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One More For Comics
By Oliver Chin
Reprinted with permission by the author
Over the past decade, the growing roster of manga publishers has mirrored the increased mainstream success of the comics genre. Today the market adoption has been so complete that old and new American companies liberally seed their lists with titles focused on Japanese themes and characters, riffing on renegade samurai and rampaging robots.
A sign of the times, comes the latest entrant to the field, ComicsOne. Based in Fremont, California, it curiously chose to bypass the traditional "single issue" comics publishing model, first by diving straight into producing PC based comics, and then by transitioning into a wide line of trade paperbacks.
Web First, Print Second
Founded in December 1999 by Robin Kuo, a native of Taiwan, ComicsOne was financed by InveStar Capital. Opening its website for business a year later, the company intended to provide manga in electronic format, optimized for Adobe's ebook reader. However, given the slow consumer adoption of this electronic format, ComicsOne switched to generating their titles the old fashioned way, and now have over 50 volumes in print,
Offering a variety of genres, they have manufactured graphic novels in a smaller format, closer to the size of the Japanese editions (accompanied by dust jackets), while underpricing the competition with 200 page volumes running for $9.95, and 300 pagers for $11.95. Marketing Manager Nicole Curry explained the reasoning behind releasing graphic novels so rapidly, "Many of our titles you need to read at least 100 pages to be able to get into and understand the story. Our titles are not very well known in the US so we didn't want consumers to give up after only reading a single issue."
Reader response has been positive so far, as ComicsOne continues to test the capacity of the market to absorb an ever-widening array of titles. Here is a sample of some of what they are serving:
From the creators of Crying Freeman come another surreal spy series. An Olympic sprinter from MIT is loving life until he finds out that he may be the son of Gilgamesh, a mythological warrior long since dead! With his universe turned upside down, Yu must track down the brother he never knew he had. Unfortunately Mikhail intends to use their family heritage for world domination. Is Yu hero enough to stop him?
Writer Kazuo Koike and artist Ryoichi Ikegami dish out a strange brew of over-the-top violence, sensuality, and international intrigue. Ikegami's hallmark photo-realism is in fine form. But for readers unfamiliar with this pair's previous work, scenes of sex and violence may get some getting used to, as well as the dizzying pace of circumnavigating time and space.
In a dangerous world where people are destined to mutate once reaching the age of 18, civilization has devolved into feudal fiefdoms controlled by superstitions and curses. However the elite can still afford bodyguards. "Guard maids" are instructed to protect and to serve (in more ways than one).
Undertaking a series of jobs, Sarai blazes her own path realizing that her clients and their circumstances are not always what they seem to be. Like his heroine, Masahiro Shibata wields a deft, cutting stroke and penchant for confrontation. However, in thw hentai tradition, he serves up a racy mix of soft-core voyeurism and hard-nosed action.
In a desert wasteland, the only thing that sustains a young nomad is his thirst for vengeance. Kazan is the last remaining member of the Red Sand. Now Kazan searches for the strange water demon who devastated Kazan's tribe. On his journey, he saves Fawna, a young maiden with mystical control of water who seeks the land of Goldene. Is she the key for him to avenge his family and find his true identity?
The creator of Devil Hunter Yohko, Gaku Miyao sketches a tale in the tradition of orphaned youths on lonely quests. Depicting a harsh environment, Miyao's weathered lines convey a diminutive protagonist who is dehydrated by the travails of life, but holds the promise of revitalizing himself through a heroic rite of passage.
With two movies in the past few years, Joan of Arc is a contemporary international heroine again. Now ready for the manga version? Turn back the clock to 1440. Locked in the Hundred Years War, France is embroiled in a internecine battle of succession. King Charles fights the rebellious forces that support his upstart son Louis, the Dauphin. Can the uncanny reincarnation of Joan ensure his hold on the crown? Inspired by visions of her famous predecessor, can "Emil" preserve her secret and her idealism, as she walks down the dangerous road between heroism and martyrdom?
Cast in pastel watercolors, this series embarks confidently on its own solitary crusade in the oft-ignored genre of historical drama. Yoshikazu Yasuhiko assiduously meshes fiction with fact, to create a tale that is not only believable but true to the spirit of the times. Despite conventional touches, Joan manages to entertain convincingly when many a film has not, and proves that faith in the character, not merely a character's faith, is the foundation of a successful tale.
Indeed, releasing so many titles at once is a calculated risk. Given the initial large investment in production, printing, and inventory, is the fan base large enough to support and reward this commitment? Can each title find and hold a fans' interest without the valuable experimentation and ongoing return on capital that single issues provide? If so, will readers reward the publisher by buying multiple volumes at a steady clip?
With this lineup, ComicsOne is not trying to bowl over the market with high profile blockbusters. But it is trying to carve out retail shelf-space with solid secondary titles, simultaneously in both the comics and book markets. But following a path proven by other publishers is not always as simple as it appears. Recently its book market distributor, the LPC group, filed for bankruptcy, thereby clouding the short term prospects of many peers such as Dark Horse, Image, CrossGen, TokyoPop, and Top Shelf Productions.
Despite this industry wide setback, ComicsOne, like its brethren, must rely on the core comics market for stability and growth. Given its name, this company wants to be on the starting team that retailers and readers can depend on.