Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Dark Age of Jump: Like a Phoenix Rising From the Ashes

Calling something the "Dark Age" tends to bring about a negative connotation. For example, historians used to refer to the Middle Ages as the "Dark Ages", but as more research & findings have come through modern historians prefer to not use the term, because it really wasn't as "dark" & without importance as it once was considered. On the side of American comics, the Dark Age is sometimes referred to what is presently called the Modern Age, mainly because of the rise of darker-themed & grim storytelling. Others would call it the Dark Age because of things that are now looked at with disdain, like the Speculator Boom or Rob Liefeld. Anyway, why exactly do I consider a short span of three years, 1996-1999, to be the "Dark Age of Jump"? Well, consider what had just happened to the magazine...

In the 27th issue of Shonen Jump's 1996 run, Takehiko Inoue put an end to his debut solo work, Slam Dunk, becoming the third manga in Jump history to be given a full-color final chapter. While it didn't happen over the course of a single week, the magazine lost two million readers from the end of that manga alone, and combined with Dragon Ball's end (the second full-color finale) the previous year that resulted in a 2.5 million loss. At that point it put the magazine's readership at around 4 million, a number Jump had not been at since 1984 (or just shortly after starting the Golden Age). At the end of 1996 came the end of Dragon Quest: Dai no Daibouken, & 1997 saw the finales to Rokudenashi Blues, Captain Tsubasa: World Youth Chapter, & Sexy Commando Gaiden, as well. By the time the new millennium came, Jump's readership reduced even more, averaging out to between 3-3.5 million, i.e. the number that Ring ni Kakero helped bring Jump back to by 1981. Therefore, compared to the massive Goliath that it was just prior, these next few years definitely felt like a much "darker", unsure time compared to the "golden" days just a couple of years ago. Luckily, the Dark Age of Jump, though insanely short, was filled with numerous debuts that would go on to become icons in their own right, some of which are still important to this very day. In fact, the issue of Jump that came right after Slam Dunk's end, #28, got this age of transition started very impressively.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Golden Age of Jump Part 2: The 2,500,000 Reader Pyramid

When most manga fans were to think of manga that came from Shonen Jump's "Golden Age", the general response would more than likely be filled with titles of the 80s, i.e. the stuff I covered in Part 1. Quite frankly, that's a completely reasonable response, too, because a fair percentage of manga that debuted from 1983-1990 still see new products to this very day. Saint Seiya has a sequel manga, various spin-off manga, nigh-yearly anime productions, & video games. Dragon Ball, after a bit of a drought, has a brand new midquel anime series airing on Japanese TV. City Hunter has a parallel universe sequel manga still running that had its own anime series. JoJo's Bizarre Adventure is a big deal for TV anime right now. Also, Sakigake!! Otokojuku, Fist of the North Star, & Hana no Keiji live on to this day, either via recent video games or spin-off manga & anime. In comparison, the manga that debuted during the second half of the Golden Age, 1990-1996, aren't quite as inundated with recent ("within the past five years or so") productions, though there are some notable exceptions. Still, it's not like Jump suffered by any means during this second half, and three series that debuted at the tail end of 1990 made sure that the new decade (or at least it's first half) wasn't going to feel less important in comparison to what came before.

A former assistant to Tsukasa Hojo during City Hunter's run, Takehiko Inoue made his professional debut as the artist of the short-lived 1989 manga Chamelon Jail (written by Kazuhiko Watanabe) under the alias Takehiko Nariai. Taking a year to prepare for a solo debut, Inoue looked back at his old high school days, when he was part of the basketball team. Inspired by his fond memories, he debuted Slam Dunk, which told the journey of Hanamichi Sakuragi, a red-haired delinquent who only joined the basketball team to impress a girl he has a crush on, as he went from talentless punk to a potential high school b-ball great. Mixing together Inoue's excellent drawing style with excellent comedy, fun characters, & lots of visual flair for the sport itself, though it took itself very realistically, Slam Dunk not only became a true-blue mega hit for Jump, but it also suddenly made basketball way more popular than it ever was; before Inoue started his manga, the sport was more or less ignored in Japan. In a Jump environment that was dominated by Dragon Ball, Slam Dunk was probably the first real series to not just challenge it for the overall throne (by that I mean not just being the most popular series but also be a massive seller), but arguably dethrone it at a regular pace. In fact, as of today, Inoue's first solo manga is still one of the best-selling manga of all time, selling over 120 million copies in Japan alone! In 2010, Inoue was even given a special commendation from the Japan Basketball Association for helping popularize the sport in Japan. Toei also got involved, giving the manga a TV anime adaptation from 1993-1996 that ran for 101 episodes (plus four movies). Finally, on the manga side, when the series came to an end in mid-1996, after 31 volumes, not only did Slam Dunk become the third Jump series to be given the full-color final chapter treatment (& the last for close to 20 years), it's very end resulted in a readership loss of roughly two million, a.k.a. four times the amount that Dragon Ball's finale did to Jump's readership! Indeed, Slam Dunk's finale marked the very end of the Golden Age of Jump... Luckily, we still have the entire second half to still get through, so let's continue.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Golden Age of Jump Part 1: Too Many Classics to Count

