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US-focused graphic novel publisher Tokyopop, founded in 1997, has announced that it will be closing the doors on its American operation on May 31. Tokyopop was the first to publish Japanese manga (comics, or graphic novels) in their original, un-flipped state and did much to popularize what has been called the “manga revolution.”

Being a graphic novel aficionado and a manga early adopter (AKA nerd), my memories of Tokyopop revolve largely around the Borders bookstore in my hometown in Connecticut. Toyopop dominated the bookstore’s tiny shelf of graphic novels with now-legendary series like Magic Knight Rayearth, Chobits and Sailor Moon, manga that were hugely popular in Japan but unknown in the US. The thin books were translated into English, but published bound on the right side, retaining the Japanese orientation of reading right to left. The orthodox layout was a gesture towards integrity and reverence to the original object that was missing from earlier manga publishing.

Over the years, Tokyopop’s hegemony gave way to a diversity of publishers, and ever-expanding Borders bookshelves. I bought my first full manga series, Love Hina, also published by Tokyopop. But competition has been tough for the publishers even though they did much to create the US market for manga — by last February, only 6 employees were left in the company.

Tokyopop’s “Love Hina” series at left, “Magic Knight Rayearth” at right (images via tokyopop.com)

Venerable industry blog Comics Beat writes,

Sales surged as the manga bookstore revolution took over in the early part of the last decade. An ambitious program of publishing original manga by creators from around the world — many of them barely out of the teenaged readership years themselves — proved controversial and ultimately saw only a handful of successful franchises but introduced a new generation of creators to the comics scene.

It’s the cultural significance that matters, and Tokyopop is hands down the most influential manga publisher yet to exist in the US. As the craze for manga has widened into a greater appreciation for graphic novels and subtler artistic forms, we’ve been well served by publishers like Drawn and Quarterly. Yet Tokyopop defined the meteoric rise of popular manga, and their books will always have an element of nostalgia for myself and millions of readers worldwide.

Tokyopop founder Stu Levy wrote in a personal note to supporters,

Together, our community has fought the good fight, and, as a result, the Manga Revolution has been won –manga has become a ubiquitous part of global pop culture. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished – and the incredible group of passionate fans we’ve served along the way (my fellow revolutionaries!).

The funny thing is that Levy isn’t exaggerating in the slightest. Manga has gone from a niche form into a global movement, with artists, readers and fans in every corner of the globe. Tokyopop played a huge role in that growth, and I’m sad to see it go.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

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