On Manga, Marvel, and Martial Arts Movies
By Jason Thompson

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PULP: Did you see the live-action Japanese Spider-Man with the giant robot? How did people respond to that?

JD: I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I figured we can't get upset because the Japanese have to see me using my versions of anime characters in Star Wars or seeing Frank Miller's work, and they probably laughed at that.

PULP: So were both sides satisfied by these collaborations? How were they received?

JD: By American standards Godzilla was successful but by Japanese standards they couldn't conceive how it could sell so low. They were looking for the kind of sales you could get in Japan. We were looking at 100,000-200,000 and they were looking for 1-2 million! So it died because the rights were not as valuable as us as they were to them. Compared to Japan, the American comics market was just not big enough. The companies were very open to these hybrid things, almost like exchange students with the characters. But getting these things distributed, into the stores, on the trucks, it never works for some reason. It wasn't until the success of the direct comics market that we were able to try things out.

PULP: So even then, there was the awareness that the Japanese comics market was massively bigger than the American comics market.

JD: You bet there was. It's the difference between 100,000 and a couple of million and a monthly or a weekly comic.

PULP: Did Marvel take any inspiration from that, try to go after that untapped potential market? Didn't they try in various ways? I remember seeing an photo-ad in the early '80s to get adults to read comics, showing a businessman reading The Incredible Hulk on his lunch-hour.

JD: It was The Mighty Thor, actually. That ad was done by Carl Potts, who is half-Japanese and did some great ninja stuff. And it was one of those things where we were all going, "Yeah! Let's expand the market! We want different countries! We want different ages!" But there were also these arch-conservative goofballs at Marvel who were saying, "If it's not for 13-year-old boys it's not comics." There are people on the American publishing side who think like that and say stupid stuff like that when there are no tape recorders running. And if you come back to them saying, "I'm a girl, and I read comics," they say, "You shouldn't." And if you say, "I'm 25 years old and I read comics," or "I'm 7 years old and I read comics," they'd say, "What's wrong with you?" They were just focussing incredibly narrowly on what comics should be. They never give the fans the opportunity to show what good taste they have. Witness the boom in Japanese comics when they did release them. They didn't think the X-Men would sell in 1974 either.

PULP: So sometime after Crystar, you stopped working full time at Marvel?

JD: I really have been more of a writer than an editor, and even though I like editing, I was too tired to do as much writing as I'd like to. At that time, I'd been editing Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz's Elektra: Assassin, and Groo, and Chris Claremont and John Bolton's The Black Dragon, and I thought, "I will never edit anything better than this."

PULP: So, when manga was actually translated in the American comics market in 1987, what did you think of the titles that came out? At that point, were you already getting the stuff you wanted untranslated?

JD: Exactly. I'd already gotten my fix straight from Japan. Also, some of the translators were not approaching the books as writers, they were approaching them as translators. So it reads like subtitles, not like how a comic book reads. People were too concerned with what it says than how it should be said. I think a lot of time people will look at different translations and think the Japanese guy had a good day or a bad day when they should really think, "Was this published by somebody who got the right people on this or somebody who gave it to the editor's buddy because it 'd save some money for them?" So people will think it's not good and not even realize that what they're responding to was an inexpert translation and adaptation.

From a remarkable seven-page "mangaesque" fight sequence in Star Wars #96, written by Jo Duffy, art by Cynthia Martin and Art Nichols. © 1995 Lucasfilm, LTD. (LFL).

PULP: In 1980, a bunch of Japanese comic artists went to the San Diego Comic-Con. Did you see them there?

JD: No. I mark my being able to really relate to the Japanese animation and comics to the day I got my first VCR which was March 1980. So I did not go to San Diego that summer because from March of 1980 on I was acquiring videos. And it was from '81 that I was really agitating to get it [manga] into Marvel. Wendy Pini was at the Comic-Con and she told me about it. And if you want to talk about an American artist who shows such a clear and beautiful manga influence in her stuff, look at Wendy.

PULP: A Tezuka influence, I think.

JD: Strongly. The Monkey King movie which was imported here as Alakazam the Great.

PULP: Looking back at all the influences that were out there, it's strange how that one specific kind of big-eyed look became thought of as "manga style."

JD: I think they're influenced by a very specific and surprisingly westernized line of anime that was among the first to be translated here.

PULP: Going back to Manhunter for a second, what were the Japanese comics that Archie Goodwin was influenced by? Was it Lone Wolf & Cub?

JD: It wasn't Lone Wolf & Cub. It was somebody whose art style was much more like Tezuka's, and he would do these great ronin and samurai characters. They would fight these battles, there would always be a sweep of blackbirds into the air…Sanpei Shirato! He was Archie's guy. Archie had the full set, and then he gave them to me years later. He was like, "Jo, I know them by heart, and you need them, and they're out of print." And I did go--one lonely morning when I had just broken up with my Japanese boyfriend--and I saw Legend of Kamui at the art house.

Thanks to Jo Duffy, Kurt Busiek and Rich Howell of Claypool Comics.

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