A New Beat From A Dead Heart: Carl Gustav Horn Talks The Return Of Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service

Dark Horse publishes a manga called The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. Kurosagi (writer: Eiji Otsuka, penciller: Housui Yamazaki) is a warm and funny horror comic that's one of my favorite things Dark Horse ever released. It ran in single volume form for 10 years, but lost money badly. A subsequent reissue in an omnibus format (3 volumes in 1) in 2015-2016 succeeded modestly.

I talked to the series' English language editor Carl Gustav Horn at Emerald City 2018, and I didn't figure more Kurosagi would happen. Omnibus volume one blew through five printings, but that didn't translate to more printings for the subsequent omnibuses. And while he told me he'd continue to champion the series internally for new material, I didn't figure he'd succeed.

At Anime Expo 2019, Dark Horse announced they'd publish more, which surprised me.

I asked Jude if we could set up an interview with Carl to talk more about the series, and the man had time. I'd hoped the Dark Horse editor would go inside baseball, and bless him, he did. Here's some additional pictures from Deb Aoki's twitter, which is how I heard about it happening in the first place.

Sit back, this one's a doozy:

Re-releasing Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service in an omnibus format in 2015 and 2016 seemed like a gamble, but this appeared to be the catalyst for the series' return. Can you take us on the road from the series' English language hiatus after volume 13 in 2012 to the announcement of omnibuses five and six at Anime Expo 2019?

It must have truly dropped off the radar, as there was actually a volume 14 in-between there ^_^  Kurosagi followed a basic trajectory that's not unusual for manga, or other forms of serial media—its first volume sold the best, and then after that sales started to gradually decline. "Decline" may be relative—there are manga series where the first volume sells the best, but the series as a whole remains popular enough so that none of the later volumes ever sell poorly enough to lose money on an individual basis. Then you have manga series where the decline is more rapid (or is starting from a lower initial sales point), so that later volumes do start to lose money on an individual basis—but the series as a whole is still popular enough that the profitable volumes outweigh the unprofitable ones, and when the series is over, there's still some profit left.

A New Beat From A Dead Heart: Carl Gustav Horn Talks The Return Of Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service
Cover to omnibus number one by Bunpei Yorifuji.

And then you have manga series where the earlier profitable volumes don't outweigh the later unprofitable ones, and if you keep going, after a certain point the entire series is going to be at a loss. That's what happened with Kurosagi—we'd put out 14 volumes of a good series, but even after all that effort, had lost money doing so. I feel bad about it—I want every manga publication program to be a success in the end, even if it's only a modest success. It's frustrating for everyone—not least for the people who bought every volume of Kurosagi and supported it all the way. It wasn't their fault, and they didn't do anything wrong; it's just that there weren't enough of them.

The omnibus format for manga has advantages, but it's not necessarily appropriate for all series—particularly, of course, new manga, and manga where it's not clear how long the series is going to be. But it can work well with some titles, and in fact Dark Horse had been using it with various manga since the late 2000s—on CLAMP's and Kazuo Koike's works, on Trigun, and others. There was the idea that it could be used to give Kurosagi a fresh start—after all, the series had first launched in 2006 into a very different market: before the "manga boom" ended, before the closure of the Borders bookstore chain, and of course, before the Great Recession. It seemed a shame to have all this story material that had been translated and lettered, and just allow it to fade away.

But doing a Kurosagi omnibus program had risks, too. Those previous omnibus manga I mentioned had been successful also as individual volumes, and/or were released directly to omnibus in the first place. Kurosagi was already in the red, and of course, it would be even deeper in the red if we tried an omnibus, at least at first—after all, putting together and printing the omnibus would itself cost more money. We had no guarantee it would work, and indeed, after we put out the first four omnibus books we were even deeper in the red. But gradually, more and more people discovered and bought the omnibus, and in the words of the immortal Kenny Rogers, somewhere in the darkness (actually, somewhere between 2Q 2016 and 1Q 2017), the gambler he broke even, and The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, ten years after it first premiered in English, finally turned a profit.

