Manga Banzai! Jason Thompson & John Baroody talk 'Shonen Jump' success

Thu, February 6th, 2003 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

[Shonen Jump]It's no secret that one of the biggest success stories in the comic book industry in the past few years has been the successful integration of Japanese comics, "manga," into the American consumer consciousness. There's also been no shortage of discussion among fans over the fact that manga is so widely accepted by fans in Japan and that it sells in record numbers there, leading many to wonder what the problem is with the American comic book sales model. One of the most famous of all manga publications, "Weekly Shonen Jump," was brought over to American shores last year by Viz Comics in the form of "Shonen Jump" and met with a roaring success, selling 3 times the number of any top selling comic on the Diamond sales chart, drawing in a variety of new readers. While CBR News spoke in depth with the executives at Viz at Comic Con International in San Diego last year, CBR decided to follow up with editor Jason Thompson and public relations manager John Baroody in regards to the successful launch of "Shonen Jump."

"Shonen Jump is an English-language anthology of the best titles from the Japanese 'Shukan Shonen Jump' (Weekly Shonen Jump), Japan's #1 best-selling manga magazine, which has been published since 1968," explains Thompson. "The average American issue is about 350 pages for $4.95. For now, the magazine has seven titles, each of which gets 40-60 pages in each issue (with the exception of 'SandLand,' which is published in smaller installments).

"'DRAGON BALL Z:' By Akira Toriyama. Martial artists so powerful they're like superheroes fighting to save the Earth from alien beings, cyborgs, and other enemies. Written and drawn by Akira Toriyama, who previously had been best known for his science-fiction gag manga 'Dr. Slump,' this is the most successful manga, period, of the last 25 years. It ran from 1984 to 1995 in Japan. Viz had already published about half of 'Dragon Ball Z' in graphic novels and monthly comics before we started Shonen Jump, so we rolled the remaining chapters over into Shonen Jump at a good breaking point. In Jump we can put as much, or more, material every month as we had in the monthly comics (and we can print the color pages in color!).

"'YU-GI-OH!:' By Kazuki Takahashi.Yugi Mutoh, a picked-on high schooler who likes to play games from his grandfather's game store, solves the Ancient Egyptian 'Millennium Puzzle' and unlocks his alternate persona as the risk-taking, fearless King of Games! In the beginning, Yugi acts like sort of a vigilante, challenging evildoers and bad guys to various dangerous games with a strong element of poetic justice. The art's a mixture of cute, weird and sinister. The series became most popular when it started a storyline based on collectible card games (RPGs also make an appearance), which led to the Yu-Gi-Oh! CCG and then to the anime TV series and video games. It introduced millions of Japanese kids to CCGs. There was a lot cut out of the anime series, but we're printing all of it in the manga, telling the whole story. It started in 1996 in Japan and is still running.

"'YUYU HAKUSHO:' By Yoshihiro Togashi. Yusuke Urameshi, a teen delinquent, dies committing a good deed -- trying to push a little kid out of the way of a speeding car. As a result of this unexpected death, the afterlife doesn't know what to do with him, and Yusuke ends up as a ghost, wandering around Tokyo with Botan, the ferrywoman of the dead. 'YuYu Hakusho' starts out as a zany comedy in the 'Heaven Can Wait' style (albeit based on the Chinese/Japanese idea of the afterlife rather than the Western one) and gradually turns into more of an action series, as Yusuke becomes a supernaturally powered martial artist fighting ghosts and other bad things, drawn in an increasingly stunning style. We're printing several early stories not seen in the anime series. It ran from 1990 to 1994 in Japan.

"'ONE PIECE:' By Eiichiro Oda. An incredibly good series by a currently 28-year-old artist, One Piece started in 1997 and is currently still going and doing very well. It's the story of Monkey D. Luffy, who wants to become the King of the Pirates... but who, when he was young, accidentally ate the cursed Gum-Gum Fruit, which gives him the power to stretch like rubber... at the cost of NEVER BEING ABLE TO SWIM AGAIN! This is a rollicking adventure story of pirates, sea monsters, grand ambitions and tear-jerking sacrifices. It's got a real 'all ages' appeal, in that the plots and sentiment are simple enough for younger readers, but the art and humor is extremely sophisticated. I'd compare it to 'Dragon Ball,' to 'Groo,' to 'Asterix,' to E.C. Segar's 'Popeye,' to 'Plastic Man,' to 'Yellow Submarine.'

