Class, Comics, Critique, Diversity, Geek Culture, Gender, Manga, Opinion, Roundtable

Tokyopop Up Like a Phoenix: The Good Times, The Bad, The Then, and The Now

Now that Tokyopop is rising from the ashes, it’s time to talk about the glory days (and the grotty secrets). Roundtable time!

Was Tokyopop a meaningful brand to you? Tell us about how you first heard of it or its books.

Shungiki Nakamura, Junjo Romance, BLU mangaAl Rosenberg: Inasmuch as BLU Manga is one of their imprints, yes. I read a lot of Yaoi when I was younger and they offered some great titles. Eventually, I started loving Tokyopop, for similar reasons.

Vernieda Vergara: My first exposure to Tokyopop was actually as Mixx. The first English-language adaptation of Sailor Moon was through Mixx. How they came on my radar as a meaningful brand was their 100% Authentic Manga label and the fact that they suddenly seemed to explode in Borders in terms of shelf space.

Paige Sammartino: Tokyopop published the first manga I ever purchased. I watched Cardcaptors after school and got super excited when I realized it was based on a book (I still have my Tokyopop copies; the spines have seen better days, though).

Desiree Rodriguez: Oh gosh, I ate up Tokyopop manga like it was rice and beans on a Sunday at my mamita’s house. I remember standing in front of the stacks of manga in Borders—can we shed a tear for Borders—and picking out so many Tokyopop manga. I don’t own a lot anymore, save for Fruits Basket, Cardcaptor Sakura, and a couple of yaoi titles—with you, Al—but the company holds a special place in my heart.

Kayleigh Hearn: Like Vernieda, my first experience with Tokyopop was their first manga magazine, MixxZine, which I read as a middle schooler. In retrospect, MixxZine foreshadowed the company’s problems, and its “throw anything to the wall and see what sticks” philosophy, considering that it serialized shoujo magical girl manga like Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth with very bloody, adult manga like Parasyte and Ice Blade. Who exactly was MixxZine for? Men or women, children or adults? It could never figure itself out, and eventually fizzled.

MIXX Zine, Tokyopop, 1998

Which titles did you like? What about them caught your eye?

Al: Fallen Moon was this great yaoi short story collection from BLU. I think my friend had it? It was so long ago. But then I mosied over to Cardcaptor Sakura and stayed for the cute. I was late to the Gravitation train, but then I rode it hard.

Paige: Initially, I was all about titles I knew from TV, like Cardcaptor Sakura and Sailor Moon. Pretty soon I started picking up titles, because I liked the art or was intrigued by the back cover blurb. Magic Knight Rayearth and Saint Tail are still two of my all-time favorite manga titles; on one hand, Rayearth was a magical girl fantasy adventure with a dark twist (Madoka, eat your heart out), and on the other, Saint Tail was a lighthearted Robin Hood-type story with a magician, a nun, and a detective (who are, you know, fourteen). Tokyopop had all the shoujo bases covered.

Vernieda: My favorite titles of Tokyopop’s were Mars, Samurai Deeper Kyo, Pet Shop of Horrors, and Saiyuki. The latter two were titles I’d heard of via the anime web design community that was thriving back in the late ‘90s. Mars was something I’d also heard of through fandom—it was shoujo romance with a dark, twisted psychological bent. That was right up my alley. Samurai Deeper Kyo just appeals to my eternal love of chanbara. I also discovered manhwa through them via Island, which was a horror title.

Desiree: Fruits Basket will always be that one manga that will forever have a place on my bookshelf. I also loved Saiyuki, though I never finished the title. Cardcaptor Sakura I collected after a couple years; I loved when they released the big collective volumes. I also loved His and Her Circumstances. Maybe with the rejuvenation of Tokyopop I’ll be able to complete my collection. And I had the misfortune of reading Tokyo Mew Mew. What caught my eye was typically the covers, and a quick skim through the art. I watched the Fruits Basket anime before reading the manga—the manga is better, for those wondering—which is why I picked it up. For Tokyo Mew Mew, it was the cute cover and magical girl feel that reminded me of Sailor Moon. Most of my middle school friends would just pass around recommendations, which is how I chose most of my manga.

