Section 1: My Story as a Pro Manga Artist (Part 10)

 

Part 5b: ‘Manga Comes in Book Form?!’

Sometime in 2010, I was asked by my old high school to come and do a workshop teaching their manga fans to draw manga. I was probably the only professional manga artist for miles around, and I do this from time to time, so I said yes. I ended up teaching a dozen or so aspiring manga artists, which was fun. They were bright girls from a prestigious private girl’s school, so they had interesting questions to ask.

It’s normal for someone to ask ‘How do I become a professional manga artist’ in these situations. I have a variety of canned replies to that. However, one of the other industry-related questions they asked threw me.

‘How do publishers make money if they put all their manga online?’

I had a horrible feeling about what they were really asking. They were undoubtedly reading all their manga from pirated sites like MangaFox, and not paying a cent for it.

By 2010, OneManga had been slayed by a coalition of publishers serving a cease-and-desist notice, but more pirate sites were popping up to fill the void. A lot of them seemed to be owned by the same entities, and were user-upload sites, meaning they could circumvent certain legal issues which may bring down similar sites. Either way, if there was a war against manga piracy going on, then that war has already been lost. (Edit: As of March 2014, some new developments seem to have happened.)

I gently let them know that while reading manga online wasn’t evil, you should always buy manga in book form to support the manga artists and their publishers.

Their reaction was one of astonishment.

‘Manga comes in book form?!’

Yes, this crop of 8th graders were amazed that manga originated on printed paper. They didn’t know that manga made of dead trees existed, and that you can buy them… somewhere. This workshop was happening in the middle of the library, and we were surrounded by scores of printed books. Somehow, that made it even more horrible.

Obviously, they then asked where they could buy their favourite series. Living where we were in Sydney, Australia, it was near impossible due to the lack of official translated copies available, so I tried to explain that yes, reading pirated manga online is bad but I understand if it’s the only option…

Wait a minute. So now I was defending the manga pirates? Why in God’s name was I advocating schoolgirls to read pirated online manga? Obviously I was doing it because they had no option but to buy the books, which wasn’t possible, but that wasn’t the real problem.

The real problem was that an entire generation of manga-readers have now grown up believing that manga is free on the internet. Some of them were completely unaware than printed copies of manga exist, and even if they were, they don’t have the resources or an interest in buying them. Even if they did, why buy printed manga, when there are thousands of free manga to read on the internet, accessible only by the click of a button?

I asked them whether manga is really popular at the school. They said yes. According to them, the school gives out laptops to the Year 9 students, who then spend all their lunch breaks in the library, taking advantage of the free wifi to read pirated manga online. I imagine the school finds some way to block porn sites, but they don’t block manga sites, because I suspect the school doesn’t really know or understand anything about it.

So there you have it, folks. No wonder manga readers stay the same age and never seem to grow any older. By the time this lot turns 18, they would have read more manga than some people would have in their entire lifetimes (at some point, I imagine they just burn out and lose interest). They’ve certainly read more manga than I have, and I’ve been reading it for over 30 years, though unlike some of them, I paid to buy my favourite manga.

Anyway, I walked out of that workshop feeling totally dispirited. To be honest, by then, I already wanted to do something different to traditional manga-style comics, but this spurred me on. I didn’t want to stop drawing in manga style, but it was clear that I needed some kind of change. I needed to keep drawing comics, but do it… differently. This meant that I had to change not only how I did comics, but also how it would be marketed.

*****

Next Monday, I will talk more about how “Small Shen” did in bookstores, and more about the significance of how it did.

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Section 1: My Story as a Pro Manga Artist (Part 9)

 

Part 5a: ‘I Wanted 3 Days of Entertainment from a $10 Book’

Two incidents happened in 2010 that made me question what I was doing. Both involved my old high school.

Incident One was at a dinner party with my old high school friends, who I still see regularly. It involved my friend Serena (not her real name), who is a doctor working in a high-stress environment. She liked to read in her spare time, and she primarily read chic-lit and romance. She doesn’t read comics, but she bought a copy of ‘In Odd We Trust,’ because she was curious about it and interested in reading it. In our conversation, she mentioned to me that she read the book and liked it. Then, something weird happened.

