline.

One of the things it chronicles is the way scanlation groups helped create and maintain the market for translated manga in this country. Licensed manga is just a bit behind the bootlegs—scanlation sites were doing a brisk business by 1998, while the bookstore boom in manga took off around 2000. Coincidence? I think not. Here’s Del Rey editor Dallas Middaugh reminiscing about his early days at Viz in an interview with Dirk Deppey of The Comics Journal:

To be honest, when I was at Viz back in 2001, 2002, we were following scanlations as a way of discovering new titles. [Deppey laughs.] Hey, I don't read Japanese, and the people making scanlations were finding good manga.

In fact, scanlators played a dual role, as providers and as tastemakers. Without intending to, they were doing viral marketing, turning their friends on to new series, drawing new members into the expanding community, and spinning off smaller groups to work on projects of their own. In the beginning, much of this took place via IRC (internet relay chat), and the comics were distributed as downloads. The recent shift to online reading has drastically changed the scanlation scene and may also have led to the current trend of publishers putting new manga online, sometimes before it goes into print.

Scanlations started out as small, personal projects, and they predate the internet: Someone would make a translation and distribute it to friends and fellow anime-club members. The first known example of this was a 1977 translation of Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix by the four-person group Dadakai. (One of the members of that group was Frederick Schodt, who has since emerged as one of the pre-eminent manga scholars in the country. Right there is one of the ways that scanlation has affected the industry—a number of professiona manga translators started out as scanlators.) By the 1990s, Usenet groups were doing a brisk business in fan translations, and toward the end of that decade they started to spill over into a different channel, IRC, which was the main means of distribution for a long time.

From the outset, the scanlation scene had a strong social aspect. Scanlations were produced by small groups of people, many of whom knew each other only through the internet. The cliquish nature of scanlation and the choice of IRC as a distribution channel kept a lot of outsiders out, which may be one reason why publishers left them alone. You had to be pretty motivated to read scanlations—IRC isn’t that easy to use, and “leechers,” who download manga but never contribute to the group, were held in some disdain. The result was a community of enthusiasts, with its own hierarchy and splinter groups, that existed more or less out of the public eye but was able to grow enough to help create the manga market.

As time went on, and licensed manga became more popular in the outside world, the scanlation scene shifted. Around 2005, when raws (untranslated Japanese originals) became widely available, the number of scanlators exploded. While old-guard scanlators had a policy of taking down a series as soon as it was licensed for U.S. publication, a new group of speed-scanners emerged who were focused on getting their readers the latest episodes of already-licensed series such as Naruto and One Piece, often before they were published in Japan.

Another fairly recent phenomenon is the migration of scanlations from IRC to the web. Starting in about 2007, online reading sites took over as the main means of distribution. The owners of these sites simply uploaded scanlations done by others and put them online, and some added scans of English-language manga as well. This made reading free manga online much easier but also hastened the demise of the older scanlation groups, as readers no longer sought them out or visited their IRC channels.

Many of the online manga sites make money off their scanlations, some through ads and some through a premium membership model. One of the defining characteristics of the original scanlation scene was that scanlators did their work for love, not money. When an aggregator started putting their scans online and charging for access—in effect, pirating from the pirates—scanlators protested by setting up a competing site that allowed users to read manga online for free. This has become the dominant model, with ads supporting a free manga reader.

There does remain a robust community of groups and individuals who are working on niche manga that are unlikely to ever be published in the U.S., things like horror manga, yaoi and yuri, and culturally problematic series like Saint Young Men (which chronicles the daily adventures of Jesus and Buddha, who have taken a break from their duties as deities and are sharing an apartment in modern-day Tokyo).

Although the digital distribution of scans originally came via IRC, not the web, there are a couple of interesting analogies to webcomics here: Community-building was an important factor in the growth of the market, as different scanlation groups developed reputations and attracted followings. The unpaid nature of the work meant that many participants took it up as a hobby and abandoned it when they no longer had the time, just as webcomics creators often drop their series when they get busy. Like webcomics artists, a few scanlators went pro with print publishers. And the subscription-vs-ads question went the usual way; today, the vast majority of online websites are free.

The chief difference, of course, is that none of the comics are original. It should be said that every scanlation violates the law. Over the years, scanlators have come up with a richly textured set of arguments as to why that doesn’t or shouldn’t matter, but publishers regard those with disdain. As long as scanlators stuck to the IRC channels and stopped distributing series once they were licensed, publishers tended to ignore them, but they do chafe at the online reading sites, which they fear are stealing away paying customers. On the other hand, several have developed their own online manga sites, such as Viz’s Sigikki and Shonen Sunday sites, which are free, and Digital’s eManga site, which charges for access. When popular creator Rumiko Takahashi launched a new series, Rin-ne, earlier this year, Viz put each chapter online, for free, on the day it was released in Japan, possibly to preempt the speed-scanners.

Scanlators were by no means the only reason for the popularity of licensed manga in this country; the popularity of anime, especially anime on broadcast TV, and the Pokemon phenomenon had a lot to do with it as well. But there is no denying that scanlators helped create an audience and gave publishers an idea of which series would do well with American readers, providing the original viral marketing for one of the most successful areas of the comics industry.

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