Manga is not a dirty word…

I don’t think I fully realized how big a hole Tokyopop blew in the comic book horizon when they shuttered their original manga program until recently. Say what you will about Tokyopop as a company, it’s hard to argue that for a few years, they created a lot of opportunity for a lot of artists. Thanks to Tokyopop, thousands were exposed to the work of Felipe Smith, Rivkah and M. Alice LeGrow. Popular indie artists like Becky Cloonan, Ross Campbell and Brandon Graham got a boost to their careers, and dozens of unpublished creators received their first break through the Rising Stars of Manga contest.

But more than any of that, Tokyopop embraced a style of art that most other publishers wouldn’t touch—the manga-influenced one. An entire generation of young comic book artists had grown up reading the books that Tokyopop, Viz and Dark Horse had helped bring to the United States and wanted to draw in that sort of style, and for a few years, it actually seemed like they may be able to make a little money doing so.

Then Tokyopop ran into trouble, and the rest of the manga industry soon followed suit. Yen Press has scaled back their original manga plans, Del Rey Manga no longer exists and Viz, if they ever intended to publish original content created in the United States, seemed to have a change of heart. Of course, in so doing, the options for manga-influenced artists were gutted, leaving most to look to web-publishing and self-publishing for getting their comics out there.

Now, I’m not knocking self-publishing or webcomics. If done well, they can pay off handsomely for a talented creator. But they shouldn’t be the only options out there for talented artists. Yet the unfortunate truth is that the majority of western comic book publishers really have no interest in publishing manga-style comic art. And you know what? I really don’t blame the publishers. They aren’t interested in publishing that style of art because it doesn’t sell for them. Of course, the reason it doesn’t sell is entirely due to us, the fans.

Why are we so limited in what we’ll read? I’ve already written about our reluctance to sample anything not published by the Big Two, but we also need to really ask ourselves why we’re so biased against manga-influenced art. I understand why much of the Japanese manga that gets published out here may not be of interest to a reader who isn’t interested in interpreting another culture’s mores and sense of humor just so they can enjoy a comic book. But we’re not talking about Japanese manga here. We’re talking about American comics that just happen to be drawn in a style that’s influenced by Japanese sequential art.

Before I go any further, I should probably make it clear that I’m writing this as someone who was once ridiculously biased against manga. I started at Tokyopop with an inherent love for superheroes and a complete lack of interest in Japanese graphic novels. Had I not landed my job there, it’s unlikely I’d even know what a tankoubon was, let alone actually sat down and read them. It’s also worth mentioning that since leaving Tokyopop, the amount of manga that I’ve read has seriously decreased. There are titles that I enjoy, but when I compare the amount of manga I read each year with the number of western comics, western comics win by a mile.

But I still read Bizenghast. I still read Nightschool. I read Re:Play through to its conclusion (and not just because I was the editor of that series for a while). If I have any interest in the subject matter of a comic, I’ll read it, regardless of the style. So why is it that comics drawn by manga-influenced artists (other than Adam Warren) seem to always struggle to find an audience in the United States?

Unfortunately, I still think there’s a lot of misunderstanding among both readers and publishers. They hear manga and they instantly think of big eyes and flowery backgrounds. The problem is that far too many people still cling to the idea that manga is a style. Manga is not a style. It’s a format, and even within that format there’s a lot of diversity. To say someone is a manga artist is no different than to say they’re a comic book artist. And just like with comic book artists, manga artists can draw in vastly different styles.

Svetlana Chmakova’s manga art is very different from Nam Kim’s. Christy Lijewski’s art looks nothing like Rem’s. All of them are manga-influenced, and not one of them draws characters that look like Sailor Moon. Sure, it’s possible they could adapt their art, make it look more western. Being stylistically diverse isn’t a bad thing, especially if it can get them more paying work. But why should they have to do that if they don’t want to? Why should any talented artist have to?

I should mention that there ARE publishers out there who seem more than happy to hire gifted, unique artists regardless of their style and influence. Thank goodness for Oni Press, First Second and traditional publishers like Penguin. We need more of them. But for that to happen, we first need to be willing to prove to publishers that comics drawn by manga-influenced artists can sell, and that means recognizing that manga isn’t this evil, threatening entity that we must destroy before it absorbs all the shelves at our local comic book shops, but part of the family. Don’t roll your eyes when you hear someone call themselves a manga artist—look at their art. Really look at it. It won’t hurt you, and if you keep an open mind, I can guarantee that there are quite a few manga-influenced artists that you’re going to love.

At New York Comic-Con last month, I was introduced to a ridiculously talented manga-influenced artist. She showed me her latest comic (which she had self-published), and after seeing how skilled she is, I thought about a few of the projects I’m working on that are in need of artists. I asked her if she only drew in a manga style, and she said yes. It was the only way of drawing that she really felt passionate about. I remember looking down at some of the comics in front of me, shaking my head, and telling her that unfortunately, I didn’t have any opportunities for her right now. None of the publishers I’m working with are interested in publishing comics drawn in a manga-influenced style. She smiled and said she understood, and that it’s something she’s heard before.

It’s a conversation I hope to never have again.