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Beyond the cover: Canadian team bringing more manga to English readers

Images from Okinawa, by Susumu Higa, courtesy of Fantagraphics.

Browsing the catalogues and bookshops of Japan, one quickly realizes that only a small fraction of manga published in Japanese makes it into the English-language market. And while some manga categories, such as teen action-adventure, are more popular than ever in North America, many complex and significant works for adults remain untranslated.

Okinawa, coming this month from Fantagraphics, is one such work. The moving, important graphic novel showcases the resilience of the Okinawan people, who survived war and successive imperial occupations while retaining ties to their land and culture. Visitors today flock to this subtropical archipelago in search of pristine beaches and unique cuisine, but decades ago it was the site of an unfathomably brutal land battle between the U.S. and Japanese militaries, which some estimates say claimed the lives of up to a third of the local, civilian population. Okinawan manga creator Susumu Higa’s series of 14 interconnected historical vignettes portrays the visceral horrors of the Second World War, along with the ways in which its lingering effects continue to shape life and politics in the region.

I first came across this work almost a decade ago, alongside two other Canadian book professionals, translator Jocelyne Allen, and publisher and editor (and my husband) Christopher Woodrow-Butcher. We had all been travelling to Tokyo for a variety of reasons related to manga publishing for years. 

Although we were in a position to pitch Okinawa as a possible acquisition for North American manga publishers, at the time, “the general consensus was that it wasn’t the right fit for anyone’s list,” Allen recalls. Without an established publisher willing to champion the work, we asked about acquiring the rights to self-publish, but the timing wasn’t quite right. Even with the licence in hand and Allen’s translation underway, we struggled to find the right venues and partnerships for publication, and when the shutdowns of 2020 began, that disruption threatened the entire undertaking. 

Then, two things happened to save the project. First, we reached out to prestigious Seattle graphic novel publisher Fantagraphics, who are known for manga projects that address an adult literary readership. “I’d known Chris Butcher for a number of years and already respected his manga knowledge. When he asked me to look at Okinawa, I was happy to, because I trusted him to know what might be a good fit with Fantagraphics,” says Fantagraphics vice president and associate publisher Eric Reynolds. “When I sat down with the work and educated myself about the project, it was a virtual no-brainer and clearly an important work that not only deserved to be published in English, but fit perfectly with Fantagraphics’ mission.” 

Somewhat surprisingly, it was a podcast – started as a way to pass time during the pandemic lockdowns – that ultimately pushed the project to completion. Begun as a book-club-format podcast about manga for adults who haven’t read much of the genre before, Mangasplaining features friends and comics professionals Chip Zdarsky, Debora Aoki, and David Brothers, along with Christopher Woodrow-Butcher. 

“Through some incredible confluence between Mangasplaining, a grant for our podcast newsletter Mangasplaining Extra, and Fantagraphics being totally cool with me being years and years late on the project, we were able to really piece everything together in a way that benefited Higa’s work,” Christopher Woodrow-Butcher says. “Higa was very generous with our ‘extended’ timeline; the Mangasplaining Extra Substack allowed us to fully fund the licensing and production of the book; and then Fantagraphics stepped in to turn our work into a gorgeous printed tome.” 

Licensing books from Japan can be an idiosyncratic process full of hurdles for newcomers, so having a direct introduction to the artist allowed us to work around some of the corporate processes of Japanese licensing. Higa himself is a generous but very old-school collaborator. He doesn’t use the internet or computers, and can only be reached by phone or, in true Japanese fashion, by fax! Allen and Christopher Woodrow-Butcher travelled to Naha – Okinawa’s capital – to propose this project in person over an afternoon-long meeting that turned into a mini walking tour of sites from the book, given by the artist himself. Dozens of faxes and phone calls – and several years – later, we three Canadians returned to Okinawa for tea and mochi in Higa’s garden, to conduct the interview that will appear in the print edition and take some author photos. Trading the formalities of Tokyo publishing for these visits to Okinawa wasn’t necessarily an easier way to do things, but it allowed us to form a strong connection with this amazing artist and the beautiful place he writes about. 

Okinawa was originally serialized online in English in Mangasplaining Extra; the forthcoming print edition is a deluxe hardcover rich with extras, including a glossary of Okinawan terms and an essay contextualizing the work globally. This digital-serialization-to-print model has provided a template for future projects for the team that will expand the range of manga stories available in the Anglosphere.

“It really does feel like the start of something new for me personally, and I hope it’s able to continue those cultural discussions,” Christopher Woodrow-Butcher says. “Manga is so often treated as a genre of books, when really it’s a massively broad category that contains so many different genres and styles within it. I’m excited for what the future holds.”

By: Andrew Woodrow-Butcher

August 9th, 2023

12:52 pm

Category: Industry News, People, Writing Life

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