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Manga's marvelous year


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POSTED: Sunday, December 27, 2009

This year was a fun year for manga.

I admit I might be a bit biased in that assessment. This was, after all, also the year I finished “;The Rough Guide to Manga”; (published by Rough Guides, $18.99 suggested retail, on the verge of selling out on Amazon in five different countries ... and with Christmas over, may I now say that it'll make a great gift in the new year). After two years of researching, reading and writing about manga in most of my free hours away from work, it would only be natural for me to look at the manga industry with an extra bit of enthusiasm.

But it's difficult for me to not feel excited about what's going on in the manga industry. One thing I learned about while writing the book was how the industry works, in particular the major players and trends behind the manga we get to read. And many of those players have found a comfortable niche as we head into 2010.

It's pretty much a foregone conclusion that Viz is the market leader in English-translated manga, just as it's a foregone conclusion that Funimation leads the anime market. With Viz in control of the top shonen (boys') manga in the battling teen ninja epic “;Naruto,”; the top shojo (girls') manga in the pretty-boy vampire tale “;Vampire Knight,”; critically acclaimed titles like Naoki Urasawa's “;20th Century Boys”; and “;Pluto”; and the gourmet drama of “;Oishinbo,”; and a whole range of titles for all ages, it's easy for it to lay claim to the industry crown.

Unlike the anime industry, though, the manga industry has several viable contenders holding their own. Chief among them is Yen Press, which has quickly become a fan favorite by picking up old favorites (including former ADV properties “;Yotsuba&!,”; about an inquisitive 5-year-old girl and her daily lessons in life, and “;Azumanga Daioh,”; a slice-of-life story about a group of friends in high school), contemporary hits (like the “;Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”; and “;Higurashi: When They Cry”; manga, picking up on the popularity of the anime) and hot original English-language manga properties and creators (a manga based on James Patterson's “;Maximum Ride”; series; “;Nightschool”; by Svetlana Chmakova, the creator behind Tokyopop's popular “;Dramacon”;; and an upcoming “;Twilight”; manga).

Del Rey added more series to its expanding catalog, with some of the surprising highlights including “;Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture,”; the story of a college student who can see bacteria as cute little chattering organisms, and “;Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei,”; the story of a suicidal teacher and his eclectic collection of students that is overflowing with Japanese cultural references. CMX (DC Comics' manga imprint), Digital Manga Publishing and Vertical have all become fluent in Twitter, often communicating directly with fans on the microblogging Web site. Dark Horse kept on plugging away, its releases of longtime favorites “;Blade of the Immortal”; and “;Oh My Goddess!”; leading the way.

And then there's Tokyopop, a publisher that has been more resilient than I expected. This is the same company that saw Kodansha withdraw the rights to series like the rock-music epic “;Beck”; and the racing-culture-infused “;Initial D”; this year. Tokyopop's flagship series, “;Fruits Basket,”; also came to an end in June. But the publisher also opened up a new avenue of communicating with fans this year—the “;Tokyopop Insider”; live Web broadcasts, in which representatives make new-product announcements and take questions from fans. I commend them for that and for gradually bringing back some of the series that went on hiatus in 2008—the woefully underbought “;Suppli”; being among those series, scheduled to return sometime next year.

That's not to say that everything is like a happy scene straight from shojo manga, with sparkly, flowery backgrounds and cherry blossom petals fluttering in every direction. The much-anticipated debut of Kodansha Comics in the U.S. market fell flat, its new editions of “;Akira”; and “;Ghost in the Shell”; merely rehashed (and, in the case of “;Ghost in the Shell,”; re-censored) editions of what Dark Horse released years ago.

At least Kodansha still exists, though; when Central Park Media and ADV collapsed in the anime industry, they took their long-in-limbo manga lines with them. I also worry about the long-term futures of Infinity Studios, whose Web site, already in a state of neglect when “;The Rough Guide to Manga”; went to press, wasn't working when I checked it on Thursday; DrMaster Publications, whose Web site hasn't been updated since 2008; and Aurora Publishing and its Luv Luv Press (for mature readers) and Deux Press (for fans of yaoi, or boys' love, manga) imprints, which hasn't done much this year aside from offering heavy discounts on its existing catalog of titles.

Visit “;Otaku Ohana”; at blogs.starbulletin.com/otakuohana for a look at some of the year's highlights in online manga.