If TOKYOPOP was the company that first embraced the teen market, licensing Sailor Moon and bringing manga to big chain stores, then VIZ was the company that first wooed adult readers, using distinctive packaging and punchy trade names to help older manga fans distinguish stories about boy ninjas from stories about disillusioned samurai. VIZ wasn’t the only company courting older fans, of course; Dark Horse has been synonymous with manly-man manga for most of its licensing history, while TOKYOPOP made several unsuccessful forays into ladies’ comics. VIZ, however, has done more than any major American publisher to create a market for titles like Oishinbo and 20th Century Boys, seinen works that appeal equally to male and female readers in their twenties, thirties, and beyond.
One of VIZ’s first branding experiments was its short-lived Spectrum Editions line (1990-91). VIZ published three seinen titles in a prestige format with vinyl dust jackets, high-quality paper, and a large trim size. Those titles — Natsuo Sekikawa and Jiro Taniguchi’s Hotel Harbour View, Yukinobu Hoshino’s Saber Tiger, and Yu Kinutani’s Shion: Blade of the Minstrel — didn’t make much of a splash in the market, but they anticipated some of the design choices that VIZ would make with its Editor’s Choice and Signature imprints a decade later.
Another important precedent for the VIZ Signature line was PULP: The Manga Magazine. First launched in 1997, VIZ billed its monthly anthology as “manga for grownups,” and featured edgier stories than its companion magazines Animerica and Manga Vizion. Titles such as Banana Fish, Bakune Young, Dance Til Tomorrow, Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga, Short Cuts, Strain, and Uzumaki debuted in PULP before they were collected into graphic novels that bore the magazine’s name.
After struggling to find an audience, PULP was canceled in 2002. The significance of PULP wasn’t lost on its editors, however; when the magazine ceased production, they issued the following statement, summarizing their achievement:
PULP was the first English-language magazine to run the kind of manga that make comics a mass medium for ordinary adults in Japan, from dynamic action narratives to avant-garde ventures, when it debuted in December 1997… PULP offered readers a Japanese comics contrast to both the superhero genre that typifies American comics and the stereotypical “anime-esque” manga often offered to U.S. readers.
After VIZ phased out the magazine, several PULP titles — Dance Til Tomorrow, No. 5 — found a home at the newly created Editor’s Choice imprint. Like PULP, the Editor’s Choice line was designed to appeal to older readers, featuring titles such as Maison Ikkoku, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Phoenix, and Saikano. The Editor’s Choice imprint had something else in common with PULP: it was short-lived. By 2006, VIZ had rebranded the catalog with the VIZ Signature name, using it to help adult readers distinguish Naoki Urasawa’s Monster from Naruto.
In its six years of existence, the VIZ Signature line has been steadily diversifying to serve a wider audience. Speaking to Publisher’s Weekly in 2009, VIZ Managing Editor Leyla Ayker explained that one of the goals of the line was “to create a balance between the more ‘literary’ works that would appeal to readers of Western graphic novels like Fun Home or Asterios Polyp and the more ‘action’ works that would appeal to readers of American superhero comics and genre fiction.” To that end, VIZ has been licensing a mixture of highbrow titles — All My Darling Daughters, Oishinbo A La Carte, Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka — and pulp fiction for mature readers — Black Lagoon, Biomega, Dogs: Bullets and Carnage.
The Signature line was never tied to a print magazine, but in 2009, VIZ launched an ambitious collaboration with the Japanese anthology IKKI: select IKKI titles would be serialized online, allowing North American readers to read free monthly updates of series such as I’ll Give It My All… Tomorrow and Saturn Apartments. VIZ would then publish those series as part of its Signature line, with a special logo to distinguish the IKKI titles from other Signature manga. For a year and a half, the site flourished, offering readers a mixture of new comics and feature articles: an interview with Q Hayashida (Dorohedoro), a comic drawn by one of the VIZ designers. By the end of 2011, however, regular updates to the site had ceased, prompting speculation about the future of the project.
Whatever the future of SigIKKI, the project epitomizes what the VIZ Signature line does best: publishing high-quality manga that appeal to a wide spectrum of adult readers As Leyla Aker explained to Publisher’s Weekly:
The reason why IKKI and Signature are such a good fit is because their objectives are the same: to publish series that offer a diverse range of content but that are all marked by creative excellence. Another factor is that both lines are gender-neutral, so to speak; their content is aimed at both adult men and women, which is fairly unusual for manga.
