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To All the Manga I've Edited Before
By Jason Thompson
Thursday May 22, 2008 10:00:00 am
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
When people come to my house and ask "Why do you have an entire bookshelf full of Yu-Gi-Oh! graphic novels?" I answer, "Because I li... I mean, because I edited that manga." The next question is, "What does a manga editor do?" and the answer to that is, a lot of little things. American manga editors aren't anything like manga editors in Japan (or OEL/original comic editors in America), who have firsthand creative control over their titles, and are often de facto collaborators with the artist. Instead, they do many things: proofreading, writing things like back-cover text and ad copy, and recommending new titles for translation. Most of all, though, they are (usually) the final arbiter on translation decisions. Name spellings, typos, censorship, the particular phrasing of a particular line... the editor is involved in all of this, and if something goes wrong, they're the ones to send angry e-mails to.

I've edited a lot of manga, from video game tie-ins (Nightwarriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge) to underground comics (Secret Comics Japan) to shojo (Hana-Kimi). Some I recommended and pushed for, others were assigned to me. Each one had a different translation and lettering team, and each one was a unique challenge to bring across the manga's individual flavor... although every editor hopes to work on manga that reflect their own tastes, and sometimes every editor gets arguably a little off course. Without further ado, here are my five personal favorites among the manga I've worked on; not necessarily the best, but the most fun.

5. DRAGON BALL/DRAGON BALL Z (Akira Toriyama)

Dragon Ball (and the second half of the manga, known in English as Dragon Ball Z) was one of the first manga I edited, and I've always thanked Trish Ledoux, the original editor, for passing it off to me. Akira Toriyama's Dr. Slump is the labor of a frantically hardworking young artist, shooting off ideas like sparks, drawing intensely detailed images just for the love of dinosaurs and science fiction and airplanes and mecha. Dragon Ball is the work of an older artist, with a few assistants (but not many!) helping him out, with simpler art, with not quite so much eagerness to impress. But his talent is still there. That skill shines on every page of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z; as I said in Manga: The Complete Guide, it's so purely visual, it's almost like animation storyboards.

It seems bizarre, but there was a time when most manga was published in the U.S. in monthly comic book format. In the long-ago year 2000, when I first took over Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, each book was creeping along at the pace of 32 pages a month -- a whopping two chapters per issue, or about five months between graphic novels. Two chapters only takes up about 29 pages, so to fill the extra pages, Trish Ledoux had started a Dragon Ball/DBZ letter column to answer the tons of mail Viz received every month. Most of the letters and fan art were from 10-year-olds asking what channel the TV show was on or what power level Boo had. Trish would patiently (and only occasionally snarkily) answer everyone's questions, so I carried on this proud tradition as best I could, while hundreds and hundreds of letters gathered in post office boxes behind my desk. We received so many letters asking about the (nonexistent) Dragon Ball GT manga that I considered actually creating a Dragon Ball GT manga by gluing together all the fan art we'd received and adding captions.

Although it ended up being censored a bit, the English adaptation benefited from an excellent team -- translator/fan Lillian Olsen, rewriter Gerard Jones, and 60-year-old super-letterer Wayne Truman, who was Viz's secret weapon in those days of non-digital hand lettering. Only Wayne (and the mysterious arcane letterers of Viz's then-archrival, Studio Proteus) knew the magic chemical formula which, when applied to photostat paper, would erase Japanese sound effects and allow them to be redrawn cleanly. Most other letterers used gobs of white-out, or cut-and-pasted pieces of paper over the Japanese art with hot wax and glue sticks. Like a person in a primitive hunter-gatherer society, I myself would occasionally break out the white-out and technical pens when a letterer had missed some sound effect. (Of course, Wayne Truman never missed any.) Text-wise, Dragon Ball has super-simple shonen manga dialogue, so the translator and rewriter and I mostly just tried to stay out of the way and let it speak for itself. Rewriting "HYUUUUU" (the sound of Goku flying through the air) into "HYOOOOO" was about as extreme as it got. In short, that's the other great appeal of Dragon Ball to an editor: it was a very easy edit.

4. UZUMAKI (Junji Ito)

I saw the Uzumaki movie before I read the manga, and it is one of the few manga that Viz published based on my suggestion. (Although Alvin Lu was also responsible; he did the actual approvals legwork, and also recommended the movie to me via his review in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.) It was one of the most consistently popular manga in Pulp magazine. In part, this is probably because it read well in short installments -- almost all the stories are one-shots, until the third volume, which develops a more ongoing story. If you haven't read it, it's a horror story in which all the horrors are based on spirals and spiral-shaped phenomena.

