Special Edition: Interview with JManga’s Robert Newman

The digital manga portal JManga got off to a slow start, but it has gained traction among manga fans for a number of reasons: Cool, quirky manga, reasonable prices (once the site owners abandoned the original price of $8.99 per volume), and good communication with fans.

We can thank Robert Newman for the latter; from the very beginning, he was out there as the public face of JManga, listening and responding to every review and snarky Tweet—and getting results, such as the price drop. As we mentioned the other day, Newman has been lobbying the 39 Japanese publishers involved in JManga for something else that a lot of people want: Global reach. Currently, JManga is available only to U.S. and Canadian readers, but the demand is worldwide, and Newman has been asking readers to respond to JManga’s Twitter and “Like” their Facebook post on opening the manga portal up to the rest of the world.

I asked Newman if he could talk a little bit about the inner workings of JManga and why they can’t just pull a switch and open it up to the world. As long as I had him, I asked some general questions as well.

Brigid: First of all, what makes you think it would benefit JManga to go global? What sort of demand have you seen from your side?

Robert: We would like to think of JManga going global as being more of a benefit to manga fans than to us as a company. We have received countless comments from manga fans worldwide who have come with high hopes to JManga.com only to be shut out by our sky blue geo-filter screen. Another major merit to manga readers worldwide is that JManga provides a legal and safe alternative to reading manga online that benefits readers, manga artists, and publishers.

Brigid: Why are the publishers reluctant to do it? Is there a general consensus or do opinions differ?

Robert: The main reason is that each publisher has their own policy regarding international development and each publisher’s licensing situation differs. So we have had to develop a system with each policy and licensing situation in mind.

Brigid: Would you consider offering the manga in languages other than English?

Robert: Our system is built to handle multiple languages. We hope to add languages following demand.

Brigid: Are there complications with taking different currencies?

Robert: This is something we gave had to consider carefully. If we can go global, we will start off as a service made for America and Canada, but that can be accessed worldwide. In short a kind if extension of our current service.

Brigid: What are the most popular manga on the site?

Robert: Though we have had a very good reception accross the board, the more niche titles, yuri and foodie titles for example, have been especially well received.

Brigid: Are you noticing any interesting patterns, such as people reading in the evening, geographic distribution, etc.?

Robert: Initially I had expected to see peak views clustered in the evening to night times, but what we have actually found is that readers are enjoying JManga pretty much all day long, from the early morning to the late night!

Another interesting point that we have found is that female readers generally spend more on manga than male readers. This is the same as readers in Japan.

Brigid: How do you see the site evolving over the next year or so?

Robert: Our main goal for the next year is to adapt and enhance our site to the needs of users worldwide and to release as much content as possible.

Yen honcho talks Yotsuba&!

For over a year now, Yotsuba&! fans have been agitating for the sixth volume of the adventures of the little green-haired girl, but the annoucement of its imminent release came from an unexpected quarter: Yen Press, which has taken over the license for volume 6 and subsequent volumes from ADV Manga. While the Yen Press booth was one of the busiest on the floor (possibly because they were giving away free copies of Yen+ magazine), publisher Kurt Hassler took a few minutes to talk to me about how Yen snagged the license and fill in a few more details about their plans for the books. (Incidentally, Kurt pronounces the title of the book as many of the cognoscenti do: Yot-su-BAH-to, with the last syllable coming from the Japanese word for “and.”)

MangaBlog: How did you know Yotsuba&! was available?

Kurt Hassler: We were contacted by ASCII Media Works, the Japanese publisher.

MB: Why were the rights available?

KH: I’m really not clear on what happened with the rights situation; all I knew was the rights were coming available. It was a book we were very familiar with, we had some huge fans in the office and I am a huge fan myself, so we jumped at the opportunity.

MB: When will volume 6 come out?

KH: September 2009

MB: Will it be different from the previous volumes?

KH: We’ll mimic the original design, the same way we do with Japanese books. I don’t remember if the original Japanese tankoubon had color pages, but if it does, we will have them too.

MB: Who will be the translator?

KH: Amy Forsythe. She did one of the earlier volumes, 1 or 2.

MB: Will you be publishing the subsequent volumes?

KH: Yes.

MB: And the previous volumes?

KH: I believe those rights are reverting, and I will talk to someone at ADV about possibly acquiring their materials. If we do not acquire it that way we will handle our own translation. Our primary concern initially was feeding the interest in getting the successive volumes out. Now that is done, we can discuss picking up the previous volumes.