"'SANDLAND:' By Akira Toriyama. Toriyama's most recent full-length series (2000) after he finished 'Dragon Ball.' Unlike the other current Shonen Jump manga, it's only one volume long, so we'll just be running it for the first year or so while we prepare its replacement. In the far future, the only world that remains is a blighted desert where the water supply is controlled by a greedy king. In search of water, Sheriff Rao leaves his small village and asks the King of the Demons for help... and gets the king's video-game-playing son, Beelzebub, and his attendant. Together, they set off, hijack a tank, and soon are in all kinds of trouble...

"'SHAMAN KING:' By Hiroyuki Takei. Slacker junior high student Yoh Asakura is a modern-day shaman, one of the gifted few able to see spirits and contact the Other World. Allowing ghosts to possess his body -- such as the long-dead samurai Amidamaru -- he fights evil and unscrupulous shamans and prepares for the "Shaman Fight", a once-every-500-years event which brings together shamans from around the world to compete the greatest prize of all. Shaman King is an interesting mix of art and theme: the artwork has an American-style, graffiti-like sensibility, and the story combines a video game flavor with plot elements and characters taken from history and myth around the globe. Started in 1998 and is still going.

"'NARUTO:' By Masashi Kishimoto. The story of Sasuke, Sakura and Naruto, three ninjas-in-training, in a world combining traditional Japanese culture with modern and science-fiction/fantasy elements. An extremely detailed series, in terms of artwork and the overall thoroughness and realism of the imaginary world. Ninja manga were considered pass and old-school in Japan for a long time, and Naruto, which started in 1999, has made the genre cool again for both male and female readers. The characters are really funny and well-written and humanly flawed, and the manga has a slight romance element as well."

[Shonen Jump #1]While the success of "Shonen Jump" in America would make one think that Viz and Thompson couldn't have made better choices, the editor explains that he had a lot of series to choose from and that one series wasn't picked till the end. "I'm very pleased with how the launch lineup turned out, and I wouldn't have changed a thing. I certainly wouldn't have saved anything for later -- there are many excellent Japanese 'Shonen Jump' manga jostling one another to be published in the U.S., more and more every year, and the challenge is just getting them all out there. 'Dragon Ball Z,' 'Yu-Gi-Oh!' and 'YuYu Hakusho' were obvious choices, because they were all on TV in America. We chose 'SandLand' because it was a short series in a book of long series, and because we thought it might present a different side of Akira Toriyama to those who are only familiar with him as the maker of this super-popular mega-epic 'Dragon Ball Z.' 'One Piece' is doing extraordinarily well in Japan right now, and it's totally amazing. I discovered 'Naruto' at the Winter 2000 Comic Market convention in Japan, and realized the series had a lot of potential. The last one we chose was 'Shaman King,' which has proven to be an excellent manga, and one of my favorites. Some people have been interested in seeing less action-adventure-style series -- for instance, a sports or games or romance manga. Hopefully those people will stick around 'till 'SandLand' ends..."

Thompson also contends that "Shonen Jump" offers the reader a genuinely unique experience, providing them with a comic book product unlike any other on the market today. "On one level, I think we're lucky that we were able to get the manga versions of several popular anime series, which may reach new fans, people who could become manga readers and comic readers through 'Shonen Jump.' On another, more basic level, I think that anthologies are an excellent format for manga and comics in general. Manga is meant to be read in a cliffhanger format, as an ongoing story -- you might argue that the closest American comparison is not the Golden or Silver Age of American comics, but newspaper strips in the '30s and '40s, when people would read the paper every day to see what was happening in the serials. Even Americans who are very familiar with manga have often only read it through tankobon (graphic novels), so they don't get the same experience as Japanese readers who read it in its original serialization. And finally, of course, it's a good bargain for the amount of comics that you get, and I think that's important in making it reach a wide audience."

Some of you may be wondering what exactly Thompson does when editing "Shonen Jump"- after all, this is manga that has already been published and edited in another country, so it has been through the creative process previously, but the American editor of "SJ" explains that his job editing some other well known manga at Viz led him to this position. "I've always been a big fan of the Japanese 'Weekly Shonen Jump,' and I was and still am the editor of the 'Dragon Ball' and 'Bastard!!' manga series from that magazine, so I sort of naturally slid into position on the new magazine. My job is to supervise the overall content of the magazine, and also to coordinate the translators, rewriters and letterers who work on the individual manga series. I check all the translations for accuracy (my boss, Yumi Hoashi, helps as well), I make sure that everything sounds good and is internally consistent, and I instruct the letterers on how it should look in English. I'm also involved in coming up with ideas for, and sometimes writing, the non-manga content of the magazine. The hardest part of my job is just how many hours there are in the day -- I, Benjamin Wright (the designer) and Drew Williams (the editor), frequently stay late at night getting things done and designing and re- designing pages. The easiest part is, of course, that I get to read manga all day, which is all anyone could hope for."