And that, in a nutshell, is the VIZ Signature imprint: 43 titles that run the gamut from kitchen-sink drama (All My Darling Daughtes, Gente: The People of Ristorante Paradiso) to horror stories (Cat-Eyed Boy, Uzumaki), sword-and-sandal epics (Vagabond), science fiction (Bokurano: Ours, Saturn Apartments), thrillers (Black Lagoon, Monster), romances (Ristorante Paradiso), mysteries (not simple, Sexy Voice and Robo), and fantasies (Dorohedoro, GoGo Monster).
N.B. VIZ began designing a new Signature website which remains unfinished as of 4/22/12. In the comments below, reader Eric Rupe notes that VIZ doesn’t seem to have made much progress on the site; links redirect the reader to an empty product page at viz.com.
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The goal of this month’s Manga Movable Feast is to create a place where grown-ups can discuss their favorite — or least favorite — VIZ Signature manga. Anyone can contribute: all you need to do is send me a link to an essay, podcast, or review about a VIZ Signature title, and I’ll feature it in one of my daily round-ups. (Email or Twitter are the best way to submit links; Twitter submissions should be directed to @manga_critic.) Note that the feast runs from today (Sunday, April 22nd) through Saturday (April 28th). For more information, please visit the VIZ Signature MMF archive.
Liz saysApril 22, 2012 at 9:42 pm
I was a little miffed at your “twenties, thirties, and forties” statement. Is manga reading supposed to stop at 50? :)
Katherine Dacey saysApril 22, 2012 at 9:47 pm
No way! I’m turning forty this year, and plan to keep on reading manga as long as I can find titles that interest me. I’m just speaking very generally about manga’s US readership: it’s young, making those of us at the higher end of that list something of an anomaly.
CJ saysApril 22, 2012 at 10:36 pm
Shame Banana Fish’s second edition wasn’t published under the Editor’s Choice title too. It might’ve found the audience it so deserved and that maybe didn’t even know they wanted it while I think the Shojo logo might’ve hurt it more than help it. I would love to see some of their old Pulp and EC titles published again, if they put out Banana Fish in omnibuses, I’d buy it all over again just to give Viz more money. And Maison Ikkoku is in dire need of yet another printing as the second editions are out of print (glad I got mine! One of the first series I ever collected!) I feel like now that they’ve really established the Sig line and it’s doing well that now would be a great time to bring back adult series that are now long out of print but would fit well within the Sig lineup now too (and help them find a new audience, because everyone needs to be able to buy Banana Fish affordably).
I wonder if they’ll ever put out any Sig series in omnibus format ever…
Eric Rupe saysApril 22, 2012 at 10:50 pm
Unless my memory is going bad, I’m pretty sure that Signature website been “coming soon” since Pluto and 20th Century Boys launched. I love Viz’s Sig line but I kind of get the feeling that they might be phasing it out or something since a number of their series are ending soon and they haven’t been announcing any new licenses for it lately either, which is disappointing. Luckily, Yen and Vertical are doing a good job of getting titles for adult audiences lately.
Katherine Dacey saysApril 22, 2012 at 10:55 pm
Looking more carefully at the VIZ Signature page, I think you’re right — the logo and header at the top of the site look woefully out of date, especially when contrasted with the most recent VIZ site design. I’m going to revise the text right now. Thanks for the tip!
Aaron saysApril 23, 2012 at 9:27 am
Well this will certainly be interesting that’s for sure I’m also not that shocked about the SigIkki ebsite I mean I was only getting two volumes of Kngyo a year and even than it was pushed back a month or two once or twice.
Manga Connection saysApril 23, 2012 at 11:10 am
Wow, I counting up how many of the Sig series I at least have the first volume of (20) and there are 43 series total? I had no idea I had half; the fact that the line hasn’t been getting much love lately is even more of a bummer. :( I really, really hope the MMF changes that! (And Eric’s note about the Sig website is right; that website has been around for a long time and has yet to see any substanial updates.)
Zach Adams saysApril 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm
Man, I miss the heck out of Pulp. I only got in on the last 2 years or so of it, but I discovered so much cool stuff there.
As for the Pulp/EdChoice/Signature Line in general, it’s hugely disappointing that it hasn’t been more successful, but the contraction of the market in general hurt it a LOT. And as digital makes inroads in comics in general, I feel like Viz are shooting themselves in the foot by refusing to release anything that would require an iTunes content warning.
Katherine Dacey saysApril 29, 2012 at 2:13 pm
I didn’t start reading manga until after PULP’s heyday, so I missed out on the fun of subscribing to the magazine. I have bought some old issues on eBay, however, and really enjoyed the mixture of comics and articles. It’s a pity the SigIKKI website petered out, as it seemed like a smart way to adapt the PULP concept to the internet.