MB: What’s special about Yotsuba&!?

KH: It’s very funny, the main character is unique, it’s a unique storyline, and the humor of it is sort of contagious, so I can’t say anything that reviewers or fans don’t already know.

MB: Will you run chapters from Yotsuba&! in Yen+ magazine?

KH: No.

The MangaBlog Interview: Glenn Kardy

“We’re a niche within a niche.”

That’s how publisher Glenn Kardy describes his company, Japanime, publisher of the Kana de Manga and Kanji de Manga language books and the Manga University how-to-draw series. Up till now, Japanime’s niche has been instruction, but this year the company is varying its line quite a bit, bringing fiction, gift books, and a new type of guidebook into the mix.

Japanime is based in Japan, with office space in a converted restaurant near Tokyo where Kardy sometimes holds meetings sitting in a tatami room. From there, he and his team produce books designed by Japanese artists to appeal to an American audience. Their newest offering, Moe USA, is a twist on global manga: An Original English Language manga by a Japanese artist.

I spoke to Kardy recently about Japanime’s new direction.

MangaBlog: How did you get started in this business?

Glenn Kardy: I was never a big manga fan until I came to Japan, about 12 years ago. The first thing that struck my interest was the type of manga that teach people different things. In Japan, we’ve got manga to teach people how to quit smoking, there are manga for expectant mothers to teach them how to prepare for the birth of a child, there are all kinds of educational manga—science, math, history. That’s what really interested me, the type of manga that can teach.

As I looked at properties to license, I came across the How to Draw Manga series. We started purchasing the Japanese language editions from the publisher and reselling them to customers in North America. Even though those books were only in Japanese, we were getting good sales from that, so I talked to the publisher about licensing them in English. We started with four volumes and went up to 10 before we moved on to other products.

MB: Some people have criticized manga-based Japanese language books as ineffective. What would you say to that?

GK: I will be honest and tell you I haven’t seen the criticism you cite. We’re always interested in hearing what those who are instructively critical, as well as critical in general of the products, have to say. My response would be how else are you going to get young people to try to learn something new unless you do it in a format that they are interested in and have fun with? Unfortunately, learning by rote is boring, and that’s how a lot of language books approach it. Just the fact that kids are reading translated manga shows they are reading. That’s a wonderful thing. If they want to explore other subjects, language being one, then I don’t really see what the problem is.

MB: Who is your target audience for the language books?

GK: I certainly would love it if parents bought these books for their eight-year-olds or even six-year-olds, but for a young person to study on their own they would need to be 10 years old. Otherwise the books would be a bit confusing.

MB: Where do you find your artists?

GK: All the artists are Japanese, except for one. A couple of them we have sought out, a couple have found us because they became familiar with our educational materials and like what we are doing.

MB: Tell me about Moe USA.

GK: Moe USA is about two American teenage girls who are in Akibahara, taking pictures of cosplayers. They go into a cosplay shop and they try on the costumes and they are overwhelmed by the quality, but when they bring them to the cashier, they realize they can’t afford them. So one of the girls gets the bright idea that they will get jobs in a maid café so they can buy the costumes.

I think this is one of the first OEL manga that is done by a Japanese artist. We are in Japan, and I think that it’s important that we use Japanese artists.

MB: What about Manga Moods and 50 Things We Love About Japan? They don’t look like anything else in the manga world.

GK: If you go into any bookstore, they will have either a spinner rack near the counter or an end cap filled with tiny little books on all these different subjects—there are a zillion about cats, dogs, daisies, pictures of lighthouses, anything you can photograph. What we want to do is create manga gift books. It’s a hardcover, it’s a keepsake, and it’s a no-brainer purchase for the customer who doesn’t know anything about the series but wants to get something for a nephew, a niece, a grandchild. And a manga fan could pick it up for another fan as a gift.

Manga Moods may look like it’s for girls, but at Anime Expo we had a lot of guys buying it. The artist is female, and females don’t often work in the moe style, but it is a moe style.

MB: A lot of people here think the moe stuff is kind of creepy.

GK: It may have a creepy vibe in the States, yet the word otaku doesn’t. In Japan, most people would much prefer to talk about moe. A girl would be more inclined to refer to herself as moe than a guy would be to say he’s otaku.

The moe stuff that is getting into the States is getting in more as underground stuff. Manga Moods is, can we say, wholesome moe. It’s cute. That’s what moe is, it’s an ultra cute, an unbelievably cute look.

