Flipped and Flopped: Manga Fandom In The Mid-1990s

I have mentioned in various Internet communities about Operation: Get Your Shit Out Of My House – the appearance of stuff, presented by my parents at holidays or other family gatherings that for one reason or another – college living, pre-home-ownership transient lifestyles, etc, stuck around at their house and they are ready for it to be gone. ‘Stuff’ is the best way to describe it. Once it was model kits (finished and unfinished), another time, it was computer stuff like floppy disks (detailed in another Free Talk). This time it was comic books.

I was really into comics in the early 1990s and my comic book fandom was, ultimately, what got me into anime. But as allowances are limited, I’d quit American superhero comics by the mid-90s to put that thin-stack of cash towards cartoons. But going through the comics in those long boxes was a trip down memory lane of not just a piece of my childhood (and getting everything priced to sell) but a time capsule of anime fandom more than I could ever imagine.

I feel the best way to go about this is actually, to start in the middle of the story. Here we’ve got two printings of the same book at different times: post-manga boom and one pre-manga boom.

A Pre-Boom (1994) versus Post-Boom (2003) copy of Maison Ikkoku, volume 1. Both by VIZ Media

The manga boom happened in the early 2000s as a part of an overall anime boom. This is when manga began to be published in their translated North American forms and published as collected volumes and were distributed not just through comics distributors but also wound up at larger bookstore chains such as Barnes and Noble, Borders, Waldenbooks and (eventually) Amazon. This wider distribution chain and the price-point-per-volume of about $10 USD made manga very accessible to fans. As more manga was sold, licencors were able to license and translate more which cycled until the the early stages of the Great Recession, where retailers were trying to offload stock back to publishers and manufacturers to ease their own credit woes. This era also brought us the Manga Cow phenomenon, where people with the appetites for manga would hang out in the manga aisles reading manga for as long as they could. It made shopping for manga harder but someone was buying enough because I don’t think these stores ever kicked anyone out for it.

Manga had been published in English for North America before the 2000s though. In some great research from Dave Merrill over at Let’s Anime, Sanrio’s shoujou anthology Lyrica was positioned to be translated and sold in Western countries without having to make printing changes in the 1970s. In an interview with the Japan Times, Frederik Schodt, talks about wanting to commercially translate Japanese comics going back to the same 1970s but it wasn’t until 1983 when he was able to publish his book about Japanese Comics, that he was able to make headway towards that. Other publishers, like Eclipse (a subsidiary of Marvel) did licensed franchise books for RobotechStar Blazers, Captain Harlock and Dirty Pair.

Dark Horse’s Dominion
Viz’s Maison Ikkoku
Viz’s Ranma 1/2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the 1990s, manga, as were most other comic books, was sold through the direct market channels – from publishers, through a middleman enterprise and into your local comic book store. In the store, it might get sectioned off, by publisher usually but the new arrivals rack would usually place Dragonball and Project A-ko alongside Superman, X-Men and whatever trash Image Comics had out at the time. Knowing this, publishers like Viz, Central Park Media, Dark Horse and everyone else, would package the product appropriately – glossy color covers and about 32 pages (known as a floppy). One more thing that was unique, and would probably make modern manga fandom cringe (or worse), is that the pages were also flopped (or, alternatively flipped) – a process of mirroring the artwork to take a right-to-left page (as it would be in the original Japanese) and make it read left-to-right (as you would in English). But other than the product – manga – as a whole, what exactly did manga fandom look like in the middle to late 1990s?

A look at flopped manga from Short Program by Adachi Mitsuru

Wizard: The Guide To Comics was a notable magazine in comics fandom during the 1990s. It had lots of articles about the comics industry and fandom, in addition to a rather comprehensive price guide every month (which was the most 1990s thing). In Wizard’s November 1993 issue, Lea Hernandez (now Lea Hernandez Seidman) builds on Schodt’s work in an article called Manga Mania: introducing the product to the market. Hernandez had a different background that Schodt didn’t: she not only already worked in the American comics industry as an artist and writer but she also worked for General Products (what later became GAINAX) in their North American expansion in the early 1990s.

Manga Mania bridges a gap from Japanese comics to your more cape-oriented American comic audiences. Its opening paragraphs detail the differences and similarities to what typical comic readers but also delves into then-recent controversies. First it mentions the Black-And-White bust, a period in American comics where independent and small press titles flooded the market and reached a point of oversaturation that left a sour taste in a lot of retailers and consumers mouths that were distrustful of adapted, foreign comics. Oh, if only they could see where the real bust was coming from in the 1990s! The second controversy was comics that were done in a manga style – trappings of big action, big expressions and big eyes – but was written by American or other Western authors and illustrators. The controversy there was whether they should be considered manga or not and the first round of the OEL Manga debate was off to the races. What’s old is new again! Despite these challenges, she says the publishing sphere for manga was growing and runs down a list of publishers with some sample artwork from various books. Names like Dark Horse and Viz, familiar to today’s fans are present with titles like AKIRAAppleseedRanma 1/2 and Battle Angel Alita but most of the other publishers in the article: Antarctic Press, Blue Sky Blue, Epic and Eternity would barely survive the decade.

