History’s Strongest Disciple: Mega Comics

Mega Comics was General Products’ (GAINAX’s merchandise arm) attempt to break into the burgeoning English-language anime magazine market of the early 1990s, by offering something written by Japanese people and featuring the hottest information straight from Japan. Much like other Japanese companies who would try similar endeavors over the next 20 years, Gainax’s Mega Comics stands as a good example of what NOT to do, to which every subsequent failure-destined Japanese company attempting to sell directly to American fans failed to pay attention.

I had never heard of Mega Comics until I found it while browsing a stack of old magazines at San Jose’s oldest anime store, Nikkaku Animart, and I imagine this is the only issue they released.

Nikkaku Animart was one of the handful of mail order shops that popped up in the late 80s/early 90s to cater to the growing number of anime fans. If you’ve flipped through an English-language anime magazine published between 1990 and 1995, you’ve probably seen an ad for Nikkaku, and they seem to have been widely regarded as one of the better anime shops of the time.

Despite doing a lot of mail order, Nikkaku existed in a physical location as well, occupying a small section in a corner of a Japanese gift shop in San Jose’s Japantown district. Miraculously, it still exists, although I’d imagine that the gift shop sells considerably more merchandise these days than the Animart, which seems to have last been stocked sometime in the early 2000s.

Nikkaku is an absolute time capsule of 1990s anime fandom in the U.S., with prices and shelves that haven’t changed at all in the last decade. Are you looking to spend $400 on a boxed set of VOTOMS on LaserDisc? How about $60 on a Saber Marionette J art book? $30 on a Venus Wars puzzle? Nikkaku can hook you up.

Like the other Bay Area anime mail order shop-–the bizarrely named “Kimono My House”–-it’s easy to see that with the rise of Internet commerce and newer fans with newer tastes, these old shops probably couldn’t compete. Amazingly, both shops still carry on (Kimono My House is located on the third story roof of a warehouse in downtown Emeryville), and I’d heartily recommend you check them out if you’re in the area. Both have products that have been picked over for the last 15 years, and nearly everything they have could be purchased for cheaper online, but they’re interesting to browse through. Kimono My House even shows up to San Jose’s Fanimecon anime convention, with products like Macross pencil cases and Dirty Pair t-shirts.

As for the magazine itself, I think the most important thing to take note of is the price: $17.00. Despite dwarfing other English language magazines of the time both in terms of page count (122 pages) and production values (full color printing, glossy pages, squarebound), $17.00 was still a lot of money. That money could buy you about three contemporary issues of Protoculture Addicts, which despite being written by French-Canadians instead of Real Japanese people, probably offered fans more of what they wanted in a magazine.

Over half the magazine is dedicated to manga stories, all of which are done by people largely unknown to American fans of the era, like future Geobreeders creator Akihiro Ito and Evangelion mecha designer Ikuto Yamashita. None of the comics are particularly good, with Yamashita’s being the only one that’s reasonably well drawn. Two of the three comics have speech bubbles with both Japanese and English text, which is a bit awkward but readable. Yamashita’s comic gets the worst treatment, with all speech bubbles containing only Japanese text and a number, which corresponds to a written translation printed at the bottom of the page. In order to read it, you’re forced to continually look up and down the page, and it’s absolutely awful.

Compared to the types of translations being done around the same time by companies like Studio Proteus or Viz, the stuff here is completely amateur, with plenty of awkward Engrish phrases. Compounded with the fact that they’re all unknown series drawn by unknown artists, I can’t imagine any American fan at the time would actually care.

The rest of Mega Comics is mostly devoted to Gainax’s then-recent TV series, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. A short introduction, a description of the first eight episodes and some line art is all that’s offered, and it isn’t much different from what other anime magazines in the U.S. were printing. There’s a section called “Mega-Talks from Mangawriters” that features short messages and art by up-and-coming manga artists, all whom, aside from pornographer Hiroyuki Utatane, would never have their manga translated into English.