MB: What else do you have in the works?

GK: Harvey and Etsuko’s Manga Guide to Japan. It’s kind of your typical city mouse/country mouse story, but in this case it’s Manhattan mouse visits Japan and meets a Japanese neko girl. The mouse from Manhattan is a cartoon character, and he’s frustrated that he’s not getting good gigs because his cartoonist is too busy drawing manga these days. The neko girl will introduce Harvey to one of Japan’s leading manga artists, and that manga artist can turn him into a star all over again, but in order to meet this manga artist he has to pass this test about Japan.

This is a collaboration between two artists, Charles Danziger and Mimei Sakamoto. Charles has written about Japan, but he is a high powered Manhattan art attorney. His passion is drawing; he has done some things for Nickelodeon. Harvey and Etsuko will be bundled with a guide book to Japan. It’s kind of a guerrilla style approach to doing manga: You have a mix of Charles’s simple, very nice line drawings and Mimei’s very elaborate manga illustration. It’s going to challenge the way readers look at manga and the way they look at American comics as well.

MB: Would you consider publishing these books in Japanese?

GK: If the interest is there, we definitely want to do it. We really thought about these two titles, Moe USA and Harvey and Etsuko’s Guide, and their potential beyond the North American market. Mimei Sakamoto is well known in Japan—she has a fan base that will want to buy the book even in English. If we see a large enough demand, we would do that in Japanese. The question is, do the Japanese want to read about Japan? Some do, some don’t. If it’s done from an American perspective, they do more than if it’s from a Japanese perspective.

MB: I’m curious about the manga cookbook. Will it focus on the food you see in manga?

GK: The original idea was to take the foods you see in manga and show people how to make them. Kids seeing Japanese translated manga see a rice ball and they say “What the heck is that?” and they can’t find a recipe. What we needed to do was come up with recipes kids could make without burning themselves with the oil or chopping off their fingers. We wanted to make things kids could find in manga, that they want to eat, and that they could make. The main thing was to be kid-friendly, and it was very extensively kitchen-tested. We hope that parents will get involved. Hopefully it’s something they will do together. It’s going to be a fun book, an after-school book.

MB: What’s next for Japanime?

GK: We’re kind of exploring the market. Something that I don’t foresee us doing, just because too many companies are doing it very well, is going out and licensing hot manga properties. We are looking at other things that can be done. To me what is important is that they are wholesome, educational—even Moe USA has some education in it, Manga Moods has a language lesson, 50 Things shows the overseas reader some things they already know about Japan but other things they might not know. We want even the kind of person who feels that they know a whole lot about Japan to flip through the pages of the book and say “I didn’t know this.”

MangaBlog special: Interview with Mark Crilley

Back in July, I interviewed Mark Crilley, the creator of Akiko and, more recently, the four-volume graphic novel series Miki Falls, for this PWCW article. Mark was so interesting that I really wanted to run the interview in full—so here it is.

UPDATE: I finally got the pictures in at a reasonable size. Enjoy!

Miki Falls Spring coverMangaBlog: What is Miki Falls about?

Mark Crilley: There’s a lot of different things going on in it. It actually originated with me thinking about the Grim Reaper. There are all these literary conventions—the Grim Reaper coming to your door and saying “The hour has arrived.” I drilled down to the basic concept: What if some aspect of human life was controlled and not spontaneous? I didn’t want to talk about death—what if love has died?

I thought that rather than introducing that at the outset of the story, I would have a main character who was not clued in and would have to uncover this world bit by bit. Once you get into that, there is a theme, and this may be an American theme, the primacy of the individual, going against all the odds and trusting her own instincts.

In the third book, there is also a theme of life decisions. In a lot of stories there are explosions and laser beams. In this book it’s the decisions that become the big climactic thing. Those are the sort of explosive moments in our lives, even if they don’t look that way. No one can see it because the decision process is going on in your head.

Miki Falls Summer p 67MB: One of the things I noticed right away about the book was the panel style. You use a lot of cinematic techniques, such as close-ups and cutting back and forth. Where does that come from?

MC: Personally the thing I am most excited about is the layouts and the nuts and bolts, things that perhaps the casual reader is not aware of—they shouldn’t be aware of it, they should be pulled into the story. But as a comic storytelling geek, I have been amazed at how I have been able to reinvent my own approach to comic book storytelling.

