Tim Beedle's a friend of mine. He currently edits FRAGGLE ROCK for Archaia, so I've had the pleasure of getting to spend many cons shooting the breeze with him while signing at the booth. We even carpooled last month to get from LA to San Francisco for WonderCon and one of the many topics that came up during the five hour trip was his time as an editor at TOKYOPOP. This was still a few weeks before the closing of the company's publishing division so, when that announcement finally broke, I sought Tim out for his perspective on it. He ended up having much to say about it and we now have this excellent retrospective on TOKYOPOP from a guy who was actually on its staff for years.
Before we get to his piece, I want to direct you all to Tim's website. Having worked on high-profile manga like PRIEST, PET SHOP OF HORRORS, LOVE HINA and BATTLE ROYALE, titles based on huge licenses like WARCRAFT, LABYRINTH, THE DARK CRYSTAL and THE MUPPETS, and numerous books from publishers like Yen Press, Boom! Studios, Radical Publishing, First Second Books and even Marvel Comics, Tim backs the perspective offered on his blog with a truly diverse wealth of experience. If you enjoy what you read below, I strongly encourage you all to check out his site for more.
Now, I'll step back and let Tim take over...
A few weeks ago, a group of over a dozen former TOKYOPOP editors met for drinks at the Marie Callender’s bar on Wilshire, just about half a block east from the soon-to-be-shuttered TOKYOPOP office. It wasn’t the flashiest of places for a reunion, to be sure, but as a regular happy hour spot for all of us back in our TP days, it was an appropriate place to get together to catch up with each other and have a few drinks in memory of our former employer.I’ve often thought about how unlikely a place TOKYOPOP was for someone like me to end up. While I’d been a comic book fan most of my life, I had no real interest in comics as a career at the time and virtually no knowledge of manga. My five-year stint at TOKYOPOP began as a way of supplementing my freelance writing income, but it soon became the more stable of my two jobs and in 2003, I began working for them full-time as a freelance associate editor. A year and a half later, I accepted a permanent position as an editor.
Most of my colleagues in TP’s editorial department were also new to manga when they started. Only a handful were fans before they were professionals, something that some critics have pointed out as a likely reason why TP often took liberties with their translations. However, while some of us might not have been fans when we started, all of us became fans while we were there. In fact, the only way we really differed from manga fans outside the office was that frequently their favorite manga titles didn’t line up with our favorite manga titles. Every single editor on TP’s roster had a manga or manhwa that they absolutely loved and tried their best to push, but that never generated the sales we would have liked. Luis Reyes had Planetes. Rob Tokar had Doll. Bryce P. Coleman had Rebirth. Carol Fox had Qwan. Mine was Faeries’ Landing. I adored that warped tale of backstabbing faeries and the humans cursed to coexist with them so much that I continued writing its English adaptation even after I made the jump to permanent staff and could no longer get paid to do it. To this day, I still feel Faeries’ Landing is the funniest comic I’ve worked on. But since almost none of you have read it, I suppose you’ll just have to take my word on that.
I joined TOKYOPOP right after it had experienced some of its biggest growth. Chobits, Mars, Love Hina, Samurai Deeper Kyo, Pet Shop of Horrors and Battle Royale had either just completed their publication or were in the midst of their release. TP had just announced that they had licensed Fruits Basket, and fans were positively elated. What I remember about my first two years was a real sense of optimism. The company was growing. Manga was exploding. Things were good. The biggest controversy TP had at the time concerned their translations, and it was good controversy to have. Yes, hiring Keith Giffen to completely rewrite Battle Royale infuriated the purists, but it got us reviews in major publications like Entertainment Weekly and Playboy, and helped us sell a great deal of copies in the direct market to comic book readers who previously never would have looked twice at a manga tankoubon. Licensing seemed to be going well, largely because there were still popular titles that had yet to be licensed.
I think it was this last point that really started the avalanche for TOKYOPOP. Sometime around 2005 or so, licensing really became more of a challenge. All of the highly demanded and anticipated titles in Japan had been licensed, and manga publishers were forced to switch from licensing titles with known demand to attempting to determine which titles currently being released in Japan might break out and become the next big thing. Combine that with far more players in the field (in addition to VIZ and Dark Horse, we now had Del Rey, Yen Press, CMX and Go! Comi) and exclusivity deals being signed by the biggest manga publishers in Japan, and all of a sudden this growing industry and company had hit a very real ceiling. TOKYOPOP had to figure out ways to supplement their bottom line and continue growing. One was to try licensing more titles from Korea, a strategy that seemed to meet with largely middling results. The other, of course, was OEL.
