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Home arrow Web Extras arrow Interviews arrow Jason Thompson
Jason Thompson
Written by Andrew Farago, transcribed by Shaenon K. Garrity   
Sunday, 30 September 2007
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FARAGO: I guess there are several key events and turning points in manga changing from this outsider thing that really wasn't selling outside of Direct-Market comic shops. What turned Viz from a minor indy comic publisher to the major publishing force that it is today?

THOMPSON: Viz grew very slowly at first. It had been around for ten years when I started there, and there were only about 20 people. It took a long time for manga to catch on in America, and at first it was the cart pulling the horse, with anime and, to a lesser extent, video games getting people into manga. The anime market in the U.S. had been growing gradually throughout the '90s, and that's what buoyed Animerica Magazine.

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Sequence from the first chapter of Sailor Moon, as published in MixxZine #1; ©1992 Kodansha Ltd. and Naoko Takeuchi.

One of the first megahit titles in America was Sailor Moon, which I believe started in 1995... although the anime wasn't successful enough to be picked up for a second season in the U.S., Sailor Moon is believed by many people, myself included, to be one of the turning points for manga fandom. What it mainly did was establish a generation of female nerds, which was something that had not existed in American comics. And by going off the air and suddenly becoming inaccessible, all these people who could have just become fans of some mainstream, successful thing were forced to turn to dark, shady anime conventions and subculture magazines like Animerica to find out more about Sailor Moon — and, of course, from there to find out about other anime and manga.

Not that this process began with Sailor Moon. I mean, there were people in the '60s who were getting interested in Astro Boy and cartoons like that, and to some extent were trying to learn about stuff in Japan. But in 1995, the Internet was starting to exist as a force, so information was out there in a way that it hadn't been in an earlier age.

So Sailor Moon was important. Dragon Ball Z was important. And Pokémon, of course, was massively important. It seemed, for a while, that people just got turned on to anime and video games, and the manga sort of got carried along on the wave. But Viz made a tremendous amount of money off the Pokémon comic license. They made a tremendous amount of money. And that really changed the company. For a long time, they were just looking for another kid property that would be their next Pokémon. Like, "Doraemon will be the new Pokémon! ...No, sorry, Doraemon is not the new Pokémon. Some other thing will be the new Pokémon..." Anyway, Viz did really well with Pokémon.

Prior to that, their bestselling title had probably been Ranma 1/2. [Rumiko] Takahashi was very popular. Ranma 1/2 was the first real anime I watched. I watched Akira and Ranma 1/2 in one sitting; it was like the most archetypal late '80s/early '90s anime there are. On one hand, you have this science-fiction thing with people turning into blobs and cities being destroyed and psychic powers, and on the other hand you have this very cutesy comedy that you don't know how to place, because it's very sweet and light, but there's lots of nudity and they're changing sex and getting caught naked in the bath and stuff like that. Ranma 1/2 was far more alien and surprising to me than Akira was. But I'm getting sidetracked.

FARAGO: Sailor Moon was not a Viz property, right?

THOMPSON: No, Sailor Moon was not a Viz property. It introduced what would become Viz's biggest rival, Tokyopop. Viz, as founded, was basically a branch of a Japanese publisher, Shogakukan. We did occasionally license titles from other companies, but frankly the inter-company rivalries were such... It still exists today, that if you're working for the wrong company, or have connections to the wrong company, it's impossible to get titles licensed. So we had some pretty good Shogakukan titles, like Rumiko Takahashi's titles, but for Kodansha's and Shueisha's titles, it was a toss-up.

Tokyopop, however, did not have direct connections to any one company. They were, and I think still are to some extent, a venture capital company. It's basically Stuart Levy's brainchild. He had worked in Japan, made some connections, and convinced mostly Kodansha people at first, I think, that it would be a good idea to work with him to get their titles published in America. Before he started Tokyopop, his first plan was to publish the manga Parasyte as an online comic.

Cover to the debut issue of MixxZine
Cover to the debut issue of MixxZine

Then that mutated. What happened was that he launched MixxZine in 1997. MixxZine was the first serious attempt to do a manga anthology magazine in America. Viz had tried it before with Manga Vizion, and even Animerica and Game On! USA had some serialized manga titles. With MixxZine, the difference was that they were really, really, really targeting the non-Direct Market. They wanted to get into grocery stores and music stores and so on.