It comes after a series, Akiko, that ran for 53 issues with virtually no layouts of the type you see in Miki Falls. It started with Japanese manga and seeing the way that they would break the figure out of the panel so that you could see the whole figure from head to toe and sort of unleash them from the panel and almost dominate the page. I started to incorporate that, and as I got into that it made me think that there are so many possibilities for panel shapes, panel-less pages, splitting them in two.

I’m so glad you used the word cinematic. So much of it is meant to be a like a good film. I suppose you could make an argument for it being equally inspired by American film as Japanese manga, because a lot of the moments are very cinematic.

MB: Which films in particular?

MC: My first series, Akiko, was inspired very much by Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz. I found that combining those two allowed me to spin an endless variety of stories.

As for specific filmmakers or films that influence this, I’m afraid I can’t pin it down to one. One filmmaking storytelling style that has influenced me a lot is Pixar and all the great Pixar films. There is a sense of never just setting it out there in the obvious way. When they set up a scene, if there is a more interesting way of doing it, they find that way. I was constantly, with the panels and the angles, [looking for] what is the most interesting, cinematic way that I can present this.

MB: How did you come up with that? Did you start with a script and figure out the art around it?

MC: The ideal goal I believe with comic book writing is to have the words and the pictures slowly rise up together. So I will start with a rough dialogue, just written on a scrap of paper. Then I will do a rough layout page of the sequence. I tend to work on three or four pages at a time, one sequence at a time, rather than writing the whole book in prose. As I do the rough layout and I start to incorporate the words, I find the words have to change to fit the layout I came up with. Then I find you have to tweak the pictures again to accommodate the words.

The preparatory work I did with this series far exceeds anything I did for any other project. Especially with the first 2½ books, a lot of the rough pages are insanely detailed and polished and fully toned. I certainly had never taken that much time before. The prep work was key, and I don’t think I could have told this story without having really experimented, trying different takes.

MB: So you were fine-tuning the script and the art at the same time?

MC: Yes. Jeff Smith has always argued in favor of whenever possible having the person who wrote it be the person who illustrated it. You would have to have two people in very close harmony to simulate that. If you are able to draw and write, you are gong to have a cohesive whole. I can’t speak for other comic book creators, but I am moving back and forth between words and pictures constantly.

One thing that really surprised me was learning about word balloon placement. Talk about a dull sounding nuts and bolts aspect, but I just became slightly obsessed with not allowing the reader the opportunity to ever become confused about which word balloon or which panel comes next. I wanted there to be an almost intuitive stream of word balloons that guided you through the page and you never would be yanked out of the story to wonder which panel is next.

MB: The way your story is told is not really a manga style; it’s mostly Miki’s internal monologue. How did you get into the head of a 17-year-old girl?

MC: Akiko was a fourth grade girl, so this is the second time I am doing this. It may be the boring answer, but I do believe on a certain level there are certain human commonalities that transcend men and women, and all I had to do was go back to my own memories of being a teenager and the incredible importance of all this stuff.

The scene where they are on the rooftop and he is breaking it off with her—boy or girl, there is absolutely nothing more heart-wrenching than having someone push you out of their life.

I want to tip my hat briefly to my editor, Susan Rich, who did pull me back a couple of times. There was one early draft of the first book where I had the girls sitting around the table, doing girly talk, about Hiro, the new boy. I think the original draft was to have this one girl say “Please let him join the gardening club! We are so in need of a hot guy in the gardening club,” and another says “Don’t waste your breath, hotties aren’t into gardening. It goes against the laws of nature.” Susan said, “Mark, you’re overdoing it.” It is helpful to have a woman and a great editor guiding me through the process.

Miki Falls Autumn p 37MB: Let’s talk about the structure of Miki Falls, and why you decided to keep it to four volumes.

MC: First of all, the Japanese love of the seasons is just key to understanding their whole culture, and once I decided to set the story in Japan, and incidentally the story could have been set anywhere really, I did want to do a kind of love letter to Japan with this project. I lived there for two years and my wife is Japanese. That was the key that unlocked the project in a way. I had the concept about the Deliverers, but I wasn’t excited about the idea yet. It was when I thought “Oh, hey, how about if I make this a manga project, it can be my love letter to Japan and try to capture all the things I love about Japan in one story,” and I suddenly was filled with energy. Once I had the Japan angle, then the seasonal structure occurred to me early on, and then it was a matter of seeing that spring was the season to start with, that things would get darker in autumn and darkest of all in winter. Once that occurred to me, it was like not only does it dovetail nicely with Japanese culture, but there’s also a natural story arc of going from innocence to the entanglements of summer when things warm up and get more complicated, then the story begins to get darker and colder and things appear at least to be spiraling toward death almost, at least the death of love. I don’t want to give anything away—everything hangs in the balance in the fourth book and things get quite wintry indeed.

