A Manga in Every Backpack: An Interview with Tokyopop Founder Stu Levy

Over its history, Tokyopop has published thousands of books, distributed anime and Asian films on home video and television, licensed merchandise to consumer goods companies, created graphic novels of major brands and led the way digitally in social media, e-commerce and user-generated content. Tokyopop’s brand expanded internationally with a network of over 160 partners in more than 50 countries and 30 languages. Diamond BookShelf Editor Ashley Kronsberg spoke with Tokyopop founder Stu Levy about Tokyopop’s partnership with Disney and upcoming titles to be expected from the manga publishing house.

Ashley Kronsberg: Can you give us a little background on the Disney titles Tokyopop currently has on the market? What kind of content can we expect from the Disney line in the upcoming months?

Stu Levy:  Back in the heyday of Tokyopop’s “Manga Revolution,” we had a close licensing relationship with Disney where we created a line of Cine-Manga books from the original shows. We also published some manga created in Japan for Disney such as Kilala Princess and Monsters Inc. So, as part of our return to publishing, we did a new licensing deal with Disney and dedicated significant resources to a full line of DISNEY MANGA, including the complete Kilala Princess five-volume series, three adorable Stitch! books, the two-volume Magical Dance kid-friendly series that features multiple Disney characters, the Tim Burton movies Nightmare Before Christmas and Alice in Wonderland along with Pixar’s Finding Nemo.

Then, Disney entrusted us to create new manga – and we began with the companion volumes Belle’s Tale and The Beast’s Tale for Beauty and the Beast, which retells the story from each of their perspectives. And we have just shipped the first color manga – Book 1 of our Descendants trilogy that retells the first movie.

Moving ahead, we have exciting Disney Manga coming out, both translated from manga previously published in Japan and created originally by Tokyopop. We’ll have a five-volume Disney Fairies series, a Tangled manga, the Princess & the Frog, a series of Pirates of the Caribbean books, and very exciting announcements coming soon – including original Disney Manga based on some of these fantastic brands!

Disney is well-known for their work in cartooning and animation. What has the experience been like having these classic stories adapted into the manga format?

First and foremost, our goal is to bring the manga aesthetic and storytelling approach to Disney’s famous characters. But of course, these are beloved stories so it’s a balance between having fun with the look and the feel of the manga but also maintain the core essence and fundamentals of each Disney property. Disney has been amazing with their guidance – they are truly passionate about their brands and it shows when they give feedback. They are also very protective so they make the sandbox clear – we’re not going to play outside of the box!

However, they have been very supportive of the Disney Manga effort, allowing us to bring our own creative element to the table. Beauty and the Beast was a very special project, and I believe it earned our trust with Disney, so now we are spreading our wings a bit with the next phase of titles.

Tokyopop’s Beauty and the Beast two-volume manga set came out alongside the live-action movie adaptation. Are there any plans for more manga series to come out with the upcoming Disney films?

We look very carefully at each Disney brand and consider a range of factors, including whether we believe there is a compelling manga take; if we believe the brand itself will reach a young manga reader or potential reader; if we have the bandwidth to create a special book; and perhaps, most importantly, if the Disney team supports and encourages us to consider a manga. It’s neither simple nor cheap to produce a manga so we need to consider each project very carefully.

Tokyopop has published a robust list of kid-friendly titles, pulling in new readers of all-ages. Was it an intentional decision to publish content suitable for readers of any age, or was this something that developed to accommodate the growth in readership in those areas grew?

My slogan from the old days was “a manga in every backpack” and while Tokyopop’s new role is different from then, I believe publishing kid-friendly and parent-approved manga is a big opportunity for libraries, educators and families throughout the country to encourage reading with engaging, fashionable, and thoughtful content. Manga is a medium that can provide this – and of course the Disney brand assures a safe experience for everyone. We hope to publish non-Disney manga content that can appeal to younger readers as well – and frankly guiding everyone as to which manga are age appropriate and which are not is key.

Since Tokyopop has published and will continue to publish content for teens and adults as well, it’s critical that we distinguish which titles are for whom. In that sense, Disney Manga speaks for itself so it makes our job – and the job of librarians, retailers, educators and parents – easier.

Along with Disney licenses, Tokyopop is driven by original manga and English adaptations of beloved series. Are there any titles that you are excited about for the rest of the year and into 2018?

I know that “diversity” has become a buzz word, but that should not dilute its importance. When Tokyopop first started Rising Stars of Manga competitions, our goal was to nurture a young generation of global manga creators to develop the skills required to express their voice in the medium of manga. Almost fifteen years later, we can see that generation filled with talent and important stories to tell.

One example is our new shojo fantasy series Ocean of Secrets. The story itself parallels the creator’s personal journey using fantasy as the medium. Sophie-chan, born in Iraq and raised in Abu Dhabi, taught herself how to draw manga, emigrated to Canada with her family, and started a YouTube channel that has garnered almost 400,000 subscribers – and this is her first published work, which touches upon issues of learning who one really is and which world one belongs.

Later this year, we’re publishing Grimms’ Manga Tales – a particularly modern take on the eponymous fairy tales done manga style. And in January, we launch a true shonen adventure story, Goldfisch, created by a young African-German woman that topped the comic book charts in Germany. The young boy in this story develops a Midas-like power, and inadvertently turns his brother into gold – and journeys to the far end of the world trying to find the magic needed to undo his tragic mistake. It’s non-stop fun, but also has many touching moments.

Our plan is to publish manga we love created by diverse, youthful voices from around the world – and to nurture the next generation of manga readers and creators.