Interview conducted and translated by Myrto Tselenti
Edited by Elias Katirtzigianoglou
Assistance: Costas Labropoulos
He is the author of the Eisner Nominated, MANGA: THE COMPLETE GUIDE, an amazing task that enlists reviews and provides info for more than 900 translated manga titles, as well as articles for the genres and the artists. Jason Thompson writes articles for OTAKU USA, works as a freelance editor for Viz and Del Rey and writes and illustrates his own webcomic, THE STIFF. He was the first American editor of the US version of SHONEN JUMP magazine (for many years), as well as for popular manga titles like DRAGONBALL, ONE PIECE and THE DRIFTING CLASSROOM.
Thompson talks about his "absolute guide to manga", his career choices, his experiences with the western manga industry and his thoughts on various manga related issues.
Hello Jason and thank you for giving us this interview. OK, first things first. How did you become interested in manga in the first place?
I was in high school in the early ‘90s, when one of my friends introduced me to manga. However, I didn’t really become a fan until I went to college and joined the anime club at UC San Diego. Some people I played RPGs with were in the club and they were big fans of manga. Through them, I discovered Rumiko Takahashi KIMAGURE ORANGE ROAD, HERE IS GREENWOOD, VIDEO GIRL AI, BATTLE ANGEL ALITA …my favorite genres were science fiction and romantic comedy. Later I discovered horror manga.
Battle Angel Alita
How did you grow from a fan to a professional in the manga industry?
I had just graduated from college with a major in English and I was planning to move to San Diego and self-publish my comic book, THE STIFF. However, I was lucky enough to find an ad for a position in Viz, at ANIMERICA magazine, and thanks -again- to a friend, I ended up applying for the job of the editor. Considering my limited experience, I was really lucky that I got the job…I think they may have been impressed by the fact that I was really sick when I went to the interview but, like a shonen manga character, I had the determination to show up anyway. Also, I had a sore throat so I couldn’t talk too much, which kept me from saying anything stupid. I’m half serious.
Would you share with us some of the most vivid memories from the western manga industry?
Viz was a great company to work at. There was a huge library of manga that I was just free to browse through. The best thing, though, was the people I worked with and learn from, people who were anime fans long before I was, like Trish Ledoux, Toshifumi Yoshida, Julie Davis and Carl Gustav Horn. It really was my home away from home, and Carl Horn, Urian Brown and I would frequently stay at the office until 10 or 11 pm – just writing, reading, working, talking about different anime and manga. Actually, I slept over at the office plenty of times, on the couch in the video room... the old Viz office was in a bad neighbourhood so it wasn’t a good idea to walk home at 1 am. It was a great place to work, and at that time I really felt like an manga evangelist, trying to get people interested in it, and also to find ways to make various manga series more popular in America.
Has the manga industry changed a lot since you first became involved?
Yes, it’s a much bigger industry than it used to be. The entire comics industry has changed, and manga has basically metamorphosed into a bookstore phenomenon and surpassed the American comics industry. From 1996 until recently, after all, the American comics market was dominated by a single distributor, Diamond Comics, and sales kept declining and declining due to the aftershocks of the American comics boom and bust in 1994-1995. For most of the time that I worked at Viz, manga was just a tiny subdivision of that market, published in comics pamphlet format at 32 pages a month, flipped left to right, struggling to survive, and sort of pretending to be “indy comics”--something it really wasn’t.
I do like indy comics, though -- I’m a comic artist myself, after all -- and I liked it when Viz was a smaller company. When the manga industry expanded so greatly around 2002-2003, I became the first editor of SHONEN JUMP magazine, but the business changed in some ways that I didn’t like. I liked having the manga published right-to-left and finally getting some of my favorite titles like ONE PIECE and JOJO’s BIZARRE ADVENTURE translated. But as a fan, I didn’t like having to censor manga in order to get wider distribution, for instance. But on the whole I’m happy about the massive growth in the manga industry; mainstream manga is a big business in Japan as well, and a healthy mainstream also means a healthy underground -- lots of cult titles, reprints of classic ’60 and ‘70s manga, yaoi and so on.
Jojo's Bizarre Adventure
Manga is at the moment one of the "big things" in the western comics market. Why do you think this happens?
