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The Resurrection of TOKYOPOP, America's Most Influential Manga Company

TOKYOPOP became the biggest producer of English-language manga by 2004, but seven years later the company was effectively dead. Today, as it gears up for a reboot, we spoke to the founder about what to expect from the new version of the cult publisher.

Images courtesy of TOKYOPOP and Stu Levy unless otherwise noted

The anime boom hit America like a seismic energy blast in the late 90s and early 00s with franchises like Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Mobile Suit Gundam, which all became ratings juggernauts with extensive merchandising empires. As the anime wave struck, via Cartoon Network and Toonami, its print counterpart, manga, saw a similar rise in popularity among teens anxious to soak up the culture. In 2004, 1000 volumes of manga were produced for US audiences, nearly doubling the total from the year before. That same year, manga sales hit the $100 million mark in annual sales in America. At the center of manga's English print phenomenon was TOKYOPOP, a Los Angeles publisher founded in 1997 that helped to bring many popular titles to the States.

TOKYOPOP established itself early as a major player in English language markets, publishing popular shonen series like GTO, Love Hina, and Saiyuki; popular shoujo series like Cardcaptor Sakura and Fruits Basket; and popular seinen series like Lupin III, the manga adaptation of Battle Royale, and several Mobile Suit Gundam titles. It also brought Akira to American readers. It became the biggest producer of English-language manga rather quickly, nabbing nearly 50 percent of the US market share by 2004.

TOKYOPOP's early brand was built on authenticity, bringing Asian literature to English readers uncompromised. It printed and licensed titles that represented the very best of the manga experience—reissues from the East that were both acclaimed and big sellers in Japan—and the company saw great success with this model. In 2004,it made $35 million in revenue, leading competitors by a wide margin. In addition to traditional manga series, it introduced manhwa—the Korean equivalent of manga—to Western audiences, and even created a few original English manga titles. Along with Viz Media, TOKYOPOP pioneered the cine-manga format, which took popular animated series and films and turned them into colored print editions. Titles included popular Nickelodeon cartoon series like Avatar: The Last Airbender and even Spongebob Squarepants.

Over the course of a few years, the publisher created a distinct production style, selecting titles that bridged the gap between Western and Eastern cultures—series like Samurai Champloo, which re-imagines Edo-era Japan through a hip-hop lens; or Priest, a Korean manhwa that follows a Christianity-based narrative through the Old West—as well as producing its own Western-based stories in manga form. It carefully curated titles as they pertained to its primary mission, intent on making manga and manhwa that was produced as closely to its Asian counterparts as possible. For a long time, it succeeded.

Image via Flickr user Ollie Harridge

But after years of prosperity operating as the medium's flag-bearer in the US, things began to rapidly go south. The manga bubble burst and graphic novel sales started to nose dive. The internet torpedoed print media and the manga industry took a big hit. In 2008, a company restructuring resulted in 39 layoffs at TOKYOPOP and reduced the amount of manga produced by the publisher by 50 percent. Later that same year, the company laid off eight more staffers, including three editors. The next year, Kodansha, the largest publisher in Japan, allowed all of its licensing agreements with TOKYOPOP to expire, leaving several series unfinished. By 2011, the company was in full-on turmoil with several more layoffs and the resignation of President and COO John Parker made in a distribution deal aimed at saving the entity, which was crippled when Borders filed for bankruptcy. On April 15, 2011 TOKYOPOP finally announced its decision to cease operations in the US the following month. TOKYOPOP was dead.

The closing hit many manga fans hard. Several YouTubers mourned the loss in videos and comment sections. Eulogies were written. It was the end of an era. TOKYOPOP's titles slowly vanished from retail shelves around the country.

Then, rumors began to circulate that the once-prolific publisher could bounce back, but without reopening its presses or printing manga again. In December 2012, the company relaunched its website, introducing a new, refined purpose in a memo that mentioned embracing "eBook and print-on-demand technologies" in order to move forward and survive.

Stu Levy, the company's founder and CEO, piggybacked on this in a statement a month later, shedding light on the publisher's demise and hopes for a resurrection: "Unfortunately our Japanese licensors did not move fast enough to provide a legitimate alternative to piracy, and piracy shows no mercy. As a result, TOKYOPOP had to shut down its LA office and the licenses to Japanese titles expired, reverting to the Japanese licensors. What that means is TOKYOPOP is evolving as a company." All signs pointed to TOKYOPOP returning, but as a shell of its former self. That is, until this June, when the company announced its return to publishing at a panel at the 2015 Anime Expo. Now, after five years of dormancy, TOKYOPOP will once again print manga in 2016.

Fans and former readers of the publisher responded to the announcement online with excitement and intrigue, but also skepticism. One Reddit thread captures the full breadth of reactions. "They're coming back? Holy shit. I wonder how it's going to be now since they've already fallen once," one redditor wrote.

"Honestly this sounds great as long as they don't go too crazy with series that people don't really want and it doesn't look like they will," commented another. "It will be nice to see them back now that the industry is at the best it has been in a long while and interesting to see what new series they bring since they lost all of their old licenses."

Several users sought the return of Beck, one of TOKYOPOP's most popular original series. Another Reddit thread was less positive. "At this point, Tokyo Pop is the joke that publishes American-made Manga that doesn't sell, then blames piracy," one wrote. "Sigh. Still salty about the licenses they took and manga I'll never see again printed," another quipped. All parties seem unsure of what to expect.

