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Tokyopop: A Long Good-bye

News broke today that Tokyopop was shutting down it’s publishing division as of May 31, 2011. While the news comes as a shock, no can say it wasn’t a complete surprise. The warning signs were there, with the round of layoff in February, and the bankruptcy of Borders, their biggest outlet. For 14 years they entertained and frustrated fans with new ventures and a catalog that can be called interesting to say the least. But now, we must say goodbye to a long standing pillar in the manga industry, and truly agree that it is an end of an era.

Katherine Farmar: Tokyopop were undoubtedly pioneers in the US/anglophone manga market — it’s amazing to think that as recently as ten years ago, the market was tiny compared to what it is now, and was dominated by flipped books. (Remember the days when manga were sold alongside superhero comics as monthly pamphlets? Crazy, huh?) Tokyopop were constantly trying new things back then, mixing up formats and price points and throwing just about any idea into the market to see what would catch on. I have no doubt that they opened up pathways for other publishers with deeper pockets and/or closer ties to Japan, who were better able to maintain a steady onward journey.

The odd thing is that even at their height, Tokyopop always had a mixed reputation. Maybe that’s inevitable when a company gets big enough and is dealing with stories people love and want to see handled well (and made available cheaply and easily). Maybe. Certainly DC and Marvel, the two behemoths of American comics, have never been universally loved even by their devotees. And I do think a lot of the fan backlash against Tokyopop was exaggerated and unfair — people complain a lot about Tokyopop’s translations, for instance, but in my experience, they’re among the most fluid and readable translations out there. (I think a few instances of censorship and poorly-done localization tainted the company and gave them a rep for poor translation which was not really deserved.)

But it has to be said that they made some really awful decisions at times. The coverage of the closure has had a strong flavour of… not schadenfreude, exactly, but a sense that this is neither surprising nor entirely undeserved; and I have to reluctantly agree.

Be that as it may, I doubt that anybody’s happy to see Tokyopop die — so many orphaned series! So many talented people laid off! It’s the BLU titles that I’m going to miss most (Junjo Romantica! Cut off in its prime!), but there are many more that are now in limbo. I can almost hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth as I type this…

Alex Hoffman: You will hear none of that wailing or gnashing from me. I had a very tenuous relationship with TokyoPop; I liked some of their series, especially some of their latest shojo releases, as well as some of the older series they published back when I was just getting into manga. I love Tokyopop for what it did for the US manga market, but hate what it did with itself.

While Tokyopop was one of the first manga publishers and got a bulk of really great series like Sailor Moon and Love Hina, after the first wave, Tokyopop and manga publishers in general were in a predicament. The market expanded quicker than anyone thought it would, mostly due to Borders buying into the manga market as a way to sell books to teenage girls. As a result, companies were looking at any license to print, and so wonderful content like My-Hime and Brigadoon made to to US shores, without any real reason than “it’s manga, it will sell.” Now, Tokyopop is not the only company that did this, but it seemed to me that Tokyopop thrived on these B-C list titles, and once the manga market started crashing, the Tokyopop catalog just looked horrid.

I can’t find complete fault with the Tokyopop catalog; it was also surprisingly fresh at times. Tokyopop was one of the only publishers to give us a healthy dose of josei while other publishers focused on shojo and shonen. Suppli and the work of Erica Sakurazawa were titles that the publisher not only considered, but also printed, and for that, I am grateful.

Amy: Despite the warning signs I was still taken back when I first heard the news of Tokyopop shutting down. Shonen series from Viz was my gateway into manga but Tokyopop exposed me to the world of shojo and yaoi, from their BLU line, and I will be forever grateful for that. Though I will admit to being ticked with Loveless being on a somewhat indefinite hiatus I never wished or hoped for them to shut down completely.

Maybe it is because I graduated almost a year ago and am still trying to find a career for myself but whenever I hear of job cuts or company layoffs I cringe. The first thought that crossed my mind when hearing upon the news was not about manga series that I’ll may never see the final volumes of but about the employees that were left in the company and the freelancers that will be out of work.

Lori: I didn’t want to believe the news when I heard it. Tokyopop was a big part of bringing me into manga, including blogging. My first blog was on the Tokyopop site, and I experimented there before creating my own. Some of the first titles I started collecting were from them; Dragon Knights, Vampire Game, Crescent Moon and Saiyuki. And there are a lot of older titles I’ll be left hanging on such as Pet Shop of Horrors: Tokyo, Genju no Seiza, and tactics as well as newer titles such as Hanako and the Allegory of Terror and Secret Notes of Lady Kanako. While there catalog varied wildly, some of the more quirky (and sadly lower selling) titles really appealed to me.