I’d say there’s a couple of reasons. First, young people in the West have become gradually accustomed to manga styles through anime and Japanese video games, so there wasn’t as much of a stylistic obstacle as was 20 or even 10 years ago. Second, the American comic market had collapsed so badly by the late ‘90s that manga seemed to represent a really attractive, healthy and vibrant alternative. Third, in more general terms, mainstream manga has captured a niche which once belonged to young adult paperback novels. The more popular manga becomes, the more shelf space it gets in bookstores, and the more popular become aware of it... and so, for awhile at least, it becomes a feedback loop of increasing popularity.
What motivated you to write MANGA THE COMPLETE GUIDE? How long did it take to complete the whole task?
I had the original idea for the book back around 2000, sort of, when I wanted to write an encyclopedia of manga artists, sort of similar to the 2004 Taschen MANGA DESIGN art book by Julius Wiedemann and Masanao Amano. I pitched it to Viz, but they were scaling back their nonfiction line at the time. Dallas Middaugh moved to Del Rey and revived the idea, and in late 2005 he asked me to write it, this time as an encyclopaedia of manga titles, rather than being primarily artist-oriented. In the end, it was much easier to do it as a book about titles, because it’s easier to speak authoritatively about the manga itself, than about the manga artist. Particularly since it’s hard to find biographical information on a lot of manga artists.
I started writing MANGA THE COMPLETE GUIDE in February 2006, and I completed it in December 2006. Proof-reading and additional reviews kept me occupied until March or April of 2007. It was basically my full-time job for a year.
Manga: The Complete Guide
Could you claim that you have read every manga published in English? Where do you store your collection and how?
Actually, I’ve only read about 2/3 of all the titles available in English. I knew from the beginning that the book would be too big for me to read everything in time for my deadline, so I set aside several sections and had other people write them: all the pornographic manga, for example, and most of the manga based on anime and video games, since I don’t consider them as important as the original manga. Nowadays I try to read everything that comes out for my regular column in OTAKU USA magazine, except for a fraction of the yaoi manga…I like yaoi, but there’s so much of it coming out that I only read the titles that are interesting to me personally, like Hinako Takanaga and Fumi Yoshinaga, or are recommended by my friends, like LOVE PISTOLS.
My collection is stored in my apartment, in the living room, the kitchen and the hallway. I had to convert a lot of food shelves in the kitchen to manga storage.
Antique Bakery (Fumi Yoshinaga)
Talking about yaoi, why do you think it's so famous among the female readership?
The appeal of yaoi is partly the same as the appeal of all romance comics and romance manga -- it’s a genre which is very popular in print, but which was never associated with comics in the West. Even among male readers, romance is a popular manga genre -- I think that many manga otaku wouldn’t openly read romance novels, but in manga form, it has a certain nerdy coolness.
To talk specifically about yaoi, though, I think that same-sex romances represent a sort of fantasy to heterosexual readers. (And I think they’re mostly read by heterosexuals.) It’s something which is so outside their experience that they can project their fantasies onto it. First, of course, like men watching pseudo-lesbian pornography, they don’t have to look at any distracting people of their own gender. Second, they get to vicariously experience a relationship where “gender doesn’t get in the way.” The two parties are the same gender, so they don’t have to deal with any stereotypical male-female issues, drab “realistic” stuff like pregnancy and people expecting them to get married and so on. They don’t even have to deal with “realistic” homophobia, for the most part, since that would spoil the idealized world of yaoi. So yaoi is kind of like a blank slate upon which people can draw their fantasies. Ironically, of course, most yaoi ends up replicating standard heterosexual relationships -- male and female, top and bottom, seme and uke -- perhaps because this is what people are used to, or what most readers want on some level. On the other hand, since both characters are the same gender, there’s no one saying, “You’re a woman, you have to be the uke.” The reader can identify with the seme if they like.