In the middle of our conversation, Serena suddenly turned to my friend Lara and said something, and I paraphrase:

‘Don’t you just hate it when you buy a book for $10, and it only gives you an hour of entertainment? Normally when I read a book, it takes me two or three days.’

Lara looked baffled at what Serena said – she wasn’t even part of the conversation. The conversation then went someplace else, but the event stuck in my head. For hours after, I remembered this conversation, though it took me a few days to figure out what it really meant. When I finally understood it, I got pretty worried.

Serena was a prose fiction reader with money and time to burn, and she was used to reading prose books that gave her several days’ worth of entertainment for $10. When she read my graphic novel, she paid the exact same price for something that took only an hour or so to read, which must have baffled her. A $10 book gone in an hour is something comics and manga fans are used to, but Serena isn’t a comic reader, and doesn’t seem to care whether something is in prose or in comics. All she cared about was whether she was getting her money’s worth of entertainment from a book.

With a start, I realised what Serena was trying to say.

She was trying to tell me she felt ripped off.

She probably couldn’t bring herself to say so to my face, which resulted in that weird exchange over dinner. Truth is, prose readers are used to value for money. If they buy a book and didn’t get what they think their money’s worth is, they’re unlikely to buy it again, even if they liked the book. Sure enough, Serena never bought another one of my books again, even though she liked the first one.

This made alarm bells ring in my head. If people were counting on comic adaptations of prose best-sellers to fill their coffers, things could get troublesome very soon. Imagine a prose reader buying a YA book called Sexy Creatures for $10, becoming a fan, and then going on to buy the manga adaptation of Sexy Creatures, also for $10. The first reaction to reading the manga Sexy Creatures would probably not be ‘Oh, nice pictures,’ but rather: ‘where’s the rest of the damn story?! I paid $10 for this!!’ Remember, prose readers want stories. They like pretty pictures, but the story is their first concern.

*****

Anyway, this incident shook me, but it didn’t shake me quite as badly as the second incident, which I’ll talk about next Monday.

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Section 1: My Story as a Professional Manga Artist (Part 8)

 

Part 5: Comics-Prose with ‘Small Shen’ (2011-2012)

In 2010, I was winding down in terms of illustrating for Dean Koontz. I was on the way to doing three books with them already, and I was looking for a change, which amazingly, did come at the right time. A nice lady called Kylie Chan approached me at a convention, and asked me to do a graphic novel version of a short story she had written called ‘Small Shen.’ It was the prequel to her best-selling Chinese fantasy series called ‘White Tiger,’ which had sold very well in Australia. I was about to draw the third ‘Odd Thomas’ book for Dean, so I had to push her back, but I eventually started working on ‘Small Shen’ in 2011, for Kylie’s publisher Harper Collins Voyager.

Small Shen’ was different to all the other manga I’ve done – it’s actually a mix of prose and comics. This may sound a highly unusual step, but Kylie was very supportive, and I also have other reasons to go into this mix and experiment with the format of comics. Part of the reason was because I also felt that comics, my own work included, was getting stale. The other reasons are far more complex, and it has to do with a mixture of economics and issues with production.

For folks who are wondering what “comics-prose” is, I have a few sample pages here. It’s basically a mix of prose and comic panels, arranged in a way that mixes the two together into a single, seamless, INTEGRATED narrative. Here’s some pages from “We are the Pickwicks” below.

“Comics-prose” is both comics and prose. If you ask me, it leans more towards comics than towards prose, in terms of execution (if not reading experience, which is different for everyone). For those who want to read stories told in this style, here’s more:

 

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*****

Either way, working in comics-prose has been fun and exciting, and I’ve since discovered it to be a new and complex way of visual story-telling. But first, I should FINALLY tell you about two minor events that shook me up in 2010, and how it made me question the path I’ve been on (which will be next Monday).

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Section 1: My Story as a Professional Manga Artist (Part 7)

  • This post is part of a on-going series called “Being a Professional Manga Artist in the West“. The first post is here.
  • The discount period is over, and the price has returned to normal. Buy my short story collection from Bento Comic’s Smashwords storefront @ US$4.99.

