For the first time, independent comics made by Japanese artists will be serialized in America, in English. The long-awaited dream of many manga fans has finally come true with Gen Manga, a start-up publishing company that began serialization of indie manga in April 2011, and went digital in November.
The company started its first year with one monthly anthology, composed of four to seven stories per issue, with the number of stories per volume expected to reach eight to twelve in the future. Some are long stories that will go for more than one month; others are “little” stories that remind a person of where the beauty of life is. The anthologies are now available in digital and in print. Digital prices are more economical, and are a monthly access fee, rather than by-volume. The digital files come as DRM-free PDFs, and back issues are available.
Gen wants to bring artist and reader together, and meet the desires of both. Already the company began printing in left-to-right, but switched to original right-to-left page layouts (the Japanese way) after customer input. If enough interest is shown by the readers, the company will also consider putting out collections of a longer story for re-sale, separate from the anthology.
At New York Comic Con in 2011, I caught up with the maestros behind the company, though they might call it more of a “project” – a labor of love from fans to fans, that’s as long in coming for them as for us. Gen Manga (pronounced with a hard g) is striving to bring independent Japanese comics to U.S. manga readers, the way underground comics by Americans are available outside of the comic shops typically dominated by Marvel and D.C. The stories are made by professional-quality Japanese writers and artists, which the company founders have searched out. Creators include unpublished artists, and published artists who want more freedom to experiment with messages or styles. This is the heart of indie work as any Westerner might know it: artists that have an idea to give, but one which might not be sellable to a mainstream publishing company because of conflicts with things such as the company’s brand, reputation, editors, and contracts.
“[We want to be] an artist’s bridge to the world,” said Jonathan Sirota, cofounder and current publisher of Gen. Authors have control over the length of the stories that they bring, so no more twenty-volume filler or quickly-ended stories. Gen may guide the creators a bit for clarity’s sake, but, in Sirota’s words, “creative freedom is allowed to the artist.” What the artist wants to tell, and how, is also left up to them. Most of the titles in Gen’s current anthology are for an older audience, but the recommended age rating is per-story, with the themes, language, and graphic detail left up to the creator’s discretion. For perhaps the first time ever, a few select Japanese artists will be able to sell their works to the English-speaking community in professionally-translated English, and still maintain independence from large companies. They can spread their works farther than they ever dreamed while maintaining their creative control, and Western readers can get a pro-quality product in the styles they crave.
But what makes this venture so special compared to other manga companies hitting the internet? Manga has slowly gained ground as a viable product for U.S. companies to import, translate, and sell over the past two decades, but it’s been far more of a struggle than a sure thing. Gen Manga’s appearance is a great sign that manga in America is growing away from a niche market of books often critiqued as“too foreign” to read, into something that’s visible enough to have readers not only accept, but actively search for, deviation from normative brands currently on the market. Yet, distribution of manga in America has been constricted by what major Japanese publishing houses have to offer. This is for a few major reasons: what sold millions in Japan is a safer bet to be popular in the U.S. compared to something little-known; it is more cost-effective in terms of R & D to pick from stock already on the company’s shelf; larger companies have a team to make the legal arrangements and translations; and manga made by the major Japanese publishing houses often have anime adaptations that can also be brought to the U.S. to cross-promote. Gen Manga is making a big statement with its “little” book, for readers, companies, and creators alike.
While underground comics are big in many countries, it would be almost impossible to consider selling a self-published comic outside of the country of production, and in a different language. Most Japanese indie comics are still hardcopy only, available only at special conventions; the internet may be used to set up a shop for them, but even this is rare. Outside of a few vendors at anime conventions in the U.S., independent manga of any kind (derivative or original works) has rarely been available. Some savvy U.S. fans may be able to get at them through the internet, but the products are still only in Japanese, and hit-and-miss. Even then, the culture is fraught with price gouging; dissatisfaction in content; and at the end of the day, the story is still in Japanese, which most buyers cannot read. Gen Manga looks to fill this gap, and bring you a story worth remembering while they’re at it.
Gen is a company started by two guys that have been in the business of Japan, anime, and manga for years. A phrase that came to mind during the interview was, “these are the good guys.” (Not that there are any villains out there.) To me, they seemed like guys that always adored their comic collections as a kid, and treated the offbeat ones as the prize gem – the ones that made the excitement in the trip to the comic shop. Likewise, Gen bridges American and Japanese publishing styles – gritty yet beautiful stories off the beaten path as expected from American indie comics, but serialized in the Japanese publishing style. As fans, they bring to the venture the idea that everyone on both sides of the transaction should come away happy. And as professionals that have worked in various Japanese culture industries over the years, they know how to put forth a quality product that you’ll want to keep on your shelf.
Check them out at http://www.genmanga.com.