The worst thing you could say about yaoi is that it sometimes reinforces gender stereotypes -- the idea being that these idealized men are sexual and appealing, whereas female sexuality is not worth thinking about, it’s something to be escaped from. Then again, yuri manga for men is problematic in the exact opposite way. In both cases, it’s hard to say whether it’s a way of getting around the sexism in Japanese culture, or a way of reinforcing this sexism (i.e. yaoi men are butch and aggressive, yuri women are soft and sweet, etc.). Certainly the large number of taboo romances and rape fantasies in yaoi are also troubling, considering that a lot of readers might be uncomfortable with the same material in a hetero context.
How do you feel about the prevalent opinion that the core of manga culture consists of schoolgirls, huge eyes, tentacles, magic powers, robots and speed lines?
Sadly, there are a lot of people who have a superficial knowledge of manga, just like there’s a lot of people who think American comics are all about superheroes. I remember playing DUNGEONS & DRAGONS with people who, when they found out I worked in the manga business, would tease me about it and call me a nerd.
What’s your reply to the opinion that manga comics are childish, and lack seriousness or depth?
I think this is a criticism made by people who come from an American or European art-comics perspective. Of course the most popular manga are formulaic genre stories, but so are the most popular movies, TV shows, and bestselling books. This is why manga is an economically successful medium; most manga tells crowd-pleasing stories. But the “high end” of manga -- the works of Kazuichi Hanawa, Kan Takahama, Jiro Taniguchi, Usamaru Furuya, a lot of classic works by creators like Osamu Tezuka -- is just as serious and artistic as the high end of American and European comics. In any case (although this may seem like undercutting my own argument) I don’t believe in any absolute wall between high and low culture... I enjoy a manga like Kazuo Umezu’s “THE DRIFTING CLASSROOM,” for instance, which on the one hand has a sort of philosophy and is incredibly well-crafted, and on the other hand is kind of confused at times, and is written for 12-year-olds.
The Drifting Classroom
What would you suggest as a good starting point for manga beginners and/or disbelievers?
That’s a tough question... that’s like asking “I’ve never read a book before, what book should I read?” I think the best way to approach manga is as a series of separate genres and works for different audiences. So if you like fantasy, or science fiction, or sports stories, I’d recommend a manga in one of those genres. Or if you like adult relationship stories, I might recommend Fumi Yoshinaga or Moyoco Anno. I wrote a list of my “favorite manga for newbies” for MySpace Comics awhile ago, so I’d like to link to it here.
Many people consider a large part of the manga output as being "really violent and/or sick”. What's your opinion on this? Would you say that it has something to do with the psychology of Japanese people?
I don’t think manga is really “sicker” than American culture; mainstream manga is a big business and the major publishers are really very conservative and afraid of offending people, even if their standards are in some ways looser than Western standards, or seem looser because their particular taboos are different (like the Buddhist manji symbols which in the West are always mistaken for Nazi swastikas). Only someone who is completely paranoid about violence in the media could be offended by DEATH NOTE. Only someone who is totally prejudiced against the idea that adults can watch cartoons could see UROTSUKIDOJI: LEGEND OF THE OVERFIELD and make the blanket assumption that all anime is “sick,” when benign, bland kids’ shows like SAILOR MOON, DRAGON BALL Z, POKEMON and HAMTARO are thousands of times more popular. Certainly there are enough disturbing memes and images floating around the Internet nowadays, that it is hypocritical to point to any other country and say “they’re sick!” Perhaps the world is approaching a certain common level of sickness.
What is the most shocking manga you have ever read? In what ways did it shock you?
It’s a tie between two different kinds of manga. On the one hand, there are the sexually offensive manga: the rape-fantasy yaoi and porn manga, of which there are too many to mention, and the lolicon and pseudo-lolicon manga, like TSUKIYOMI MOON PHASE, where it’s assumed that there will be sexual tension between a 10-year-old girl and a twentysomething man. Then there’s the manga which are simply so awful and derivative that I can’t believe that they were, firstly, created, and secondly, deemed worthy of being translated and licensed: manga like HAPPY LESSON or HARUKA: BEYOND THE STREAM OF TIME. So there’s more than one way to offend my sensibilities.
What do you think of OEL (Original English-language) manga?
I’m very into it, although I haven’t read as much as I should have. I think it’s inevitable and positive that American and European creators have been influenced by manga. Of course, as with any art form, some people are going to create more superficial imitations -- big eyes and so on -- whereas other people are going to create more perfect imitations or, better still, create truly original hybrid styles.
