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U.S. papers to add Japanese-style comics

In an attempt to attract younger readers, several major American newspapers will add Japanese-style manga comics to their Sunday pages.
Stuart Levy, chief executive of TOKYOPOP Inc., sits beside a rack of 'manga' comics in Tokyo, in October.Shizuo Kambayashi / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Doonesbury” and “Peanuts,” make room for “manga.”

Come January, the Sunday funnies of several major North American newspapers will have doe-eyed women in frilly outfits, effeminate long-haired heroes and other trademark images of the Japanese comic style.

The reason? Newspaper editors want to attract more young readers. A study released earlier this year by the Carnegie Corporation put the age of newspaper readers at 53 and climbing — hardly a recipe for circulation growth.

“We thought if teens and young kids are reading manga, (pronounced MANG-uh) then why don’t we get something in the paper that teens want to read?” said John Glynn, vice president at Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes comics and columns globally to newspapers. “Newspapers are being seen as their parents’ medium.”

‘Anime’ influence
The U.S. newspaper debut is a bit of a landmark for manga — a product of Japanese pop culture that has never been quite mainstream in the United States, although it’s long been a hit with the younger generation that grew up on Pokemon, Hello Kitty and Japanese animation movies — or “anime” for short.

“This could be something that really explodes,” Glynn said in a telephone interview from Kansas City, Missouri. “This is a great way to take a chance and change the landscape and readership of your paper.”

Several newspapers that have signed on to carry the two English-language manga strips on Sundays include the Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Vancouver Sun and Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Martin Fischhoff, assistant managing editor at The Detroit News, which also plans to carry manga, believes it has the potential to be a big hit and draw new readers.

“I know how popular manga and anime are among a young demographic. Go to any bookstore and there are kids swarming around the manga shelves. And by kids I mean everyone from high school into their 30s. There is even a local store devoted to manga paraphernalia, which is always packed,” he said in an e-mail. “But this trend clearly hasn’t made itself felt in newspaper comic sections.”

More in the future?
The larger papers can afford to take risks, Glynn says. But if manga proves a success, others may follow suit.

“The newspapers want the manga more even than we want the newspapers,” says Stuart Levy, chief executive of TOKYOPOP Inc., which publishes the cartoon strips that will be carried. “Newspapers are looking for new fresh ways to appeal to young people.”

Kirk LaPointe, managing editor of The Vancouver Sun, said manga has drawn a strong following in the Vancouver area, particularly among young readers.

“We want to bring more features that appeal to a younger readership, and many of the comics we carry have an older following,” LaPointe said in an e-mail. “We also like the artistic nature of manga and feel it will contribute to the graphical beauty of the paper overall.”

Both cartoon strips are by Americans — evidence of how far manga has come in the United States.

“Van Von Hunter,” by Ron Kaulfersch and Mike Schwark, is a horror spoof about a warrior and his female sidekick who dress in Gothic-inspired costumes and are on a mission to fight evil.

The quirky “Peach Fuzz” explores conflicting views of reality. It depicts 9-year-old Amanda’s desire to become friends with her pet ferret, Peach, who harbors delusions of being a pampered, veil-donning princess.

The manga rage is spreading.

Papercutz, a New York company, bought the rights to The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries to bring out comic versions inspired by manga. Major bookstores in the United States now devote rows of shelves to manga.

CosmoGirl, the No. 1 teen publication in the United States, began running manga produced by TOKYOPOP in August. And the Harlequin Romance books are coming out in a manga version — something that’s already available in Japan.

Manga is more a storytelling style than a genre, spanning the range of novels or movies — including romance, horror, science fiction and comedy. Manga tales also tend to be more psychological and less action-oriented than its U.S. counterparts, such as Marvel’s superhero comics.

“Peach Fuzz” co-author Lindsay Cibos says she found manga “deeper and more fulfilling than cartoons on TV.”

Cibos, 23, is a self-taught manga artist who has never been to Japan and speaks no Japanese but grew up on the manga classic “Sailor Moon.”

Manga stories “touched upon girls issues, emotions and romance, that sort of thing,” she said in a telephone interview from Orlando, Florida.

Cultural attitude
Takashi Nakagawa, executive managing director of Softbank Investment Corp. in Tokyo, a financial backer of TOKYOPOP, says he saw a good opportunity five years ago in the company’s attempt to translate manga into English and offer it to the American market.

Founded in 1996, TOKYOPOP has operations in the United States, Japan, Germany and Great Britain, has an annual revenue of about $40 million and sells as many as 10 million books a year, according to Levy, the CEO.

Levy, 38, is a Los Angeles native who came to Japan in 1989 to attend university. He quickly realized manga was hot as a lifestyle statement, touching on fashion and music, in the same way hip hop has defined a cultural attitude.

“Manga is the core of this kind of lifestyle and culture, which is becoming a global trend,” he said in his Tokyo office. “I’d tell people Japan is such a creative place, and they would say, ’No, no. no. Japan is not creative. It just copies the West.’ And I said, ’That’s totally wrong.”’

Levy is now working on a musical film based on manga.

His next project: offering an English-language manga service on the Web that will allow people to view the comics online or download them onto their mobile phones to read on the go.

“This is getting so popular now,” said Levy, switching into fluent Japanese and displaying manga on his cell phone screen. “Japan is way ahead of the world in this.”