Interview with Jake Forbes

Jake Forbes is the manga equivalent of Kurt Busiek in terms of on-line conversation. When a discussion turns dicey or dangerously speculative, Forbes often arrives to say something intelligent and reasonable. You’d think he’d be no fun at all, but, like Busiek, he’s as congenial as he is well-informed.

Forbes has worked as an editor for Tokyopop (where his titles included Fruits Basket) and Go! Comi, and he’s done freelance work with CMX (no, not on Tenjho Tenge) and Viz (including Fullmetal Alchemist, which puts his fingerprints on two of the biggest hits in manga history).

He was kind enough to agree to an e-mail interview.

Flipped: Let’s start with a little of your background in manga, both as a fan and a professional.

Forbes: I was first introduced to manga in high school with Ranma ½ , but truth be told, I was more into anime and import games and didn’t really pay attention to manga at the time. When I went in for my interview at Tokyopop.com (as they insisted in being called at the time) I wasn’t aware that it was manga editing I was applying for—I thought it was internet content editorial! I took to manga pretty quickly, though, and starting in May of 1999 I was a manga editor! The first series I really loved was Parasyte, but it was Cardcaptor Sakura that showed me the potential that manga had that US comics had all but forgotten. In addition to being a senior editor for Tokyopop and starting up the manga editorial program at Go! Comi, I’ve also been a freelance rewriter/script editor for Viz and CMX.

Flipped: Go! Comi currently has four titles in release (Cantarella, Crossroad, Her Majesty’s Dog, and Tenshi Ja Nai!!). Is the plan to keep things to a manageable number for a while, like Del Rey did in its first year?

Forbes: That’s exactly the plan. While overall manga sales are at an all-time high, the disparity between hits and moderate sellers is also rising. If a book doesn’t sell well in the first volume or two, many retailers simply won’t carry it anymore. In this market, you simply can’t afford to release a series without proper sales, marketing and editorial support. We want to make sure that readers and retailers know that our licenses are solid and the localization quality top notch. Based on the response to the first round of books, I think we’re well on the way to earning that trust.

Flipped: So the relatively small number of titles is partly an extension of the company’s desire to translate works carefully and present them well? (And from what I’ve seen, Go! Comi’s production values and supplemental material are really top-notch.)

Forbes: Yes. Just as we don’t want to over-extend on the business side, on the editorial and production side we want to live within our means and grow responsibly. We’ve set a quality bar that we want to see move in only one direction—up. At this point, the company’s growth isn’t very affected by our ability to get the books out—we definitely have the capacity for more titles. That’s not to say that we aren’t overworked when production deadlines hit!

Flipped: As far as content goes, the current roster could be described as sort of off-kilter shôjo. Cantarella is a costume drama with maybe some shônen-ai undertones; Tenshi seems more traditional, but meaner than average. (Not quite Hot Gimmick mean, but certainly in Othello territory.) Is that a niche you’ve developed, or is it just a function of which titles you wanted lined up for your launch? Will Go! Comi be expanding into other genres?

Forbes: We deliberately chose four series that go across the shôjo spectrum and have a wide appeal. We didn’t want the titles to be lumped in with generic shôjo, but tried to pick titles that really felt unique in story and/or style. I think you could also say that we wanted titles that were more sexy than cute, both in the way that the characters are drawn and in the slightly edgier than usual stories. As you say, Tenshi has a mean edge to it in the first volume, and that thread stays with it. In the second volume, there’s a decidedly tender turn to the series with one of the most painfully sincere crush relationships I’ve seen in a manga since Suki (Dakara Suki). Crossroad, on the other hand, takes a major turn for the twisted in volume 2. That series really reminds me of Fruits Basket in the way that it slowly builds a cast of tragic characters but still puts a smile on your face.

Flipped: Speaking of Cantarella (which I can do at length), Go! Comi has forged a very close working relationship with the manga-ka, You Higuri. Just based on the relatively short time I’ve been reading manga and watching the industry, that seems like a very unusual level of participation from a creator. How did it come about?

Forbes: David Wise (CEO) and Audry Taylor (Creative Director) met Higuri-sensei at Comiket in Tokyo several years back and struck up a fast friendship. When they pitched Audry’s Almost Legendary Shannon story to her, Higuri took an instant liking to it and wanted to help. We were all fans of Cantarella and knew that we wanted that to be a launch title and it was David and Audry’s relationship with the creator that helped open the doors for that to happen. I met Higuri for the first time at Anime Central for the first time last year and she’s really a charming and humble artist. She kindly provided an introduction for the English edition of volume 1 and has pulled some of her concept art out of her vaults for inclusion in future volumes (starting in volume 2). It’s an honor and a rarity in this business to have that kind of access to a creator.

