This month, the Manga Movable Feast, under the guidance of host Kate Dacey at The Manga Critic, is celebrating manga past and present that have appeared under Viz's Signature imprint. Any series that garners the Signature label likely has several qualities going for it: It's a title geared toward older audiences; it's probably beloved by Manga Movable Feasters (and, by extension, manga bloggers in general) the world over; and, save for a few exceptions (i.e. Tenjho Tenge ... for now, anyway), you'd be really hard-pressed to find anything more than the latest volume of it at your local retailer amid the sea of 500,000 Bleach, Naruto, One Piece and Sailor Moon volumes.
All this talk about the Signature line reminded me of when Viz tried its hardest to nudge it more into the spotlight. Flash back to one week in May 2009, when, in one fell swoop, Viz announced that it was canceling Shojo Beat magazine and starting a new, online-exclusive anthology: Viz Signature Ikki (SigIkki to all its friends), based on a Shogakukan magazine in Japan targeted at young men. The intent was to gauge reader interest in the series posted, with the most popular series getting print runs down the line. I even wrote a Cel Shaded column about it, because really, shock and awe were the moods of the day: Print anthologies, canceled? Legal manga distributed on the Intarwebz, and for free? Revolutionary!
So here we are now, looking back to that seemingly quaint time in the present day (present time, muhahahaha). The print editions of Yen Plus and Shonen Jump also were canceled, moving from print to digital. Shojo Beat's thrived quite nicely, thank you very much, as a Viz manga imprint. Viz has itself jumped wholeheartedly into digital, offering downloads on both computers and Apple's iOS devices. (Sorry, Android users.)
And the Ikki initiative? It seems to be drifting into the Black Hole of Manga Websites. Those of you who were around to watch as the U.S. manga industry boom slowly imploded upon itself over a five-year span, rendering a good chunk of the "Publishers" chapter of The Rough Guide to Manga outdated within a year of its publication in the process (*sigh*), have seen the signs before: First, the updates become inconsistent; then they become infrequent; then it becomes painfully clear that no one cares about updating the thing at all; and finally you either get one of those lame "THIS DOMAIN IS AVAILABLE FOR SALE" splash pages or an "ERROR 404 PAGE NOT FOUND" message in your browser.
I'd say Ikki's hovering somewhere around the second stage right about now, gradually sliding into the third stage. After several years of updating four times a month with new manga chapters, the schedule slipped to twice monthly last October. After December 9, the updates stopped altogether. Many of the chapters listed in the update calendar are already gone, having been compiled in print volumes. A poll inviting visitors to "Create The Comix Future!" is blank. The last published interview, with Dorohedoro editor Mr. Kouga, was posted on March 25, 2010; the last "Ikki Underground" update was made on Dec. 10, 2009.
It's all good, though, as long as the manga's still coming out somewhere. And for the most part, the series launched on sigikki.com have continued to live on in print and paid digital apps.
All of them, that is, except for four titles.
For a line that musters modest readership at best, these four -- Bob and His Funky Crew, I Am A Turtle, Tokyo Flow Chart and What's the Answer? -- appear to have been unable to garner enough reader support online to make publishing them worth Viz's time. Here are the stories of the Forgotten Four, along with their SigIkki debut dates and a few thoughts on whether readers really missed out in seeing more.
Bob and His Funky Crew (Nov. 19, 2009)
Viz's synopsis: Meet Bob, the Major League’s legendary cleanup batter who can’t run, can’t field, and can’t play under pressure. His experience, raunchy jokes, and the fact that no one else wants to take his position makes Bob an irreplaceable designated hitter...until he gets traded to the previous year’s division-title team, the Bulldog City Bullies. Together with his funky friends, Youngman “The One-way Runaway Train” (brawling 3rd baseman), “Stink Bug” Jo (2nd base conman), and “The Game Breaker” Jack (relief pitcher with a flea’s heart), the underdogs will reign this baseball season!
Impressions: I noted during the Cross Game Manga Movable Feast last year that I love baseball. It stands to reason, then, that I would've loved to have seen more of this series. Would it have fallen into the usual sports story cliched cycle of "introduce the lovable losers, drag them around in the dregs of the league for a while, then watch them slowly pull themselves together and win a championship through determination and sheer force of will"? Probably.
Yet at the same time, I want to believe that Bob and the boys are cut from a different cloth. I want to believe that they're such pathetic losers, they won't have that championship moment for a long, long time, so that we can see them fumbling about for a bit and have fun doing so. These are guys traded from the Los Angeles Earthquakes to the league leaders, the Bulldog City Bullies, in exchange for the Bullies' manager, after all. Absurdist humor prevails throughout, whether it's the Earthquakes' GM wanting to advertise for a new manager on Craigslist with "moderate compensation," an argument between teams that ends up throwing in a discussion on the definition of "permafrost," or Bob and Youngman debating over whose slump is worse and, thus, who can claim more personal responsibility for letting down the team. Those of you who remember Cromartie High School and its dopey delinquents will find a similar feel here. (Although sadly, nothing could possibly equal the comic brilliance that were Cromartie's Mechazawa and Freddie.)
