Grooving to the TOKYOPOP: CEO/Founder Stuart Levy On His Company's Big Plans

Thu, February 7th, 2002 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

[Tokyopop]Ever since founding TOKYOPOP in 1996, CEO Stuart Levy has been surprising comic book fans with bold moves that have been keeping his company in the Top 10 companies list and bringing manga- comic books from Japan- to the forefront of the comic book industry. The Los Angeles based company burst onto the scene with its "Sailor Moon" graphic novels and has continued to acquire major licenses over the years. But with the manga rights to "Cowboy Bebop," "Love Hina," "Initial D" and other popular Japanese licenses, Levy is taking manga in America to the next level. In the same bold and forward thinking manner that has made TOKYOPOP so successful, Levy and his company will be releasing over 80 manga graphic novel volumes by the end of the year, with each about 200 pages long and priced at the amazingly low amount of $9.99 per volume! Even more unprecedented is the fact that all of these manga graphic novels will reprint the source material in the original right-to-left format, maximizing the authentic "manga experience." Recently, Levy took a break from his outrageously hectic schedule to talk with CBR about his company and the comic industry in general.

"I began my career as a multimedia producer for edutainment based CD-ROMs in Japan, then moved into consulting for video games and Internet projects," Levy told CBR News of how he became a modern day manga mogul. "In the process, I noticed that video games in Japan really originated from the rich culture of comics and animation. After falling in love with a few comic properties (manga), I saw a need for an aggressive company in the U.S. to promote manga and the entire world of manga/anime/video games. I was already an entrepreneur in the multimedia space pre-TOKYOPOP, but my main motivation was that I felt there was a huge opportunity to bridge the entertainment scene in Japan and the U.S. Many people have tried, but I really believed (and still do) that I am probably one of, if not the #1 bi-cultural producer out there. Most of my good friends are not sure if I am more Japanese or American, which is strange for a Jewish-Italian white guy. But that's how much I dove into the Japanese culture and Asian culture overall. And to make it more confusing, I have loved hip-hop for over 20 years. So, mixing all these incredible cultures was my major motivation." When asked if there have been times that he regrets starting the company, Levy laughs and answers, "In terms of regretting starting the company, I have never regretted starting it, although there have certainly been times when I wondered whether my life would be better if I had just taken that Microsoft job."

But it wasn't just the diversity of manga that attracted Levy to comic books: he's been a fan since childhood. "Growing up, I really was into 'Archie' and 'Mad' Magazine. I was not as much of a super-hero fan, but I did like the Hulk and Aquaman a lot. Now, I mainly read manga-and my job gives me a great excuse to get away with it! My current favorites are 'Initial D' and 'Tokyo Tribe.'"

"I love the ability to merge the visual medium with lyrical storytelling," says Levy of his love for the comic book medium. "I find that comics (specifically manga) are much like storyboards that present a dramatic representation of a story. It's really the best of both worlds-novels and movies. In terms of other formats for creative expression, I think it depends on the story and what the creator wants to express. It's not whether or not one is absolutely better than another, but which is best for the story."

So what does Levy do at TOKYOPOP when he isn't pontificating about the inherent virtues of manga? "I tell people that my job is to pay the bills-which is easily the most miserable aspect," says Levy with a sly grin. "But I still wear many hats, so I do various things. Acquisitions and Development is probably my most enjoyable and largest job. I work with our Brand Managers, Sales & Marketing, Editors, and Production staff to come up with the best acquisition targets, as well as our own development. I handle the licensing process in Japan. I also handle our capital-raising activities, which have been substantial. This means Investor Relations is another part of my job, along with General Counsel (I am an attorney, so I am stuck with all the legal work that I cannot justifiably dish off to our law firms). I work with all our top management to give direction and encourage them in their jobs. It really is our entire team that makes TOKYOPOP an exciting place with great momentum. I try to be our biggest cheerleader."

"The industry is fun for all of us-my most enjoyable times are getting together with the entire team after a hard-working con or trade show. Last summer after Comicon [held in San Diego each year and the most popular comic book convention in North America] where the entire team went for Cajun food for dinner on 5th Street (I think) was tons of fun. That is when it is most rewarding for me."

