Vertical’s Ed Chavez On Finding Great Comics For Women And Surviving The Manga Bubble [Interview]
Vertical Inc. publishes manga about eating disorders, adorable cat antics, 18th century prostitutes, and murderous high school cults. It brings avant-garde creators like Kyoko Okazaki and Moyoco Anno to Western eyes right alongside classic Tezuka work and more mainstream shonen fare like Knights of Sidonia and Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin. I point to Vertical when friends ask me how to get into female manga creators, how to get into horror manga, how to get into josei (women’s) manga, or how to just take a break from the cycle of standard sci-fi and fantasy.
Vertcal is utterly singular and entirely necessary to the comics industry, and it was to the Vertical booth that I sped once the doors to the San Diego Comic-Con Exhibit Hall were open this year. After examining their new releases (I recommend In Clothes Called Fat, another glance into female anxiety courtesy of Moyoco Anno), I sat down with Ed Chavez, Vertical’s marketing director, to talk about past successes, present realities, and future plans.
ComicsAlliance: How was Vertical created? was there a mission statement at the beginning, or did it all just end up being cobbled together?
Ed Chavez: Vertical is just now in its 10th year. When it was founded its objective was to try and release the best of Japanese contemporary pop culture. So if you’re familiar with the company, for the first few years or so we really didn’t release a lot of graphic novel material at all. We were really just a novel publisher.
So our first release was Koji Suzuki’s Ring. That was happily later released as a movie here in the States, and really kick-started the whole J-horror genre, globally. That put us on pretty good footing, particularly that we were working with people like Chip Kidd and the like, designing our books, helping us market a genre that hadn’t really been seen outside of Japan at all, even though it’s something that’s pretty important to their culture over there.
It took a few years to get into comics, and once we did with Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha series — which here at San Diego ended up picking up two Eisner awards — we realised as a company that there was more to good storytelling from Japan. It was not just exclusive to prose. That’s where I came into the picture five years ago. I joined the company from Kodansha in Japan, essentially just to expand our manga line. While most of my job is focusing on sales and marketing, I do the majority of the acquisitions for our comic side.
CA: What’s interesting about Vertical is the blend you’ve got going on between really classic stuff, like all the Tezuka stuff you brought over, from Blackjack to MW, etc., to the really bleeding edge modern stuff like bringing over Kyoko Okazaki’s work, Flowers of Evil, stuff like that. How do you maintain that balance?
EC: I think its just being cognizant of what’s available. Particularly when it comes to manga. There isn’t all that much history to begin with. Manga as an industry has only been around, even in Japan, for a little more than 50 years in some legit form. There had been underground things previously and comic strips since the turn of the previous century. Manga we know, if you go to a store today, has only been around for 40-50 years. While there’s a ton of content to pick from, there really isn’t that much history to go through.
So we just try to pick books, whether they’re graphic novels or prose, that might resonate with people, on a broad scale. We pick up our comics — people like to market them as manga, we call them comics — just as we work a novel. We pick up all those genres too. We like genre. We’re not literary by any matter of fact. People in the office, we like horror, sci-fi, fantasy, cutting edge drama.
That’s what is driving pop culture in Japan in general, if you see their movies, [or] happen to read a [Haruki] Murakami [novel]. These are their analogs in comic form. If you see cute cats on videos like Maru, you’ve got Chi’s Sweet Home. So we try and find those analogs that are accessible to the masses, essentially. And not just the Otaku fans, the Anime fans, but people here at San Diego Comic-Con may not be into Nardu or Dragonball. They come by to our booth and they’re just like, wow, this is something that I would be into. That’s what we’re consciously going after.
CA: What I find interesting, as someone who really grew up with manga as a boom, is how much people talk about how manga has declined from those big, heavy juicy early years where everyone was buying Fruits Basket, Naruto, Dragonball etc. You guys are publishing manga and other Japanese works but you’re in a different genre. What’s your take on manga in the U.S., in the west, and where its future is?
EC: It’s interesting. We’ve been in this little pocket that wasn’t impacted by that boom or bust that occurred over the last 5-6 years. Ironically, during all that time we’ve actually seen growth, which is bizarre.
I think it’s just, at least here in the west, there hasn’t necessarily been a loss in consumer size, market size; I think its more that whole boom was really partially because they had some great content that was coming out. Fruits Basket was revolutionary for its time, Shojo titles are just starting to get out, and introducing comics to teenage girls is something where manga was very fortunate to be ahead of the game.
Things like Naruto, Dragonball, … there had been anime and all that merch around those things really helped grow those audiences, but sadly during that same amount of time there was just a lack of curation. There was a glut of work that was put out there, not all of it very good. Once we ended up going into a global-economic correction, all that fat needed to be carved out of somewhere.
