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WAITING FOR TOMMY: MARK PANNICCIA
By Richard Johnston

TOKYOPOP are the small publisher that could. From initial seedlings reprinting manga titles in the US, they followed in Viz Comics' steps yet outperformed them in terms of growth and industry impact. Indeed, they were instrumental in opening up the bookstore market to manga in huge quantities that all the major comics publishers had to sit up and take notice as this newcomer boldly marked out swathes of bookshelf space for its titles - so that superhero graphic novels were suddenly marginalised in a space that they'd only hung onto with their fingertips anyway.

So what does TOKYOPOP do now? How does it hold onto what it has? And how does it see itself as a company in an industry full of people who can't even crack open the first backwards-facing page or a manga title - yet can appeal to such a wide and young audience?

Mark Panniccia's been around the block a while. Working for a number of comics companies, large and small, his role as editor at TOKYOPOPhas seen him expand the company, launch a talent search at a time when some companies are scaling back that activity.

I talked to Mark about the company, its role and goal - and then discovered some rather telling news...

 

BATTLE ROYALE VOLUME 1 TPB

RICHARD JOHNSTON: Okay, so for the first time, TOKYOPOP has taken the third place for market share in the comics direct market. Leapfrogging Image Comics, it's now fourth to Marvel, DC and Dark Horse. But do you care? Isn't the majority of your sales through bookstores? Why devote energy to courting the direct market at all, when if they actually reflected demand for TOKYOPOP in the mainstream market, your titles would take up most of the shelf space?
MARK PANNICCIA
: When I was working in licensed manga, one of my initiatives was to bring comic writers into the fold to help add a certain amount of familiarity and quality to the end product. Battle Royale, for instance, is a top seller in the direct market and, while the property has a strong following, I think Keith Giffen's involvement contributes to some of its success in comic shops. And I want to use more comic book creators for original material that will appeal to both the direct and book markets.

In regards to the direct market, I have a responsibility to make sure my books sell. If I can get a comic book reader to pick up a manga, dig it, and then turn a friend onto it, I'm doing my job.

It's also good for manga - as a sequential art form - to find its place with sequential art lovers. Besides, there's enough great stuff coming from manga (regardless if it's made in Japan, Korea or America) that there's no reason why it can't bring dollars to comic book retailers.

RICHARD: But how much energy do those dollars take? If you spend ten times the effort chasing a direct market dollar than you do a bookstore dollar, why bother? The sequential art lovers seem to reject manga more than they accept it. Is there something intrinsic about the direct market that means it's worth tackling, apart from an additional, smaller, revenue stream? Is it just like Everest, "because it's there"? Do you, for whatever reason, believe you haven't succeeded until the comic shops are yours to play with as your minions?
MARK: You're trying to get me to do a Darth Vader impression, aren't you? Look, the market's there and it's growing. Manga may not sell as good as some super hero books in comic shops, but it is getting more and more shelf space in most pf those stores and the influx of new direct market consumers (i.e. kids) are familiar with the style and accepting of the format.

RICHARD: Have you got any time for work currently being published in traditional US comics?
MARK: I love American comics. I grew up on them. For all the mediocre stuff that's out there, I think there's an incredible amount of ingenious fiction being told on an incredibly frequent basis. The amount of great art being created is also amazing. Think about the many talented artists out there producing quality work day after day. I have a tremendous amount of respect for American comics.

 

NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND VOLUME 1 TPB (2ND ED.)

RICHARD: So with all that respect, what's going wrong? Can you give specific examples of how they're failing while TOKYOPOP isn't? After so many attempts to capture new markets that seem to fade away, what have they been doing wrong all this time - why can't they get their act together and find this elusive "young" market like TP have, despite numerous attempts?
MARK: You've got a whole generation of kids who have grown up with anime and now waves of kids with manga. It's a different aesthetic and it seems to appeal to a wider audience. It also covers more subject matter than traditional comics: You've got stories with kids whose parents have swapped partners and now they all live in the same house, or a fashion student who's so beautiful it throws her life into madcap turmoil, or a family that's possessed by and changes into the Chinese Zodiac when hugged. Most of this stuff won't appeal to someone who's more interested in what some may consider a really cool, city-demolishing battle between the Hulk and Superman, and vise-versa. And American comics focus mainly on adult characters. What's the average age of the average super hero, like, 36 or 37? The majority of manga stories are about teens. It's a win-win-win situation because the younger kids want to be teens, the teens relate, and we adults all used to be teens so we can identify with it too. That's probably the most important reason why manga is breaking the Youth market and appealing to such a wide readership.

RICHARD: Really? The major two put out a book with a young kid, they bomb. Why can they not succeed with such characters where you do?
MARK: Are they doing something other than super heroes? Are they doing a story about two girls who are in love with the same teacher? Are they marketing it to venues where teen girls shop?

I think there are ways for other publishers to expand into other markets, but they need to figure it out on their own.

RICHARD: There seems to be a significant section of the traditional comic reading public that are manga-phobic, allergic to manga or manga-esque artwork and storytelling. Considering the work you publish spans a huge range of styles, more than the comics they may read, is this purely irrational, or is their some common thread through this work absent in common direct market fare that might explain it?
MARK
: It's a matter of personal taste and influence. If you grew up with Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, or Bernie Wrightson for that matter, you're probably not going to be that receptive to a style with big-eyed cute or androgynous characters.

That will change because, if you look at what kids are watching on TV now, the majority of it's anime. It's making a huge dent in their psyche. When I started working on original graphic novels, I was concerned about finding appropriate talent. But with the advent of the Rising Stars of Manga competition and what I'm seeing at portfolio reviews at art schools and conventions, I'm amazed at the amount of manga-and-anime influenced creators out there. So there's a new wave of fans who will only know and react to that style. It won't bump traditional comic art out of the boat and not everyone will like it, but it's here to stay for a long, long time.

RICHARD: Won't it? Marvel and DC have been absorbing manga-influenced artists for a while now, but of late that's stepped up a notch. After all, they're all after the future of comics... it just strikes me that here traditional comics is, in a little corner that gets smaller and smaller ignoring the rest of the world doing their own thing and gradually encroaching into our space, all without us noticing. Traditional Comics as an allegory of the British Empire. Discuss?
MARK: Good analogy but look at all the great stuff that came from the Brits - America for instance!

What you're seeing with manga's influence in the West is the evolution of comics. Who knows what the format will look like in ten years but, God willing, they'll still be here - just like Britain.

Pages: 1 | 2 Continued Here...

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