For the last couple of decades, a lot of western artists have been influenced by manga. What do you think of the results till now?
I think it’s fascinating to watch how manga influences have proliferated among Western artists. Even back in the ‘80s, artists like Scott McCloud and Frank Miller were showing a clear influence…and in the ‘90s artists like Chynna Clugston-Major, Paul Pope and Adam Warren came along…and today my favorites include Svetlana Chmakova, Tintin Pantoja, Felipe Smith, and many, many other great artists, including a lot of people I know personally. At the same time, there’s obviously lots of books which are very crude imitations which use the term “Manga” as merely a marketing tool. There’s so many arguments about “what is real manga” that I prefer to just use the most basic definition, and call Japanese comics “manga” and English comics “comics,” regardless of how manga-influenced they are. There is no good manga or bad manga; there’s good comics or bad comics, period.
Does the opposite happen (manga artists being influenced by western comics)?
There are many manga artists who are influenced by Western comics, too. Yuji Iwahara, Hiroyuki Takei in a way, Hirohiko Araki, not to mention archetypal 1980s artists like Tony Takezaki and Katsuhiro Otomo, whose super-detailed science fiction art was influenced by Western artists like Moebius. There are artists in Japan who do dôjinshi based on American superhero comics, and who can imitate the style very well, if they choose to.
Space Pinchy (Tony Takezaki)
You are an American that wrote a book for Japanese comics which are published in the US. Do you feel that the two cultures have any mixture or at least common ground? What are, in your opinion, the things that Western and Japanese cultures have in common?
There’s definitely a lot of common ground…Japan has had close relations with the West ever since 1854, and particularly since the post-WWII period, when the country was occupied by American troops and so many things were consciously rebuilt on Western models. Ian Fleming, in the James Bond novel YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, suggested that the outward signs of Westernization, like baseball, were only a thin gloss over centuries of samurai culture…but c’mon, what does Ian Fleming know? It’s been 60 years since WWII, 140 years since the Tokugawa era, and we’re all human beings. And modernization and industrialization has had similar effects everywhere, on all countries.
Despite this, or because of this, it’s easier for me to list differences than similarities: things such as the more tightly knit social structure and sense of responsibility (which is why there’s so many shonen manga about teamwork and friendship)…and the tendency, perhaps, to keep your emotions repressed and unspoken (but ah, how wonderful on those moments, so common in manga and so uncommon in real life, when the feelings well up and gush out!). And the prevailing Shinto/Buddhist culture which is responsible for a much more laid-back attitude towards religion and superstition than in many places in the West, in America certainly.
Personally, I find manga to be highly imaginative. Is there a connection with modern Japanese everyday life and if so, in what way?
Certainly for every manga like NARUTO that’s set in an imaginary world, there’s a manga—maybe two or three manga—that’s set in a realistic, modern Japanese setting. The majority of manga, even if they’re not always “realistic” stories, are set in the real world, so definitely they reflect modern Japanese everyday life. HIKARU NO GO will teach you a hell of a lot about Japanese schools and Japanese go culture. Even a manga which just happens to be set in a school, like RANMA ½, can teach you a lot. Gilles Poitras’ ANIME COMPANION books are basically dedicated to listing and explaining all the subtle details of Japanese life which are present in anime. And although fantasy and science fiction manga may make up the majority of translated works, there’s plenty of non-fantastical manga published in Japan, such as HAPPY MANIA, HONEY AND CLOVER, GOLGO 13,, the KOSAKU SHIMA, MAISON IKKOKU books, Hideo Azuma’s DISAPPEARANCE DIARY, and countless other manga for adult men and women.
I think that fantastical, imaginative manga is translated in disproportionate numbers, because it’s more similar to what Americans expect out of comics. And also, because in some ways, these fantastical, “nerdy” things are easier for foreigners to get into. You don’t have to know as much about Japanese culture to read about monsters and ninja and giant robots, as you do to read about salarymen or Japanese food or the Japanese political system.