The strange thing is, if you go back and statistically look at those evergreens, they basically have not really lost too much readership. If you go look at some of the — not just us, go talk to Seven Seas, some mid-size publishers, they’ve done really great during that entire period of time. It’s really just having better editors, better publishers out there, smarter publishers. Picking out better content and being more aware of what the market wants and what the limitations of that market is.
Now, I see manga going moving out of that correction phase and going into another growth period. Go talk to most of the other publishers and they’d generally agree. However, most of us now are looking at the market with very different eyes. We’re obviously studying sales a bit more, we’re doing a lot more interaction with our group consumers, testing things out with digital distribution as well.
It’s interesting to see at this show, you’ll always see Viz Media and Dark Horse show up. We’re here because of our Eisner presence. But those companies are now going back to anime cons. Those are events they ignored for four to five years and that was ridiculous. They know they’ve got to get that audience back. Once again, it’s a correction in the market, but in a way it’s just being cognizant. It’s making the right decision in this market that’s going to progress things.
CA: What kind of cultural barriers do you face? Do you get a lot of people coming up and being, like, “What’s this? Where’s One Piece? Why does this look creepy and grown-up looking? Why does this look adorable?” Something like The Flowers of Evil is completely mystifying to somebody who doesn’t have a very open mind when it comes to manga, I’ve found. How do you handle that?
EC: For us, cultural issues come in many layers, so first of all we get a lot of people that come by and are like, “Why are your books backwards?” So that’s one problem. Then, I think the common thing with this discussion is that we don’t release a lot of titles that are mainstream. We do have titles like Gundam and Summer Wars and things like that.
I should say, if you were an anime-viewing teen and you pass by our booth, the very first reaction most of the time would be, “I haven’t heard of any of this”. The reaction from these kids is, “These are designs that I am familiar with, so why don’t I know about this?”
CA: I mean, your cover design is so good. That is what drew me to your booth the first time three years ago. They are so incredibly fantastically done.
EC: Well, as I said before, we try to bring not just those readers, but we try to bring in people who read books, people who pick up graphic novels from Drawn & Quarterly and from Fantagraphics. So, it is going to be a little jarring for some people at first, but if people stay by the booths, if people have the opportunity to contact us on social media our responses, you actually might be familiar with more than that you are aware of from here.
A title like Paradise Kiss is just millimeters away from Nana, which is huge, right? Which may just be a couple of degrees off of Vampire Knight. Flowers of Evil might not be on most people’s radars because it’s not in the same magazine as Attack On Titan, but it is also edited by the same guy that did Love Hina, which was one of the foundations of shonen manga here. These aren’t titles that are all that outside of people’s reach, and a lot of these works tend to have anime, but these aren’t that handful of titles that everyone knows from Shonen Jump.
And once we are able to open people’s eyes to that fact, then a lot of people are just really curious and more than willing to take a chance. Thankfully I think with the books that we have selected over the years, most of our titles just have good storytelling. The art styles might turn some people off in some cases, but narrative-wise we have figured out [that] if people are looking for things that are going to engage them in that manner — emotionally or intellectually –then you can definitely find that in a Vertical title.
I think once people do start digging in then they really start getting engaged. Our readership tends to be … very vocal, very active. As we continue to grow, it’s really encouraging me, because it’s out of just this little thing with Black Jack and MW and Buddha. It is just a whole different line that people are supporting.
CA: You guys offer so much more in terms of comics about women, comics dealing with sexuality in every possible way, comics for little girls, comics for older women; you really run the gamut. Given how much discussion there is about women in comics, and sexuality in comics, and all of these things, where do you stand? How do you feel about what you do? Is it a conscious choice to really represent a big spectrum across your work?
EC: I think, at least in my case — I do all of the acquisitions for our comics — it is active. It is something that I want out there. To be honest, when it comes to josei, I used to do a lot of writing for Publishers Weekly and for magazines in Japan, and a lot of these artists work in seinen (manga for men), which I have done quite a bit of work on in the past. I feel that there isn’t that much of a disconnect really. I feel that these are a lot of very good, really smart storytellers, great artists and gender isn’t an issue here.
But, unfortunately, to markets and to retailers, and who knows what other gatekeeper is in-between, but people get hung up on this shit, and I want to tear down those issues. I actually want to release as many strong female storytellers out there [as I can], with characters that are just like modern day women, even if the story might be set in 18th century Japan, like Kiyoha in Sakuran. You can take that character and pop her into modern day Tokyo and it’s the same problems.
On the other side of it we have comics like What Did You Eat Yesterday?, and Utsubora, [which] deal with gender in other ways. These are very realistic stories, these are issues that we have to deal with every day. In our office we aren’t afraid to deal with that type of thing. We are not afraid to bring that up to Random House or Diamond when we have our sales meetings. Instead, we are like, “These are stories of people and they have to be engaged by our publicist, and if there is a problem then we are more than willing to take those on.”