If the name TOKYOPOP isn't ringing a bell with you, then maybe that is because you remember the company by its older name. "TOKYOPOP has been through a lot. We started as Mixx, publishing manga anthologies like 'MixxZine,'" says Levy of the company's early days. "We built on our early graphic novel model ($10 for 200 pages) by expanding into more titles. We have played a lot with the magazine format, never finding the right economics there. We have done e-commerce online and finally moved into our current business model, with manga, character books, anime, and music. We love to find properties that can move across media because it shows depth and personality in the property. But, of course, we love just straight-up manga stories that fit perfectly on a plane or train ride, curled up near a fire, or just killing time during lunch!"

Fans who have experience with TOKYOPOP products are generally in unanimous agreement that the company has been producing quality products since day one, with a commitment to low prices, accessibility and a diversity in stories that allows for any read to enjoy a product from the company. But while those commitments to pleasing the fans have remained consistent for over 5 years, Levy readily admits that his company has seen many, many changes in the past few years. "We have learned an incredible amount; become much more professional; recruited an aggressive and creative team that sets new standards for our industries; and have really refined our vision for building TOKYOPOP into an exciting brand," explains Levy candidly, while also adding, "To be honest, we are probably operating now closer to our original goals than we were two years ago. We got a bit sidetracked by the whole Internet community thing, which was inevitable at the time. But, unfortunately, it took our resources away from focusing on great entertainment content-which is 150% of what we do now."

[Cowboy Bebop]"Our goal at TOKYOPOP is to deliver the most exciting entertainment possible and merging the best cultures in the world to do so. I believe we are very much making that vision a reality-we have content from Japan, Korea, the U.S., and are in talks with creatives from Europe and elsewhere. Everyone is devoted to cutting-edge entertainment and influenced by a combination of American, Japanese, and urban pop culture. I feel we have great momentum now."

When asked about the highlights of his time with TOKYOPOP, Levy admits to the experience being unlike anything else he's ever felt. "It has been a whirlwind. Making it through 2000-our most challenging year-was one. Building the team we have today was another. Getting manga into the major retail chains has been another one. Now, 2002 will definitely bring some more..."

One look through Levy's bio at http://www.tokyopop.com reveals a deep rooted love for foreign cultures, especially that of Japan, as he not only holds law and business degrees, but has also studied extensively in Japan to the point where he is now fluent in Japanese! "I have always loved different cultures. I grew up with my Korean neighbors, hanging out every day playing football and eating kimchi. Growing up in LA, I was always in an integrated environment, with influences of all sorts. From age 16, I was eating sushi, and learning Spanish and French. The Japanese thing kicked in when I was in grad school and decided to go study in Japan. My choice was between Italy, Asia and the Caribbean." Levy also laughingly admits that, "The Caribbean was my #1 choice, but my career advisors fought me tooth and nail."

"Japan is a brilliantly fascinating place. It's like a living oxymoron-between ancient tradition and modern technology. It really is my second home now, and I feel like I'm back home every time I step off the plane at Narita. Of course, the oxymoron is as a foreigner I can never be fully 'accepted' as Japanese-unlike America. And when I am in Japan, I am always very proud to be an American and what our great country stands for. The nice thing about spending some time abroad is that it really makes one appreciate what is amazing about the U.S. So, I am fortunate to have two incredible countries to spend my time in-now I just need more time to travel around the world and build it up further!"

As much as he enjoys traveling around the globe like a CEO version of Indiana Jones in search of the next big hit, there is also a lot of pressure on American manga companies to acquire licenses before the bidding wars get out of hand. This fact makes it even more impressive that Levy has been able to broker the publishing deals for the "Love Hina" and "Initial D" manga licenses (as well as the anime- Japanese animation- in the latter's case), as they are two extremely hot properties in Japan. "There is a lot more competition for licenses today," explains Levy of acquiring hot licenses for TOKYOPOP. "We are fortunate that we have been doing this for so long now, and we are the market leader. Our licensors have recognized that we are constantly challenging the status quo and trying new approaches to build the overall market for manga, and comics as a whole. But there is always someone new who wants to throw more money in and grab licenses. Our argument to the licensors is that we will do better in the long run for the licensor, no matter what kind of money any new competitors want to throw out. Anime licenses are tougher for us since we have not been in the business as long as our competitors. But after 2002, we will be on the map in a major way."