I’m already thinking of my next project. I think it could be something I revisit in the future but there certainly won’t be book five hot on the heels. I proposed it as this four-book series, and one reviewer mentioned that he was pleased to know that this was going to be a story with a good solid beginning, middle, and end, and it wasn’t going to be strung out indefinitely.

MB: The art in Miki Falls is very unusual. How did you arrive at this style?

MC: As soon as I decided to do this as my manga project, I went on a crash course, a self-taught crusade to teach myself how to draw in this style. I went to my local bookstore and started pulling out volume after volume and found the volumes that appealed to me and started doing very direct copies and studies. When I started doing the pitch, and I started to head down the road of very obviously manga type style, my agent actually said “Mark, are you sure, do you want to lose your own approach so fully and disguise yourself so fully as a manga artist?” And I said, “Yeah, she’s right, why not make this a sort of hybrid that joins my sensibilities about art with my personal favorite aspects of manga art?” I think it’s fairly straightforward. This is not traditional manga, I’m not trying to do that, so please don’t judge it on that. It’s something new. I’ve always been, and this goes back to the cinematic aspect, very much in love with lighting and shadow and atmosphere and very much feeling like you’re really there. It’s a pencil-Photoshop combination process I have come up with that hopefully gives a sense of lighting, a sense of depth, a sense of subtlety and shadow that I would not have got with just pen and ink.

I have to say that I have always been a little bit puzzled as to why in American comics and probably Japanese comics as well we have created this idea of penciling and inking, and penciling is this prep thing that must be totally obliterated to make way for inking. When I studied art, I was told “Don’t erase all those pencil lines, that’s part of the beauty of drawing, you’re going to kill the life of your illustration if you do.” When you study art, when you study Rembrandt, Degas, they keep all the preparatory pencil [drawings], then when you come to comics, you’re supposed to lose it.

I use a black Prismacolor pencil to simulate the harder, darker ink lines. If you do just rough looking pencils, it would start looking a little loosy goosey. I felt I needed at least some harder, darker lines to hold it all, and I must say that the Photoshop tones are really a huge part of the effects that I am getting. When people describe it as “Crilley’s pencil illustrations,” that’s almost as if you saw a pen and ink and watercolor illustration and called it pen ane ink. The Photoshop effects I’m adding are a huge part of the final illustration.

MB: What sort of promotion are you doing for the book?

MC: The promotions have been fairly minimal up till now. I get the feeling they want to get the books out there, all four of them, and at that point Harper may want to do something. I am always in full throttle promotion modem and beyond that, I love to visit schools and libraries. Once we get into the fall I will be back in the schools and libraries doing my presentation, which is sort of a live drawing demo, and giving kids and aspiring writers tips about storytelling and creating characters. That is something I am always doing that has a promotional aspect to it.

MB: Where do you feel the book is doing well?

MC: The libraries have really gotten behind it. I think the most enthusiastic supporters have been libraries. One of the things I was thinking about when I came up with this series was I wanted to do a manga project that librarians, teachers, parents could grab onto and say “This is safe for all age groups.” A lot of the Japanese manga that really look like they are for kids have some pretty racy stuff in them. Akiko, my previous series, came into an American comic book scene that was dominated by grim and violent stuff that seems so determined to prove that comics are not just for kids that they want to go to the opposite extreme. There is no reason why you can’t produce good all-ages comics. No one says “What age group is Calvin and Hobbes for?” it’s for everybody. Star Wars too. You don’t need coarse language, you don’t need adult scenes to make a story that adults can enjoy along with teenagers—even tweens, they say ages 12 and up. I hope you would agree that even an 11 or 12 year old wouldn’t find anything too terrible there. I thought certainly there was a need for a manga that can be handed off to younger kids without any fear whatsoever, and that’s what I set out to do at least on one level.

MB: Could you have done this comic ten years ago? Would the market have accepted it?