Honey and Clover
Is there a reflection of Japan’s art forms from the past, in today’s manga?Yes, but it’s a very dim reflection; I mean, to what extent are 19th century magazine illustrations on the mind of 21st century American comic artists? Perhaps they’re on the mind of Tony Millionaire, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, but for most artists, the influences are deeply buried. Artists like Suehiro Maruo may consciously play with antique art styles, and even a totally mainstream artist like Rumiko Takahashi will occasionally recall Tokugawa-era prints in her fantasy drawings of monsters for INUYASHA, for instance, but I mostly think of manga as a modern art form, and I think most manga artist do too. There’s not a lot of conscious borrowing from the distant past…by which I mean, the prewar culture.
After the publication of MANGA: THE COMPLETE GUIDE, were there any reviews that made you skeptical on some of your choices for the book? Did the book help you discover any titles that you weren’t aware of?
There’s nothing major that I would have done differently…except put in more manga titles, of course, but I literally put in as many as possible up ‘till the deadline. Actually, there’s one or two manga titles listed in the book which were cancelled prior to publication, such as NYMPHET, but it was too late to remove them. I would have liked to use more art, but it was difficult to get permission to use a lot of the more major artists. Also, I would have liked to include more biographical information in the artist index. There’s a few more essays I would like to write, and I’d like to completely redo the article on yaoi manga. Perhaps for a second edition…
There’s a few titles whose ratings I’ve reconsidered. Obviously the fact that the titles are rated leaves me open to criticism from fans. But since one of the negative reviews on Amazon says I am “obviously prejudiced in favor of shojo manga,” and the other negative review says I am “obviously prejudiced in favor of shonen manga,” I think I was pretty evenhanded. Sadly, I did miss a few obscure older titles which I should have listed…the English editions of SEITO SHOKUN! and SASUGA NO SARUTOBI, Osamu Tezuka’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT manga, a couple of really weird titles like SHADOWS OF SPAWN, and so on. These missing titles are all going to go in the first update to the book, though, which will appear online in late August…check the Del Rey website!
In what ways did your life (professional and personal) change after the book was published?
The book’s gotten a lot of attention. I wrote a cover story on manga for WIRED magazine, I’ve been a guest at conventions (something I also did in my Viz Shonen Jump days), I’ve spoken at the Asian Art Museum and the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, and I’ve written a lot of miscellaneous articles and interviews. Immediately after the book came out, and all the work was finally done, it was as if a sort of vacuum opened up in my life. I was sort of left spinning for a few months, before I finally settled on my next project, which is writing two graphic novels. So in a way I’ve gotten back to what I wanted to do way back when I graduated from college.
Did it get the response from the public that you were hoping for?
The response has been really positive in general. I do wish that the book had been picked up and reviewed by more major “newbie” media outlets that don’t normally cover manga -- parenting sites, librarians’ resources, and so on.
Of the two or three negative reviews I’ve received, the only one that made me stop and think was one which claimed that the target audience for the book doesn’t really exist -- people who want to know about manga already know about it, and if people don’t know, they obviously don’t want to know, since there are so many resources available on the Internet. It’s true that the Internet leaves the future of print encyclopedia-type books in doubt -- I can’t go door to door and keep pencilling updates into everyone’s copies of the book, like Wikipedia. On the other hand, I’d argue that the book has a certain consistency and personality which publicly edited Internet resources lack. It is a review book, after all, and I personally love reading Roger Ebert’s movie reviews, because I enjoy his writing style even when I don’t agree with his opinion. I’ll read a review by Carl Horn or Patrick Macias or Shaenon Garrity, even when I have already read the manga myself, because I like their writing. Furthermore, I love the obscure and weird and neglected titles, the cult manga, so I tried to give JAPAN INC, EMMUSU and SAMURAI: SON OF DEATH the same consideration and research that I gave, say, BLEACH. There are some titles that even the nternet doesn’t have any information on.
What do you do in your spare time? When you are not reading manga or working on/for them? Or is manga "all you breathe and eat"?
Lately it is, if by manga you include comics. When I’m not reading manga, or freelance-editing manga, I’m scripting and storyboarding two graphic novels, which I unfortunately can’t say much about yet. They’re both a bit manga-influenced, but I’m the author, so they’ve invariably got other influences floating around in there too. Both are written by me, but will be drawn by other artists. My schedule is totally centered around them at the moment.