[GTO]But for those who are looking to be the next Stuart Levy, you're not going to find that the real deal cares to divulge his secrets. In the competitive world of foreign licensing, one can't lose any advantage they have and each situation is unique. But can the TOKYOPOP founder tell us any secrets, even the small one? "This is, of course, confidential and one of our greatest competitive advantages. It would take a new company quite a long time to learn what the licensor is looking for and what they are not. In our case, I negotiate all the licenses in Japanese and over a long amount of time, working closely to show that we care about the property and we have solid distribution and marketing funds to support it."

Though manga is doing quite well in North America, with plenty of mainstream news coverage and big conventions to keep it at the forefront of pop culture, there are some like Levy who see an even bigger and brighter future for manga, despite the success that these comic books have experienced. "I think the manga market has yet taken off the way it will," prophesizes Levy. "I do not believe the saturation point is even close as compared to anime. The stories are so rich, so varied, so deep, and so textured. There are light stories, romance, comedy, drama, action, adventure and horror-the list goes on and on. Manga is the New Hollywood in our opinion because so many talented writers in Japan move into manga." Additionally, Levy wouldn't mind seeing some more North American artists try creating their own original manga. "I would really like to see more U.S. based writers move into manga (or comics) as opposed to film or TV, but the economics need to be there. There needs to be an upside for them-and writers need to be willing to take a risk on the upside. The challenge is the writer/artist dynamic. It is tough in the US to find good writers that can draw and vice-versa. Also, it is tough to find good black and white artists. If anyone out there reading this wants to give it a shot, e-mail us for our submission policies. We would love to try to help make it work!"

One of the reasons for manga's success in North America has been its wide availability in bookstores, such as "Borders" or "Barnes & Noble," where a mass audience can sample the material as opposed to having to find a comic book specialty store somewhere out of the way. Keeping TOKYOPOP's graphic novels and related products in these major bookstore chains, where the company is one of the top comic companies in terms of sales, is important to Levy's definition of his companies place in the comic book market. "I think you will see us having a much more significant role. We sell our manga into many various stores, from hobby and comic shops to book and video stores. At this point, comic book shops are a small percentage of our total distribution. We fully intend to lead the manga business into a serious player in the entire comic industry, and to build TOKYOPOP into an overall brand name that is widely recognized. We're very much making sure that our products remaining in the major bookstore chains and come April, with our 'point of purchase' display units, fans will be able to get all-new titles from us at a variety of outlets!"

The philosophy behind this campaign is to make people aware of TOKYOPOP and manga in general, a factor that Levy cites as one of the main, if not the biggest, problem facing manga from really invading mainstream consciousness. "Certainly the capital to get behind marketing and distribution is another. We are investing millions in this business, and we have made mistakes along the way. It takes a commitment, but we know the content is rewarding enough that it will happen, and we intend to drive that. I believe that within the next five years, the U.S. manga market will be #2 in the world outside of Japan, and we intend to be a large part of that."

But in order to sell products, people have to want them and Levy is quite excited about TOKYOPOP's upcoming offerings, confident that many fans will feel the same way about the products once they read them. When asked which series fans should keep an eye out for, Levy responds by saying, "There are quite a lot. Since we are focusing so much on manga in this interview, I won't go into anime, although we have some amazing anime titles coming out in 2002. We have gone 100% for quality in anime and nothing else. In manga, we are lucky that we can maintain top-quality manga but still release many more titles. By the time people read this, word may be on the street that we are launching an entire new manga line in April 2002. All of our new manga will fall under this line. We call it authentic manga, and it will read the Japanese way-right-to-left. I think it will give fans a great taste of what manga is all about, as well as allow us to keep Japanese sound effects. We have wanted to keep Japanese sound effects for years because they are an integral part of the art, but because the stories are flipped to read left-to-right, we couldn't. With the authentic manga concept, fans can experience the incredible artwork of the Japanese sound effects. Finally, we are focusing on bi-monthly and even monthly graphic novel releases all for under $10. This means that instead of waiting 6 months to read 200 pages of a great manga, you can read 3-6 volumes (600-1200 pages) in the same amount of time. This will completely change the playing field. I will bet that our competitors will move to this model within 6 months of our April 2002 launch."

