Unbound: The year in manga

At the outset, 2009 didn’t look like a promising year for manga. Tokyopop had split in two, laid off a third of its staff, and seemed to be tottering toward its grave; Broccoli had just given up the ghost; Vertical let its marketing manager go; and ADV couldn’t bring itself to publish Yotsuba&!, despite the fact that fans were climbing the walls for it. The economy had tanked, and the general feeling was that 2009 was going to be a bleak year.

And yet, here I am at the end of December, surrounded by so much good manga that I don’t know where to start.

Tokypop rallied nicely and, despite losing some licenses, is bringing back series that everyone was convinced were heading to limbo. Yen Press rescued Yotsuba&! and republished the earlier volumes as well. Del Rey tested the waters with a variety of global titles (with more to come next year) and kept cranking out solid shoujo and shonen series from Japan. CMX kept up a steady stream of tween- and teen-friendly titles as well as the more mature suspense series Fire Investigator Nanase and Astral Project. Vertical was the darling of New York Anime Fest with their announcement that they had licensed the cute cat manga Chi’s Sweet Home and Felipe Smith’s Peepo Choo; they kept fans busy in the meantime with a steady stream of new volumes of Black Jack.

And Viz! Viz outdid them all, launching series after series to enthusiastic response: Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto and 20th Century Boys; the foodie manga Oishinbo; the beautifully drawn Children of the Sea; the new Rumiko Takahashi series Rin-ne (released online simultaneously with the Japanese releases); Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers. You could go broke trying to keep up with Viz’s output, but if you did, you could console yourself with the free manga on their SigIKKI and Shonen Sunday websites.

While a few publishers responded to the grim economy by circling the wagons or just throwing up their hands, others took a more aggressive approach, licensing new series by established creators, putting marginal properties on the web, responding to fan feedback, and publishing manga that appeals to audiences beyond the traditional teenage readers.

Tokyopop, for instance, had a tough first half of the year. In January, bloggers started circulating lists of manga solicitations that had been cancelled from Diamond’s Previews catalogue. Then in August, Tokyopop revealed that Kodansha had cancelled a number of its licenses with them.

That could have been the end of everything, but Tokyopop followed up almost immediately with the news that they would be bringing back a number of non-Kodansha series, including one of my favorites, Suppli. They hosted a series of “webinars,” interactive online conversations with fans, and they seem to have really listened to the feedback; one immediate effect was an improvement in their paper quality. They also ended the limbo for many of their global manga properties by putting them online.

Viz also got off to a bumpy start, with Diamond announcing in February that over 1,000 Viz titles were being de-listed from their catalog. This sounds ominous, but they were mostly older titles and finished series, and they were still available through other retail channels The company also did some “restructuring,” which was largely opaque to the outside world but did seem to involve layoffs. Later in the year, they folded Shojo Beat magazine, although the brand lives on as a book imprint.

On the other hand, Viz has been heading off in some unexpected new directions. In February, at New York Comic-Con, they unveiled a slate of manga that was largely aimed at older, more sophisticated readers, from Fumi Yoshinaga’s All My Darling Daughters to Taiyo Matsumoto’s GoGo Monster, and all year they kept up a steady stream of high-quality titles. In April, they announced that they would be publishing Rumiko Takahashi’s new series Rin-ne online, posting each chapter the same week it was published in Japan and thus putting them one step ahead of the scanlators. They also launched two online manga sites, Shonen Sunday and SigIKKI, and they expanded their children’s manga line, VizKids. And they sped up their releases of the top-selling series Naruto and One Piece, which probably added some cash to the coffers.

Yen Press, a publisher that knows a winner when they see one, published new editions of the first five volumes of Yotsuba&! in addition to bringing out the new ones; Yen’s new translations, which are more literal than ADVs, have caused some discussion, but that just keeps people talking. They also brought out an omnibus edition of Azumanga Daioh, by the same creator, for good measure. Their manga adaptation of James Patterson’s Maximum Ride novels has been a commercial success, with both volumes making it on to the New York Times “graphic books” best-seller list, and they have followed with announcements of manga based on the Twilight, Clique, and Gossip Girls novels.