Our stories, in general, are going to overcome anybody’s misconceptions because they are just good, honest and earnest. We just hope that other people take notice. If anything, I have been a little frustrated by that fact that we have been actively doing this for two years now, and there has been very little discussion about how we have literally created a women’s comics, line and we are growing the women’s comic line, when publishers like DC tried and gave up almost instantly. What is up with that? Just knowing that this is a topic of conversation, how come no-one is looking at these works? I know people are buying them, because we are releasing more of them, but why not give it a little bit more of a spotlight when those conversations do come up? It is a little weird.
CA: That is definitely true. Do you have any personal favorites among the stuff that Vertical has put out? Any iron-clad loves?
EC: It’s a little weird to get a question like that because I hand-pick most of these, but things that I think I would fight for to the death would be… Kyoko Okazaki, to me, she is just so important to narrative in Japan.
In the 1980s she came out in the porn industry — the ero-manga industry — over there because traditional publishers could not at the time wrap their heads around telling stories about women to the masses. Shojo publishers were just, like, this is too hard for people who usually read about magical girls. Same in men’s comics, publishers were just, like, “Oh, well, all of these stories have women as main characters, Akira isn’t about a woman!”
So instead the ero-manga industry was just like, “Oh yeah. Women! Women are in all of our comics, awesome.” So the chance arose to literally found publications … and bring other people in like Ai Yazaka and eventually Moyoco Anno and Erika Sakurazawa, and to be able to release her first long form work, Pink. And to put that alongside Helter Skelter, her last one, it just gives people an overview of what she was able to do during those very, very hot ten years. I don’t think there is anything on the table that I am more proud of.
CA: I know Helter Skelter was one of my favorite books that came out last year. It just blew me away. Being able to get that kind of perspective with something like Pink, that was more at the beginning of her career, and Helter Skelter, which was more of the end of that one decade of intense work from her, it was incredible. You could see the continuity of style and theme going on. You could see how her work really evolves. It is just incredible. And I love how much you are putting out from Moyoco Anno in a similar way.
EC: Exactly. So with Kyoko, if you look at Helter Skelter in particular, and then go to our most recent Moyoco Anno release, called In Clothes Called Fat, which came out a year before Helter Skelter, you can see so much of those influences coming in, from Moyoco literally learning from Kyoko, and that is so different from what Moyoco had done up to that point in her career.
She did a lot of fluffy shoujo, she just came off of doing Happy Mania, which is revolutionary, this frickin’ comedy, into [a manga about] women’s sexuality and body issues [and] eating disorders. Not even doing that for a manga magazine, but for a women’s magazine, where she didn’t even understand how important comics were to people. She would eventually end up getting hundreds upon hundreds of letters from people who were like, “I know exactly what these characters are going through. I relate so well and I understand the fear that she is trying to render in this work.” It is so different from what she would do.
But if you look at Helter Skelter, it is all so intense and so scary. The psycho drama is really heavy there. That type of storytelling and the way that they are able to meld the very minimalist but really real designs is so, so cool. It is not something that is replicated in any type of format globally. People have not really tried. Other people tried to do big eyes and shoujo characters and shonen character before, but that that look of the ’90′s. It is so powerful, what it does.
CA: What does the future hold for Vertical? Do you guys have your eyes on any particular titles, or are there any ideas for an expansion?
EC: Actually, we haven’t made this public but we are going to do an expansion in the not too distant future. Vertical as we know it, or at least as ComicsAlliance reader’s know it, is going to be a little more focused, and not necessarily going to detach itself from the novels side but it is going to have it’s own identity.
What you should expect from that is more of the same, but with even more curation. For example next summer we are going to be releasing the complete short stories of Satoshi Kon. A 420-page omnibus, very similar to what we are doing with Gundam: the Origin. Glossy paper, some good essays inside that look to kind of close the book on that director and comic artist.
We are going to be doing a little bit more sci-fi so expect a couple of titles of that to come out in that genre this fall. One direction that is going to be a little bit different for us is that we are also going to start dabbling into some culinary [manga] as well. Once again, that is very important to the Japanese culture.
There is a lot of stand up comedy that occurs over there; we are going to be releasing some gag comics in 2015. I am editing one right now. It is a little bit of a departure from what we normally do, but I think people are going to be surprised by how witty some of this stuff is. It is mainly visual gags.
More josei too. There isn’t too much longform left from Kyoko, but we are definitely looking into more; we are going to be doing more with Moyoco Anno. I am looking at a couple of artist to introduce as well.
I think if you are an existing Vertical fan or you have just been on the fence, [you're going to see] more of the same, but I think even finer curation from here on out. You don’t necessarily see the weird extremes like Hero Man and things like that too much any more. We have kind of figured out what our niche is.