Friday, April 16, 2004

Toren Smith of Studio Proteus announced that he was retiring from the manga business and selling Studio Proteus’ half of the publishing partnership to their partner Dark Horse in this Comics Journal article. Y’all missed out on my initial, enraged rant on this subject due to an equally infuriating copy-paste error. I’ve since had time to calm down a bit, but I’m still pretty pissed with Smith. Studio Proteus is one of the oldest surviving companies in the manga translation business, and Smith himself is a pretty big ProFan. He was instrumental in the running of the first true American anime convention, 1991’s AnimeCon. He was Gainax’s pet gaijin for a number of years. He was well-liked by Hayao Miyazaki, a bitter old ex-Maoist infamous for his hatred of Americans. He founded and ran one of the best-known and most-respected manga translation houses, Studio Proteus. I have a shelf full of his output from the late Eighties and early Nineties. So you’ll understand why I consider him one of the two biggest ProFans. The other would be Robert Woodhead of AnimEigo.

Who the hell is Robert Woodhead? Exactly. Woodhead pulled something similar to this stunt of Smith’s in the mid-Nineties. Woodhead’s AnimEigo was the first big company to license and release respectful versions of Japanese animation in the states. There were others, but AnimEigo was the company that got in early, earned folks’ respect, and did well. Woodhead was a computer-programmer millionaire who made his nut in the early Eighties with the Wizardry series of computer games. Never heard of Wizardy? Well, me neither, but I’ve been assured that it was hot shit back in the Apple II days. I was always more of a x86 gamer, so I suppose that particular craze passed me by… anyways. AnimEigo was the shit in 1993, when a brash bunch of Texas cowboys showed up in Long Island with an armful of VHS copies of Devil Hunter Yohko at that year’s I-Con/ChibiCon. Three or four years later, AD Vision had eaten Woodhead’s lunch, having flooded the anime niche market with erratic material, erratic quality, and first-rate advertising. Meanwhile, Woodhead still toddled along as if the anime industry was still his rich-man’s-hobby. ADV, flush with profits from their half-assed porn, violence and cheesecake anime, repeatedly out-bid AnimEigo and the other American anime companies for the choice licenses. A real company, with that priceless instinct for the jugular, had taken the industry mass-market. The companies that survived learned from ADV. The rest faded away, into various dusty little niches.

Woodhead announced, about the time when ADV really started getting traction, that he wasn’t interested in the new anime scene, the exploitational crap and rubbish being released by his contemporaries. He was going to concentrate on the stuff he liked, the stuff he thought was quality material. For some reason, this included rubbish like Shonan Bakusozoku, but whatever. In the end, Woodhead shifted ground into chambara live-action movies, a niche where the stakes weren’t high enough for ADV’s take-no-prisoners approach to get much play. He found a boutique business in which he wouldn’t have to compete.

You can see why the parallel impresses me. Of course, Woodhead was a rich man, who could afford to play rich-man games with his company. As far as I can tell, Smith has no such cushion of primitive-computer-gaming riches to shift himself into a less-stressful market. So he’s just giving up.

If you haven’t been paying attention, Smith’s AD Vision is Tokyopop. While Smith was lazing about, proud of his status as a big frog in the little pond of direct-market manga, a clumsy, dopy, ambitious company run by a self-promoter named Stu Levy was stumbling around, mucking about in the mud. Levy’s Tokyopop tried two or three times to pull the manga scene into the American mass market, first with newsstand sales via Mixxzine, then through the Grrl-Power fad with Smile, and probably a few other damp squibs and duds which I didn’t notice, because I had written off Stu Levy as an overly-enthusiastic snake-oil salesman by that point. Meanwhile, Smith and Studio Proteus cruised along, fat, smug and self-satisfied in their boutique business, pleased that the manga end of the direct market was holding its own, even if the rest of the comic-book business had collapsed in a miserable, greasy shambles all around them.

Then Tokyopop found the way forward. They cut their graphic-novel prices to the bone, and found a solid distribution channel through the bookstores. Every other company treated the bookstore market as a minor side-show – Levy, with his hard-driving mass-market instincts, went for the jugular. The first few waves of Tokyo Pop graphic novels were cheap, they were ugly, they were disposable and not particularly interesting. But they sold. Product line followed product line, and Levy started dropping the overly-expensive pamphlet sales, and concentrated fully on the graphic novel bookstore business.

Meanwhile, the direct market made something of a minor recovery, and turned around. A losing business turned back into a comfortable niche business. But the bookstore market was exploding. Just then, the Studio Proteus/Dark Horse bookstore distributor went bankrupt. Instead of scrambling to get around their bankrupt distributor, they screwed around. The rest of the manga industry cut prices to meet the Tokyopop price-point last year, but Studio Proteus/Dark Horse continued to charge 30% more for their books than anyone else in the industry. And still they screwed around.

Now that Studio Proteus’ business ineptitude is fully exposed, and the industry is on the near side of a classic bell-curve boom, Smith has discovered the basics of economics. He can’t possibly get his company back on track before the inevitable bust cleans out the underperformers. He wants to get out while the getting’s good, because he’s the weak horse in the pack. But he doesn’t want to say that, he doesn’t want to admit that he’s a fuckup. So his books are too good for the market – his quality is getting drowned by quantity. This is the battle-cry of the elitist loser. His example of the great comic which deserves to be more expensive? Ghost in the Shell. Now, don’t get me wrong – I loved Ghost in the Shell. In 1993. It’s not terrible, or even bad. But it’s an old-fashioned archaic cyberpunk fanboy jerkoff exploitation rag, not the second coming of Wil fucking Eisner.

Smith was bullfrog happy in his little pool, until Levy’s boys figured out how to divert rivers. Now Smith’s flippers over ass in the tumbling current, and wondering where his lilypad has got to. Fuck him, I’ve had enough of fetid and stagnant swamps. Let the Woodheads and Smiths of the world wring their hands when the bank comes to foreclose on their buggy-whip factories. I’m gonna go buy myself a Model T from Stu Levy.

Via Anime News Network.

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