Ben Applegate is the director of the Kodansha manga editorial team at Penguin Random House Publisher Services, overseeing production of the Kodansha manga line. We asked him to give us his thoughts on the current manga market and what upcoming titles he thinks will be particularly well suited for comic shops.

How does the manga landscape look to you right now, and what is Kodansha’s place in it?
The manga landscape is exciting and reassuring, I think. The global interest in manga among fans has never been more fervent. The COVID era necessarily means that we are on a little bit of a sales rollercoaster. We had a very high high in 2021 and 2022, and there was a bit of a drop back to earth in 2023. But the category ended the year still well ahead of where we were in 2020 and every year before that, so just looking at the percentage change in 2023, it might look like a red flag, but when you consider that it's the third best year for manga sales ever in the English language, it explains why people are still excited and bullish about manga.

What were your top titles and top genres in 2023?
Blue Lock has taken off like a rocket. It was not only a big seller for us in the wake of the anime launching in 2022, it also overtook all of the big shonen titles to become the best-selling manga in Japan in 2023.

So Blue Lock is here to stay. And as more anime and manga become available for that franchise, we're looking forward to that being a real driver of sales for years to come. This fall, we're launching Blue Lock: Episode Nagi, which is a spinoff prequel centered around a fan favorite character that's already created a ton of buzz in the Japanese market. It's getting a feature length anime adaptation of its own in Japan in the first half of this year. We're confident that will be one of the major manga launches of the year when that comes out in October.  

Conventional wisdom used to be that sports manga don’t sell, but that’s changing with Haikyu!! (from VIZ) and Blue Lock doing so well. Why is that?
If you look at the sports manga that have really taken off in the US, none of them are simply stories about a team succeeding at sports. In the case of Haikyu!!, it’s a sports story plus a compelling character drama. In Blue Lock, it's a sports story plus a death game battle manga. They don't actually die, their soccer careers die, but structurally, it's a death game.

We often talk about how anime promotes manga, but is there a difference between the sales bump generated by an anime television series as opposed to a theatrical film?
The big difference between an anime TV series and an anime film is the release window. With an anime TV series we can depend on a week in, week out hype machine for as long as the simulcast is continuing. For an anime film, the licensing process takes a little longer, there might be a theatrical window, and only then does it make its way on to streaming, so it's a much longer timeline. A good example is the film A Silent Voice, which came out in theaters and then made its way onto streaming services one step at a time, so we were actually able to watch the sales impact of each of those different streaming services. At the time, Netflix was the big player. When an anime film hits Netflix and people start watching it, we obviously see a bump in sales. 

Which genres and titles are particularly popular in comic shops?
We think Blue Lock is perfectly tailored to the comic shop audience, and we're excited to support our comic shop customers more in the future. A good example is Initial D, a relaunch of a massive manga that everyone knows inspired Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift and created a worldwide craze for drift racing. We're publishing it with a brand-new translation, based on new scans of the art in Japan. We're supporting that at comic shops by creating a variant cover, featuring the new Japanese cover design, including the Japanese sound effects in bold spot gloss (see “Variant Covers Come to Manga”). We're looking forward to doing more of those in the future.

I mentioned earlier that there was a bit of a correction in 2023. That barely applies when it comes to comic shops. Comic shops were a bright spot throughout. We have ComicsPRO coming up in a few weeks, and we're bringing a lot of brand new promotional items and some discounts to help comic shops sell our books. We’re going to be bringing some pre packs with us, where you can order a certain chunk of books for a publisher discount. And we’re sponsoring the bar.

Why are comic shops important, when manga sells so well in bookstores?
Two reasons. Number one, one of the major lessons of the past four years has been that the American book selling market is very broad, and that it is a necessity for publishers to on the one hand, reach out to consumers directly and create a relationship with their readers, but also support a variety of different channels. Because you never know who's going to be become excited about a book and who's not. Comic shops are unique in that they're often centers for their community, so it's a great way to get that communication back from the readers.

The second reason is that fandom culture has coagulated into a huge overlapping ball of different interests. Whereas there used to be a brighter or dimmer line between comics readership and manga readership, and even gamers and readers of web comics, those lines have blurred or disappeared. People coming in off the street and looking to pick up the latest monthly comic from Marvel have definitely read a manga and watched an anime before and might be interested in those titles.

You just have to look at the latest offerings from superhero publishers to see the influence on story and art from manga. These are creators who grew up reading manga in the 2000s. And the manga that do well in the US also reflect the tastes of American readers much more than they used to. It's remarkable to see the borders between readerships fading even as the category retains its distinctive appeal.