After her original article, Hernandez returned with a regular column in Wizard called Manga Scene starting in 1995. Her first article featured a manga by Otomo Katsuhiro (published by Dark Horse) called Domu: A Child’s Dream. Coinciding with the release of Otomo’s AKIRA and riding the cresting popularity of its film adaptation (widely available), Otomo’s marketability as “the gateway” for new anime and manga fans at this time cannot be understated and is, in my opinion, often forgotten, even by yours truly. In the same article, a new piece that would be synonymous with the mid 1990s anime fandom was being published, Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shiro. Some of Masamune’s work was already being released (his Appleseed manga and some art books) but with the 1995 film adaptation coming soon to the US, GitS was poised to be the Next Big Thing (TM) in US fan circles.

The typical spread was covering new manga series being released from a couple of different publishers and a pick of the month, coverage of some new anime being released or other news that was important to manga and anime fans, such as editing/”censorship” or piracy.

Manga censorship – as in removing pages or altering artwork – was rare, even at this time. However, fans were quick to jump on early editions of Ghost in the Shell having a couple of pages removed (because sex) at Masamune’s request and decry the American publisher for censoring Masamune’s art. Hernandez clears up the misconception that this was directed by the American publisher and points to the difference between how manga is marketed (direct market, comic fans with a wide age range) compared to anime, particularly geared towards television broadcast. She wrote:

Anime imported for television is often altered drastically. An anime imported for video, the issues of quality of translation and American voice-acting aside, remains virtually unchanged.This is because it, like manga, is not aimed at a children’s market.

And it’s true – while manga was in specialty shops and not on news stands at the pharmacy and grocery stores, it was able to get around some rules for content. But that is not to say it was entirely untouched.

The cultural differences between Japan and other countries, primarily the US and Canada in this case, played a part in the final product released. Takahashi Rumiko’s Ranma 1/2, for instance, is definitively a series that fits a shounen demographic and I don’t know that anyone would look at Shounen Sunday, where it was serialized, and say – yeah, this stuff is for older folks. But Takahashi’s gender bending, martial arts, romantic comedy needed some of its nudity cleaned up for North American publication. Like Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell above, even the direct market sales approach couldn’t beat the vice patrol. Could you imagine having to card folks for buying Ranma?

Manga Scene continued as a regular column in Wizard into 1997, at some time changing authorship to Dark Horse’s Carl Gustav Horn. The subject matter stayed mostly the same – upcoming manga releases from a variety of publishers. One of Horn’s articles though features the announcement of MixxZine, eventually shortened to just MixxMixx was an attempt at publishing a regular manga magazine in a Japanese fashion – a serialization of several series in a single issue. Unlike a Japanese release though, Mixx aimed to be multi-demographic for a wider reader base. Hot off the heels of its North American release, Sailor Moon was the anchor title for Mixx but also featured CLAMP’s Magic Knight Rayearth and seinen manga Takahashi Tsutomu’s Jiraishin (localized as “Ice Blade“) and Iwaaki Hitoshi’s Keiseijuu (“Parasite“).

Mixx was published by Mixx Entertainment, which later changed names to TokyoPop in the next couple of years. TokyoPop pioneered a lot of changes that revolutionized how manga is sold and rose to a massive mass-market appeal but their first change was introducing the localized serial magazine and making it successful. Other publishers followed with magazines like Animerica Extra!, Raijin Comics, and Shonen Jump which I want to talk about in a little more detail in another article.

Wizard published another special at the same time, Mathew Brady’s Rising Suns in 1997. Like Manga Mania four years earlier, it is a wide look at the year’s upcoming releases from various publishers. Unlike Mania, it doesn’t talk about manga’s differences from mainstream US comics in a general sense but it does make parallels to mainstream comics for its individual titles.

 

As we approached the end of the 1990s, with the introduction of Mixx and other serialized magazines, manga and mainstream comics diverged. Mainstream comics, in the glut of the comic book bust during that decade, retreated to the direct shops and the industry in general seems to eschew from different styles, particularly manga. One criticism of current comics press, particularly Internet comics press, is that manga is ignored in favor of coverage of the latest caped crusade or blockbuster film tangentially related to comics. Wizard too at this time started splitting it toy coverage and anime/manga coverage off into other magazines, Toy Fare and Anime Insider respectively.

Manga publishers, however, were starting to appeal outside of the comic book direct market and changing their formatting. In addition to serialization, publishers were pushing more towards collected volumes, akin to Japan’s tankoubon formatting, they were dropping the floppy sizes (32 page booklets) and teaching its customers to read right to left, reducing the overhead of flipping the artwork. In a mysterious hybrid of the times, Viz’s first run of Dragonball and Dragonball Z comics were originally publish in floppy size (~32 pages, about 2 chapters per book) but in right-to-left format, with an intro for readers how to follow this format. The floppies were still catered towards the direct market shops but once they started collecting them into graphic novels (ahem, tankoubon), these publications were catered to major booksellers. Getting their books sold in major bookseller chains led to the Manga Boom of the 2000s and a presence that sees Japanese comics available, in English, in a variety of retail options. In many ways, publishing manga in North America is very different than Japan but the one thing they have most in common is that there is a manga for everyone and there’s no sense in hiding from the mainstream anymore.

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