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The world of the early-to-mid 2000s may as well have been completely different from the one we inhabit today. It was a time when Walkman tape players gave way to portable CD players, and the phrase “Be Kind, Rewind” was well-known to anybody familiar with their local video store. Disney still produced hand-drawn animation, and there was no Marvel Cinematic Universe.
During this time, many people of my generation were introduced to anime and manga. Magazines started appearing in bookstores, along with comic books in tiny square boxes. I recall going to Barnes & Noble and seeing shelves of these comics, neatly arranged.
Though many publishers, from Viz to Dark Horse all vied for fans’ attention, there was one publisher that stood head and shoulders above the rest during this period. Indeed, few would dare dispute the supremacy of Tokyopop, whose headphone-clad mascot seemed to line the shelves of every Borders and Barnes and Noble across the country.
Then one day, a now-defunct website known as The Comic Book Guy Reviews posted an interesting piece. The owner, who once ran a now-defunct Yu-Gi-Oh! fansite that detailed the edits and errors found within the show’s English dub, reported that a winner of Tokyopop’s Rising Stars of Manga contest, who was American, had published a book with the publisher. In the piece, he explained that these were manga written by American authors.
Possibilities seemed to open upon reading this, as I made my way to Google to verify. At the time, Tokyopop hosted a website, which listed their submission guidelines, which welcomed those who could draw and write and were willing to cede a few legal rights.
The page has since vanished, and the Tokyopop FAQ as of 2020 states that they are not accepting submissions, but “we encourage you to download the POP Comics app, which is the 100% creator-owned publishing platform developed by our Hong Kong-based affiliate company POP Comics. You’ll be able to upload your work and build a fanbase and get feedback while retaining all of your copyright.”
In hindsight, the red flags should have been obvious. With only a handful of Western publishers allowing American artists to submit their versions of manga, the contracts that were offered would require a lawyer’s insight. Yet, for many people — I’ll admit that I tried to create a submission packet in high school but never made it past the story outline — Tokyopop’s proposition seemed like a golden opportunity. Instead of a glimmering dream, though, creators received a very harsh dose of reality.
Though the name is but a faded memory today, Tokyopop began its life as a publisher named Mixx. Stuart Levy founded the company in 1997 and still owns it to this day.
Anyway, Mixx made its mark with Mixxzine: a weekly magazine that offered, among other content, manga serials. Among the publication’s earliest titles was Naoko Takeuchi’s iconic classic, Sailor Moon. In the wake of Sailor Moon’s popularity, Mixx would go on to release Smile, a hybrid magazine that combined girl’s magazines and shojo manga under a single banner. The first Sailor Moon graphic novels would hit stores in 1998. Though readers argued that the volumes were small and of “poor quality,” it was impossible to deny the impact Sailor Moon made upon the market.
Tokyopop quickly grew to become a dominant manga publisher of the 1990s and 2000s, who thrived on the strength of their library. The titles under their banner spanned countless genres, from horror classic Pet Shop of Horrors, to CLAMP’s Chobits, to the Confidential Confessions short story collection. While it was clear that Tokyopop knew shojo manga, they also had the wisdom to diversify, so as to draw in a wider audience.
Granted, the field has diversified greatly since then, as more than a dozen English publishers distribute and translate manga today. Still, Tokyopop seemed to focus on bringing these stories to audiences who would otherwise not have access to them.
That is, of course, until they began recruiting creators who grew up on manga and wanted to pay homage through comics of their own.
Rising Stars of Manga And Original English Manga (OEL)
In 2002, Tokyopop unveiled their Rising Stars of Manga Talent Competition. The event was originally pitched as a means for creators to show off their storytelling potential and invited would-be challengers to submit standalone chapters of an original title for judging. Works that passed the muster of the judging team would then be printed in an anthology manga, which shipped to stores under the Rising Stars of Manga banner. The grand prize winner could pitch a three-book series to Tokyopop’s decision-makers, which was considered a privilege at the time. Winners would also see their work syndicated in newspapers, which is what happened with Peach Fuzz, a manga series about a child adopting a ferret while not knowing how to take care of her.
In lieu of the contest, aspiring creators could also pitch directly to Tokyopop with a three-book original English manga series. Applicants were required to put together a packet containing character designs, a plot outline, and other supplemental materials.
This opportunity came at a cost, though. Those who saw their works accepted, be it as a finalist in the contest or through the pitching process, were required to sign a contract. The document required that users give up Moral Rights to their work, which include the right to attribution and ownership of the work. This included the following clause:
“MORAL RIGHTS” AND YOUR CREDIT
“Moral rights” is a fancy term (the French thought it up) that basically has to do with having your name attached to your creation (your credit!) and the right to approve or disapprove certain changes to your creation. Of course, we want you to get credit for your creation, and we want to work with you in case there are changes, but we want to do so under the terms in this pact instead of under fancy French idea. So, in order for us to adapt the Manga Pilot for different media, and to determine how we should include your credit in tough situations, you agree to give up any “moral rights” you might have.
This was on top of granting sole publishing and adaptation rights to Tokyopop, essentially making it a work-for-hire project. In plain English, if Tokyopop chose to cease publication or syndication of a title, the original author would be unable to complete it independently.
Moreover, a second clause in the publisher’s guidelines raised genuine questions as to whether creators would receive any credit at all for their work:
WHAT WE CAN DO WITH YOUR CREDIT
And, speaking of your credit, customarily we give you credit for your work as the writer and/or artist of the Manga Pilot. However, we may have to shorten or leave out your credit when the space available or the conventions of a format won’t permit it or if it would have to be too small to read (for example, when the Manga Pilot is viewed on mobile phones). You’re OK with this.
