I’ve been reminiscing over A Zoo in Winter and rereading my small collection of Jiro Taniguchi manga lately. Taniguchi is a fantastic draftsman, and has some truly remarkable comics under his belt. Sadly, there are not a lot of these comics published in English.
Western comics and manga can live together peacefully, if not joyously, but there are certain business models that work better in a land without translators and licensing fees. One of these is the micropublisher. Now, to be fair, all comics publishing is essentially niche publishing, and art comics like Fantagraphics are an even smaller niche. But the micropublisher is phenomenon that goes beyond publishing as a business. It looks at publishing as an art form, and the publisher, often one or two people, decide to publish a book. They may only have two or three books under their banner.
A good example that comes to mind is Uncivilized Books, with 16 titles to its name, most of which are the work of Jon Lewis or Gabrielle Belle. Another is Koyama Press. The powerful thing here is the relationship between the micropublisher and their writers. These publishers, because they are so small, can have an intimate connection with their creators in a way that a Penguin Group could never have.
This is very difficult with Japanese media. With translations, licensing fees, and the like getting in the way of that intimate relationship, we see much fewer micropublishers that work with Japanese comics. Even if there is a person who would like to create micropublishing work with Japanese comics, going through the licensing and translating would likely scare off or present a high barrier to entry to all but a few dedicated publishers.
The essence of the micropublisher (to me) seems to be the almost archival nature of the business. The idea that something is worth the money to be printed and distributed for sale and consumption is powerful. And we see this mentality in some of our smallest publishers, like Ponent Mon/Fanfare, Vertical,TopShelf and Fantagraphics. These publishers have a history of choosing titles that are both archival worthy and representative of the art they believe should be available to American audiences.
A question is: does this selection of publishers really present the content that you want to read?
My own answer is no. These publishers have released amazing content. Without them, I wouldn’t own copies of Wandering Son, Ayako, A Distant Neighborhood, or AX. But there is a lot of josei manga (which typically does poorly in the wider bookseller market) that I would like to read, and while Vertical has done a good job picking very “Vertical” josei titles, I want more.
Your own answer could vary. I want more geikiga, more historical manga, you might say. I want to read garo or experimental/avante garde manga. I want to read more sports manga. Mecha manga, cooking manga, etc. What do you want published that isn’t published right now?
Micropublishing is a labor of love. And sometimes it is hard business. But, another question: If you aren’t satisfied with the manga output in the US – why not do it yourself?