September 30, 2008
by: Serdar Yegulalp
Vertical, Inc., purveyors of all things Black Jack, look ahead to 2009.
"Pimp Your Read. Read Vertical." So goes Vertical, Inc.'s slogan, as printed on their promo posters, tote bags, advertising flyers, bookmarks, and ... condoms. Yes, at one point they gave away condoms to promote Lala Pipo, which is so many shades of wrong that I lost count after page 78. They deserve mention here, however, for the outstanding work they have done to bring the Guin Saga, Osamu Tezuka, and the sadly underrated Keiko Takemiya to English-speaking audiences everywhere.
First, the bad news. Guin, one of their flagship titles and one I had high hopes for since it first appeared, has simply not sold as well as they had hoped. This means the possibility that future arcs in the series will never come out in English, and if that happens I'm going to track down everyone reading this who has not run out and bought the whole thing and tie-dye their cats. The worst place to end up is between a man and his chosen fandom.
That said ... publisher Ioannis Mentzas dropped some broad hints about what might happen with Guin if the stars align and lightning strikes in the same place twice. A major Hollywood director who was responsible for a surprise hit that most everyone reading this has probably seen (no, I won't name names, now please put down that hammer) is extremely interested in getting Guin adapted. Whether it's a big-budget Lord of the Rings production or something smaller and more cleverly-mounted, either way a Guin movie would put a nice spike in their book sales -- and justify picking up a good deal of the rest of the series. (Even the graphic-novel side stories haven't done that well, which is doubly disappointing.)
On the plus side, Vertical's committed to bringing out the whole of Black Jack -- all seventeen volumes of it, and if they don't come through with that I'll tie-dye their cats. The first volume came out last Tuesday, and if you haven't picked it up yet, quit missing out. Each successive volume will be out every other month, so the next is slated to drop in November, then January, and so on. They can't come out soon enough for me.
Even slicker is the Diamond Comics exclusive hardcover editions of the first three volumes, each limited to 1500 copies and each sporting a story never before released in any form. Apparently Diamond came to them with this idea, not the reverse.
The wacky Aranzi Aronzo series looked like a weird lark from the outside, but this series saved their necks, amazingly, and they have been pumping them out as fast as they can get their hands on them. And they're a ton of fun; they're activity /craft books for kids and adults. Imagine a indie version of Hello Kitty, where the cute is not created by board meetings. In springtime comes the Baby Stuff book -- "so cute, it hurts" (indeed!) -- and it follows very much in the same vein, either for anyone who's expecting a baby or anyone who knows someone who does.
Many of the announcements are actually pushbacks from earlier in the year, and all of them are interesting in some way or another: Asa Nonami's BØDY (from the author of Now You're One Of Us); Tatsuaki Ishiguro's Michael Crichton-esque Biogenesis, which also sounds like some of Stanisław Lem's more serious work; Natsuhiko Kyogoku's Summer of the Ubume, about a ghost hunter who doesn't believe in ghosts, but has other explanations for the weird things he comes across; Koji Suzuki's short-story collection Death and the Flower; the new Shinjuku Shark novel Poison Ape (think a Japanese take on the Ed McBain crime novels); Mariko Koike's suspense mystery Cat in the Coffin; Tetsuo Takashima's political / journalistic thriller Fallout; Takeshi Kitano's A Guru Is Born (also made into a movie starring Kitano, too, no less!); Masayuki Suo's original novel for his film Shall We Sumo? (a/k/a Sumo Do, Sumo Don't), which was pitched as "Bad News Bears in sumo".
Vertical's wares -- spanning literary fiction, manga, and many other cultural sectors.
Of real interest to this crew: Keiichiro Ryu's Blade of the Courtesans, a samurai-vs-ninja adventure story. Apparently some of Ryu's works were made into manga by the creator of Fist of the North Star, no kidding; he has apparently brought a great many younger readers into historical fiction.
Vertical has a slew of nonfiction also coming out, with the biggest and most seismic of the bunch being Sakie Yokota's chilling true story North Korea Kidnapped My Daughter. Fans take note that one of the other titles is by Toshio Okada of Gainax: Sayonara, Mr Fatty! The blurb version is "Supergeek goes on a diet" -- apparently Okada was able to drop quite a bit of weight by simply recording, with total meticulousness, every single thing he ate over the course of a year and change.
Back when I first took in a Vertical panel almost two years ago -- this was back when Annie Ishii (HI ANNE WE MISS YOU) was still their publicity manager -- Ioannis noted that they were kicking off their own manga-specific imprint. So, where is it? In Ioannis's own words: "The will is there, but the rights acquisitions happen in Tokyo, and I'm not personally in charge of it. So I am pretty frustrated, and I'd love to go over there and do it myself. But if we want to do an imprint, we need a steady stream of stuff that we can only get by teaming up with a specific publisher. It's a tough environment, although I still want to do it."
That brought up some discussions as to how Vertical deals with authors. "In terms of prose, we work directly with authors. Japanese publishing law states that the contract cannot include secondary clauses [such as licensing for foreign languages], so we can just go to the author. With manga, editors are such a large part of producing manga that the creators don't want us to come to them, but rather approach the publisher. That makes it tougher for a smaller publisher like us; we just do not have the kind of money that other people have. Tezuka Productions is the exception. They don't like to be the whipping boy of any major Japanese publisher, so they come to us, and we also try to do a good job with their stuff to boot."
A Black Jack cosplayer makes his stand with Vertical.
About Chip Kidd, the designer who created many of their iconic original book designs: "Chip Kidd was actually our first employee. He joined us when we told him we were going to do Buddha, and he became our art director over that! But Chip hates doing workaday designer stuff, and he tapped one of his collegaues at Knopf, Peter Mendelson, and he's now our man."
About Keiko Takemiya and To Terra... : "Takemiya sales don't justify picking up more classic shojo, unfortunately. In the case of To Terra..., we got lucky. One of the reasons it was made into an anime was because we published it in English, and they pay attention to what goes on here. Any classical titles other than Tezuka, or something that has a tie-in, is a tough sell. Most kids don't buy anything more than five years old. It's just old, in their eyes." (Maybe things will perk up a bit with the release of the To Terra... anime here in the States thanks to the good graces of Bandai.)
Something else Ioannis wants to do, in the vein of what Stone Bridge Press has been doing, is scholarship on Japanese popular culture, especially books on Tezuka."If the interest in Tezuka continues, yes. I think there has been more interest in the last 2-3 years than ever before. I've been wanting to publish books on manga since day one; but we need to make sure it can at least break even. The one I have in mind is Natsume Sannosuke's book on Tezuka. He writes and speaks English, so it won't be a problem as far as the rights go; it's a question of the sales."
So are there other Tezuka titles after Black Jack? "Somewhere after the 6-7 volume mark for Black Jack we'll pick up another Tezuka, title but right now we want to concentrate on getting Black Jack done well. That is a three-year project, and it's not like we won't do any other Tezuka work in that time period. One thing we can say about volume 3, in the hardcover edition, is that it will have an essay in it by Aida Palmer."
Stephen Vrattos encourages yet another passer-by to "Read Different".
Tough as the road is for Vertical -- and many other boutique / specialty publishers in these doubly-tough times -- they keep punching. Stick around in the coming year for many other reviews on my end from their catalog of forthcoming titles. And buy Guin, or I'll trace your IP address and show up at the foot of your bed in the middle of the night with a very large pointed stick.