"Oh-I almost forgot the content. Some really key titles are 'GTO' (incredibly funny and a huge hit in Asia), 'Initial D' (I am hooked right now-the art style takes a bit to get used to but the story will blow you away), "Paradise Kiss" (a shojo story focusing on fashion and very punk-ish), 'Love Hina' (you mentioned this one-a classic manga comedy), 'Maramalade Boy'/ 'Kodocha' /'Kare-Kano' (3 shojo fan faves and all fun reads), and some great new Clamp stuff ('Chobits'). And of course 'Cowboy Bebop!' That's not counting some of our lesser-known properties with great stories, such as 'Island,' 'Ragnarok,' 'Dragon Knights,' 'Skullman' and 'Planet Ladder.' By the way, 'Priest,' which is a new Korean one we will be putting out, will probably win an Eisner [extremely prestigious comic book industry award]!"

[Initial D]As one has no doubt noticed, TOKYOPOP is leaning heavily towards the graphic novel format, as opposed to the monthly 32 page comics sometimes called "pamphlets," and while this comes at a time when the industry itself is slowly finding that the graphic novel format appeals to a wider audience, Levy isn't doing this to follow a trend. "Well, I am a bit biased. I personally believe that the graphic novel manga format is the best format for comics overall. We have to compete with other entertainment media and the customer understands what brings the most value per dollar. At $3-4 per 24-36 pages, the value is very low compared to movies, TV, music, and sporting events. But I think that $10 or less for around 200 pages of manga entertainment is much more compelling. And the stories are awesome! I would really like to see more American artists and comic book publishers begin to think in this framework. We believe that color is not necessary for an entire story-a black and white pulp style approach is best."

Levy has always enjoyed the graphic novel format and when asked if he intends to eliminate "pamphlets" from the TOKYOPOP line of products, he has an answer that might surprise some. "Yes. As explained above, single issues do not provide the entertainment value. We do not mean this as a slap against collectors, but the traditional collector is becoming a rare breed. Our mission is to build manga across the U.S. as a major entertainment medium, so we have to focus on value. But the remaining titles that have single issues may be worth something one day since there aren't too many left, so if you are a collector, this is an inside tip!"

As Levy mentioned, TOKYOPOP has expanded into releasing other Japanese pop culture besides manga and currently releases some Japanese music CDs, with more on the way. In addition to embarking upon that business venture, TOKYOPOP has also licensed some anime like "GTO" that is plans to begin releasing in upcoming months. "Both are relatively new for us. The soundtrack business is something we ran with, and we are fortunate because we have the right licenses-Final Fantasy, for one. Anything else in this area is in a different league. But I am a huge music fan, so it may be less of a business decision than a personal one. Anime was an obvious move that we have considered since day one. It is an expensive investment and we have serious competition. But I believe our 2002 lineup is the best in the business, even better than the #1 and #2 players," says Levy of deciding to pick up the music and anime licenses, while jokingly adding, "We will see how it goes, but we have a lot of anime fans on staff."

As a part of TOKYOPOP's campaign to further mainstream awareness of its products, manga and anime in general, it has begun to pitch some of its anime products to television networks. "It is a very tough market because of all the consolidation," explains Levy We are learning a lot about the process and working with very experienced people to help show us the ropes, but it takes a serious commitment. We are focusing predominantly on 'Initial D,' which is perfect in many ways for the market right now. The storyline is exciting, the visuals are cutting-edge, the subject-matter (street racing and custom cars) is timely, the concept is unique (no more 'Pokemon' rip-offs!). There are other TV-potential properties, such as 'Reign.' This was created by Peter Chung ('Aeon Flux') and Rinatou ('Metropolis') and is a sci-fi masterpiece about Alexander the Great. It is probably the highest budgeted TV anime ever. 'Real Bout High School,' 'Vampire Princess', and 'GTO' could also easily land on TV. If there are any fans of any of these out there, e-mail the networks!!"

