The Year In Webmanga: Small Changes, Big Plans?

Things were quiet in the world of web manga this year, but there’s plenty brewing beneath the surface. There weren’t any Big Events, a la Marvel DCU or Zuda, just the established channels chugging along: Netcomics selling chapters of manga online for a quarter a pop, publishers giving it away to build buzz for their print editions, scanlators posting their favorite titles in closed circles, and artists working out new projects online. But behind the scenes, several publishers are preparing to launch web manga in one form or another.

Individual efforts

More than ever before, the web has become a place for global manga artists to polish their skills by publishing long-form works, some directly referencing Japanese manga, some sharing no more than a superficial resemblance. Elfquest creator Wendy Pini launched an idiosyncratic version of Masque of the Red Death that mixed yaoi and sci-fi, served up with an unusual Flash interface. Sweatdrop stalwart Sonia Leong, whose last gig was illustrating manga-fied Shakespeare adaptations, also went the sci-fi/fantasy route with the more traditional Aya Takeo. Other artists continue to expand and polish their long-running stories: Gina Biggs’ clever shoujo story Red String, Emily Wilcken’s Visual Kei manga The Way to Your Heart, Audra Fuirichi and Scott Yoshinaga’s super-cute Nemu-Nemu. Sarah Ellerton wrapped up Inverloch and started a new, equally luscious comic, The Phoenix Requiem. Dan Hess cleaned up and reposted his parodic fantasy tale Angel Moxie. And the man-bites-dog story of the year was the news that Megatokyo will be published in Japan, in the edgy literary magazine Faust.


Scanlations: Going legal?

Scanlators continue to bring out the niche titles that won’t sell enough to attract the attention of U.S. publishers, and it’s only natural that someone would try to monetize it. Enter Manganovel, a service that puts Japanese manga, in Japanese, up on the web, some for free, some for a small amount of money. Users can earn credits by translating the manga and posting it on the site. The amounts of money involved are small, but it could save scanlators the trouble of scanning in the pages and give them a little credit for work they had previously been doing for free. On the downside, scanlation is all about the quality of the titles, and unless Manganovel can deliver the goods, no one will pay any attention at all. And one other thing: Since their reader is a .exe file, Mac and Linux users need not apply, which cuts out a big slice of their market.


The big publishers chart a course

On the outside, changes in corporate web presence were incremental. Netcomics, which will be two years old in January, expanded their offerings to include global yaoi manga from Yaoi Press as well as Japanese manga. The micropayments model seems to be working for them, but it doesn’t hurt to have the backing of Korean online publishing giant Ecomix.

Masque of the Red DeathMost of the other U.S. publishers offer some sort of online previews of their manga, but only two go further. Seven Seas puts a lot of material online but often takes it off when the print edition comes out. Tokyopop offers previews but will also put an entire volume online for a limited time to promote another volume in the series.

Unfortunately, Tokyopop moved backwards in 2007 by redesigning their website into such a high-concept space that no one could find anything anymore. The good news is that another redesign is in the works, and there’s more to come; Tokyopop has energetically explored new media, including cell phones, animated shorts, podcasts, and the Sony e-book reader, and it would be surprising if they didn’t start offering some sort of digital delivery soon.

At the New York Anime Festival, several other publishers dropped hints that they are thinking about moving content online. At the ICv2 panel on marketing and technology held just prior to NYAF, Dan Marks, senior vp of strategy and business development for Viz Media, said, “We are investigating the market very thoroughly, and my guess is sometime in the near future you will start to see manga digital downloads.”

DC seems to be positioning themselves as well, although it’s not clear for what. Earlier this year, DC invested in Flex Comics, Japanese company that produces manga for the web, cell phone, and print. DC has been quiet about their plans so far, but at the ICv2 conference, John Nee, DC’s vp of business development, said, “Our whole model of Flex Comics is built on digital delivery driving sales of physical goods,” suggesting the direction CMX Manga may be going. He also pointed out that Megatokyo, which is published by CMX, continues to sell well despite the entire archive being available online.

Out on the floor at NYAF, people were talking about Marvel and DC sending cease-and-desist letters to BitTorrent site Z-Cult FM. Conventional wisdom was that it was a mistake, and in the face of declining anime sales, people from the companies themselves were saying that the solution is not to punish the pirates but to beat them at their own game, perhaps by offering free streaming anime subsidized by downloads.

That may not work as well for manga publishers, though. During the festival I had the opportunity to talk to Jeremy Ross, Tokyopop’s director of new product development, about online manga. “Ad and sponsor driven devolves to a winner-takes-all market,” he said. “That’s not a literature market, nor a midlist or long-tail business.” If web manga leans heavily on sponsorship—as webcomics in general are doing right now—we may lose the niche titles that make it so interesting. Ross sees micropayments as the way of the future, supported by some sort of cybercash—such as the MapleStory gift cards that can be used to purchase enhancements to the MMORPG of the same name. “I think we need to develop a track record for making that work,” he said. “Make it like PayPal.” As the parent of a teenager who has an iTunes allowance but no credit card, I’d say he’s on to something.

Brigid Alverson