They were infamous, at least with my friends, for using the term "motionless picture entertainment" instead of "manga" or "comics." I did an interview with Stu Levy in 1997 in which I asked him about that, and he said that although he was aware of the diversity of comics, he didn't want to activate the average person's prejudice that the word "comics" equaled stuff like Batman. And he didn't want to use the term "manga" because people didn't know what it meant. Of course, that didn't last very long. MixxZine is no longer around today, so it must not have completely succeeded, but it went through several mutations. It turned into a J-pop magazine, which turned into Tokyopop Magazine. This, of course, became the name of the company, which had originally been Mixx Entertainment.

So Tokyopop came along, and to a certain extent their venture capital attitude made them willing to try things that Viz wouldn't. They had a lot more money to throw around, and they were, in some ways, less conservative. Maybe they simply hadn't been beaten down by the realities of the American Direct Market for as long as Viz had... seeing every experimental title get sales of 2,000 or 3,000 copies. Matt Thorn had tried to do shoujo titles in the US before, with They Were Eleven and Love Song and other titles like that. But he was aiming at adult comic readers; his stuff was more josei [women's manga], to be honest, because that's what he was into. Tokyopop, seeing that there were all those Sailor Moon fans around, licensed the Sailor Moon manga, and that became the big hit of their magazine. They no longer have the license, but it was probably what kept the company going for a long time. Their other shoujo launch title, which I believe was also successful, was CLAMP's Magic Knight Rayearth.

So MixxZine itself did not really succeed, but it established the company. It wasn't until 2002 that they came up with their unflopped manga, which became the industry standard. That was something that Viz had never even considered doing. I had never considered doing it. I thought Tokyopop was, you know, they're crazy! But of course, ultimately, it was incredibly successful.

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Panel from Magic Knight Rayearth, chapter one; ©1994 Kondansha Ltd. and CLAMP.

FARAGO: Can you briefly explain "flopping" versus "unflopping," for people who might not read much manga?

THOMPSON: Japanese reads right to left. English, of course, reads left to right. That's one of the first obstacles to manga translation. The obvious solution, which Viz and Studio Proteus and a lot of other companies did, was to "mirror image" the artwork, flip it from right-to-left to left-to-right so it reads in the accepted English fashion. Everyone did this, every title from Viz from 1987 on. There were some fans who complained about it, and as an artist, and having talked to artists, I do know that when you look at your work in a mirror, you notice imperfections and the balance is off. I know at least one artist, Gene Yang, who looks at his work in a mirror before he inks it, or at least he did at one point.

Some manga artists, and some companies, wouldn't allow their work to be published left to right. That was a sticking point. There were a few early titles, like the Neon Genesis Evangelion manga by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, that they wouldn't allow to be licensed unless they were published in the original reading fashion.

Now, Tokyopop didn't have this idea originally. The initial titles in MixxZine were all left to right, although some of them have been reissued unflopped, like Peach Girl and Sorcerer Hunters. It was all left to right, and of course sound effects were redone in English. Then Tokyopop came up with the brilliant idea of keeping it right to left. That helped set manga apart, and it became a cool, indy thing, you know, to differentiate manga from American comics. But another aspect of it is that, if you print the manga in the original right-to-left reading format, you don't necessarily need to translate the sound effects. Tokyopop saved a tremendous amount of money by not altering the sound effects.

FARAGO: It's a lot faster to do it that way, right?

THOMPSON: It's a lot faster to produce, it's a lot cheaper. So they turned a disadvantage — it's foreign — into an advantage — it's foreign! It's authentic! For the longest time, Carl Horn made the joke that companies shouldn't even translate the dialogue, and they should publish the manga exactly as it was in Japan, untranslated. And they should charge, like, twenty dollars for a graphic novel, because it's even more authentic, so obviously it should cost more!

Anyway, Tokyopop saved a lot of money and made an incredible image for themselves, and they ended up changing the direction of manga. This interested a lot of Japanese publishers, like Shueisha, the publishers of Shonen Jump and Dragon Ball. Whether as a movement arising from the artists or an editorial top-down decision, they had always been very opposed to flipping their manga. It was for that reason that Dragon Ball was one of the first titles Viz published in the right-to-left format, in 1998.

