Japanese Comics: Discovering Manga in the 1990s

28 Oct

American comic book publishers started releasing Japanese manga titles in English on a regular basis sometime in the late 1980s. Some of the earliest to appear were the following:

I first started reading manga in 1992, right after I’d acquired some anime VHS tapes in Japanese without subtitles. My earliest manga purchases were chosen so I could follow the anime adaptations without translation. In the process, I learned to appreciate manga for its own qualities.

“Crying Freeman: Portrait of a Killer Part 1,” first released by Viz Comics in trade paperback/graphic novel form in 1990, was very helpful since its storyline, about a young Japanese sculptor programmed to become a professional assassin by a secret Chinese criminal organization, was adapted closely for the 1988 OAV (Original Animated Video), so I could then watch and enjoy the untranslated video. It was written by Kazuo Koike and drawn by Ryoichi Ikegami. (Streamline released an English dub on VHS not long after this.)

I bought three volumes of “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” after acquiring a tape of the 1984 feature by Hayao Miyazaki without subs. The manga series, about a post-apocalyptic future landscape of scattered human outposts amidst a poisoned environment dominated by giant insects and a tribal princess who tries to bridge the two worlds, was begun by Miyazaki before he made the movie and the series continued for some years afterward. It has some incidents in common with the anime, but it went off on its own directions, so there were plot turns and motivations in the film I couldn’t follow until I got a fan-sub some months later. This edition of the manga was first published by Viz Comics in 1990 and was followed by a revamped “Perfect Collection” in 1995.

(Years later, of course, I acquired the full Crying Freeman OAV series on bilingual DVD from ADV and the NAUSICAA bilingual DVD released by Disney.)

Other early editions of manga I bought were “Urusei Yatsura,” Volumes 1 & 2, by female artist/writer/comic genius Rumiko Takahashi, published by Viz Comics in 1990, which told the hilarious story of a hapless, girl-crazy Japanese high school boy, Ataru, who winds up inconveniently “married” to Lum, an attractive alien girl with horns, fangs and a tiger-skin bikini.

The anime series, which began on Japanese TV in 1989, started coming out on VHS in subtitled editions in 1992 from AnimeEigo, one of a handful of anime distributors in the U.S. at the time.

I got a few tapes of another anime series based on manga by Takahashi, “Ranma ½,” about another hapless Japanese schoolboy, this one an accomplished martial artist named Ranma, who falls into an accursed spring in China and finds that he turns into a girl when doused with cold water and can only transform back by a spray of hot water, making for some very amusing and provocative situations. In 1993, Viz Video began releasing the anime series on VHS, while sister company Viz Comics began releasing the manga series in 1994.

The success of Ranma ½ allowed Viz Comics to license another comedic manga series by Takahashi, “Maison Ikkoku,” about a desperate young college applicant studying for entrance exams who falls in love with the beautiful new manager of the rundown apartment building where he and a group of varied misfits reside. The manga release came first, in 1994, while the anime series (1986-88), also licensed by Viz Video, started coming out in 1996. Unlike “Ranma ½” and “Urusei Yatsura,” “Maison Ikkoku” had no fantasy elements in it.

I should add that the VHS releases of series like the three by Rumiko Takahashi mentioned above had a pretty slow roll-out in the U.S. throughout the 1990s. For fans of pre-recorded physical media, the days of binge-watching and complete season box sets were far in the future.

I believe the earliest volume of manga in English in my collection is the first edition of “Barefoot Gen,” by Keiji Nakazawa, the true story of a boy who lived through the Hiroshima bomb blast, with a publication date of 1989, although I bought it much later.

It was made into an anime movie in 1983 that eventually got released in the U.S. on VHS by Streamline in an English dub. Newer editions of the manga series came out much later, in the 21st century.

A lot of manga publishers in the U.S. thought they could reach American readers by using the single-issue comic book format (6.50 X 10 inches), sometimes while they were simultaneously releasing trade paperback volumes with multiple issues. This practice continued throughout the 1990s. Viz released a lot of editions this way, including the following:

They even released comic books from series that were licensed in anime form by other distributors.

Nausicaa came out in individual issues for a while:

I have two issues of “The Professional: Golgo 13” published in single magazine size issues by Viz Comics in 1991, but with a paperback binding and entirely in color, which was kind of unusual for manga publishers at the time.

Golgo 13’s creator, Takao Saito, died earlier this year at the age of 84.

