Jason Thompson September 2009

An interview with Jason Thompson, long-time manga editor, comic creator, and writer of the Eisner-nominated Manga: The Complete Guide.

Hello there! Please introduce yourself!

Jason Thompson: My name is Jason Thompson, and I'm a comic creator/manga editor. From 1996 to 2006 I worked at VIZ, where I edited a whole bunch of manga—most notably, I was the first editor of SHONEN JUMP, and helped launch the magazine and put it together. I've worked on One Piece, Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Shaman King, Hana-Kimi, Uzumaki, Bastard!!, Pretty Face and many others. In 2006 I left VIZ to write Manga: The Complete Guide, an encyclopedia of manga reviews, for Del Rey. Since then I've done editing work for various companies, I edit the manga section of Otaku USA magazine, and I'm working on a graphic novel, King of RPGs, which is coming out from Del Rey in January 2010.

How did you get into the manga scene? Were there any scanlation/fanscan back then? When did you first notice scanlation?

Jason Thompson: Speaking as a fan, not a professional... I first became aware of manga and anime in the late '80s, when my high school friends were getting into Robotech. I didn't really get into it myself until I started college and watched Ranma ½ and Akira at the college anime club. At the time, I wasn't even aware of the existence of professionally translated manga and anime, not that there was a lot of it. The first professionally translated manga I saw was probably VIZ's Battle Angel Alita.

In terms of scanlations, the Cal-Animage Beta aniime club newsletter ran someone's bad translation of the Video Girl Ai manga. For years after that, the closest thing to scanlation that I could find online was scripts as text files—I didn't see any full scanlations until probably 2000–2001. Of course, I had good access to Japanese tankobon from my job, I lived in a city with good Japanese bookstores (San Francisco), and I had lots of Japanese-speaking friends, so I didn't have much reason to look for scanlations. I did look for some Jojo's Bizarre Adventure script files way back in the day, in the '90s.

Were the manga publishers from back then aware of translation/scanlation groups? How did they view them back then?

Jason Thompson: When I got into the industry as a professional, way back when, scanlations didn't really exist. What little did exist wasn't considered nearly as big of an issue as fansubs and bootleg tape trading/selling. By 1996, a lot of professionals in the industry were already butting heads with fansubbers over whether what they were doing was destroying the industry. The anime market was so much bigger than the manga market, the existence of scanlations didn't really cause any alarm in the industry until around 2002–2003, when the manga market started to take off. It was only around then that it became big enough for industry people to take notice (and get worried about it).

It seems the manga industry doesn't always avoid scanlation as the plague... back when Viz launched Shounen Jump, Toriyama's World was one of their biggest online promotional partners, and has made quite a few friends among many U.S. publishers through their reporting of manga news. So has the general attitude toward scanlation been from people in the industry?

Jason Thompson: I didn't know about at the time (sorry), but the Toriyama's World people were really awesome. They always cooperated with VIZ and made sure to take down stuff when it was licensed. You'd have to ask them yourself, but I think they really wanted to see the material become popular in the U.S., and they were happy to work with VIZ to promote it, even if it meant gradually retiring their own site. And I think that's the best attitude to take. Of course, they didn't just go along with whatever VIZ did; when VIZ did things they disagreed with, like some of the early Naruto manga translations, they let VIZ know about it.

On the other hand, you have sites like NarutoFan, which piss me off. It's one thing to spread around scanlations or fansubs for free because you are a fan of the series and want to share it with other people, but asking people for money to look at scanlations is like selling bootleg DVDs; it's just piracy.

Search for "manga" on Google, over half of the results on the first page are usually scanlation-related. Scanlation still seems to be a topic avoided by most people from the industry... instead of avoiding it, why not try to face it and find a solution instead?

Jason Thompson: The manga industry's issue with scanlations is the same as the film industry's or the anime industry's issue with YouTube or BitTorrent. The manga industry hasn't been affected quite as drastically by scanlations as the anime industry has by fansubs, probably just because the experience of reading manga on a computer isn't as ideal as the experience of reading manga in a graphic novel/tankobon/magazine—but the experience of watching fansubbed anime on your computer, vs. watching legitimate anime, is virtually the same. So manga's low-tech nature gives it an advantage against piracy, to some extent.

There is one disadvantage which both manga and anime have when dealing with scanlations and fansubs; manga and anime are by definition licensed from Japan, so the chain of communication has to pass from America to Japan and back, and it takes the publishers longer to react to things and to deal with fansubs. There is the time and expense of translation. And there is also the risk of miscommunication and disagreements between the American and Japanese licensing sides about how to deal with scanlations. Two heads are not necessarily better than one.

In the end, though, manga is just dealing with the same problem that other industries are. It's easy to put stuff on the Internet, people expect stuff on the Internet to be free, and yet companies need to make money. Basically, the business model of manga, like anime and TV and so many other industries, is in the process of changing. I just don't know how it'll change or in what way.

Have you read any scanlation? Do you have anything to say about their quality compared to actual manga from a publisher?

Jason Thompson: I've read plenty of scanlations, and the quality varies drastically. Some are fine, some have pretty stilted translations. The best thing about scanlations is the huge variety of material that's available; it'd be interesting if actual publishers tried 'testing out' series as online scanlations before printing them, like legitimized scanlations, since printing costs are such a huge expense. ComicsOne did a line of manga ebooks almost 10 years ago, and it didn't work out, but maybe they were ahead of their time?

Thank you for your time! Any last words?

Jason Thompson: A friend of mine who works in the manga industry said he's surprised when scanlators talk about a "legal gray area"—as he points out, according to copyright law, scanlations aren't a gray area, they are straight-up *are* illegal. Then again, the same thing applies to millions of videos on YouTube, so take that as you will. But I do think it's important to remember that manga artists need to make a living, so if you really like their work, buy it, whether in tankobon or English edition.