MC: I’ll come clean: I went into my local bookstore, and there were two shelves for the entire history of American comics and 12 shelves for manga. Whenever kids come up to me and said “Look at this drawing I made,” nine times out of ten it is in the manga style. For this generation, comics is manga. This is the language of this generation, and I’d better learn how to speak this language or I’ll never reach them.

Also just in terms of the skill level, I held myself to a much higher standard in terms of the human anatomy and the different things that I had always been winging it on. On this project, I said “No more of that. If you’re going to draw something, you look at what it really looks like. You try to do it justice.” And so that is definitely a sort of seriousness of purpose that I don’t think I had ten years ago. Not to say the comics I was doing ten years ago weren’t good; a lot of people I’m sure prefer them to Miki Falls. It depends on what their temperament is. But so much of this project has been informed by what I’ve gone through in the past ten years.

When I first did comics, I was single and I was in Japan, but I was not profoundly connected to Japan. it was after getting married, my wife being Japanese, that I got really connected to Japan in a very profound way. So this project is informed by that in a way that it wouldn’t have been even after we got married, by years of living in Japan and being accepted by her family, who were very welcoming.

MB: I noticed a lot of Japanese cultural references.

MC: That’s a huge part of this project for me. I started off by thinking I’m going to do my tribute to Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro, a lot of it was like that, but I got halfway through and I said why pay tribute to Miyazaki, why not pay tribute to what Miyazaki is paying tribute to, this beautiful, idyllic Japan? So I set out during trips to Japan with my sketchbook and went out in the winding streets and made drawings of these little shrines and such with the express purpose of getting them into Miki Falls.

In my pitch, I said, “This is going to be an idealized Japan that maybe doesn’t even exist any more. Let’s get away from the utilitarian and show the beautiful stuff.”

MB: You’re with HarperCollins, which is not a traditional manga publisher. Why is that?

MC: I’d love to claim that I targeted them, but really what it came down to was my agent, Marilee Heifetz, hand picking eight different publishers that she thought would be most suitable, and there was an amazing, exciting morning two or so years ago when five of the eight all wanted it, and they all made offers. And Susan Rich, I’ll never forget, began her e-mail by saying “I have fallen for Miki Falls,” it went on from there, showing so clearly how she just totally got it. And their offer was incredibly generous. Trying to guess, from their point of view, I expect they were looking to get into the manga market and I just came along and they said “This is what we want.”

All art ©2007 Mark Crilley.

Creator Q&A: Bettina Kurkoski

Bettina Kurkoski is an artist who really loves her art—and her cats. Bettina is the creator of My Cat Loki, and she also does commissions and other art through her own company, Dreamworld Studio. I talked to her at Anime Boston about working with Tokyopop and the evolution of My Cat Loki.

Bettina grew up reading American comics like X-Men, then got a degree in illustration from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She was a winner in the second Rising Stars of Manga competition for her sci-fi fantasy story, “Axis Lumen.” My Cat Loki is her first published series; volume 1 came out in July 2006.

MangaBlog: Are you working on volume 2 of My Cat Loki?

Bettina Kurkoski: I finished it at the end of March, and I’m just waiting for my editor to finish editing it. It should be out this summer.

MB: Some of the Tokyopop artists find the three-volume format challenging. How is it working for you?

Bettina Most of my stories that I had come up with ahead of time were epic type things. Trying to find a simple enough story to fit in the three volumes was a challenge. My Cat Loki was a simple story, so it was really easy to fit it into the three-volume format.

MB: When and how did you discover manga?

Bettina: I didn’t discover manga until after I discovered anime. I don’t think I started reading manga until Tokyopop started releasing it in Borders, so it was more mainstream releases. I actually unknowingly grew up watching anime in the 80s, with shows like Voltron, Force 5, like that. I didn’t know it was anime until later. In the 90s I discovered Akira. I was using it as a reference for an illustration studio class in college for a short story I was creating. That got me back into it.

MB: How did you come up with the idea for My Cat Loki?

Bettina: The original idea for the book was totally different from what it ended up being. It all started with a greeting card that we were selling in the frame shop I worked at. It was a picture of a Newfoundland with a gray cat flopped on his head. I loved it and wanted to find out the name of the cat, so I flipped it over and it was titled “My Cat Loki.” I thought that was a great title for a book. Loki started out as a were-cat—he did physically change from a cat to a cat-boy. He was the outcast of his family of cats. He was the only one in the litter who was a were-cat, the others were cat-cats, and they abandoned him because he was different from everybody else. Ameya was not as absent minded and silly as he is now. Ameya came along and took him in and was going to try to help him find his family. Loki was actually much older and legal age for doing some shonen-ai, so it actually was going to be a shonen-ai title. I changed it when I decided to dedicate the book to my own cat, who died when he was 21. It drastically changed form then, and I had a lot of help from my editor on really defining the concept and helping me make a more concrete storyline than what I had come up with after the original concept.

