Big in Japan: How Fantagraphics Started Publishing Manga and What It Means

Comics Features Japan

Lost in Translation

Over the last few years, Fantagraphics has become home to some of the most interesting and highest quality manga releases in North America. The most notable entries include Nijigahara Holograph, one of the best-regarded releases of 2014, and Massive:Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It, the first collection of gei manga (erotic manga created by and intended for gay men) to be released in English. Though the manga that the publisher has chosen to release have been critical successes, their number of Japanese translations remains small.

In light of Fantagraphics place within the comics industry and their history with foreign comics, this fact is particularly interesting.

Over the course of 30 years, Fantagraphics has worked tireless to normalize comics and remove the stigma of juvenalia long associated with the medium. The company’s efforts have made it one of the most influential alternative comics publishers, and through original titles, translations and archival releases, it’s supported some of the most important cartoonists of the last hundred years. The company’s prevailing ethos is to publish serious, mature comics with literary merit, and this has lead it to publish works from such luminary figures as Charles Schulz, Los Bros Hernandez, Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes, Walt Kelly, Chris Ware and George Herriman. That ethos, however, has rarely encompassed manga, and it wasn’t until 2010 that the company began translating Japanese comics in earnest, creating a line devoted to the Japanese imports. Massive, its most recent release, is only the 12th installment in this line.


Though the company has long been involved in the translation of Franco-Belgian and Italian comics, its only foray into Japanese books prior to its current manga line had been its pornographic MangErotica line of Eros Comix (an imprint of an imprint whose website is well hidden on Fantagraphics’ own). Previously, the publisher had only released two books of manga — Sake Jock in 1995 and Anywhere But Here in 2002 — under its own name.

But in 2010, the North American publisher announced plans to work with Japanese publishing conglomerate Shogakukan (one of the largest manga publishers in the world) and begin a formal initiative to incorporate more manga into its catalog. Matt Thorn, an associate professor in Kyoto Seika University’s Faculty of manga, acts as the translator and curator of this line, and overall, the books she’s chosen address the same audience as Fantagraphics’ other books. They’re geared towards adults/young-adults, irrespective of gender, interested in intellectually engaging and emotionally introspective works. Wandering Son, for example, follows a pair of transgender teens, and Thorn’s translations of works by Moto Hagio include some of the earliest and most important examples of shonen-ai (boy love), a genre intended for female readers that depicts male-male romantic and sexual relationships. Fantagraphics’ other releases include the aforementioned Nijigahara Holograph, a Lynchian exploration of identity and ontology, and Massive, the only book in the line not chosen or translated by Thorn. These are not the kinds of comics that pigeonhole easily, nor are they the kinds of comics a mainstream publisher would take a risk on. In many ways, they’re kin to Fantagraphics’ originals, but in others, they represent a significant territorial expansion.

Looking at how well Thorn’s translations fit into the milieu that Fantagraphics had already staked out and how successful they’ve been, the obvious question is: what took them so long?

The Changing Face of Manga

Having long since rendered terms like gekiga (dramatic pictures) and komaga (panel pictures) obsolete, manga (whimsical pictures) is the prevailing idiom of Japanese comics, and most all comics originating from Japan are grouped under that particular discursive umbrella. Buttressed by the anime boom of the 1990s, manga made inroads into the American market and, within a decade, began to overtake domestic titles. At the manga boom’s peak, Naruto, Bleach and One Piece regularly outsold western graphic novel staples like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. For a while, it wasn’t uncommon for two or three spots of the top five best-selling graphic novels in a given month to belong to Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto. Manga tapped into new demographics and new readers&, and a possibility loomed that the next generation of cartoonists would be more familiar with Son Goku or Sailor Jupiter then it would be with Batman and Spider-Man. DC Comics even launched CMX, a manga imprint, while Marvel launched the Marvel Mangaverse.


Fantagraphics’ recent history has been marred by financial volatility. But even during the peak years of the manga boom — roughly 2003 to 2008 — years which overlapped some very lean times for Fantagraphics, the publisher never made substantive moves towards manga, a move which may have significantly improved the financial health of the company. Publishers Weekly posits that this is due to Fantagraphics Publisher Gary Groth failing to see any “literary worth; with most manga.

And who could blame him?

Most manga in this country fits neatly into two genres: shonen, which is aimed at young boys, and shojo, which is aimed at young girls. In the last decade, American shores have been inundated with a glut of Japanese comics, primarily ones fitting into these two categories. These were the kinds of comics supported by popular anime series, comics like Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, One Piece, Sailor Moon and because of that support, they sold in droves. Publishers tend to go with what works, so they avoided unknown quantities, often ignoring complex and challenging works, and continued publishing similar or similarly support works. The result: a landscape made up largely of comics aimed at children. Divorced from the actual breadth and depth of the form, its history or its current landscape — a situation which is only now beginning to change — manga appeared no different from the genre of superheroes.


It stands to reason that this landscape was responsible for shaping whatever notions Gary Groth may have had about this particular branch of comics. And Groth literally founded a company devoted to shrugging off the pervasive idea that comics are childish and lack artistic value. Any prejudices that he may have harbored most likely came from seeing illusive similarities between manga and the mainstream he had spent so much time demarcating himself from.

An Emerging Market

But the comics landscape is changing — the rise of the “New Mainstream,” flourishing micro-press scenes, the balkanization of readership, a slow shrinkage of dependence on the superhero-driven direct market. Brandon Graham, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Jillian Tamaki, Becky Cloonan, et al. —the most visible creators today cite manga influences, and as the history of comics becomes richer, more complex, less linear, more and more information about more idiosyncratic manga has come to the fore. The seminal publisher PictureBox released atmospheric and non-narrative art comics from Seiichi Hayashi and Pop-Art nonsense comics from Shigeru Sugiura. Last Gasp published the ero guro nansensu (erotic, grotesque, nonsense) comics of Suehiro Maruo. Breakdown Press has published the pioneering short stories of Masahiko Matsumoto and is set to release the “anti-manga” of Sasaki Maki, which Josselin Moneyron at The Hooded Utilitarian calls “among the most abstruse ever produced…” Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics’ closest peer in terms of cultural standing, became the North American home of Shigeru Mizuki, striding into manga and proving a certain level of viability for more mature, nuanced work. Boutique publisher Top Shelf also files Ax (vol. 1): A Collection of Alternative Manga under the “Perennial” category of its own webstore. More than just in the mainstream, manga has more or less been assimilated/normalized, and numerous publishers have proven the existence of a market for more personal and unusual manga.

In spite of initial reticence, Fantagraphics’ leadership discovered more about the medium’s history and diversity, and so in 2006, when The Comics Journal managing editor Dirk Deppey introduced Matt Thorn to Groth, the latter was receptive to a proposed line of manga. Thorn has managed to remain consistent with the guiding principles that have ensured Fantagraphics’ place in comics history. More than that, though, these recent manga releases are exemplar of a company that’s growing with the times, and slowly but surely shifting its slate to represent the fuller, more aesthetically, stylistically, and demographically diverse comic reading constituency.

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