General Products spends a few pages plugging their own products, including the General Products fan club and a selection of anime t-shirts. It isn’t hard to look at the ten (yes, ten) different Silent Mobius t-shirts on offer and realize that as much as American anime fans might have loved Gainax anime, General Products had no fucking idea what American anime fans wanted. Oddly, my copy has a blue VOID stamp used all over the General Products pages, so perhaps this copy was liquidated after they closed up shop in the U.S.

Despite having a white guy listed in the credits as “Assistant Translator,” awkward translations abound throughout every part of the magazine. A clear misuse of funds–as the production values are decent–but the magazine never comes close to being worth the high cover price.

There’s a sense of superiority throughout Mega Comics that has been the folly of numerous Japanese companies trying to directly break into the American anime market; the idea that American fans will gobble up whatever shit these companies throw at them simply because it’s “from Japan.” Numerous companies have made the same mistake and been forced to close up shop in the U.S., but it seems as though Gainax/General Products was (one of?) the first.

6 Comments

  1. I think it’s safe to say this is a time capsule of failure.

    I’m fairly sure the price was completely created to match what the fans were paying for imported books, this would be around the second ‘Yen Shock’ period when things went to shit. Even if it had been $10 (figuring it was spec’ed out as a 1000 Yen Mook) that would have been too much.

    IIRC it’s pretty well documented that Gainax completely failed to use the common sense of some of their gaijin employees while treating the utter batshit insane opinions of one or two of them as complete gospel.

  2. Im sure if I was ever at Nikkaku I’d have to try and haggle on prices. Its like “Look man, Ill gladly take those Votoms LD off your hands, but not for 400 bucks. And if you think anyone is gonna pay for that, you gotta get your head outta your butt.”

    I do that with this guy near my area that has kinda the same stuff. I got Legend of Maten complete (an obscure Super Famicom import) for like 20 bucks when he wanted the game for 50.

  3. Kimono My House is the title of a 1974 album by the LA art-pop band Sparks, so I assume that’s where the shop gets the name from.

  4. In all fairness, $400 is not unreasonable, in as much as that’s around what it would have cost you anywhere. Have a gander at my Zeta Gundam box 1 at http://www.otakubell.com/LDs/picture.php?/315/category/93.

    Note the price near the bottom – 41,000 yen. Now if we assume the yen back then was worth 2/3 what a US dollar was worth, we’re talking around $270. But here’s a question – ever have an LD boxset shipped from Japan? I have, quite a few times. Figure a set like that would have cost at least another $50 to ship, quite possibly more. Of course, I’m making a lot of assumptions here – I have no idea what the dollar/yen ratio was at that point. I didn’t buy this boxset until 1995 or so.

  5. Great post, Sean. An interesting experiment that failed, but…an important piece of history.

    While I’m nowhere near San Jose, it’s nice to know that Nikkaku and Kimono My House are still around. As for stuff from the 80s…well, there’s always Book Off near me in NYC or E-bay, or heck, even Forbidden Planet.

    @Steve: You’re definitely right about that. Lea Hernandez said something similar at her panel at MangaNext 2010.

  6. There is one other (besides Utatane) among the “Mega-Talks from Mangawriters” whose work was published in English; Hitoshi Okuda, whose 12-volume version of “No Need For Tenchi!” was released through Viz. Although Hiroyuki Utatane is known for his early pornographic titles, it should also be noted that it represents a small part of his work; most of his professional output over the past decade has been for mainstream magazines such as Kodansha’s Afternoon and Shueisha’s Young Jump. He’s something like Oh! Great in that respect.

    Judging by its release date, I presume that MEGA COMICS was released to coincide with AnimeCon ’91, with which General Products was involved. From a publishing perspective, MEGA COMICS represents an unfortunate combination of high production and low editorial values (the credits misspell even the word “translator”) that makes it seem a real lost opportunity to connect directly with English-speaking fans. The strange thing is that General Products knew people with considerable professional experience in adapting anime and manga to English, but apparently did not seek their input.

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