Del Rey published its Wolverine and X-Men manga to mixed reviews, and at New York Anime Fest they announced a new approach to their manga based on the animated cartoons Ben 10 and Bakugan; rather than screen-caps of existing stories, they will be doing original stories based on the series, with an interesting array of artists and writers: Peter David, Dan Hipp, and the team of Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir. Their manga adaptations of the Avatar movie and its prequel also look promising. And like other publishers, they continue to rely on established Japanese creators, with new series in the offing by Ema Toyama (Pixie Pop) and Natsumi Ando (Kitchen Princess) among others. And their fall releases included the second volume of Nina Matsumoto's much-acclaimed Yokaiden and the award-winning Moyasimon.

Digital Manga relaunched its eManga online manga site and also tried a new tack: allowing fans to push up publication of some books by pre-ordering. Digital continued to publish a solid line of yaoi manga under several imprints throughout the year, and, like the other publishers, diversified a bit with its license of the classic shoujo manga Itazura na Kiss and its online-only editions of Harlequin manga.

Aurora, which publishes a variety of different types of manga under its own name, plus yaoi manga under the Deux imprint and Teen Love stories under the LuvLuv name, had a big sale in March and has offered manga at bargain-basement prices several times since then. An Aurora employee admitted that the company was in danger of going out of business, but it managed to make it through the year, although it doesn't seem to have released any new manga since Cigarette Kisses in September.

Pioneer manga and anime publisher Central Park Media had been comatose for some time, and they finally made it official in April by filing for bankruptcy. Erica Friedman wrote a nice eulogy for them at Anime Vice.

There were some other interesting stories this year. We bid farewell to a number of long-runnng manga series, including Fruits Basket, After School Nightmare, Parasyte, Emma, and Naoki Urasawa’s Monster.

The New York Times launched its graphic books best-seller list in March, and the first edition elicited a round of WTF? from around the blogosphere, as it consisted of eight volumes of Naruto and one each of MPD-Psycho and Eden, two books with rather narrow followings.

Manga collector Christopher Handley pled guilty to possession of child pornography, a case that caused extensive debate online. The question raised by the case was whether manga that depicts children having sex should be illegal, despite the fact that the images are completely imaginary—no children were exploited in creating them. Just before the plea, ComiPress published a lengthy article (images may be disturbing) by lawyer Lawrence Stanley arguing that such images should not be criminal. Neil Gaiman and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund also came to Handley's defense.

Dragon Ball was pulled from an elementary-school library because of some sexual content in the first volume. The book shouldn’t have been there to begin with (it’s rated 13+), but thanks to the grandstanding of a local politician, copies were removed from all the local school libraries and the public library as well.

The results of the Third Morning International Manga Competition were released, and the judges had some sharp commentary, refusing to award a third prize because the gap in quality was so great between the top two and everyone else. And they changed the name of the competition to the Morning International Comics Competition, because they were tired of looking at the usual stereotyped array of subjects—schoolgirls, ninjas, etc.

Junko Mizuno drew a Spider-Man story for Strange Tales. No, really!

Crayon Shin-chan creator Yoshito Usui died, apparently in a fall from a cliff while hiking

Astro-Boy Magazine launched on the iPhone/iPod Touch

The ero-manga anthology Comics AG folded.

Finally, the non-story of the year was Kodansha’s entry into publishing manga directly in the U.S., which had been rumored since mid-2008. They finally announced the formation of Kodansha Comics in October, but the only books they have published so far are reissues of Akira and Ghost in the Shell, and they don’t seem to have much of an infrastructure yet. I couldn’t even find a website. But 2009 was full of surprises, and maybe Kodansha will surprise me in 2010.

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