[Shonen Jump #2]Of course, the comics he's reading do include "Dragon Ball Z" and "Yu-Gi-Oh," series that many would claim are childish and as such, make "Shonen Jump" a series that is demographically limited. This couldn't be less true, says Thompson, and explains that "Shonen Jump" has one of the most diverse readerships of any comic in America. "The average age of Japanese 'Weekly Shonen Jump' readers is about 13 or 14, but there are college-age and adult readers. Keeping in mind that the magazine is suggested for ages 13 and up, we're aiming for a similar age group of mostly teenagers, but we don't think there's any upper cut-off point at which it won't be enjoyable. The average age of manga and anime fans has consistently gone down over the past ten years, and I think this is a good thing that shows a healthy trend towards the mainstream, just like the narrowing gender gap as more female fans get into manga. On the other hand, we have lots of college-age and adult fans too, and many manga and anime series appeal to a slightly older audience in America than they do in Japan: take 'YuYu Hakusho,' for instance, which is on the Cartoon Network's 'Adult Swim' block. We're not 'writing down' to a particular audience or dumbing anything down, and I think a lot of the editorial content is pretty witty and intelligent (the parts I didn't write, that is...!). Within the magazine, the different manga seem to appeal to slightly different ages, and I think as a whole they have a wide range of appeal."

The first issue of "Shonen Jump" sold over 200,000 copies and that's a number not seen often in the American comic book industry, which would imply that the series is at the very least, attracting some new readers. "I think it shows the extent to which manga and anime have permeated American culture," explains Thompson of the series appeal. "If you go to a high school class and you ask people to draw comics, most of the students are drawing in a manga-influenced style. I don't think the regional difference between San Francisco and other parts of the country is so great in this respect. They may not even be conscious of it -- they may have picked it up from anime or Japanese video games -- or they may be knowledgeable fans, but manga has become a very powerful art style. Furthermore, the success of Shonen Jump seems to demonstrate that these fans will read comics, that they really do love manga for its own sake. It's not intended as a collector's item -- it's intended as a magazine that you can pick up anywhere, that's a good bargain, and that has the marketing muscle of a huge publisher behind it. We don't want to publicize TV shows or movies or action figures based on manga, we want to sell the original manga. This is an attitude shared equally by Viz and Shueisha [the parent company]."

"We are considering 'Shonen Jump #1' a sell-out on newsstands," adds John Baroody. "Over 200,000 copies were initially put into distribution and because of strong sales, Viz went back to the printer for an additional 50,000 to meet demand. #2, still currently on sale, is also experiencing strong sales, though it's too early to have exact sales figures. For #2 (and #3 that will be out on store shelves soon) distribution was increased over the initial distribution level for #1. Subscription sales have also been strong. The introductory special subscription rate of $19.95 for a full-year, 12-issue subscription will still be available, but just for a short time longer."

Even with the success of "Shonen Jump #1," some would claim that the success of issue #1 came as a result of the inclusion of a limited edition "Yu-Gi-Oh" item, specifically a card from the red-hot card game. "I think the price is attractive," says Thompson, dismissing claims that promotional items like the aforementioned card or the upcoming "Dragon Ball Z" card in issue #3 artificially inflate orders. "If you look at video game magazines and collector's magazines which 'Shonen Jump' sits next to on the magazine racks, many of them cost $6.95 or even $8.95 an issue. And compared to other comics on a page-per-dollar ratio, it's about 350 pages for $4.95, which would be the equivalent of an American comic for about 50 cents - early 1980s prices. Cards provide a boost in sales and attract people to the magazine, and judging from the e-mails I'm getting, many of those people are staying with the magazine for the manga, which is our intention. Because ultimately, we are selling manga, the experience of reading manga and also being part of a new magazine, an organic thing."