Flipped: Is it something you hope to cultivate? Will this be a trademark of Go! Comi?

Forbes: We would love to work closely with more creators, but it’s not always possible. Manga-ka are notorious workaholics, so even their Japanese publishers have a hard time getting time with them. There’s also a culture of humility among Japanese creators so that they don’t self-promote the way we’re used to here. Many of the creators who come to conventions in the US have never done public appearances or signings in their native country!

Flipped: When might some new licenses be announced?

Forbes: We have several new licenses confirmed that we’ll announce very soon. Two of the creators are pretty well known and one of them has had as series released in English before to great acclaim.

Flipped: Now, moving back to some earlier chapters of your illustrious career. You edited the first six volumes of Fruits Basket for Tokyopop. First of all, may I touch the hem of your garment?

Forbes: If I were you, I’d wait until AFTER laundry day before making that request, but if you must…

Flipped: Duly noted.

Forbes: Fruits Basket was, and still is, an amazing experience. I edited the first 6 in-house and continued to work on the scripts through volume 14 remotely. That’s a series that deserves every bit of hype it gets. Takaya-sensei has created one of the most memorable casts of characters in all of manga. I’m continually amazed by how moving she makes each character’s back-story (except for Ritsu… he kinda blows) and the way in which each character is gradually redeemed or accepted.

Flipped: Now, now… every Sohma is someone’s favorite. Did you get a sense prior to publication that this book was going to hit big? I know it’s incredibly popular in Japan, but there’s never any guarantee that popularity will translate.

Forbes: It was a no-brainer, really. Prior to its release, TOKYOPOP had done several polls on what series fans would like to see licensed. Fruits Basket got more votes than everything else combined. Sometimes with licensing you have to go with your gut. With Fruits Basket, the luck came in getting the license—not in selecting it. That said, I don’t think anyone expected it to be as phenomenally successful as it turned out to be. That a shôjo story about a cursed family and the loveable girl who brought them together could hold its own against mega-franchise hits like Naruto, Fullmetal Alchemist and Rurouni Kenshin, even after 12 volumes, did surprise some people.

Flipped: Could you tell me something about the editing process? It seems to vary so much from publisher to publisher and project to project.

Forbes: Being a manga editor is a combination of project management, brand manager and copy editor. You’re also the person responsible for presenting a creator’s work to a new audience. It varies by company how much control or responsibility an editor might have over things like cover design, bonus content, acquisitions or marketing plans, but when it comes to the actual content that goes between the covers, the editor is generally the person responsible. It’s not a very glamorous job—especially in the otaku community where “to edit” is synonymous with “censorship.”
Flipped: Tracking back to translation issues, you’ve got a gig writing an adaptation of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. That film has some crazy-loyal fans. How daunting is that prospect? Does your experience as an editor of translated comics – keeping true to the creators’ intent – help you out?

Forbes: To clarify, it’s not an adaptation but an original story that takes place 15 years after the film. This time Toby, the baby in the film, is the protagonist. It turns out that Jareth, the Goblin King, didn’t wholly give up on the boy once Sarah rescued him in the film. You’ll see appearances of most of the characters from the film, but most of the cast are new characters. I’m one of those crazy-loyal fans, so I know how high the expectations must be for an authorized sequel. The few friends I’ve shared things with and Lisa Henson (Jim’s daughter) all like where the story is going, so I hope that people will be open to it, even if it isn’t the Sarah-Jareth love story that I know many would like to see more of (at least, it’s not JUST that…). One thing I didn’t want to do was make a pure nostalgia piece and retread old ground like a lot of the other 80s licenses that have made the transition to comics in recent years. Ideally, I see the Labyrinth franchise as having the fantasy potential of the Oz or Narnia—the world can support any number of stories, not just ones about Sarah and Jareth. That said, my stomach has been filled with butterflies ever since I got the assignment!

Flipped: Judging from your bio, you have excellent taste in manga. I now give you liberty to praise Sgt. Frog,. Begin.

Forbes: Here’s a little poem that I wrote for Private Tamama. I hope he would approve.

Superspace is really neat.
I use it instead of feet.
It gets me from here to there.
Mister Sergeant has no hair.
When I’m feeling all alone,
Superspace will take me home.
Amen.

Thanks for the chance to chat.