Tokyopop did some good things. Pricing books at $9.99, giving creators an outlet to creator their own series, and focusing on titles for girls are chief among them. But unfortunately, they did a lot of not so good things, which often put them at odds with their fanbase often. They did try a lot of different things, but never seemed to have any follow through. Their strategies often came off as ADD, starting something and then wandering off when something new and shiny came along. If they had kept their focus on publishing, even with some of their missteps, I don’t think we would be having this conversation, and so many people wouldn’t be out of work.

Connie: I was pretty surprised, too.  Tokyopop has weathered some rough waters in the past, but they were always trying new things, and always came back with… something.  Katherine’s right in that the fan reaction to what they did was always mixed, but that they came back at all when they lost all of their Kodansha titles and went through that restructuring a couple years back is impressive, and was what made me pass over the articles about their troubles this year.

I started reading manga at a time when most of the published titles were male-oriented, and it was the Tokyopop titles like Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Peach Girl that really hooked me and kept me coming back.  The low price point when they started going straight to graphic novel was also attractive to me at a time when I didn’t have a lot of income, and buying their books instead of others that cost $15 or $16 was an easy choice.  They were also one of the first to dip into Korean manhwa, and they were great at choosing series that had some of the same strengths of manga, but still kept the flavor of what makes Korean girls’ comics so unique.

I’ve been a steadfast fan over the years, always trying their new things and finding something to like, and I’ll be sad to see them go.  It will be a long time before we see another company like Tokyopop in the English-language manga publishing scene.

Justin Colussy-Estes: I discovered manga back in the old Studio Proteus days, and was excited when Tokyopop emerged because they were trying very different things. In retrospect, and even at the time you could get a sense of this, it seems they weren’t so much an innovative publisher(see Yen Press or Viz) as they were canny. The English market was dominated by shonen at the time, so licensing for shojo was relatively cheap. It cost money to flip manga, so Tokyopop cut the expense and marketed the hell out of un-flipped manga, touting it as truer to the original. When some of their core licensing deals evaporated, they pushed into OEL manga and manwha, and on and on. I don’t want to sound too cynical, after all, they did take some risks. Planetes is one of those near-and-dear to my heart series that was great, garnered lot of attention, but (as far as I can tell) never quite took off financially. Tokyopop stood by the series, though, and published all 5 volumes.

I’m very thankful that some great cartoonists got their start or first big break with Tokyopop: Tania del Rio, Eric Wight, Becky Cloonan, Felipe Smith, and that list can go on and on. They also, through either a good eye or luck or both, brought some of the best manga into English markets at the time: CLAMP, Sailor Moon, Ai Yazawa– all of which inspired a generation of female cartoonists. This in the end, I think, is the company’s true legacy: how many female cartoonists, working in manga, webcomics, illustration, and comic books today, discovered comics they could relate to, they saw themselves in, through the shojo manga Tokyopop released in that first explosion of material 5-10 years ago? The list is enormous, and their contributions to the medium are tremendous.

But Tokyopop always had a cheap vibe, and I don’t think they were able to shift with the market they essentially created– as boutique, high-end releases from well-respected artists started to get traction, they kept pushing cheap iterations of the same stuff, material that seemed like a poor substitute for the Cardcaptor Sakuras and Sailor Moons of a decade ago. Plus, their big OEL push evaporated overnight, it seemed, leaving some great series (and great artists) in limbo (oh, East Coast Rising volume 2, I cannot miss what never was, but I sure miss you…). On top of that, it seems some of the rights might still be in limbo as well.

Ultimately, though, I don’t blame Tokyopop. Great people worked there and had tremendous heart and vision and care that they brought to the books on a weekly basis. I guess I really lay the company’s downfall at the feet of Stu Levy. Say what you will about him (and many people have), but for me it boils down to this: that canniness that I referred to earlier? I think it was Levy’s, and this is yet one more canny move–Levy comes out of this seemingly on top of things, shedding the skin of Toyopop that he feels he’s outgrown.

All in all, it’s strange to think that an industry that was defined by Tokyopop can so easily see it go– I mean, would we have manga sold in book volumes (instead of pamphlets), R to L manga, OEL manga, shojo manga if it hadn’t been for TP? Certainly not like we see it today. And maybe that’s the real answer: Tokyopop is like AOL, or Western Union, or Motown–companies that defined an industry but failed to continue to innovate, keep up with the times, and shift to meet the demands of the market.

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