Uzumaki was a manga I both edited and "rewrote." Going back to the dawn of Viz in 1987, most manga from Viz and other companies were looked over by three people -- an editor, a literal translator, and a "rewriter," who usually didn't know Japanese and who just spruced up the dialogue to make it more snappy. (Or messed up the dialogue, depending on who you ask, and depending on the rewriter.) This arrangement dated back to the early days of Viz, when the company was mostly staffed by non-native English speakers, who wanted to make sure that the manga read well in English. Today, the use of rewriters is less common, partially to cut costs, and partially because literal translations are now expected. But in the past, with no scanlations to compare to, and a far smaller audience of bilingual manga fans, translations were often looser. In this rewriter tradition, I got creative with a few lines. For an example, in the chapter where the woman gets a spiral mark on her forehead, the line "Is that... bone...?" was originally a more generic "What the..." utterance.

This may sound really shameless. And perhaps it is. But to 'fess up, at the time, I had a philosophy about manga translation that basically went, "It's okay to add meaning to the translation, as long as you're not changing the original meaning." This is obviously an arguable philosophy, but I know I'm not the only editor who's done this sort of thing, and frankly I think it's resulted in some good rewrites (i.e. Excel Saga, Flowers and Bees, Club Nine). My intention was simply to make the English version of Uzumaki as engrossing and creepy as possible, like a good horror novel; and Alvin, my supervising editor, looked over all the scripts and reined me in when I got too far from the mark. Later on, as tastes changed and as manga translations became more closely overseen by the licensors, it has become commonplace for the licensors to doublecheck the translations, so something like Uzumaki might not fly today. However, I'm proud of the work I did on it. Junji Ito is a good artist, and it was incredibly fun to work on a horror manga, one of my favorite genres.

3. YU-GI-OH! (Kazuki Takahashi)

Yes, I admit it; editing Yu-Gi-Oh! (the whole series) was fun. Although the American edition of the manga was basically just the appendage of an enormous merchandising phenomenon, the Viz edition was almost unchanged from the Japanese original. As with Dragon Ball Z, the anime had been translated first and the licensing wasn't entirely coordinated, so I got to use a lot of the original manga character names and keep it more or less violent and gory. As far as fandom, the core audience of Yu-Gi-Oh! was 8-year-old boys (and a few incredible fangirls). For most hardcore, Japanese-speaking fans, the kind who run scanlation sites and post on messageboards, it was way too mainstream.

In other words, I had a surprising amount of leeway with the translation of Yu-Gi-Oh!. I like to think I didn't abuse this privilege. Was it so wrong to change Kaiba's vengeful-rival line "This cross I've carried for so long...!" to "This cross I've carried for so long... the cross of collectible-card gaming defeat!" Or to throw in the slightest, most unobtrusive reference to a 1982 TV movie starring Tom Hanks in the Monster World RPG story arc? All right, so I'm a bad editor. But at least I made sure Yugi's tearful "Jonouchi... suki da yo" in the Battle City story arc was translated as "Jonouchi... I love you...". (Sniff.. excuse me, I think I got something in my eye...) Hey, it's no coincidence that the best online resource for Yu-Gi-Oh episode summaries once hosted Yugi/Jonouchi slash fanfiction.

As an editor, I crafted each line in Yu-Gi-Oh! like a lapidary. Apart from the nerd in me (oh wait, that's my whole body) enjoying all the collectible card gaming and RPG terminology in Yu-Gi-Oh!, and making sure it was translated correctly, I also think that the story is actually pretty solid for a shonen manga. Say what you will about the first 31 volumes, but the last 7 volumes -- the Millennium World story arc -- builds to an above-average ending. (Foreshadowing?! In a shonen manga?! Yes!) Takahashi came to the shonen manga scene relatively late, in his 30s, and you can tell it was written by an older man because of the obsession with death, and what might come after death, which dominates the final story arc. "In this world, death leads to an endless darkness..." the final villain threatens Yugi. What's the one ray of hope in the darkness? Well, this is a shonen manga, so it's the memories of your good times with your friends, of course. "Burn these memories into your brain... burn them so that you never forget!" Jonouchi tells a friend in the last scene, in a moment reminiscent of the 1998 Japanese film "After Life". Leaving aside Yu-Gi-Oh! GX or Yu-Gi-Oh! R, which I didn't work on, let me say... I have respect for Yu-Gi-Oh!.

2. THE DRIFTING CLASSROOM (Kazuo Umezu)

Kazuo Umezu is one of the greatest manga artists on Earth. His personal life and the "71-year-old eternal child" image he's built around himself are fascinating; a writer for the Comics Journal compared him to Henry Darger, although I'd say that Umezu is probably at least 30% saner. But as with any good artist, it's his work that speaks for itself, and speak it does -- speaking of revolting corruption, and the end of the world, and children victimized by unspeakable evil from which not even their saintly mothers can protect them. And goofy-looking, poop-obsessed kids with boogers hanging out of their nose.