Gimmicks aren't needed to create sales for "Shonen Jump," according to Baroody, who explains that Viz is mounting an ambitious marketing campaign for the manga anthology. "'Shonen Jump' is engaged in a very aggressive PR campaign to create awareness for the magazine. It began around the San Diego Con and continues through the present. Recently 'Shonen Jump' has been a feature story nationwide on CNN Headline News, CNNfn, National Public Radio, and CBS MarketWatch as well as in major market newspaper articles in New York (Post and Daily News), Miami Herald, SF Chronicle, Dallas Times Herald, Washington Post, Seattle Post Intellegencer, and more - in addition to being national wire stories on AP and Reuters. 'Shonen Jump' has also begun participation with Cartoon Network that includes high prominence on their Adult Swim Web site [note: the beginnings of this will be seen in issue #3]. Additionally, 'Shonen Jump' has many cross-promotion programs set up with companies marketing Dragon Ball, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and other story/character-related products, as well as with advertisers. There will also be other promotions, event-based marketing activities, and retailer/newsstand programs conducted throughout the year."

One of the unique aspects of "Shonen Jump" is that it doesn't just include manga- there's also coverage of video games, collectible card games and anime as well, which Thompson feels make the anthology a more complete package. "The non-manga editorial content is decided on by myself and Drew Williams. Basically, I write the boring, factual articles, and Drew writes the interesting, funny ones. (*laughs*) I think each issue's editorial content is better than the one before, and we are planning lots of things, on top of the anime, CCG and video game information related to Shonen Jump titles: interviews with manga artists (like the Toriyama interview in issue #3); info on Japan and supplemental cultural elements which relates to the manga; humor articles like the ninja feature in issue #2; reader's polls and other interactive features; and so forth. We want things which help explain the context of the manga to American readers, and also provide new, interesting information from Japan and from the Japanese Shonen Jump. And things that will get the readers involved (like a certain something called 'OK! Jump Guy!!' we're starting in issue #4), because the first thing that the makers of the Japanese Shonen Jump told us is that they made their magazine by listening to reader input."

If 2002 was a big year for "Shonen Jump," expect to see 2003 be an even bigger year. "We want to make the magazine better and better, bigger and bigger, and ultimately, we want it to come out more and more frequently," says Thompson. "We plan to collect [all the 'Shonen Jump series] in graphic novels, starting in the second] quarter of this year. They'll have a different format from other Viz graphic novels."

As far as the replacement for "SandLand" goes, Thompson is content to tease fans about the possible candidateā€¦ or is that candidates? "Hmm... tasty clues, eh? Well, we've looked at many possible candidates, and we'll make an announcement in an upcoming issue. We have been reading all sorts of 'Shonen Jump' manga -- old and new -- and considering the titles which people are asking for and the titles which would add the most to the current lineup. Of course, we may not replace 'SandLand' with just one manga..."

There's no doubt in Thompson's mind that working on "Shonen Jump" is the highlight of his manga career. "It's the highlight of my career at Viz, and I feel very happy knowing that I have been able to help bring it to the U.S., remembering that a few years ago I used to say around the office 'Boy, we really should publish more Shonen Jump titles.' (*laughs*) I'm very glad to have been able to communicate with the artists, to get their involvement in the English publication of their work -- to meet and talk to Akira Toriyama, as well as Eiichiro Oda, Hiroyuki Takei, and Masashi Kishimoto, although the last three only briefly in person. I'm interested in all aspects of the creation of manga, and the involvement of the individual artist is something that makes the American Shonen Jump special. One of the things that many mainstream journalists who report on Shonen Jump are surprised to find out is that, unlike so many traditional American superhero comics, manga is the creation of one artist -- not interchangeable artists and writers working on a company-owned property -- and I think this is one of the things that gives manga its appeal. Working on Shonen Jump has made me even more aware of the artist behind the work, and I've tried to bring that across to American readers."

He is loath, however, to single out his favorite manga in "Shonen Jump" and Thompson provides a diplomatic, but honest, answer. "I can't really answer that question for reasons of politeness -- I love 'em all equally (*laughs*). 'Dragon Ball Z's' cliffhanger fight scenes and the application of a gag-cartoon art style to an action series; 'SandLand's' taste of Akira Toriyama doing a series based more on his own personal interests; 'YU-GI-OH!'s' role-playing-game sequences and other gamer in-jokes (I love pen-and-paper RPGs); 'Yuyu Hakusho's' absurd sense of humor and, progressively, the artwork; Naruto's coherent, detailed setting and artwork; 'Shaman King's' 'world manga' feel and slightly subversive theme; 'One Piece's' completely incredible artwork, unforgettable characters and awesome plot. There's something I like about each series. Some of them are more difficult to work on than others, due to the simplicity or complexity of the translation and sound effects, but that doesn't effect my enjoyment of them as a reader.

"To the fans, thanks for your support, letters and fan art! We read everything we get, so please keep telling us what we can do better in 'Shonen Jump.' We won't disappoint you -- the manga artists wouldn't forgive us!"

 
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