MB: How do you like working with Tokyopop?

Bettina: I couldn’t ask for a better editor than Lillian [Diaz-Pryzbyl]. She was coming to Anime Boston 2005 so I got together my information for her. We hit it off really well right away when we were e-mailing back and forth, talking about cats, and we both found out we had a cat by the same name: Jenny-Any-dots. It’s from Cats, the musical. It was like, “Oh my God, this project is meant to be!” We met in one of cafes in Plymouth and sat there and hashed it out, and we’ve been working ever since.

MB: Is it a collaborative process?

Bettina: I know I came up with a lot of information, little bits and pieces here and there, and she really helped to solidify it more than anything, because she knew where I was coming from, the death of a cat she absolutely loved, she definitely knew where I wanted to go with the book, which was a great asset in the creating it and making it so.

I have heard a lot of horror stories about what other creators have said, but I have had a really great relationship with Tokyopop. There are the occasional times that I’ll be a little pissed at something silly, but they have been really good with me.

MB: Are you thinking about your next story?

Bettina: I have discussed it with a few friends. It was one of those things where I said I have to create a new character, and the idea popped up in my mind. It’s solidifying more and more, which is really good.

Interview: Stephen Robson, Fanfare/Ponent Mon

The British publisher Fanfare/Ponent Mon has built a reputation in the U.S. for publishing the greatest manga you’ve never seen. Their books are well regarded but hard to find in bookstores, so when Publisher’s Weekly’s Kai-Ming Cha picked the Fanfare title The Building Opposite as the best manga of 2006, the reaction from the blogosphere was a resounding “Huh?”

Having been frustrated myself by hearing so many great things about books I could never seem to find, I went directly to the source: Stephen Robson, who pretty much is Fanfare. In a lengthy transatlantic chat via phone and e-mail a few weeks before NYCC, Stephen explained the difference between Fanfare and Ponent Mon, why his books are so expensive, and what it’s like being on the ground floor of the nouvelle manga revolution.

Fanfare is really a labor of love for Robson, who works with a part-time editor and a handful of freelancers. On the other side of the slash is Ponent Mon, a Spanish publisher run by his friend Amiram Reuveni. “We are totally separate,” Robson said. “We are just friends who work closely together.” They met when Reuveni was publishing posters by French and Japanese artists: “He was doing Akira posters before anybody in Europe had heard of Akira, purely as art posters,” Robson said.

Robson had discovered French BDs while bumming around Europe in the 1970s, after graduating from college (fun fact: his degree is in mathematics). A few years ago, Reuveni discovered the work of Nouvelle Manga pioneer Frederic Boilet and suggested that Robson publish the English editions of his work while Ponent Mon handled the Spanish versions. “I said, ‘I’ll give it twelve months and 12,000 euros,’” said Robson, who began working on the books in earnest in January 2004. Boilet introduced the pair to other artists in his circle, and the list began to grow. “If you look at our list, it’s French and Japanese, not just manga,” Robson said. “It’s good storytelling that attracts us with clarity of image.”

Robson has freelancers translate books from Japanese to British English, and then he edits the book before sending it to another freelancer to be Americanized. If a book is originally in French, he may translate it himself; his current project is Tokyo Is My Garden, by Boilet and Benoit Peeters. Even if a book is originally Japanese, Robson may pick up the French edition to check the translation. Recently he hired a part-time editor, which he hopes will speed up production.

Fanfare’s books are distributed to comics stores by Diamond, but Robson initially had trouble getting a bookstore distributor interested in his small catalog. “We didn’t have enough of a backlist, or a forward list, because we were taking a book at a time,” Robson said. “I had to get one book out so I would have enough to buy rights for the second book.” Last year, he signed with Biblio, but shipping costs remain a stumbling block. The books are printed in Spain, and because his print runs are small, Robson has to wait until he has two or three titles in print to make it economical to ship the books to the US.

