Looking at those lists of each season’s anime lineup you’d think there’s some sort of ghastly creative brain drain bedeviling the entire Japanese archipelago. It’s simply not true. The reality is that there is a ghastly creative brain drain over all of Japan except the seinen manga industry.
With so much anime and manga now held in the autoerotic asphyxiating death grip of big Japanese media, marketing departments, groupthink committee culture and lucrative hit single tie-in deals with yakuza-backed pop idols of the week, you’ve got to give props to something, anything not fitted snugly into the mold.
Despite the licensing, publishing and sales boom that fueled that growth and inevitable balkanization of manga readership across the 00s, Viz Media has put its chips behind a stripped-down, sort-of English adaptation of a monthly seinen/alternative magazine, Ikki. Is it going to sell seinen to American readers again? Will it make any sort of money whatsoever? Does Viz care?
Under the surface, Viz’s Sig Ikki gamble isn’t quite as audacious as it seems. Viz, after all, is basically Japanese publisher Shogakukan’s front company for manga dealings in the English-speaking world. Oh, Viz does have a sizeable American staff and they probably even get to make some independent decisions now and then, but it can be safely assumed that any decisions of import—which titles get published this quarter, which get pulled and anything involving money changing hands—are dictated from Hitotsubashi 2-3-1.
Since Shogakukan is also the publisher of the original Ikki monthly, I doubt there was much friction in the appropriation of the name past a pricy long-distance telephone call from Tokyo to Viz headquarters in San Francisco:
“Viz-kun, we just had an exciting board meeting and guess what you’ll be doing this year to push Viz Signature!”
It’s not as if they try to hide the fact that it’s a high-end marketing scheme for the Signature line, “Sig” is in the title after all, and hyperlinks to the line’s website (still “Under Construction” as of the publishing of this article) abound. And why should they? Viz Signature, short of perhaps only Dark Horse Manga, is one of the few torches still held aloft for seinen comics on waters perpetually darkened by the bloated solar eclipse cast by Shonen Jump.
But don’t be so quick to slag Shonen Jump and the fat market share its flagship titles eat up out of the dewy-eyed U.S. market. On both sides of the Pacific Jump, and all comics published therein, is owned by that other Shogakukan front, Shueisha. This is Japanese comics’ Golden Triangle heroin hookup, and it ensured Viz would be top dog in the ever-thinning ranks of U.S. manga publishers. Of the ten slots on the New York Times’ bestseller list for manga as of July 23, five are held by Viz titles, four of which are Jump titles (Naruto, uh, Naruto again, Inuyasha and Bleach). The amount of revenue funneled into Viz through Jump has to have played some part in the continued existence of the lower key Signature line—how else could something like Phoenix have kept soldiering on in the States the way it has under Viz?
Now don’t get me wrong, Shogagkukan’s priority is to Make Cash Money, with Everything Else distant second, but I’m also certain there must be some benevolent dictator somewhere deep in the Shogakukan-Shueisha network saying “fuck what the numbers say, America will bear witness to Phoenix and Golgo 13 as long as we can subsidize their guerrilla action on the U.S. market!” Bless that salaryman, whoever he is.
Because who the hell would want to be publishing a new manga magazine at this time and in this economy? Viz is hedging its bets with the online only, minimalist format, and with good reason. Its previous attempt at an alternative manga monthly, Pulp, folded in 2002. Shojo Beat, also published by Viz, closed shop this May, leaving as Viz’s sole surviving manga magazine, you guessed it, Shonen Jump; not the best auguries for the launch of anything not firmly entrenched in the neo-shonen aesthetic.
A lot of the Japanacomics that trickled across the Pacific into the West in the 90s were seinen titles. The genre, originally targeted towards young adult Japanese males, filled what little shelf space was reserved for Japanese comics and became an indelible influence on Western fandom. Despite the auspicious beginnings, seinen has since all but disappeared into a tiny blip on a radar screen overrun with dozens of other blips of dubious quality.
The real tragedy is that, at least judging from titles that have recently published and/or scanlated, the spirit of invention, experimentation and maybe, just a little, rebellion that ran strong in so many of those precious few early manga releases still lives in a lot of seinen manga being written, drawn and published today.
Naoki Urasawa, a seinen author and artist who, in a rare show of cosmic justice, is one of the richest Japanese comic artists since Rumiko Takahashi, lags behind in sales in America. Volumes of his work have rarely, if ever, seen a ranking on the U.S. bestseller lists. The supreme irony is that Urasawa, a scholar of economics, writes bulgingly muscular, airtight comic plots directly aimed at Western audiences, often starring Western characters and Western settings. I haven’t seen sales figures for the first two volumes of 20th Century Boys or Pluto, and I doubt I ever will, but I doubt a bimonthly release of a sprawling multigenerational quest to defeat the mad utopian shadow government/cult of “Friend” is going to be much competition for this month’s Naruto in which Naruto and Sasuke almost accidentally kiss—again!
Dorohedoro by Q Hayashida is one of the comics picked for publishing by Sig Ikki, and anyone who frequents the Colony Drop IRC channel or has read previous articles knows I want this comic to succeed, bad. This could be the seinen action title that sells to the American shonen action fans. It has it all: charming if initially repulsive characters, intriguing if chaotic plot, distinctive art that gets better with each volume and violence and humor cooked together in a fashion that actually works. I’ve tried countless times to synopsize this Japanacomic to no avail; so I’ll just say that it’s Harry Potter meets Fist of the North Star, directed by the Marx brothers. If that doesn’t sound appealing, you are a communist.
We need more of this sort of stuff on the market. Anime and manga needs more of this mainlined into its jugular. I’m standing here waiting to give you my money, Viz, and the rest of America is right behind me! I hope.