[Jason Thompson adds later: Actually, I later found out that Shueisha, the same Japanese publisher which had asked Viz to do Dragon Ball and Shonen Jump in the unflopped format, had also been pushing Tokyopop to do unflopped versions of their Shueisha-licensed titles. So it's probably safe to say that Shueisha, more than any single American company, dictated the unflopped manga trend due to their company stance against unflopped manga. They had the power, as a licensor, to get their way, although of course there were other factors in the success of unflopped manga -- chiefly the economic factor of being able to produce the books quicker and cheaper.]

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Sequence from Dragon Ball Z, chapter 225; ©1984 Bird Studio/Shueisha, Inc..

FARAGO: When did Viz abandon the 32-page monthly format?

THOMPSON: It didn't really get abandoned until 2003, due to direct competition from Tokyopop. They started producing manga direct to tankoubon, direct to graphic novel, in earnest around 2002 or 2003. Even Tokyopop did a few monthly comics, but they quickly realized that it wasn't working, so they cancelled titles like Cardcaptor Sakura and Miracle Girls in mid-series and converted them all to graphic novels. It was a pretty bold move.

FARAGO: And around 2003, that's about the time Viz started doing Shonen Jump?

THOMPSON: Yeah. Not counting things like Mangajin, the educational magazine that ran snippets of manga, and not counting one-shots and one-offs, the first manga magazine in America was Manga Vizion, from Viz. It started in 1995, and it was about 80 pages for $4.95. Then in 1997 Tokyopop responded with MixxZine, which was about the same price, and was about 240 pages. In the same year Viz also launched PULP, which was about 128 pages for the same price, all of these magazines being about $4.95.

FARAGO: It sounds like gang warfare.

THOMPSON: Well, at the time, I was very concerned about these figures. Even though I wasn't high up in the company, I was always trying to think of ways that Viz could compete with these companies in terms of page count and pricing, value for a dollar. I wasn't smart enough to come up with the whole "graphic novel for ten bucks" thing that Tokyopop ended up doing. Anyway, after PULP, Viz responded to MixxZine with Animerica Extra in 1998. This had Fushigi Yugi, which was basically Viz's first high-profile shoujo title. Then Dark Horse eventually did Super Manga Blast. All these magazines folded, by the way.

Cover to Super Manga Blast #49.
Cover to Super Manga Blast #49.

But presumably the reason the later magazines folded was that Viz came out with Shonen Jump in 2003. Shonen Jump has about 250 to 300 pages for the same price, $4.99. Plus it has color sections and everything. And by trying to go outside the Direct Market, and printing in such high quantity, Viz basically put so much money into it that they're able to establish an audience, and they're able to make the quantity enough to justify the page count and bonuses. Of course, that probably wouldn't have been possible five years before that, because manga had that many more years to seep into the American consciousness via Dragon Ball Z and other shows on television.

FARAGO: Dragon Ball Z was the high-profile title on the Shonen Jump launch.

THOMPSON: It was the high-profile title at the launch, yeah. But it was clear that Naruto, One Piece and Shaman King would be big. I don't remember if YuYu Hakusho was already on TV, but it was licensed fairly early. Dragon Ball was already a proven success on American television, and so was Yu-Gi-Oh! But the other ones were obvious picks. They were almost certainly going to come to America at some point.

Shaman King was the one that I was actually surprised was ever picked up on American television. Of the three — One Piece, Shaman King, and Naruto — it's clearly the most crazy and offensive, because it has all these religious elements, not to mention all the pot leaves and stuff, which were censored out of the American version of the manga. All the drug references. So I was shocked that it was licensed so early. But of course they ended up watering down and censoring most of the references. Furyoku, the Japanese word for the spiritual power of the shamans, they kept in Japanese and made it all mysterious and vague, rather than calling it "mana" or some other word with a magical or occult connotation which could offend parents. Of course, Shaman King's all about the occult and magic, but somehow they managed to make it stick. All they had to do was censor a cross-shaped tombstone or two — in the anime, that is. So, yeah, I was always a little surprised that one was licensed. Apparently no one complained, but, like I said, it was watered down.

I was a big fan of Shaman King from the beginning. When we talked to the artist about the things we might have to change in the manga, the first thing I thought of was Chocolove, the really stereotypical looking black character, whose name was changed in the English edition [to "Joco"]. Viz ended up redrawing his lips, as I had suggested they might. The artist, Hiroyuki Takei, said, "I don't know how comfortable I feel with these changes being made to my manga. Are you sure you guys really want to do this?" I told Viz to email him and say, "Look, we're going to do our best with this, because I'm a big fan of this manga, and I'm going to try to keep it true to what you want."