Kayleigh: Sailor Moon was huge. All of the books by CLAMP were huge. Tokyopop briefly experimented with bringing josei manga (manga aimed at adult women, as opposed to the typical teen shoujo audience) to western audiences, and they introduced me to Ai Yazawa and Moyoco Anno, who are now two of my favorite artists. Eventually, I just got tired of reading manga about high school kids, and josei manga felt like a fresher, more mature, sophisticated alternative. (Luckily Vertical Inc. picked up the josei torch and continues to publish books by Anno, Yazawa and others.)

Nana, Ai Yazawa, Viz Media

Yazawa’s Nana.

Which titles could you never see the quality in?

Vernieda: Ironically, while I discovered manhwa through them and loved Island, I disliked all of their other manhwa. I think there was one called Les Bijoux? It was pretty incoherent. That sort of incomprehensible plotting was something I ended up associating with manhwa, which is completely unfair, but was a direct result of the titles Tokyopop was licensing. (I don’t feel that way about manhwa anymore, by the way. I just had to be introduced to other titles later.)

Desiree: I couldn’t get into Love Hina, I gave it a shot, because I liked Tenchi Muyo, but Love Hina was awful. Marmalade Boy was recommended to me by some friends, but I found the manga to be rather average. I was really bothered by one of the side romantic plots featuring the protagonist’s best friend.

Kayleigh: Gather ‘round the fire, children, and let me tell you of the horrible dreck Tokyopop published. They’re infamous for glutting the manga market; for every hit like Fruits Basket there were a dozen other licensed titles that were utterly generic and disposable. Your local comic shop probably still has a handful of dusty Tokyopop books lingering on the shelves, like relics of a forgotten epoch. Their original publications could be pretty dire, like a sex comedy written by Chuck Austen, or the literal piece of cow manure that was The Simple Life (as in, the old Fox reality show starring Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie) “cinemanga” (still photos arranged to look like comic panels). Then there was Princess Ai, the series that put the magical girl spin on the life of (I’m not fucking kidding) Courtney Love, with character designs by Ai Yazawa. With connections like that, Princess Ai had no business being so fucking forgettable. I am the elder who remembers these things so that the younger generations never forget.

Did you favor a different manga import publisher? Which, and why?

Paige: Once Shonen Jump started serializing, more of my manga budget started going into VIZ books. I would say my purchases remained pretty even until Tokyopop started to struggle. Nowadays, I’m still evenly split, but among VIZ, Yen Press, and Kodansha.

Milkyway Hitchhiking Vol. 1 by Sirius, Yen Press, Nov 2014

Milkyway Hitchhiking by Yen Press.

Vernieda: I was actually pretty evenly split between the manga publishers of the time once VIZ adjusted to the changes Tokyopop wrought on the industry and Del Rey Manga came onto the scene. When Tokyopop went under, a lot of my purchases went to Del Rey, because they rescued Samurai Deeper Kyo and released the final four volumes as 2-in-1 books.

Al: I used to read a lot of Dark Horse Comics’ manga. I think it was just availability though. And VIZ Media because of Nana.

Did you read any of Tokyopop’s OEL output? Tell us about those. Or—why not?

Kit: I read DramaCon, which I actually quite enjoyed, and that led me to check out Svetlana’s most recent work, Awkward.

Paige: I read the first two volumes of The Rising Stars of Manga and briefly followed M. Alice LeGrow’s Bizenghast. She’s now a character party princess and is still writing and drawing. I always liked her art style, so I keep up with her on social media.

Vernieda: I read the first two volumes of Fool’s Gold. I loved the first volume, but I thought the second volume left much to be desired. Like many OEL manga titles, the third volume never came out.

Fool's Gold, Amy Reeder Hadley, Tokyopop

Fool’s Gold, Amy Reeder Hadley, Tokyopop.

Kayleigh: At the time I had kind of a snobby attitude toward OEL books and how they were marketed—manga-influenced comics they might be, but they weren’t manga. I read Reality Check, a cute little comic that was actually way ahead of its time, because it was about cats on the Internet. It was originally published by Sirius Entertainment (and, checking Wikipedia, set in the then-distant future of 2012), and the Tokyopop version was somewhat bowdlerized: it was reprinted in black and white, losing its bubblegum bright coloring, and some of the art and dialogue was altered to be more “kid friendly.” After that, I really didn’t bother with OEL books.