What are your big releases that you're very bullish on for 2024?
We just released the Vinland Saga Deluxe Edition, a 3-in-1, 600+ page, 7” x 10” faux leather bound hardcover edition of Vinland Saga that just had its first volume come out. February. We'll be releasing one of those every two months until we're caught up. Next month, we're releasing, of course Initial D.

In April, we'll be launching The Fable, the action comedy that has become a cult favorite in digital formats. It already has two Japanese live action films available on Netflix and will be getting a TV anime adaptation starting in April. It's about a hitman prodigy who does a few too many jobs and his boss decides you need to go lay low for a year, go from Tokyo to Osaka and don't kill anybody for 12 months, just hang out and try to live a normal life. This is a request he actually takes very seriously. He gets a pet bird. He starts watching soap operas. And gradually, over time, the underworld starts to pull him back in against his will. Even though it's rated 18+ and of course the humor is a bit more mature, I think that the blend of very funny comedy and solid addictive action scenes is going to find an audience.

We've already seen sales really take off for A Sign of Affection, thanks to the ongoing anime. We are rushing to reprint as we speak, actually. That will be getting an omnibus release in April, just as the anime is wrapping up.

In the second half of the year, Blue Lock: Episode Nagi is going to be a big focus.

One of the manga artists who enjoys playing with superhero tropes and who found a huge following among Americans is ONE, who created One Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100. We're very happy to have the print release of his new series Versus, which is yet another fascinating genre-buster that combines high fantasy swords and sorcery and science fiction in a multiverse-spanning hero team-up against demons in a dystopian future where humanity is nearing extinction.

The last title that we wanted to spotlight specifically for comic shops is Tank Chair. Our protagonist is in a wheelchair. He’s a mercenary assassin whose sister books him jobs in the hopes that they can make enough money to cure him of his unique condition, which involves him being in a coma whenever he is not in the presence of murderous intent. So in order to wake him up from a coma, his sister has to come at him with a knife, genuinely attempting to kill him. Then he wakes up and says, “Good morning.” I actually think it's an incredibly funny and exciting and empowering story. That comes out in September.

This is the kind of story that has really done well at comic shops for us. Another good example is Go Go Loser Ranger,which is another genre crossover hero parody action series that’s getting an anime this year. The first people I heard from who said that that was doing really well for them were comic retailers at last year's ComicsPRO. They were the early adopters on that series.

We’re also doing a followup to Sweat and Soap called Home Office Romance. That’s a one-shot set during the COVID lockdown.

And we are very excited for the Kodansha Portal series, Blood Blade, The Spellbook Library, and Re:Anima.

These are series that are available to read for free on your website until they go into print, right?
Right. It's being treated like a serialization, so the chapters are free on the site until the print compilation, right, at which point they become pay.  Re:Anima is our latest release. It’s from a protégé of Hiro Mashima, the creator of Fairy Tail.It’s set on a future Earth, where the surface has become unbelievably hot, and humanity has moved underground. To enjoy all the amenities of the surface world, they plug their brains into these robots modeled after their bodies, called Re:Anima. The main characters are in the Enforcement Bureau, which is in charge of hunting down people who've illegally modded their Re:Anima to do naughty things on the surface, although one member of the Enforcement Bureau, we find out is living on the surface in his real body, and part of the mystery of the series is finding out how that has happened and who this person is. It's just great, addictive, shonen action. The influence of Mashia-sensei is very clear in the sharp action scenes and appealing character designs. And I think it's a really fun twist on the cyberpunk genre, because it's essentially a cyberpunk manga, but the cyberspace is the surface of the Earth, instead of being a computer world,

If you're a comic shop with a small footprint, what's are the key Kodansha titles you should have on hand?
Whenever someone asks this question, the first thing I say is, I encourage them to get in touch with someone at Penguin Random House. And if you're not ordering from PRHComics, please consider ordering direct, it's usually a good idea, and it will get you access to some of the pre-packs that we're putting together for ComicsPRO. Our sales reps are fantastic and know exactly how to tailor an assortment for your size and location. We very much understand that each store is different. Some of you are the only bookstore in your town, some of you are a few blocks away from Barnes & Noble, and what manga you're going to put front and center is going to differ based on those considerations.

If you're starting from zero, of course Kodansha has all the classics: Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Battle Angel Alita, Sailor Moon. Wotakoi is a classic at this point. All the ones I mentioned are proven to turn at comic shops. We've also got several assortments for stores that have worked their way through the backlist, evergreen sellers and want to get started with things that are a little bit more up to date.vWe are thrilled to help each individual store. No store is too small and no manga section too small to get personal treatment.

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