 

Part 4c: Manga Bit-Parts of Media Empires

The Yen Press story is significant. When I first did ‘Odd Thomas’ with Dean, it was one of the first times something like this has been done. By ‘something like this,’ I mean a best-selling author taking one of their best-selling series and doing a manga/graphic novel version of the work. The ‘Odd Thomas’ books I did were prequels, not adaptations, but it didn’t matter – the point was that ‘Odd Thomas’ was a brand, just like Dean Koontz is a brand-name author, and brands have customers that are eager to buy more of that brand.

After the success of the first ‘Odd Thomas’ book, however, it seemed that publishers realised that there was money in making manga adaptations of best-selling prose stories. The prose fiction market was far larger than the manga market, far more established, and with far deeper pockets. What better way was there to make money, than to make manga versions of prose best-sellers and sell them to a pre-existing fan base? It was safe, risk free money – much like how movie studios make movies out of books or comic book superheros. These were ready-made audiences with money, and much easier than developing a new property from scratch.

Again, I was aware this was going on, but perhaps I didn’t realise it would become common. With the GFC and piracy, getting original manga published was becoming harder and harder, as publishing houses could not take new risks on an author when there were better, safer money to be made elsewhere.

 

It appears to be an industry wide issue, with advances going lower and lower, to the point where you might as well self-publish

 

I had originally started off illustrating for Dean Koontz in the hope that it would also help my career, but due to the economic crisis, it hasn’t been the case. It seems the GFC has permanently changed the way publishing houses did business, but there are two other reasons too, as I discovered in 2010.

*****

Next Monday, I’ll be back to talk about changing the way I did comics. After my stint illustrating for Dean Koontz, I would be working for another best-selling author – but this time, I wasn’t doing “comics”, but something slightly different: “comics-prose”.

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Famous Women: Rumiko Takahashi

For Women’s History Month, I’m going to give a blanket recommendation to the work of a remarkable female manga artist (Japanese comic artist), one whose work was paramount in starting the manga/anime movement in the west. Her name is Rumiko Takahashi, and for those in the community, she needs no real introduction. I first started reading her first published work “Urusei Yatsura” (Those Obnoxious Aliens) at the age of three, and since then has followed her through “Maison Ikkoku”, “Ranma 1/2″, “Inuyasha”, and her various short stories in “Rumic World”. I haven’t been following her latest work “Rin-ne”, but the aim of this post is to chart her influence on me as a manga artist.

 


 

Rumiko is somewhat unique in the manga publishing world. She’s a best-selling female manga artist who draws mostly for a male audience (though she has female fans too), and she draws in a gender-neutral style that nonetheless is skilled, expressive and interesting. Above all that, she started off in the genre of comedy, which is never easy to do. She’s since branched out into horror, dramady, action-adventure and small-scale domestic drama, but she’s flexible and malleable enough that I don’t doubt she’ll go on to tackle other genres. Overall, her work is highly-recognisable and has a very strong sense of personality – you’ll always be able to pick a Rumiko Takahashi story at a glance.

 


 

I also have to mention her female characters. As a manga artist who started in the 70s in a magazine aimed at teenage boys, I imagine she must have gotten her fair share of pressure from the editors to make her female characters sexually-appealing. There’s no doubt Rumiko’s women are that, but they’re also slyly subversive in their personalities and the way they’re depicted. For a country that is known for its shy, submissive women (at least in manga and anime), Takahashi’s women are frequently loud, violent and filled with character flaws. All of them are as interesting as her male characters, and while everyone’s character defects are played for laughs, it’s wonderful to see such gender parity – and they’ve been depicted that way right from the start.

 


 

All in all, Rumiko Takahashi has a unique voice, one that has remained unique and recognisable for the past thirty years (and counting). If you haven’t read her work, you really should. If being the world’s best-selling female comic book artist doesn’t convince you, then being a wonderful comic book artist certainly should.