We didn’t call it OEL at the time. In fact, that term was pretty taboo within TP’s leadership. We called it “global manga,” and regardless of what TP’s reasons were for doing it and what manga fans may think of it, I can tell you that those of us working on signing up OEL projects and editing the books really had no intentions other than putting out some great original comics.
Personally, I didn’t concern myself too much with the manga label. I knew that any original book I edited would be read primarily by American audiences, so calling it manga seemed a little strange to me, but hey, I was content to leave that decision to the marketing and sales guys. My focus was on finding great comic book creators willing to work in a slightly different format for the chance to tell an awesome story that they didn’t feel they could tell at one of the other publishers out there, and I think I had some success with that: Becky Cloonan, Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Barbara Kesel, Christy Lijewksi, Pop Mhan, Ross Campbell, Alex de Campi…
It might not have been manga, and if you’re a manga fan interested in reading stories that came from Japan, I could see why you might not have bought any of the OEL titles that TP published. But I’ll still argue with anyone who suggests that the OEL books I edited for TOKYOPOP weren’t very good. I also disagree with the notion that the lack of sales was due to an overall lack of quality. Looking at the line as a whole, there were many titles that were average or mediocre, but no more than you see with any publisher. No, as a company, TP’s always been highly scrutinized, probably due to Stu Levy’s insistence on being a very public face. OEL wasn’t a complete failure—it just wasn’t a resounding success. And it certainly wasn’t the financial windfall that TP was probably hoping for.
I think it’s impossible to eulogize TOKYOPOP without mentioning Stu Levy. Without a doubt, the company wouldn’t have had the success it had without his vision, but at the same time, it wouldn’t have run into the problems it ran into without his lack of focus. The thing about good ideas is that they often need time to truly grow and take root, but Stu wasn’t always the best at giving his ideas time to take hold. In the five years that I was there, the company’s focus seemed to shift from licensed manga to OEL to publishing a free manga magazine to film and TV development to fashion and music to building a social media website to developing manga “pilots” to laying off their editors. (Okay, that last one’s a bit of a cheap shot.)
You see my point though, right? As a company, TOKYOPOP seemed to lack focus, which can be traced all the way up to its CEO, who also seemed to lack focus. I think it was around the time that I was interviewing my OEL creators in front of a green screen for a series of web interviews that never even got released that I realized I was no longer a manga editor because TOKYOPOP was no longer a manga publisher. They were a purveyor of passion projects devised by a man with an interest in manga that seemed to be waning. And when those projects failed, so did TOKYOPOP. It wasn’t the manga. The manga might not have been quite as profitable as it was at its peak, but it was doing fine. It was doing fine after I was laid off along with 2/3rds of the editorial staff. It was doing fine when TP squandered any money they had saved through downsizing by blowing it on a bizarre reality show and expensive bus tour. And it’s doing fine now…for other publishers.
And maybe that’s TOKYOPOP’s legacy. Say what you will about Stu and some of TP’s more controversial endeavors, but the company played a seminal role in how manga is read in the U.S. I’ve had many, many fans tell me that the first manga they ever picked up was a TOKYOPOP manga. That at first they read almost nothing but TP manga, but that in recent years the number of TP titles they were following had been pared down to almost zero. TOKYOPOP had clearly touched and made an impression on thousands of readers nationwide, helping to ignite a passion for manga that has endured and occasionally paved the way for creating their own manga-inpsired art and comics. They played a key role in creating an industry that at its peak was taking in more than $200 million annually. But quite a lot of readers had moved on long before TOKYOPOP decided to close down their publishing division. Perhaps it was simply time for the Robofish to return to whatever weird steampunk aquarium it had been fished from and for TOKYOPOP to pass on into the night.
In spite of everything, I have a hard time feeling anything but affection for TOKYOPOP and my years spent at the company. A lot of talented folks passed through that office at one time or another, and it’s impossible not to emerge from an environment like that a better person than when you arrived. And as anyone who was at Marie Callender’s late last month to commemorate TP with a few vodka tonics can attest, the true legacy of TOKYOPOP actually extends far beyond the manga industry, and into the endeavors of its former employees. I couldn’t have written Muppet Robin Hood, Fraggle Rock or any of the comics I’ve written without the experience I had editing Henson graphic novels at TOKYOPOP. Nor would I have edited the Eisner-nominated Three Colors trilogy if not for my experience localizing manga. And those are just a few small successes of mine. Some of my former colleagues have produced films, TV shows and plays. They’ve landed prominent editorial positions at traditional publishers in New York. They’ve done visual effects work for movies. They’ve localized and produced video games for some of the biggest developers in gaming.
TOKYOPOP may be dead, but the creativity that existed within its ranks is as vital as ever. And I’m pleased to say that it is still very much alive.