What they can expect is a new approach. The reboot comes with a restored interest in bringing Asian pop culture westward, but hopes to add a host of new features, chief among them a new brand, POP Comics, which, along with TOKYOPOP, will publish under its holder company's banner, POP Media Holdings. POP Comics will be TOKYOPOP's first real foray into digital media, a service that allows users to create and share comics with one another using the platform. It's a non-exclusive, user-generated experience in which creators retain their rights in the process. Levy, the man still behind the manga company, wants it to be a major part of the TOKYOPOP rebrand, a neutral platform that allows fans and creators to connect, which he referred to as the "YouTube of comics and manga" at the Anime Expo panel.

"All users can also be creators and upload their own stories—and those stories are 100 percent owned and controlled by them," Levy tells VICE over email. "Creators can upload and everyone can enjoy the app for free. It's all about the creators being in complete control." This is TOKYOPOP for the digital age.

Still, Levy suggests the reboot won't stray far from the ground broken by the old one: "TOKYOPOP's new mission is fully consistent with our history—to bridge Asian pop culture with the Western world. Of course, manga has always been central to that mission, even though we've been involved with all forms of Asian pop culture throughout our history. In particular, I'm a believer in visual storytelling, and that manga is not an ethnocentric form of creative expression, but instead a medium that creators worldwide can be influenced by and even influence."

There are, however, a few key differences with the reboot, which hopes to avoid the same pitfalls that forced it to shutter its North American division in the first place. First and foremost, the publisher is more or less starting over since it lost many of its licensing deals with Asian publishers, and there will be a conscious shift toward introducing brand new titles in the US, compared to energy spent reissuing foreign titles.

"While in certain markets, like Germany, we continue to bring the best of Japanese manga to German fans via our brand TOKYOPOP, our role in North America, and English-language manga, will be different," Levy explains over email. "There are several reasons for that. First, the market has radically changed in many ways—less retail outlets, a plethora of new product, digital distribution, and a fan base that is open minded to a wider range of pop culture.

"Second, TOKYOPOP's near-death experience inevitably left us without easy access to a number of key Japanese licensors who for various reasons are unwilling or unable to work with us in the very near future—mainly because they either have their own direct company in America, or because they are nervous about our financial situation. I understand that and believe it is my duty to 'reboot' TOKYOPOP in the English language markets by creating value for fans, licensors, and creators while navigating the waters of today's market."

Initial talk surrounding the reboot suggested that the publisher would be looking to renegotiate licenses for older series, especially series that got cancelled when the company ceased operations in 2011, but that appears to be a secondary goal in the early phases. "In the beginning that will not be our focus," Levy writes. "However, I am very hopeful that we'll be able to work towards that. It's not my decision since those rights belong to the licensors in Japan or Korea, but if we earn their trust financially, I am hopeful that we can get there."

Many of TOKYOPOP's most popular titles were picked up by competitors like Dark Horse Comics (which nabbed fan-favorites like the award-winning Cardcaptor Sakura) or are simply reproduced by American subsidiaries of their Asian publisher like Kodansha Comics USA. But Levy hopes to gauge fan interest in some of those titles to see if they are worth saving: "We may consider utilizing Kickstarter so we don't hurt ourselves or our licensors financially and we can properly measure how large each title's fan base is. The challenge is that fans are very passionate about their favorite titles, but in publishing there's a minimum threshold that must be met for a title to be profitable... We certainly can't go through what we went through from 2008-2011 when many of our titles were losing money. That's not sustainable."

The hope is that the new TOKYOPOP will be able to continue to produce the same kind of manga it has in the past, introducing American audiences to new titles, while making decisions that are more fiscally sound and in line with the current climate. The publisher will be adding to its already active print-on-demand service (through its partner RightStuf) for its older English language titles like Peach Fuzz, Bizenghast, Pixie, and Priest: Purgatory with the print release of new manga through physical and online retailers. But the primary goal is to create more original titles designed specifically to captivate audiences here in America. There's secrecy surrounding what these title will be, but back in July, Levy hinted at plans to work with Disney.

Only time will tell if this iteration of TOKYOPOP will once again position itself as an industry leader in manga. But is there even space for a comic-based company to start from scratch, much less thrive in an age where print media is slowly being ground to dust by the internet? Sales numbers for manga have been fluctuated in recent years, but numbers seem to indicate the industry is bouncing back. According to ICv2, manga sales are up 13 percent in America since last year, which marked the second year of growth for the medium. In fact, the comic industry as a whole is on the rebound. Comic and graphic novel sales hit a new 20-year high of $935 million in 2014. If there was ever a time to hop back into the comic business, now might be the time.

Yet Levy wants to branch out beyond print manga and delve into other mediums. He hopes to secure film and TV rights for some of the publisher's original English language properties. "Short-term, between the re-launched English-language publishing, the mobile publishing platform POP Comics, and a number of film and television projects, we are slammed with work, so successfully launching these initiatives is key," he says. "Long-term, our goal is to become a significant contributor to the world of pop culture—and hopefully continue to bridge fandom with fascinating cultures and creative material. We would like to put TOKYOPOP on the map as an innovator and game-changer, just like we have been in the past."

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