And that’s why nobody could find The Building Opposite in a bookstore. “The Building Opposite came out through Diamond last summer,” Robson said, so it was available in comics stores. “But I didn’t have another book to ship with it. It is leaving Spain together with The Times of Botchan 3 and the revised version of Yukiko’s Spinach, which has never seen the light of day in Borders because I didn’t have enough of them.”

Robson is grateful for the support he has gotten from the direct market, and he says his books will probably continue to arrive in comics stores first, but he’s getting the hang of book distribution—and he is optimistic that his print runs will increase. “If I could send 2,000 to Biblio and be sure they would sell, I’d ship book by book, but I’m a small publisher,” he said. “I can’t afford to ship pallets of books that are costing me money sitting there.”

This caution is born of sad experience. In the 1980s and 1990s, Robson worked with a company that produced high-quality French BD albums. “Sad to say, I remaindered every single one of them,” he said. “It’s cruel and it’s awful, but they just do not appeal.” Now that he’s on his own, he can’t take that chance. “We’re putting these books together with a lot of love, a lot of care, but also a lot of caution,” Robson said. “One bad flop at the moment, I go ‘Oh great, print 5,000’ and it doesn’t work, and there won’t be a Fanfare/Ponent Mon after that. There has to be a balance between getting it out to consumers and keeping the ship on an even keel.”

Robson starts small, with first printings of 1,500 to 2,000. “It’s difficult to make a pot of gold our of those sort of print runs,” he said, “but it needs that nurturing. To me it’s worth it.” And his efforts are starting to pay off: two of his early titles, Yukiko’s Spinach and Jiro Taniguchi’s The Walking Man, are going back for second printings, and he is beginning to think about increasing his initial runs.

Shipping costs are one reason for the high price tag on Fanfare books, which typically retail for $21.99. Quality is another: the paper is noticeably better than most manga, the print quality is better, the trim size is larger, and the covers are heavier stock. “We’ve got a quality product, we wanted to put it in quality packaging,” said Robson. “I didn’t see any point in putting Japan in a [flimsy] cover.” The third factor is the weakness of the dollar against the euro, which has caused the prices to rise just to keep pace.

Fanfare’s best known book is Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators, a project Robson was in on from close to the beginning. “Japan was instigated by [the publisher] Casterman in France and the Japanese publisher, but they invited various other language publishers in on the project so we were there from day one when it was more or less a Frederic Boilet/Casterman idea,” he said. Usually he prefers to publish books that are already completed, however. “I think you get better work if you let the artist do what they want to do,” he said. “We are not yet in the position to pay an artist for a year while they do a book for us.”

This warm reception is building his confidence for the future as well. “We are stepping up our purchases,” he said. “We’ve pre-purchased rights on a number of titles.” These will include Korea by 12 Creators, a followup to Japan, and Hideo Azuma’s Disappearance Diary. Robson plans to publish 6 to 8 titles in 2007, about double his previous rate.

Robson’s comics career began in 1979, after he bumped into an old friend who happened to be one of the founding partners of Forbidden Planet. “It took me six months to persuade him he needed someone to help him on the wholesale end and another six months to persuade him it was me he needed,” Robson said. One of his first assignments drew on his carpentry rather than his marketing skills: “I was the first person to build a back issue comics box in wood for Forbidden Planet.”

When Forbidden Planet started Titan Books, Robson was the first sales manager. “I’m a good organizer,” he said, “and it was much more fun selling comics and science fiction than baked beans.” Around 1996 Diamond took over the company, and Robson didn’t last long. “I’m not a good corporate American,” he said. So in 1997 he left and formed his own company, Fanfare. Using his contacts from 20 years in the business, he became a middleman between small producers and large companies such as Diamond.

Now Robson runs a warehouse and ships books and toys for four different companies. “It’s still only me and my good lady that is the company,” he says. “Now and again if I have a big container coming in I have a few lads from the village that help me, but on a day to day basis it’s still only her and me who do the whole thing.” The posters, figures, and T-shirts he sells, “the tits and the bums,” as he puts it, pay the rent and allow him to focus on the manga. “It’s the one that will still exist in my dotage,” he said. “It’s what I wanted to do, but publishing drinks money so you have to have something there in order to finance it in its early days.” Robson envisions himself at in his old age, sitting in his garden, sipping soup through a straw, and dictating edits to an assistant.

“When I edit a book I do get completely lost in the pulse of the story and get as close as I can to the feeling the creator must have had,” Robson said. “Some have been difficult and serious, others light and airy. But they have all been a pleasure to be proud of.”