 


 

I have a list of her work here, many of which have been translated into English. My #1 pick for the uninitiated would be “Maison Ikkoku”, since it’s a more down-to-earth story about a poor ronin (failed university student) who is trying to win the heart of a young widow. Conversely, you may try her more zany comedies, like the slapstick earthling-meets-alien “Urusei Yatsura,” or the gender-bending martial arts comedy “Ranma 1/2.” Those who prefer action-adventure and medieval Japan can read “Inuyasha”, or “Mermaid Forest if you like horror. Her short stories in “Rumic World” is also one of my favourites.

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Section 1: My Story as a Professional Manga Artist (Part 6)

 

Part 4b: Dean Koontz and the ‘Odd Thomas’ series (2007 – 2010)

Working with Dean was a real honour, and also a great learning experience. We did three graphic novel prequels to his ‘Odd Thomas’ series, one of which was co-written, the other two where I worked as an illustrator to scripts written by comic writers. I must say that while Dean was very nice and very easy to work with, he and I didn’t gel together as writers, and I felt much more comfortable working from scripts by other people.

The ‘Odd Thomas’ books gave me an opportunity to work with other writers, and to adapt a comic script into manga format. It was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to do this, and it was eye-opening – not just of the process, but in the way that comic book writers differed from each other. I worked with Fred and Landry and they were both great, but I must give praise to Fred Van Lente, who apart from being a very visual writer, is also quite talented. I learned a lot from Fred.

Anyway, I got to improve my drawing and get paid for it, and I also took up another illustration job during that time. In 2009, I worked with Steve Deger from Fairview Press, providing art for a ‘Book of Quotations’ he was publishing. I must say that this was the best-paying job I’ve ever had, and it was amazing for that very reason. If you see Steve, please shake his, because not only did he give very good pay, but he was also utterly professional in my experience.

 

You're always on the brink. It's a feast or famine.

 

That same year, I also worked with Hachette imprint Yen Press, drawing an original short story for them called ‘Forget-Me-Not.’ It was the first time in years (possibly ever) that I was able to draw a short story that I’d actually pitched, as opposed to drawing ‘on spec’ or working as an illustrator. The story was about a ‘Scent Merchant’ (read it here: http://www.queeniechan.com/manga/forget_me_not/1/), and it was published as part of their Yen Plus anthology in July 2009.

Yen Plus was Yen Press’ attempt to copy the anthology format of the Japanese manga market, and seeing the bulk of their books were manga, this seemed a wise move. Unfortunately, the magazine market was dying, and with the rise of the twin spectres of digital publishing and piracy it was just too pricey to keep Yen Plus as a print magazine. Yen Plus eventually went to digital subscription format in 2010, but finally shuttered their doors in December 2013. Along the way they had several important innovations, such as same-day release for all worldwide regions of their titles, so it was a good run. I still have my copy of the July 2009 issue of Yen Plus, which I treasure.

*****

Next Monday, I’ll be back to talk about more changes that happened in the industry, during the 3-4 years I spent working as an illustrator. After that, I’ll go into what happened in 2010.

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Section 1: My Story as a Professional Manga Artist (Part 5)

 

Part 4: Working as a Manga-Style Comics Illustrator

After I finished book 2 of ‘The Dreaming’ in 2006, I was contacted by Dallas Middaugh of Randomhouse imprint Del Rey to work as an illustrator for one of Dean Koontz’s series. I jumped at the opportunity – Dean was one of the writers I used to read as a teenager, and I was psyched to hear that he was interested in turning his best-selling work ‘Odd Thomas’ into a manga series.

Dean was a best-selling author and a canny businessman, and he was interested in tapping into a younger market. The goal was to create a manga-version of ‘Odd Thomas,’ his psychic fry cook who can see dead people, since manga had now matured into a known category in bookstores. This was around 2007, manga was perceived as catering to a younger audience, and publishing houses everywhere had tagged it as a ‘youth market.’ Unfortunately, that also meant that more mature manga had a hard time selling in the US.

 

Part 4a: Manga was Either Being Pirated, Or Considered to be for Kids

When publishers saw that youth-oriented manga was selling, they just put more of that into the market and reduced the number of mature titles.

This had a stack-on effect. Few adult readers got into manga because they perceived it as something for children, while children were increasingly turning to the Internet to get their fix of free, pirated manga. 2008 marked a turning point for the publishing industry in general, but especially for manga – it was (a) the year of the Global Financial Crisis, and (b) the year manga aggregators such as OneManga.com truly took off.