In plain English, this section states that the contract would grant Tokyopop permission to omit creator names from a work if the format does not allow adequate space. In this light, it is not difficult to imagine a situation in which a reader browsing on a device like a smartphone or an app could find themselves in a situation where they find a work, but are unable to determine the original author.
Such fine print quickly raised concerns, as it could potentially leave the artist with few options for recourse if the deal went wrong.
This exact scenario occurred in 2009. At the time, Tokyopop saw a large swath of its titles, including hits like Sailor Moon, Chobits, and Initial D, revert to Kodansha, who launched their own English translation division the year before. In February 2011, North American The Borders Group, which owned both the Borders and Waldenbooks chains, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In a March 2011 interview with ICv2, Levy explained that “Borders—our biggest customer—went bankrupt, owed us a lot money, which they didn’t pay us, and as a result we are in a very challenging situation.”
Layoffs and resignations would follow, until the publisher’s North American publishing division shut down in 2011. While the Japanese manga creators and companies regained control over their licenses, the OEL creators didn’t.
Publishers Weekly published a 2011 article about Tokyopop, which notes that the company overextended itself, publishing too many manga licenses to earn a sufficient return, which was compounded by a declining market and the 2011 collapse of the Borders bookstore chain. In the article, Levy claimed that Tokyopop created the OEL manga market, stating “There was no such thing as original English manga until we created it.” He added that the publisher had hoped to make the OEL initiative profitable within five years. In the article, Levy claimed that Tokyopop would “remain serious about the content; we own together with the creators; we’ve met our contractual obligations and we remain partners.”
The creators could, and would, beg to differ.
The Artists’ Accounts
When Tokyopop canceled their OEL line, they left a swath of creators without a means to reclaim their work. Some, like Queenie Chan, were able to bounce back, though they were exceptions rather than the norm.
Eisner-award nominee Sophia Campbell was one of the artists who wasn’t so fortunate. In a comment to Comics Journal, she posited that she “always figured that [Tokyopop] were holding onto everyone’s rights partly so that even if they became insolvent or completely collapsed or whatever, that they could sell off the catalog of properties to another party and make a quick cash grab before they crashed and burned.”
Becky Cloonan saw her Eisner-nominated series East Coast Rising canceled after little to no promotion. In a blog post discussing the news, Cloonan explained that she wasn’t impressed by the turn of events, adding that it “felt like they were more excited when my book garnered attention from animation and video game companies than when it got an Eisner nomination.”
Even those who had seen their work completed began to show cracks in the facade. Mike Schwark & Ron Kaulfersch, who created Van Von Hunter, famously parodied Levy in a 2012 comic, in which the titular Van Von Hunter expresses mortal terror at a zombie lawyer named “Stewart Levee.” Two strips later, the character would be seen murdering said lawyer as the court noted that “All the defender did was try to make a movie of Van Von Hunter.” (Indeed, there was a 2010 live-action film adaptation of the property that was co-directed by Levy.) The judge takes a moment and admits, “I’m going to allow this.”
Entire creations faded away, and the creators burned out. To say this was an error is nothing short of an understatement.
How Can OEL Manga Creators Protect Themselves
It’s a pretty huge question. Even manga creators in Japan don’t have as many protections as they should to prevent burnout or health issues. In the United States, there are concerns that starting a union for even regular comics can potentially break antitrust laws.
Ultimately, society itself needs to change to prevent predatory comic companies from exploiting creators who are eager for their big break. Until that happens, though, there are few actions that creators or fans can really take.
The first, and arguably the best way to make an impact would be to ask fans to demand accountability whenever possible. While readers can’t necessarily turn the tide of contracts that are already on the books, knowledge of situations in which creators are embroiled can help to prevent more egregious harms. With prose novels, for example, Victoria Strauss runs a blog called Writer Beware that warns authors about questionable publications and agents.
Furthermore, OEL manga creators always have the option to self-publish before signing with a publisher. This ensures that an author retains their copyright and are able to control every aspect of the process. The downside to this is the fact that many creators lack the economies of scale that bigger companies are able to provide, in addition to avenues for reliable pay. As such, aspiring creatives could find themselves telling their stories at a loss, on a website that few will see.
For those who do manage to find themselves with an offer from a publisher, one would be best advised to seek the counsel of a lawyer to help make sense of the terminology. It should be noted that this route can be expensive unless the lawyer agrees to give advice pro bono, that is to not charge for the consultation.
Other viable options include working to acquire a literary agent. With each passing day, a growing number of agents are reading graphic novel submissions. Once signed with an agent, they will be a valuable resource who works to negotiate on a creator’s behalf for better deals. This process can take several years, though, as agents read hundreds of submissions during their open periods and have particular tastes.
For those who find themselves unable to work with an agent or an attorney, the best advice would be to not rush into any agreement. Take the time to carefully review the contract’s terms, and weigh the pros and cons of the deal at hand. Thankfully, the internet offers a multitude of guides to help artists equip themselves with the tools to properly review a contract.
If you do sign a work-for-hire contract — and not all of them end up badly, I can say as an author that did a work-for-hire with prose novels– prepare to forfeit the rights ahead of time, and prepare for any worst-case scenarios. That said, a work-for-hire job can pay well, and it often helps a writer or comic book artist learn to manage deadlines. It’s not an easy decision, but knowing and making peace with the fact that the story may never see print makes the process that much easier.
Tokyopop’s foray into Original English manga is a cautionary tale for creators of all stripes. And, if anything, it’s a harsh lesson to always read the fine print before signing on the dotted line. Now, more than ever, OEL authors have every right to protect their work, and the teachings of the past will help to provide protection in the future.