If you're mentioning Shonen Jump, you should also mention Raijin Comics, which was created by Gutsoon! Entertainment and launched in 2003, and also Newtype, which is still going and was launched by A.D. Vision. Newtype was originally a competitor for Animerica, which at the time was the only other professional monthly manga fan magazine. Newtype, Raijin, and Shonen Jump were all American launches of Japanese magazines.

Viz had been planning for some time to do a mainstream shonen manga magazine. They originally wanted to do a magazine which would have been called Manga Typhoon or something like that... they had a couple of names. But Shueisha wanted more control over the product. Viz was reluctant, but they ended up basically saying yes. This was when Shueisha started to become a part owner of what became VIZ Media, which is currently owned by both Shogakukan and Shueisha. In order to get access to the sweet Shonen Jump licenses, Viz had to give Shueisha partial ownership of the company, rather than just being a licensor.

Cover to the preview issue of Raijin Comics.
Cover to the preview issue of Raijin Comics.

This was all in 2003. Just prior to Shonen Jump's launch, Gutsoon launched Raijin Comics. In many ways, this may have been the impetus for Shonen Jump to start. Gutsoon was owned by Comics Bunch, a company in Japan made up of editors and artists who had defected from Shonen Jump. Their stars were Tsukasa Hojo of City Hunter, Tetsuo Hara of Fist of the North Star, and a couple of others. When they launched in 2003, they were doing a weekly magazine. It was extremely Japanese and unadulterated, crazy and weird and proud of it. Or perhaps they were simply unaware of how weird they looked. Coincidentally, or perhaps not coincidentally, Shueisha, which does not exactly have good feelings for the Comics Bunch people, launched their magazine in the American market not long after that.

FARAGO: Raijin Comics went out of business pretty quickly, didn't they?

THOMPSON: Yeah. Basically, the titles that Raijin had were simply too old-school. They had some fun titles, but at that point, City Hunter and Fist of the North Star were only popular among older otaku. Not only do Shonen Jump titles have a very cartoony, sort of cheery look, like One Piece and Dragon Ball, they all follow the Dragon Ball tradition of having childish-looking characters engaged in crazy, hyperactive adventures. Testuo Hara and Tsukasa Hojo were both drawing in this sort of '80s tradition of square-jawed manly men, action, and raunchy humor. The raunchy humor is still there in Shonen Jump to some extent, but the square-jawed thing is a generational style which has not aged well.

FARAGO: Is it that it was more influenced by American superhero comics? It didn't look unusual enough?

THOMPSON: Well... Ryoichi Ikegami, who was one of the first realistic draftsmen of the 1970s in manga, and was really startling and popular when he came out, was influenced by Neal Adams. Some of these artists were influenced by American artists. But I don't know exactly who the influences of Tetsuo Hara and Tsukasa Hojo are. When you look at their work, it has a certain stiffness. It does possibly look more like what you would think of as "American-style" art, in that it's these big wide-shouldered, broad-chested manly male protagonists.

Whereas the direction of Shonen Jump titles in the last 10 or 15 years...the magazine has sort of been shoujo-ized, in a way. This is apocryphal, but they say that the editors of [the Japanese] Shonen Jump realized, at some point in the '90s, that more of their readers than they thought were female, and that's when you started to see a lot of the '80s macho stuff get phased out gradually, like boob-grabbing jokes and things like that. Instead, you started to see heroes become more bishonen ["pretty boy"], and in some cases the stories play up to female readers. You started to see the magazine try to consciously appeal to both genders. Although this is something they still try not to do too openly, too actively. I remember when I was the editor of Shonen Jump...

FARAGO: You were the editor at the launch, right?

THOMPSON: Right. When I was the editor of the English edition of Shonen Jump, one of the things the [Japanese] editors talked about was that they didn't want the magazine to appear to be aimed at women too much. I don't know what the percentage is now, but female readers make up a large percentage of Shonen Jump readers in America, just as they do in Japan. Possibly even more in America. I don't know if it's because girls read more, but these titles are not just being read by boys, despite the fact that it's called Shonen Jump, or "Boy Jump."



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