Are You Flip-Flopping Over Manga?
Walk into most comic shops and indeed Waterstones or WH Smiths and you are guaranteed to find a selection of Manga on sale. They will be roughly paperback size and won’t look out of place racked with their wordy, image-less cousins but the one striking difference is that you will be reading them the other way round to how you would normally read a comic, graphic novel or paperback.
Open a Manga volume in the way you would a traditional graphic novel and you’ll be presented with this page telling you to flip the book over as Manga is meant to be read from right to left. Manga purists will tell you that this is the only way to read Manga, but back in the 1980’s when Manga was first introduced to American and UK comic readers it was published monthly, in American sized comic format and it was ‘flopped”.
Flopping Heck, what’s that?
We’ll we will come on to that shortly, but first a short bit of background on how Manga gained prominence in a market where traditional readers would visit their comic shops and newsstands for their monthly fix of capes and cowls, maybe a bit of horror or fantasy, but the time was right for them to try something new!
Manga comics hit the America comic scene during the explosion of black and white creator owned comics in the mid-80’s. This was a time where people were seeking alternative reading material than the standard superhero fare offered by Marvel and DC, and as a result saw the growth and success of companies such as Comico, First, Eclipse and Dark Horse. Both Eclipse and Dark Horse would be instrumental in bringing Manga to American (and UK) audiences along with Viz Comics, but arguably and ironically it was Marvel through their Epic Comics imprint who had the most success with the critically acclaimed colourised version of Katushiro Otomo’s Akira which ran for 38 prestige format issues.
These early Manga comics featured many different genres from yakuza thrillers (Crying Freeman), and post-apocalyptic adventure (Appleseed and Nausicaa) to horror (Baoh and Horobi) and humour (Oh My Goddess! and What’s Michael?). Aside from being printed in black and white, they all had something else in common - they were all flopped.
No, they didn’t flop (this early Manga was successful for a few years), they were flopped. What’s that?
The flopping of Manga involved reversing the original panels on the page so they are flipped to a left to right reading order, rather than the way they were originally presented in Japan where they read right to left. If you’ve bought any Manga volumes recently recently from Waterstones or your local comic book shop you will be reading these are they are published in Japan, from right to left so why the flopping?
Well, despite the fact that black and white comics were experiencing a renaissance in the mid-80’s and readers were embracing different genres, it was considered a step too far to expect the American comic reader to essentially read these Japanese comics backwards! In pure marketing terms the publishers at the time wanted to entice new readers to a product that was already so far removed from the superhero comics they had been used to reading that they had to remove as many objections as possible. Readers were already accepting black and white comics, that they came from Japan seemed fine as other cultures comics had already been exposed to the American market, namely British and European, but to have to read them backwards? No way Noberu! So they were flipped to a left to right reading order and published in the same format as the other comics in the store. And for years they were pretty successful and had a good following.
That was until the comics implosion of the 1990’s which didn’t just affect the big two publishers, but also hit Manga sales too. Towards the end of the 1990’s it was also becoming increasingly more expensive to carry on with the flopping of Manga. This was a labourious process which involved resetting all the panels into the new format, some touching up of the artwork and even changing the sound effects from Japanese to English. Suppressed sales meant that in some cases the time taken on the process of flopping was no longer financially viable.
At the beginning of the millennium publishers were starting to produce Manga in its original un-flopped state and in 2002 Tokyopop one of the biggest publishers at the time committed to publishing all its new Manga in its original format. This also coincided with a brand new generation of not only Manga readers, but more importantly non-comic readers. They weren’t prejudiced by their love of traditional American comics and therefore were far more accepting of reading their Manga volumes as they were originally published from right to left. More importantly they could pick up their volumes of My Hero Academia, One-Punch Man, Attack On Titan and Tokyo Ghoul at the bookstore rather than the stories being confined to 28 page issue comics only available at comic shops.
So what of the flopped Manga, is it still worth a look and will the new generation of Manga readers accept that have to read it from left to right? The answer to the first part of the that double headed question is unreservedly ‘YES’.
There are plenty to check out with a few suggestions below:
Appleseed - published by Eclipse Comics in conjunction with Studio Proteus. Masamune Shirow’s post-apocalyptic tale of two former LAPD Swat operatives Deunan Knute and full body cyborg Briareos Hecatonchires, being recruited by Olympus the most powerful city-state in the new world order and their adventures that follow.
Shirow is also noted for his works on Dominion, Orion and Ghost In The Shell, the latter recently being turned into a live action film starring Scarlet Johannson and Pilou Asbaek (Euron Greyjoy from Game of Thrones).
Apparently Shirow’s main focus over recent years has been ‘hentai’ or Manga porn so it’s unlikely he’ll be revisiting Appleseed or his other creations in the future
Baoh - published by Viz Comics, written and drawn by Hirohiko Araki. The story centres around a 17 year old boy being turned into a Baoh (a kind of organic bio-weapon with super-human strength) by some shady characters called the Doress Laboratory.
Of course he escapes and the bad guys from the Lab send loads of assassins after him under the auspices of preventing him from infecting others with the virus they’ve impregnated him with!
Crying Freeman - published by Viz Comics, written by Kazuo Koike (who also created Lone Wolf & Cub which was published by First Comics in the 1980’s) with art by Rioychi Ikegami this is a mafia crime thriller of the highest order.
Crying Freeman is an assassin for the Chinese mafia who obtained his moniker because he sheds tears for the lives of his victims as a sign of regret for his actions. He’s hypnotically trained to kill on command so there appears to be no stopping him!
This has proved to be such a popular Manga that is has been adapted into anime and also three live action films.
Horobi - published by Viz Comics, written and drawn Yoshihisa Tagami initially felt pretty Lovecraftian in appeal as it involved murders and lots of tentacled monsters. Viz published this in two parts and admittedly the story does tend to drift in the second part so you have to wonder whether Tagami had lost his way with the story.
Tagami also wrote and draw Grey which Viz also published and it was also subject of an anime release under the title Grey: Digital Target.
Oh My Goddess - published by Dark Horse, written and drawn by Kosuke Fujishima follows the story of college student Keiichi who moves into a Buddhist temple with a goddess called Belldandy. Belldandy’s sisters (also goddesses) soon move in along with them and chaos ensues.
This was one of Dark Horse’s most successful Manga comics running for a total of 112 issues in various arcs from 1989 through to 2004.
There have been anime and live action versions of Oh My Goddess and also a video game.
Pineapple Army - written by Kazuya Kudo with art by Naoki Urasawa, Pineapple Army tells the story of an ex-Vietnam vet who retires to New York and becomes a trainer for hire for various individuals wanting martial skills.
Urasawa is probably most well known for his later work where he obtained immense success with the critically acclaimed Monster, 20th Century Boys and Pluto (all published by Viz in their original unflopped state). 20th Century Boys alone has over 30 million copies in circulation.
Urasawa is so popular that he was chosen as one of the artists to produce a promotional poster for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics
Of course, there are also many many more that I haven’t mentioned such as Venus Wars, Maison Ikkoku, Ranma 1/2, and then there’s Akira... there’s always...