 

The sad but true state we are in, when it comes to manga piracy

 

Now, fan-translated manga – called ‘scanslations’ – have been in existence for a while. These used to be small groups of fans, who scanned and translated Japanese volume manga in their own time. They then shared it on the Internet with other fans via IRC or other online servers – a pure expression of their love for the manga (even though it was 100% a violation of the creator’s copyright). Anyway, I remember variations of this having been around as early as 1998, and it was a surprisingly big community. Early scanslations helped build the popularity of manga in the west, and in those days, established publishers even surfed scanslation sites, to help them choose which manga to translate and bring over.

By 2007, however, things had taken a darker turn. Along came manga “super-sites” like OneManga and other sites like it, which amassed all the fan-translated manga they could find and placed it into one big centralised website. This was often done without the permission of the translators, which meant that the pirates got pirated. This made things too easy, and too accessible. Soon, when people realised they could read all the manga they wanted online without paying a cent, they began to stop buying manga.

These two things, rampant piracy and the GFC, combined to cause a catastrophic fall in manga as a publishing category. The glut of publishing also didn’t help. Due to the manga boom, various publishers have also flooded the market with inferior titles, and this just made things worse. In 2013, bookstores sold less copies of manga than they did in 2003, and the numbers still continue to fall.

 

Bookscan Manga Sales - 2003-2013

Sales in the “Manga” section of Bookscan, which covers 60-70% of US book sales. These figures were taken from “Tilting at Windmills” by Brian Hibbs at ComicBookResources.com.

 

When I first started working for Dean, it was in 2007, a year before the GFC. What happened after resembled a downward spiral, not just for me, but for the publishing industry as a whole. Two things also happened in 2010 that made me change directions, which I will talk about later.

*****

Next Monday, I’ll be back to talk about my work as an illustrator first. After that, I’ll go into what happened in 2010.

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Section 1: My Story as a Professional Manga Artist (Part 4)

 

Part 3c: The Beginning of the End of TOKYOPOP

Working with TOKYPOP was fine as an experience, and I had editors ranging from the good to bad (I will talk about editors in another post). However, TOKYOPOP was always a controversial company, and there were many who had issues with them, ranging from bad contracts to annoying business practices. For me, the biggest problem with that era was not so much drawing/writing ‘The Dreaming,’ but with the way ‘western manga’ was received by the average comic reader.

Needless to say, the superhero and indie crew wasn’t much interested, but neither were actual manga readers. There was an ‘authenticity’ issue with manga readers right from the start, who solidly believed that only manga from Japan are ‘good,’ and manga-style comics from westerners are ‘fake garbage.’ The ‘western manga’ line TOKYOPOP put out also suffered from quality control issues, and most of them never made back money the company had invested. It was just cheaper to license manga from Japan.

Eventually, helped by mismanagement, the line faltered and the company closed its ‘western manga’ line sometime after I finished the last volume of ‘The Dreaming’ in 2007. After that, TOKYOPOP put out a Collected Edition of ‘The Dreaming’ (all three volumes in one, plus a short story), but the company continued to fall apart, and finally folded its publishing division in 2011. The Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and the collapse of Borders book chain in 2011 also contributed, but while these helped to speed things along, it was unlikely to have been the ultimate demise of the company.

I didn’t get involved in any Internet flame wars during that era over the ‘is it manga or not’ debate, but it certainly was a baffling experience. I’m not sure if this attitude still persists today, but I sure as heck don’t want to relive those days again.

Looking back, ‘The Dreaming’ sold quite well and garnered a lot of fans (I got a week-long trip to Turkey to promote it – see my write-up here – and it even has a movie in development), but TOKYOPOP never quite promoted it compared to some of their other properties.

Here in lies an interesting problem with the publishing industry: just because you’ve been published, it doesn’t mean that your publisher will promote you to the reading public. In fact, publishers don’t promote most of the books they publish at all. This is something I’ll be talking about in my later posts.

*****

See you all next week, when I talk about working as a manga-style comics illustrator for other publishers, from 2008-2013.

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