Made-in-Japan manga goes global with Webtoon, Deadpool

The image is from Sanshiro Kasama's "Deadpool: Samurai," published in Japanese in 2021, and in English in February 2022. It marks the first partnership between Marvel and Japanese comics publisher Shonen Jump. (DEADPOOL: SAMURAI © 2022 MARVEL, Story by Sanshiro Kasama, Art by Hikaru Uesugi, Translated by Amanda Haley, Lettered by Brandon Bovia via AP)
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Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) — Deadpool, meet All Might. Perhaps nothing highlights how the world of manga, the comics and cartoons originating in Japan, has gone global better than that coming together of superheroes, American and Japanese.

In “Deadpool: Samurai,” Marvel’s Deadpool gets help in his battle against evil from All Might, the muscular hero in “My Hero Academia,” a hit Japanese manga that’s sold 65 million copies worldwide.

“Deadpool: Samurai,” published in Japanese last year, came out in English translation this month. The Japanese “Deadpool: Samurai” was the best-selling Marvel comic last year, surpassing more than 1 million views online. It marks the first partnership between Marvel and Japanese comics publisher Shonen Jump.

Sanshiro Kasama, the author of “Deadpool: Samurai,” said he was thrilled to take on the job because he has always loved Marvel heroes and wanted more Japanese people to love Deadpool.

“I said, yes, yes, yes, yes! I really want to do it. It’s unbelievable the guy who always wanted to create a manga like Deadpool really gets to do Deadpool. I was so excited,” he told The Associated Press.

One challenge was that Marvel was protective of its characters and would often insist what he had Deadpool doing was out of character. In one scene, where he had Deadpool shooting someone, a gun had to be changed to a paint gun, said Kasama.

“Deadpool: Samurai” features drawings by Hikaru Uesugi, Kasama’s collaborator, but the scenes with All Might had drawings by its original manga artist Kohei Horikoshi. “Deadpool: Samurai” is the first collaboration between Marvel and U.S. manga publisher and anime distributor VIZ Media.

Manga has quickly become the top adult fiction category in the U.S. Sales in the graphic novel category — which includes manga and is exemplified by “My Hero Academia” — jumped 160% in 2021 on-year, growing 15 times faster than the total adult book market, according to The NPD Group, which tracks such trends.

Japan still makes up for the world’s biggest manga market at 45% in 2020, but the rest of the global market combined is quickly catching up, according to Grand View Research, a researcher and consultant based in San Francisco. The global manga market, valued at $23.5 billion in 2020, is expected to balloon to $48 billion in 2028, it said.

Julia Mechler, creator of the manga “Hymn of the Teada,” found that an American publisher was more interested in her work, which stars a woman from Okinawa, than were Japanese publishers, who saw it as niche and political.

Mechler wants her works to give a voice to Okinawa, a southwestern Japanese island where a gruesome land battle was fought in the closing years of World War II.

“I thought the beauty of Okinawa is that they really value peace,” said Mechler, whose mother is Okinawan and her father American.

“I was educated that peace is the most important thing in the world. Peace and life. And that sounds like a cliche, but, looking at the world, that’s actually really difficult to achieve.”

Mechler believes the boundaries between Japanese manga and works by non-Japanese are blurring, with the world of manga increasingly going global.

Japanese animation, known as anime, is popular on Netflix. Shows like “Demon Slayer” and “Attack on Titan” were first published as manga. Netflix is promising more anime this year, as are other streaming services like Hulu and Disney+.

Manga is also behind hit Netflix series that star human actors like “Fishbowl Wives,” which focuses on marital infidelity in a middle-class Tokyo neighborhood. Such shows are drawing not only Japanese but also American and other global viewers.

Another hit Neftlix show, “All of Us Are Dead,” in which zombies overrun a high school, is based on a Webtoon, a form of manga that started in South Korea.

Although manga has long been available online through Kindle, Apple Books, Google Play and other platforms, Webtoon caters its products for cellphone reading by rearranging the boxes to line up vertically, allowing readers to scroll from panel to panel with a flip of the finger.

When manga is read on paper pages, the story moves across from one box image to the other. Some Japanese manga fans still prefer reading the old way, even online, but newcomers appear to be rapidly adapting to enjoying manga Webtoon-style.

Webtoon Worldwide Service, which includes Naver Webtoon in South Korea, founded in 2004; Line Manga in Japan; and services in the U.S., Europe and other nations, recently hit 82 million users a month. Growth is especially strong in the U.S.

“As a platform, we wish to offer benefits for the artists in offering the best environment, in terms of readership size and profits, too, of course,” said Baku Hirai, chief operating officer at Line Digital Frontier, which oversees the Webtoon business in Japan. “By being on our platform, the work is relayed both domestically and globally, offering the chance for becoming a global hit.”

Although taking off two decades later than in South Korea, Webtoons are here to stay in Japan.

Works are being developed in Japan that bring together the best of Webtoons and manga, says Kojuro Hagihara, chief executive of Tokyo-based Sorajima Studio, which produces Webtoon works for various platforms.

“All we need is a mass hit, something people who don’t usually read Webtoons will be interested in. To do that, we need to create a Webtoon work that will be turned into a series on Netflix or Amazon Prime,” he said.

The 2021 startup studio has gathered investment from traditional Japanese manga publishers like Shueisha and Shogakukan. The studio has three works out so far, all profitable, including one published in the U.S. It plans 26 works for this year, and 50 for next year, which would rival the productivity of Webtoon studios in South Korea.

“Things are going super well,” said Hagihara.