Jim Zubkavich, project manager for UDON, discusses the new line of manga titles they’re importing from Japan, books that are perfect for young readers—without any big “surprises” (nudity, language, sexual content) popping in by accident.
Why was this a good time to begin a new UDON manga line?
The manga market is growing up and we're seeing a generational shift in readers. Manga readers are getting older and they're having kids or have nieces and nephews or younger brothers and sisters who are interested by the style and storytelling in manga. Having age-appropriate manga content for that age group and being able to introduce new readers to comics and manga has business potential but is also something we feel strongly about as fans of manga and anime as a whole. There's a new generation of potential readers and manga is a fantastic way to enable a lifelong love of reading.
As tough as the publishing market can be sometimes, we feel it’s important not just to follow trends. A lot of companies are scaling back their publishing schedule. We feel now is a good time to take a few risks and try to expand our market. A well-chosen core line of quality books targeted at an age group that loves manga but doesn’t have many choices of appropriate reading material to choose from right now is a solid move.
You started the line to address the reading needs of children, specifically ages 7–12. Why do you think this market was being underserved before? Why had they been left out?
The vast majority of the manga in stores focuses on material for ages 13+ and much of that skews older rather than younger in terms of showing violence, complex relationships, and sexual content. At first glance, people may look at manga designs and assume that they’re childish or youthful because of their features, but the reality is that the stories themselves are more mature. The style has a great deal of appeal and is gaining more mass-market acceptance, but it’s also been a bit of an uphill battle to educate book buyers, librarians, and educators about how to shelve the books and what kind of material they contain. The few manga titles there are for readers 7–12 are tied in to toy lines, functioning as mass-market advertising for other products. Having properly vetted material for a younger audience can make recommending manga a lot easier for younger readers and give them new and exciting books of their own.
What has the reaction to UDON manga been so far?
The reaction to our manga has been quite positive! We started out with some safe bets by releasing English editions of the video game–based Street Fighter manga. We’re best known for producing original Street Fighter comics here in North America, so our existing fans enjoyed seeing the classic Japanese take on the franchise. We then brought over several Korean manhwa series, which feature the same quality art and storytelling as Japanese manga but with less violence and adult situations. These teen titles, including Magical JxR, The Grim Peddler, Star Project Chiro, and Dorothy of Oz were a way for us to break out of the perception that UDON only worked with video game–related titles and was solely aimed at a boys' market.
Our newest manga acquisition is Silent Möbius: Complete Edition, a new release of the ultimate sci-fi manga series, including new translations, remastered art, and plenty of bonus material. The first volume will be out in August and we’re already hearing from excited fans who can’t wait for this release. Our manga titles are diverse, but all of them are high-quality releases carefully chosen for their target age group.
What is the status of kids' manga in the United States? Are kids responding to the format the way you had expected?
There is a big demand for manga oriented toward a younger audience. We’ve gone to comic book conventions and library conferences over the past few months as the line has been released and the excitement from buyers, educators, librarians, and the kids themselves has been strong. Our goal is to make sure parents and librarians know that these books are high-quality and safe for their kids.
What are you looking to create in this line of books?
Our UDON Kids books (and our Manga for Kids website) are dedicated to titles for ages 7–12 that are completely age-appropriate and feature high-quality stories and artwork that can stand on their own as great books. Our four launch titles cover a range of genres that kids and adults can immediately identify with and enjoy—fantasy, music, sports and sci-fi—and the content has been carefully chosen and translated so that it's appropriate for young readers, libraries, and book fairs.
The goal is to have a line of quality books that isn’t just an advertisement for a toy line—manga that can engage children and help turn them into lifelong readers.
Are you exclusively translating previously published Japanese manga or will you also be creating original manga?
Right now, we are localizing four titles from Poplar, a renowned children’s book publisher in Japan. We researched a lot of different possible titles before settling on these diverse and well put together launch titles. Assuming the line goes well, we want to expand with more titles in the future. We may create original titles in the future, but our initial focus is on building up our audience first on a tight core line and not oversaturating buyers with too many options too early.
What are the criteria you use for selecting the manga you publish?
Our main criteria in selecting manga titles, quite simply, is quality. We like to think of ourselves as a boutique publisher, focusing on a few quality releases rather than releasing a slew of new manga titles and hoping some of them stick around. When we’re considering which new titles we want to add to our line, we always look for books with solid art and great storytelling first and foremost.
With our Manga for Kids line, there’s the additional component of making sure the content is appropriate for children. We researched a lot of different manga for children and carefully vetted the titles so that the age rating was consistent in terms of art and story.
How does this fit in with the rest of UDON’s publishing line?
If our initial manga titles were solidly aimed at the existing manga market—teens and older—then with each new wave of titles we’ve pushed to expand that, skewing younger and wider with the manhwa line and now younger still with Manga for Kids. We built our library of books for teens with a wide selection of genres and now are promoting manga to younger readers who can easily "graduate" to our other books as they grow older.
Do you find more adults understand what manga is and what its appeal is?
Comics and manga have definitely picked up mainstream appeal over the past few years in a way that’s surprised and amazed us. Two years ago, we were at BookExpo America promoting our manga line and it involved a lot of educating buyers and librarians about what manga was and why it was starting to pick up so much steam. Now many of them know what it is and appreciate that there’s a wide array of titles to choose from.
At its core, almost every manga title is about independent-minded characters having unique experiences, physical and emotional, and gaining confidence/growing stronger. That’s an especially powerful and respectful message to kids and teens in a market that has tended to talk down to them. Marry that with appealing iconic artwork and I think it’s easy to see why manga has grown so much worldwide.
How can manga be incorporated into teaching? Have you seen examples where it already has been?
Manga and comics are an important education tool on multiple levels. The midway point between picture books and full prose is a crucial one for developing visual storytelling. In addition, comics can be a great way to bring reluctant readers into libraries and increase their confidence and comprehension of the words they’re reading. The fact that manga has easy-to-follow iconic designs and appealing graphic shapes that readers empathize with is something any educator would do well to look at as a way to keep their students excited about reading, storytelling, and art.
We’ve spoken with librarians and educators who have seen the appeal of manga and are using that as a way to communicate better with their students. They’ve started manga reading clubs and, in turn, are making their libraries a more inviting place that’s in tune with the growing audience. They’ve realized that what’s most important is that students are reading and excited about the material, not that it’s familiar-looking and the same content they themselves read growing up. Each generation wants to define themselves in terms of art, music, and culture. Manga and the Japanese art aesthetic is part of how this generation is defining itself as different from their parents. Educators who grab hold of that can find it a useful way to tap into the minds of their students and engage them in a whole new way.