Umezu is less than 10 years younger than Tezuka, and was apparently a fan of the older artist, but their approach couldn't be more different. Unlike Tezuka, who experimented wildly with the comics format, Umezu is primarily a storyteller who developed a certain set of visual tools -- and favorite themes -- and stuck with them doggedly. I first read Umezu in a set of worn-out horror tankobon loaned to me by Patrick Macias, and I think of Umezu primarily as a horror author. His kiddy gag manga -- Makoto-chan and Again and so forth -- are the necessary flip side of his personality, like the side of Stephen King which wrote the "puking contest" in Stand By Me. Umezu did go a little Goth in the '80s, appearing as the narrator to a low-budget Umezu horror OAV looking sort of like Edward Scissorhands, but he never denies either the absurdity or the horror of his subject matter. Being mostly shonen manga, his stories aren't known for their supple dialogue, and they have a lot of lines like "Look at that!" and "Ah!" and "I'm scared!" and so on. But his works are philosophical and deviously plotted, and sometimes seriously gross. The very stiffness of Umezu's art, his limited palette, is one of his strengths, and a testimonial to how much personal care he puts into his work. Other aging artists, like Go Nagai, would simply make their assistants draw everything but the faces. But not Umezu; his work looks like a grotesque, organic whole.

The Drifting Classroom is the most famous Umezu horror manga and I tried to make it as literal a translation as possible. Izumi Evers, the designer who created the covers for the Viz edition, is also a fan, as was translator Joe Yamazaki. Luckily, we seem to be in a mini-Umezu boom, as much of his early short work has been translated -- IDW's Reptilia, Viz's Cat-Eyed Boy and Orochi: Blood and Dark Horse's Scary Book. However, I'd love to see more of his later, longer, more challenging stuff, such as My Name is Shingo, The Left Hand of God, The Right Hand of the Devil, Senrei (Baptism) and Fourteen (which, with its scenes of pseudo-child-abuse and people raping giant chicken-headed men, is probably unpublishable in English). The problem is, of course, that even the best "vintage" manga doesn't exactly sell like Naruto, and those 20-volume stories, with their leisurely cinematic pace stretched over thousands of pages, are hard to publish in America, where it's hard to maintain sales over the course of a long series.

1. JOJO'S BIZARRE ADVENTURE (Hirohiko Araki)

Take Kazuo Umezu and cross him with Shonen Jump, and what do you get? Jojo's Bizarre Adventure! Well, actually there's a lot more to it than that -- there's also a lot of '80s music and Clint Eastwood movies -- but this mixture of horror, suspense, glam fashion and intentional cheesiness is my absolute favorite manga, ever.

For years I obsessed over Jojo and dreamed of seeing it in English. I read the manga. I watched the anime. I took public transportation for an hour to get to an arcade where I could find the Jojo's Venture arcade game. I looked up to its glammy, macho characters with a fervor which almost made me question my sexual orientation, while meanwhile, trolls regularly popped into the Jojo's bulletin board to start flamewars by saying the characters looked "gay" (admittedly, to quote Araki's own text, the main villain Dio has "a dubious sensuality -- the kind you wouldn't expect from a man"). I earnestly wished that Jojo could be translated, but Araki's short series Baoh had not exactly been a big seller when Viz published it way back in 1989. Around 2002 I was involved in a short-lived proposal to publish it in comic-book format, but the eventual release of the series in graphic novel format, around 2005, was a dream come true.

Since Jojo is an ongoing series and I'm still editing it for Viz as I write this, I can't say too much about the behind-the-scenes workings, but I will say three things. One, Araki is a skilled artist. Two, compared to other shonen manga, Jojo has meaty dialogue -- not "deep thoughts" or political discussions, I mean, but really salty threats and weird jokes and badass hero and villain banter like in some over-the-top superhero comic from the '70s. I'm not going to list any examples, in order to force you to read it. Third, Araki has taken some interest in the U.S. edition, approving every name translation, and personally volunteering to redraw some panels which were changed in the Viz edition.

These connections with the Japanese artist, these back-and-forth communications when the artist could simply leave it all up to the licensing department, are ultimately the most rewarding experiences for a manga editor. The best that an editor can hope for, after all, is to get across the wishes of the artist; and the second best thing they can hope for is to be invisible and let the work speak for itself. In writing this article, I've obviously failed at the second thing, but I wanted to come clean about the manga I've edited. Looking back, there's things I could have done differently, but like Yugi, I always did it for love. ***

Previous: #4, Biblical adaptations

Jason Thompson is one of the best-known manga critics in the US. He currently writes for Otaku USA and is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide. His website is www.mockman.com.

Manga Salad is © Jason Thompson, 2010

 

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