I Am A Turtle (Aug. 20, 2009)
Viz's synopsis: Follow this turtle down a Zen path through the wondrous natural world of Japan. Witness his simple life on a tea farm with his young master. Meet other animals such as his neighbor, the Sea Dog, an owl, a family of boars and, of course, more turtles! Come see how much better life can be when you’re a turtle.
Impressions: Well, we never do get to meet any of Turtle's friends and neighbors, save for a two-page spread with labels denoting who's who. What we do see in our short taste of this series, is how Turtle got from Africa to Japan (he fell out of his original owner's pant leg as he was smuggled into the country) and Turtle's musings on how furry things are often cute. All of this is told in the style of 4-koma, those four-paneled strips that resemble the traditional U.S. newspaper comic strip.
The thing about these 4-koma series, though, is that they're wildly inconsistent in quality. When the humor clicks, people buy them in droves -- see Azumanga Daioh, K-ON!, Lucky Star and Hetalia. When it doesn't ... well, look at Tori Koro, the bland tale of a bland girl and her bland mom who take in two bland teenage boarders, where it was difficult to tell the characters apart and ComicsOne/DrMaster's splotchy printing sucked out what little life there was left in the drawings. I Am A Turtle certainly doesn't fall on the Tori Koro side of the scale -- Temari Tamura's detailed drawings of the various animals certainly eliminates any potential issues with character design -- but it also doesn't reach the humorous heights of, say, Azumanga. It's definitely not as charming as my current gold standard for the "stories told from the perspective of an animal" category And for a customer who needs more substance before committing to buying a volume of manga, it doesn't feel like I Am A Turtle could deliver on anything more than a series of hit-or-miss gags.
Tokyo Flow Chart (July 30, 2009)
Viz's synopsis: Have you ever wished that somebody else would just DO SOMETHING about the chaos in your life? Then this is the perfect manga for a slacker like you! Tokyo Flow Chart is (probably) the world’s first four-frame comic strip in flow chart format. It breaks down the complexities of life and aids in the mastery of brain skills such as flow-chart-manga comprehension or mental bullet-dodging. As Confusious (sic) say: “let your brain flow with the chart!”
Impressions: Actual quote from a blurb at the beginning of the chapter: "The journey toward mastery of Brain Skills begins with a single step. In Chapter 1, we will learn basic flowcharting. First, observe that the flowcharts are organized in two ways: on dark 'main routing' lines, which connect frames along the main flowcharting route and on thinner subrouting lines, which connect frames along secondary flowchart routes. Reading these flowcharts is simple: Read along the main route until you reach the endpoint. Then return to the beginning and follow each subroute in turn."
Translation: "These are 4-koma strips. You can either appreciate the first gag we came up with, or you can take one of the branching paths and hope you like one of the other gags instead."
This, of course, brings back the whole "problem with 4-koma series/why this probably didn't succeed" discussion from I Am A Turtle, except multiplied up to six times per strip with with a flowchart gimmick. And while it's clear that artist Eiji Miruno deliberately draws each individual panel with multiple elements in them so that subsequent panels can riff on different elements, what's less clear is his reasoning for choosing what he does. It can be the T-shirts the characters are wearing, a pigeon that happens to be walking in the background or even flavor crystals in concrete -- it just ends up coming off rather funny, and not particularly in the "ha-ha" sense.
What's the Answer? (Oct. 22, 2009)
Viz's synopsis: What do you get when you mix absurdity, surrealism, and potty humor, and serve it on a bed of wicked satire? The answer is … What’s the Answer? That’s the answer! Each chapter begins with a set-up question. Then you turn the pages to find out not one, not two, but three three (or five, or sometimes seven) possible punch lines. Can you handle the alternative comic alternatives?
Impressions: If the question was "What's the best way to get American audiences to read What's the Answer? and get them to want more?" the correct answer probably should have been "great googly moogly, why are you even considering publishing What's the Answer? KYAAAAAAH RUN FOR YOUR LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIFE BEFORE IT'S TOO LAAAAAAAATE." In the single published installment that remains, we see a six-panel setup that sets up the question, "What does Santa do on the day before Christmas Eve?" Then we get three answers: "Fabreeze," "Preparing to risk his life again," and "Shadow clone jutsu."
That's the chapter.
At least visitors to the Ikki site that week got new chapters of Saturn Apartments and Children of the Sea and an interview with Mr. Sato, the editor of Bokurano: Ours, so it wasn't a completely wasted visit.
To its credit, that small snippet does deliver on the promised "absurdity, surrealism and potty humor." Wicked satire, though? Doubt we'll ever see that show up. In fact, the thought of an entire book filled with chapters like these has me recoiling a bit in horror -- sure, there's a chance that there were better examples of artist Tondabayashi's humor, but there's also a greater chance that future installments were even more surreal and unintelligible to the average American reader. Perhaps in this case, the fact we never got anything else from this series was more the result of a mercy killing.