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Manga Right to Left--Will It Fly?

Three Publishers, Three Approaches

Published: 03/08/2002 12:00am

We were interested in the reaction of Tokyopop's competitors and the marketplace to its announcement that it would be publishing all of its manga titles in the original right to left format (see 'Tokyopop To Publish Manga in Japanese Format'), so we followed up this week by talking to Dark Horse, Viz, and Tokyopop about their respective approaches to the issue and their reasons for them.  Here's what we found.

 

Dark Horse

We spoke to Tim Ervin-Gore, editor of Dark Horse's manga line, about why Dark Horse chooses to publish its manga in the traditional (for English) left to right format.  He took their decision back to the US launch of manga.  'We have to go back to when manga first came to America -- back when the Eclipse titles were launched and when Dark Horse got Oh My Goddess.  I don't think that most Americans had any idea that the Japanese read right to left.  I have no problem because I look at Japanese books all the time and I'm kind of used to it, but I still think that most people have trouble reading right to left and getting their brains used to it.'  He pointed out that publishing comics in English in the right to left format required the reader to follow two different directions for text and images, because the English words flow left to right, while the images would flow right to left.  He summarized by saying, 'We adapt our comics so that American readers don't have the dissonance of reading backwards.' 

 

Ervin-Gore did acknowledge problems with 'flopping' digital images of the pages, especially with books with a samurai theme, 'There are people that study the way of the sword that are quick to point out that there were never left-handed samurai and they never wore the sword on the right side of their sash.'  It's for such reasons that Dark Horse handles its Blade of the Immortal title, produced in conjunction with Studio Proteus, in a hybrid style that preserves both the left to right reading pattern of Americans and the right-handedness of the samurai characters.  He described it this way, 'With Blade of the Immortal, we have to do more of a cut and paste style where we're leaving the individual panels as they were and reordering the panels.'

 

Asked what kind of reaction he expected to the left to right format, he said, 'I think time will tell whether people will adapt wholeheartedly to the left to right format. Americans read left to right, and it's hard to jump after fifteen to twenty years of reading a certain way.  There are going to be people that love it and there will be some American readers that won't be able to read it at all.'

 

Viz

 Viz is an interesting case because it has published in both formats for years.  Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z are published in the right to left format because Akira Toriyama, the books' creator, insisted on it for creative reasons.  Vagabond is a samurai story that is done in the right to left format to make it authentic historically (see above).   And Neon Genesis Evangelion is published in both formats.  Asked whether he saw an impact of format on sales, Viz Senior Marketing Manager Dallas Middaugh noted that Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z are Viz's top titles, although he attributed their success to television exposure as well.  He also noted that for Neon Genesis Evangelion, published in both formats, the left to right format outsells the right to left format about three to one, both in periodical and trade paperback formats.  'That's the clearest indication that fans want an easy reading experience,' he said.  

 

Middaugh said that the younger readers of Dragon Ball adapted to the right to left format more easily than their parents did.  'A lot of kids that picked it up because they'd been watching the shows thought it was cool--kind of a counter-culture kind of thing. They feel like they're in the know.  Parents that picked them up didn't understand.'  More hardcore fans, the otaku, also prefer the right to left format according to Middaugh.  That means that different stores do better with different formats.  When asked about chain response to the right to left format, Middaugh said, 'That depends entirely on what outlets you're talking about.  There are certain chains that are catering to teens getting into manga; these are customers that are not making it into the comic shops.  In those chains the right to left format isn't a barrier.  I'm mostly talking about mall-based chains such as Waldens.  But not all book-buyers like it that way....There are different customers shopping at the different chains.'

 

Sound Effects

As part of its 'authentic' packaging and campaign, Tokyopop also announced that it would be leaving the sound effects in its books in the original Japanese characters. Neither Dark Horse nor Viz handle them that way, and neither plans to do so.  Dark Horse's Ervin-Gore was concerned that some of the meaning of the story would be lost.   'I respect what they're trying to do,' he said, 'but I like to read sound effects.'

 

Viz' Middaugh acknowledged that the otaku would prefer the sound effects left in Japanese characters as they are in the originals, but also expressed concern about the loss of some meaning that's important.  'We respect what they want and we're aware that a lot of the more vocal ones want them to be exactly in their original form with only the words changed,' he said.  'My concern with that approach is that it creates a barrier to entry....It's great if you know a little Japanese, but if you don't these become simply characters on a page.  The reader might be able to infer what they mean without knowing any Japanese, but might not....Then they put the book down because they can't understand it.  I don't want that to happen.'

 

Middaugh definitely didn't see the sound effects (or the right to left format) as an authenticity issue.  He contrasted Viz' approach to sound effects to the way it handled the American editions of Dragon Ball.  After first launching Dragon Ball in the US in edited versions that took out some of the ribald humor that characterizes the strip, Viz went to a '13 and up' label to enable the books to be published with all aspects.  While that limited distribution, it was felt that to do otherwise would 'take out the heart and soul of the book.' 

 

The Market Response

We contacted Tokyopop to gauge the market reaction, and also to get more information about the reasons for the decision to use the Japanese format.  According to Kristien Brada-Thompson, Marketing Communications Manager at Tokyopop, the decision was based both on focus groups run by the company, as well as the results in other countries when the right to left format was adopted.  Carlson's experience in Germany was cited as a particularly good example.  'When they went to all right to left format a year and a half ago, their business just blossomed,' she said.  France and Korea were cited as two other countries where right to left comics sell well despite being in the opposite direction of the local language.  

 

Brada-Thompson said the 'retailer response has been exceptional.'  She told us that orders on the floor dump (see 'Tokyopop Plans 'Authentic' Floor Dumps in April') have been 20% higher than anticipated and said that the company was very excited by the response. 

 

Steve Kleckner, Tokyopop Vice President of Sales and Marketing confirmed the positive response from both the bookstore and comic store channels.  He listed Waldens, Books a Million, Hastings, Media Play and Fry's as chains that had bought floor dump programs, and said that he expected more chains to order in the coming weeks.  He said the company was 'also very gratified with what's come in through comic stores.' 
 
 
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