In your opinion, what are the five best manga titles ever, and what are your five favorites?
The five best manga ever…what a subjective question! I’ll have to limit myself to titles which I’ve personally read, because I can’t say what underappreciated rarities might be lurking somewhere in Japan. On that note, here’s my complete shot-in-the-dark at five excellent, classic manga.
PHOENIX by Osamu Tezuka
LONE WOLF AND CUB by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
THE ROSE OF VERSAILLES by Riyoko Ikeda
TIE! DEVILMAN by Go Nagai vs. NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND by Hayao Miyazaki
MAISON IKKOKU by Rumiko Takahashi
And here’s my five unabashedly personal favorite manga, with some overlap:
JOJO’S BIZARRE ADVENTURE by Hirohiko Araki
THE ROSE OF VERSAILLES by Riyoko Ikeda
MAISON IKKOKU by Rumiko Takahashi
FOURTEEN by Kazuo Umezu
ANTIQUE BAKERY by Fumi Yoshinaga
What about non-manga comics? What western comic book creators do you admire?
Again, there’s too many to list. In no particular order, comic creators I’ve admired include Chynna Clugston-Major, Ariel Schrag, Gabrielle Bell, Robert Crumb, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, Dave Sim, Donna Barr, Shaenon Garrity, Tintin Pantoja, Svetlana Chmakova, Felipe Smith, Jesse Hamm, Jason Shiga, Jen Wang, Derek Kirk Kim, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Kevin O'Neill, Garth Ennis, Chris Onstad, Gahan Wilson, Erol Otus (not actually a comic book creator, but one of my favorite artists), Scott McCloud, Gene Yang, Larry Gonick, Carl Barks, Don Rosa, Walt Kelly, Al Capp, Roger Langridge, Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson, Berkeley Breathed and probably a lot of people I’ve forgotten to mention.
What does the comic art medium represent to you?
The medium I’ve chosen to work in, and which I’ve spent more than half my life-absorbing with my eyes. A medium which can either be viewed as a cheap bastard child of writing and art, or as a valid medium like any other, with its own strengths and weaknesses.
You also write and draw the webcomic THE STIFF. Tell us a few things about it. What’s your inspiration for its creation?
THE STIFF is a comic I conceived more than 10 years ago, although it’s changed dramatically over time. I started serializing it on girlamatic.com in 2003 when I was invited to do something for the site. It’s a comic about a high school student who is phobic of sex, and who despises male sexuality in particular, and his relationship with a mysterious girl who may or may not be his twin. Stylistically, it’s a combination of slice-of-life comics, romance and horror manga. The story is plotted out to be about 1000 pages, and I’m currently just short of page 250. Unfortunately I’ve been so busy with other projects that I’ve had to put THE STIFF on hold for a long time, but I hope to get back to regular updates before the end of 2008. It’s a story about love, sex, escapism and death.
I know that you are now working for Del Rey’s upcoming GANKUTSOU manga and you are also writing a script for your own, personal project. Any other exciting plans you’d like to share with us?
There’ll soon be an update to the book available on the Del Rey website, so please check it out! I’m also moderating a manga panel at Anime Expo, where I’ll be one of the unofficial representatives of Otaku USA magazine, for which I’m a regular writer. I also do freelance manga editing for Del Rey (GANKUTSUOU) and also Viz (JOJO'S BIZARE ADVENTURE, ZATCH BELL! and KUROHIME).
As far as long-term plans, I hope I’ll be able to announce the names of my graphic novel projects soon. I’m working on some short comic adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft stories for yet another graphic novel project, this one drawn by myself. (I am a longtime H.P. Lovecraft fan, and I had a piece at the 2007 Lovecraft show at the Maison d’Ailleurs museum of science fiction art in Switzerland.) Lastly, I hope to return to THE STIFF. Please look forward to them, and thanks for your support!
Jason Thomson’s website http://www.sonic.net/~jason/
Jason Thompson personal Blog http://khyungbird.livejournal.com/
THE STIFF http://www.girlamatic.com/comics/thestiff.php
Del Rey Manga http://www.randomhouse.com/delrey/manga/index.pperl