Get out your compasses and put away your star charts, readers: There be a storm to weather through. On the surface, manga in America seems to have had a tough season in the spring of 2011. First the Bankruptcy of Borders was announced, which took out one of the major continental purchasing centers for manga. Then, in February and March, leading U.S. manga company Tokyopop laid off most of its workers, only to announce May 1 that it was closing shop on its North American manga branch entirely. Darkhorse, in April, announced the layoff of several staff members as well.
But is this as bad as it seems? Wherever the economy is or is not, publishing in general has had a downward trend over the last few years, and manga is no exception. But is this reason for panic? Every market has its ups and downs. Darkhorse publishes both American and imported comics, and the layoff was only a few people out of more than 150, and its commitment to manga is unchanged. Darkhorse opened its digital store on April 27 and in early January, leading manga publisher Viz launched the availability of Shonen Jump titles through the iPad.
Also of good note, Kodansha USA Publishing began selling manga titles in the U.S. and Canada May 10. This calendar year, the company plans to release some titles brand new to the U.S. market, such as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex; re-release favorites, such as Sailor Moon; and continue previously existing titles that had been on hiatus, such as the popular Shugo Chara! and Fairy Tail, volume 10 and 13 of which, respectively, are the headlining titles that debuted on May 10. Tokyopop will still operate in other capacities. Many of its titles’ licenses will move to other manga companies as time goes on.
Compared to earlier days of mainstream manga publishing in America, when Viz, Tokyopop, and Darkhorse had to make many major readjustments to staff levels and distribution formats to keep afloat, the manga market has a lot to look forward to and is doing fairly strong.
Tokyopop, which began in 1996, has done a great job marketing manga as a cultural product, rather than whitewashing it as a domestically produced product or selling it as just another kind of book. No other manga company exactly matched its brand. Tokyopop also kept alive titles that were not always the most visible, but were extremely valuable as manga that bridged American and Japanese styles, or went counter to the popular manga culture of the time, such as the Cowboy Bebop manga or Deus Vitae.
Where will manga go from here without Tokyopop in the list of major publishers? Darkhorse, with its expertise in both American and Japanese comics, could become the new leader in the comics that bridge the two, and its licensing opportunities may expand. Viz seems to be going steady, and a brand-new publisher gets to make its mark. With fewer books and publishers on the market, the waves may in fact even out for the manga industry in America. Even though it feels like the end of an era, it may in fact be but a change in the winds, from a hurricane to a tropical storm. One cannot forget that manga was around in America before Tokyopop, though it had not, perhaps, been allowed to show its true colors as a Japanese product as proudly. For that, manga fans can perhaps smile fondly on its passing.
So, do not fear: The manga fleet may yet make it through the storm, while Tokyopop moves on to different waters.
*Disclosure: The writer of this article is currently an intern at Kodansha USA Publishing.