Did you follow the work of any OEL creators? Where are they now?

Vernieda: I think Amy Reeder Hadley went on to draw for some American comic books? Maybe?

Batwoman #3 variant, unpublished, Amy Reeder for DC

She sure did! Unpublished variant cover, Amy Reeder, for DC.

Kayleigh: Amy Reeder’s drawn Batwoman and Supergirl! As snobby as I was about OEL when I was a teenager, some great artists had early work published by Tokyopop. Brandon Graham’s King City was first published by Tokyopop, and Becky Cloonan and Felipe Smith (whose manga Peepo Cho was published by Kodansha) also survived the Tokyopop meat grinder to become big industry names.

Were you aware of the Tokyopop creator-treatment scandals? Where did you hear about them? Was it at the time, or afterwards?

Kit: I had heard only vague references about treatment of artists and didn’t really research the scandals until way afterwards.

Paige: Likewise, I didn’t hear much more than rumors until Tokyopop started struggling. I didn’t get the full story until after they had more or less disappeared.

Vernieda: I’d heard vague references to it via the grapevine, but my first detailed exposure to it was through Rivkah (Steady Beat), who wrote about it on her Livejournal.

Al: Somehow, though I was very tangentially involved in manga, I did not hear about this until way after.

Kayleigh: Didn’t hear about it until after the company stopped publishing. There were a lot of “ding dong, the witch is dead” posts and creators sharing horror stories about their contracts. It sounded ghastly, and I get kind of mad thinking about all the books, including early work by Amy Reeder and Becky Cloonan, that will never be finished because of Tokyopop’s fuckery.

If you were a creator, would you trust Tokyopop today? Do you trust them as a buyer?

Kit: As a creator, or a contractor, or any sort of profession that would work with Tokyopop: I would not trust them.

Paige: I’m not sure. Tokyopop published manga that played a huge role in my nerdy childhood, and I do feel a nostalgic attachment to the company, but the above-mentioned scandals can’t just be brushed off. I want to wait and see what happens next.

Kayleigh: As long as Stu Levy is in charge of the company, don’t go near it. If you Google his name, the first page of results will give you an old article titled “Is Stu Levy the Charlie Sheen of Comics?” That says it all. I’ve heard people say very good things about the artists and editors who worked for Tokyopop back in its heyday, but Levy’s tainted it. Beware.

Will you be buying manga from Tokyopop? Is there anything you really hope they bring back?

Paige: Possibly! I want to see what Tokyopop does next, and I hope that they’ll take steps to restore their reputation. My kingdom for them to finish publishing BECK, but since that was one of their Kodansha licenses, should that series relaunch in the States, I don’t expect it to be under Tokyopop.

Beck, Harold Sakuish

BECK.

Vernieda: It depends on what titles they’d bring over. Because of the current partnerships in the U.S. manga licensing scene, I just don’t know if they’d be able to bring over properties I’d be interested in. I’m not invested in these titles myself, but I know people want Fruits Basket and Saiyuki back in print.

Al: I don’t really read manga anymore. It would have to be a big deal to bring me back.

What lasting impact do you think that Tokyopop had on the English-language manga market, and its place in the Western comics market?

Paige: Tokyopop’s influence was huge! They were the first American manga publishers to target the female audience with shoujo titles, print manga in its original right-to-left format, and come up with the technology to read manga on your phone (unfortunately, before smartphones were the norm, so that didn’t really go anywhere). They helped to make manga much more mainstream. Because Tokyopop had been such a trailblazer, it was hard for me to accept the scandals and see the publisher dwindle down to a handful of titles. I’m rooting for them to come back stronger and more creator-friendly than before.

Vernieda: The right-to-left reading format, for sure. And the dominant placement of manga in bookstores. That was a smart move on Kurt Hassler’s part, since having that huge section in Border’s meant that a brand new demographic could discover comic books without ever stepping into a comic book store (which that demographic probably would never do in the first place).

Kayleigh: In the end, Tokyopop’s shitty reputation was well-earned. But it did revolutionize the manga industry, and you can still see their impact in how manga is presented and sold in the United States. Ten years ago I was definitely that girl lingering in the manga section of Waldenbooks, so I’m not completely without nostalgia—but it’s best to leave Tokyopop in the past.