I saw the 1983 anime feature adaptation, THE PROFESSIONAL: GOLGO 13, in a theater in 1992.

“Akira,” published by Epic Comics, and “Lone Wolf and Cub,” published by Dark Horse Comics, were also released for a time in single-issue format with paperback binding. Akira was in color, while Lone Wolf and Cub was in black-and-white.

Eventually, Lone Wolf and Cub, Akira, and Golgo 13 would all be released in different sizes in collected volumes or digest versions in their b&w original form.

AKIRA, of course, was also a groundbreaking anime feature from 1988 that began showing in the U.S. at specialized theaters in 1990, which is when I first saw it at the Film Forum in New York. The story of a secret experiment gone awry in a dystopian “Neo-Tokyo” some 30 years into the future, the film was directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also wrote and drew the manga.

I had first become familiar with “Lone Wolf and Cub” when I saw some of the live-action movie adaptations at Japanese film festivals in the 1970s. I would acquire the whole series of films on VHS in the 1990s and later on Criterion Blu-ray in 2016. As far as I know, it was never adapted for anime.

I also have one issue of Crying Freeman published in comic book size with paperback binding, and also in black-and-white.

“Sanctuary” was a crime series about the commingling of politicians and yakuza in contemporary Tokyo that was published by Viz Comics in both trade paperback and comic book form, one in 1993, the other in 1997, while Viz Video released the two feature film versions, one live-action and one anime, on VHS in 1997:

“Ghost in the Shell” by Masamune Shirow came out in English in 1995 from Dark Horse Comics, simultaneous with the release of Mamoru Oshii’s feature film adaptation of it, with the manga’s entire run in one volume with a few color pages at the very beginning. I have both the single trade paperback as well as one comic book issue.

The original VHS release from Manga Video:

And images from Oshii’s film:

I was impressed enough with the differences between the manga and anime versions of both “Sanctuary” and “Ghost in the Shell” to do an article for Animation World comparing them, “Manga into Anime: Two Approaches: ‘Sanctuary’ and ‘Ghost in the Shell,’” published on-line in 1997:


Other manga titles released in comic book form in the 1990s that also had anime adaptations include:

Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Memories” featured the story, “Magnetic Rose,” which was also part of a three-part anime anthology, also called MEMORIES (1996). That segment in the film was written by Satoshi Kon and directed by Koji Morimoto.

The more I plunged into anime throughout the decade, the more I bought the manga versions, although it took years for lots of manga series to finally get published in English in the U.S. I was lucky to find so much manga available in stores like Book Off and comic book stores like Jim Hanley’s Universe, which was the first store I recall to develop a large manga section.

At some point, flipping the pages from right to left, to be read Japanese-style, became the standard format for manga in English. I believe the earliest one I have with the pages flipped is Dragon Ball Z, in comic book form, from Viz Comics, which came out in September 1999.

In the late 1990s, Viz put out a number of magazines offering stories from several different manga series in each volume.

Viz also published the anime magazine, Animerica, to which I contributed articles, reviews and interviews from 1999-2005, and offered a manga counterpart, Animerica Extra:

Another manga magazine appeared around that time, Mixxzine, put out by a competing company, Mixx Entertainment, run by Stuart J. Levy, who would go on to found another anime/manga distributor, Tokyopop.

In 2019, I did a piece here, “The Passing of Two Manga Greats,” on Kazuo Koike, the writer of “Crying Freeman,” “Lone Wolf and Cub,” and “Lady Snowblood,” and Monkey Punch (the pen name for Kazuhiko Kato), the writer-artist of Lupin III.

I’ve also done blog entries on manga creators Osamu Tezuka and Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

In the 2000s, numerous anime series based on manga were being released in the U.S. on DVD and proving popular enough to encourage the manga series to come out in English as well. By this point, almost every manga series was being printed right-to-left.

Finally, I want to give a shout-out to Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, a 1983 book by Frederik L. Schodt, who has written extensively about Japan, anime and manga. This book, published by Kodansha, introduced a lot of Americans to manga and offered an in-depth history of the art form (and the Japanese cultural traditions that fueled it), with ample illustrations and selections from four manga series published in English for the first time: “Phoenix” (Hi no Tori), by Osamu Tezuka; “Ghost Warrior,” by Leiji Matsumoto; “The Rose of Versailles,” by Ryoko Ikeda; and “Barefoot Gen,” by Keiji Nakazawa.

See also my related piece, VHS Memories: Discovering Anime in the ’90s.

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