Between all this hectic work, Levy does make time to read comics though as one might imagine, he is partial to manga. "I read mainly manga, as I mentioned, although I do think David Mack's [of 'Kabuki' and 'Daredevil' fame] artwork is amazing. I am not as knowledgeable about local artists as I should be though. I would love to find more domestic U.S. artists who would be willing to draw black and white manga for us-not imitating manga style but telling their own stories as storyboards."

Levy also thanks all of TOKYOPOP's fans for supporting the company and has a few comments for them specifically. "Please get the word out for us. I know it is tempting to keep TOKYOPOP (and manga in general) your own little secret, but the more people know about how great manga is, the larger the market grows, which is beneficial not just to publishers like us, but to all fans since it will support even more great content. I think the future holds a much larger manga market with many more styles-shojo, shonen, horror, politics, fantasy, etc. You are starting to see it now, but I think it will build significantly."

In closing, one might still be wondering, why will 2002 be a big year for TOKYOPOP? Levy has a succinct answer that will satisfy your curiosity.

"All the reasons above!! In other words, tons of great content delivered by an amazing team."

If you wanted a more detailed breakdown of each of the series that Levy mentioned, TOKYOPOP provided the following official descriptions for each series:

Initial D
An enormous hit in Japan, 'Initial D' sold more than 30 million graphic novels and boasted a 50% television share in its time slot. This highly anticipated anime/manga title is well known for its take on the street-racing scene. Following a delivery boy as he earns his way up through the echelons of street racing, 'Initial D' is a "coming of age" story that plays like 'The Fast and the Furious.'

Real Bout High School
The global interest sparked by this property sent buyers into a frenzy at this year's MIPCOM Jr., where TOKYOPOP highlighted its recent anime acquisition. Adding ammunition to success, TOKYOPOP has now secured rights to the eagerly awaited manga series, upon which Gonzo Studio's popular television show is based. In this epic adventure, a high school samurai girl joins forces with her teacher to fight a host of horrific monsters when she's suddenly summoned to the strange world of Solvania.

Cowboy Bebop
With an enormous level of built-in fan loyalty, 'Cowboy Bebop' follows the popular anime series currently airing on the Cartoon Network. TOKYOPOP's manga and anime guide pick up where the anime leaves off, with more adventures and answers to fans' questions about the show. The year is 2071 in the world of 'Cowboy Bebop.' Space exploration, intergalactic criminals and bounty hunters co-exist in a cyberpunk future.

GTO - Great Teacher Onizuka
'GTO' is the next big wave in anime -- no big eyes, no magical powers, no giant robots. The story of a motorcycle gang member-turned teacher who decides it's time to grow up and become a man, 'GTO' serves up a "real life" mix of urban drama and physical comedy. In Japan, this anime and manga series was so successful that it spawned a hugely popular live action television series, the final episode of which posted the highest comedy/drama ratings ever in Japanese television.

Reign
This animated science fiction epic is based on the adventures of Alexander the Great, with character and concept designs by Peter Chung, creator of MTV's seminal hit animation series 'Aeon Flux.' Reign was directed by Rintaro ('Metropolis') and produced by MAD HOUSE, Japan's top producer of cutting-edge animation. 'Reign' features distinctive characters, epic battle sequences and complex storytelling.

The Sounds of Onimusha
This soundtrack to the Sony Playstation 2 and Xbox 'Onimusha' games features a one-of-a-kind score that is already garnering critical acclaim. The powerful, haunting blend of orchestral arrangements and traditional Japanese instruments have coined composer Mamoru Samuragoch a "video game maestro" by Time magazine.

Love Hina
As U.S. fans eagerly await their taste of 'Love Hina' manga, this mega-popular comic book series has already spawned a highly successful and constantly sold-out product line in Japan. 'Love Hina' follows the hilarious antics of Keitaro, a socially awkward student whose attempts to get into college get him "stuck" as manager of an all-female boarding house full of beautiful women.

Priest
With the acquisition of 'Priest,' TOKYOPOP continues its position as the only U.S. company bringing authentic Korean "manwha" to North America, while adding to its current Korean titles, Island and Ragnarok. This popular horror-western follows the antics of Ivan Isaacs, a former priest who sold his soul to a supernatural power and now uses his newfound abilities to fight the demon lord Temoraze and his zombie minions. Ivan is the only one who can stop the evil, but the power he sold his soul to might not exactly be good either.

 
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