By the end of 1983, Shueisha's Weekly Shonen Jump was doing pretty damn well, all things considered. Following the end of Ring ni Kakero in 1981, readership was over 3 million & maybe even nearing 4 million. Series like Kochikame, Kinnikuman, High School! Kimengumi, & Captain Tsubasa were still nowhere near their ends (especially the first one) & bringing in readers, while the likes of Dr. Slump, Cobra, Cat's Eye, & Fuma no Kojirou weren't far from their respective ends (within a year, at most), with readers no doubt curious about what would come next from the authors of those works. What I now call the Bronze Age was one of establishment, a period of time that was all about laying the groundwork, & setting standards for what would follow. Now that all of that had been done from 1968-1983, it was time to move forward.

After roughly 15 years of life, already outliving predecessor Shonen Book, Jump was ready to take everything to the next level. I'm sure that, little did the editors, executives, & manga creators at Shueisha know, the next 13(-ish) years would be the absolute apex of success for the magazine, eventually reaching a reader base of about 6.5 million, completely destroying the competition when it came to sales. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, however, because the first half of what be later called the "Golden Age of Jump", 1983-1990, would only reach a 5 million readership (yeah, "only"). Alongside the super-long-runners that carried over into this age, what were the titles that started this mammoth-sized rise to sheer dominance? Well, the one that's generally considered the first "Golden Age" Jump manga was more proof that first impressions aren't always accurate, because, much like Masami Kurumada, the man who drew this epic had a failed start at first.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Bronze Age of Jump Part 2: Turning Bronze Into Gold

The first half-ish of Weekly Shonen Jump's Bronze Age was definitely a time that was all about establishment. Shueisha needed to bring in readers for its new magazine, and its manga creators did so by a variety of means. Go Nagai challenged the establishment, Hiroshi Motomiya stuck to his guns while also helping bring in a solid female fanbase, & the duo of Shiro Tozaki & Norihiro Nakajima showcased sheer insanity in ways that were never seen before in a story-driven, action-oriented fashion, among other writers & artists. Still, all of the titles I brought up in Part 1 began & ended in the Bronze Age. In Part 2, we'll not only examine the titles that truly set into motion the gears that made Jump's following era so successful, but about 3/4 of them would wind up existing to some extent in said following age.

But first, let's get one more trio of unknown (outside of Japan) manga out of the way.

Debuting at the tail end of 1975 was a gag manga named 1•2 no Ahho/Idiots!! by Kontaro (real name: Takashina Mitsuyoshi). Doing something never done before, Kontaro took a generally serious genre, in this case baseball manga, & made it into a full-on comedy; in fact, this manga is considered the foundation of the "baseball gag manga" genre. As for the title itself, it followed a man named "Kantoku/Director", who had lived on Morong Island for the past 20 years since the end of the Pacific Front of World War II, & his work with a boy named Teioka (named after Shouji Teioka, a promising rookie for the Yomiuri Giants at the time) as they work to improve Friendship School's baseball team. 1•2 no Ahho!! earned a nice bit of notoriety by also featuring a lot of satire about current events of the time, likely focusing on actual events that were happening in baseball. It would run for just slightly shy of three years, ending in mid-1978 after 10 volumes, but it would return in a small way with Shin 1•2 no Ahho!! in 2001, though obviously not run in Jump the second time around. Still, Kontaro showcased a way to mix genres together successfully, and that would be something that manga would wind up doing a lot in the future.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Bronze Age of Jump Part 1: Breaking the Rules & Setting Standards

Bronze is a metal that is of less value than that of gold or silver. In terms of honor, a bronze medal equates to third place, and that is a similar way that I look at the early days of Weekly Shonen Jump. It wasn't exactly going to immediately beat the existing top two of shonen publications, Kodansha's Shonen Magazine & Shogakukan's Shonen Sunday, and even in comparison to its later glory days these first 15 years or so aren't quite as known to many as what would come about in the 80s & beyond. Even in Japan titles from these early days are only rarely brought up when it comes to stuff like anime & video games. Still, everything has to start somewhere, and the era that I am calling the "Bronze Age of Jump" is similar to that of a young athlete that shows promise; it may only be "third place", but there's tons of potential & inspiration to be found.

Kujira/Whale Daigo by Sachio Umemoto was Jump's 1st Cover

In mid-1968, Japanese book publisher Shueisha decided to replace its young boy-aimed manga magazine Shonen Book, home of manga like Big X & Mach GoGoGo, after 11 years with a new publication, turning Book into a special issue. Said new magazine, Shonen Jump, debuted as a semi-weekly publication, but shortly into 1969 Jump became a weekly magazine, and with it came the end of Shonen Book (which was replaced by Bessatsu Shonen Jump, followed by Monthly Shonen Jump, followed by Jump Square). In order to compete with Magazine & Sunday, though, the editors at the newly founded Jump seemed to encourage their manga creators to eschew the unspoken rule book if they wanted; if nothing else, controversy can create cash. Combined with the magazine debuting alongside some newbie creators who would go on to become icons of the industry, the early days of the Bronze Age may be more important than most would think.