I've recently been reading an excellent book called The Star Machine by Jeanine Bassinger. It's about the Hollywood studios from the late 20s to the early 60s, and how they engineered stars. What's proving more fascinating is the section on stars that never were - they were attractive, they were talented, they had support... but they never hit it big.
I was thinking of this recently looking at the License Requests from my colleague David Welsh of Manga Curmudgeon. They're all deserving titles, and publishers should be giving them a chance. But invariably, a lot of those titles are never going to come out professionally in North America. And not just because of pure marketability, although that's one of the biggest factors.
As an example, let me pick a classic, incredibly influential romantic comedy from the days of Weekly Shonen Jump circa 1984 - in other words, a title running concurrently with the manga Dragon Ball. It's called Kimagure Orange Road, and is the story of a love triangle between three students, one of whom is protecting a secret - he's from a family of espers. It ran from 1984 to 1987, totalling 18 volumes. It spawned a very popular anime as well, which has been released in North American by Animeigo (though it is now out of print), and a couple of movies. And it was one of the first big fandoms online in the early to mid 1990s, along with Dirty Pair, Bubblegum Crisis, and Ranma 1/2.
When Ranma fandom took off, most folks thought that KOR would be an obvious pickup for Viz. It wasn't as hilarious and wacky a comedy, but the romance and love triangle madness were thought to have great potential, especially with titles like Tenchi Muyo and the like hitting it big in anime stores. But it never got picked up. Then, when the U.S. version of Shonen Jump was announced, people though that they'd definitely want a good old-school romantic comedy in there, to balance off all the shonen fighting mangas, and that KOR was an obvious choice. However, no shonen romantic comedies were slated for the Jump magazine, though one or two (notably Strawberry 100%) are coming out over here in volume format.
Well-written title, not a huge number of volumes, a built-in North American fandom... why not KOR? Or, for that matter, any number of titles that *seem* like obvious choices but never made it over here. Well, let's see.
1) It's not who comes first, it's who comes second. KOR was highly influential on manga's romantic comedies, in particular the waffly teen boy, his tsundere love, and the perky yet jealous other girl sort of thing seen in dozens of manga since then. However, everyone here has now read that story to death. Will they really appreciate seeing an 18-volume manga just because of its historical value? (KOR does have one advantage over many of its followers in that it has a real ending, and resolves its triangle.)
2) Trapped in the 80s. Art marches on, and while KOR's art is actually quite good, it's also very much of its time, and it's been noted that 'retro' art can sometimes hurt a title's sellability. Not that this hurt Dragon Ball, but what about Saint Seiya, or Here Is Greenwood?
3) HardKOR fandom? Uh oh. Everyone loves a show that has a built-in fanbase, but that can be a double-edged sword. KOR has been circulating around for years - the anime was a fansub favorite long before Animeigo put it out over here, and the manga was completely scanlated several years ago. If Viz announced 'Whimsical Orange Road' tomorrow, how many would say they aren't buying it because, let's say, they ruined the title? Yes, it's not in the same league as censoring child nudity (Dr. Slump) or renaming the lead character (Case Closed), or even changing one letter in a name for legal reasons (One Piece), but fandom, especially these days, needs very little excuse to NOT buy something. KOR fandom especially, like the female lead they adore, can be prickly.
(As a short aside, several of my friends at Otakon years and years ago found endless amusement in trolling fans of Kimagure Orange Road, talking about how we enjoyed the show but really hated that annoying girl... oh, what was her name... oh, right. Madoka. Generally speaking, the two reactions were a) Anger and outrage, or b) Fans 'helping' by telling us we were confusing the names of the two lead females. KOR was one of the first anime fandoms to seriously 'character bash', and Madoka vs. Hikaru wars still exist, though since the days of newsgroups have faded considerably. Personally, I like both female leads, but Kyosuke's indecisiveness, which is far worse in the manga, is really hard to read without wishing him a boot to the head.)
4) The manga creator doesn't want it licensed. This is not as common now as it was in the old days of 32-page floppies from Viz, when many creators absolutely refused to have their work flipped and reading left to right. That's less of an issue these days, but there are still many creators who either don't want North America to see their work at all, or add conditions such as 'you also have to release my 20 other non-famous titles' that make things hard to finance. A recent example would be Urasawa's holding back the license for 20th Century Boys until Monster had finished its run here.
5) It's a one-hit wonder. Generally speaking, when manga hits it big in North America, the first thing publishers do is find other titles by that artist. Fruits Basket is the perfect example. Yet the creator of KOR, Izumi Matsumoto, had only one other short serialization (called Sesame Street, a title that would HAVE to change to be taken seriously over here), and has been mostly invisible for the last 20 years. (He recently revealed he's been suffering from a cerebrospinal fluid disease, and hopes to return to manga soon.) So you're left looking for titles with a similar FEEL to Kimagure Orange Road... a great number of which are already out over here, and have been for years. Back to #1...
I like KOR, and hope people didn't see this as bashing the title. It just makes a good example to illustrate my point. What, if it's not the actual quality of the work, makes a title unlicensed? What are those little factors that make a Viz or a Tokyopop or a Del Rey say "We don't think that we can make this a success" or "various problems prevent this from being released" or even "we have no comment at this time"?
If anyone has any other good examples, please feel free to leave them in the comments. And Viz, if you decide to license KOR tomorrow just to make me look foolish, I'll be very amused indeed. And will definitely pick up the series. Though I think a wideban might be more sellable. ^_-