A modest one. Of course, we wanted to get more Kurosagi out there, but the first problem is that the omnibus editions are 3-in-1s; we'd put out individual volumes 13 and 14, but that still left us one short if we wanted to put out an omnibus Book Five. At first I was thinking along previous lines—put out vol. 15 individually, and then later we could collect it with 13 and 14 into a Book Five. But there wasn't any indication that an individual vol. 15 would sell any better than had the individual volumes 13 and 14; it would almost certainly also lose money. It might seem as if the obvious solution was always the one we in fact have decided to do—to not publish vol. 15 separately, but as new material that could be bundled with volumes 13 and 14 to make a Book Five.

But how would the people who had already bought 13 and 14 separately feel about that? And also…then what? Kurosagi is still an ongoing series in Japan. Again, the obvious answer seemed to be what we're doing for Book Six, "continue the series on an omnibus-only basis." But traditionally, omnibus editions consisted of material for which there was a previous edition—that is, material on which much, or at least some of work has been done. To continue Kurosagi on an omnibus-only basis would mean adapting 600+ pages at one time, starting from scratch. It certainly isn't unheard of in the foreign-language manga industry, but it also wasn't the sort of thing to jump right into for a series whose publication history had been—what's the word?—challenging.

However, since 2016, Dark Horse has been putting out more previously unpublished material direct to omnibus—I Am a Hero, Star Blazers 2199, H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, Elfen Lied. Again, it's not a format suitable for the initial release of every manga, but now we want to try it to give Kurosagi a new beginning. And again, just as I want to thank the people who bought the individual volumes, it's obviously the people who supported the first four Kurosagi omnibus books who are now making Book Five and Book Six possible. Kurosagi is up to vol. 25 in Japan, so a little quick math will show that a Book Seven and Book Eight would be possible as well, depending on how things go with the fifth and sixth.

Are manga titles revitalized by a new publication format common? The only comparison to the return of Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service I can think of is the success of Vertical's Mobile Suit Gundam deluxe editions.

It's not unusual to offer a previously published manga in a new format (and of course, that used to be common with other forms of physical media, and still happens to an extent). You want to offer something new, either in value for money, bonus content, upgraded paper or size, or often some combination of these. For a book publisher, it's not a simple sales gimmick, either—books are our goal and ambition, and we want them to be better where they can. It's understood that one of the reasons print books survive in a digital age is that they're not just a platform for content—they're distinct, individual objects in their own right. Especially if you love a series or its characters, the great thing about a book is that it's a little piece of the world reserved just for them.

A New Beat From A Dead Heart: Carl Gustav Horn Talks The Return Of Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service
Cover to omnibus number two by Bunpei Yorifuji.

One of the advantages of the omnibus format for Kurosagi is that it's enabled us to bring back the special tactile element that books can offer—in this case, the cardboard-style covers that the individual volumes had through volume 11. We used those in the first place because we wanted to convey something of the original Japanese covers by designer Bunpei Yorifuji. As many people know, paperback books in Japan, whether text-oriented or manga, typically have slipcovers. Yorifuji's original slipcovers expressed the idea of the "delivery service" by using a stock that looked and felt like brown wrapping paper, as opposed to the coated paper more common on manga slipcovers.

But our paperback manga don't use slipcovers (although our upcoming hardback, Minetaro Mochizuki's adaptation of Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs, will use one), and brown wrapping paper isn't strong enough for a bound cover. So for Kurosagi, we decided to use a cardboard-like cover to convey the same idea—instead of wrapping paper, a delivery box. The irony is that while cardboard (Kurosagi's covers are actually made out of jute, which they used to weave sacks from—again on the delivery theme ^_^) doesn't seem fancy, it's an unusual choice for a book cover, and thus relatively expensive—uncommon materials cost more.

So back when we were trying to keep the individual series going, a tactic we used to lower costs was switching after vol. 11 from the "cardboard" covers to ordinary cover stock—by "ordinary," I mean, just the heavy coated paper most English-language manga use for their covers. But the omnibus format allows us to bring back the original cover style, because it changes the economics of them. Since each omnibus combines three individual volumes' worth of story in one book, instead of printing three separate covers and having three separate bindings, there's only one needed.

Did you need to convince the Japanese publishers to print Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service in a different format, or was that something Dark Horse could do on their own initiative?

The idea to continue Kurosagi in an omnibus-only format came from Dark Horse, but it's not something we could have moved forward on without the approval of creators Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki, as well as the original publisher of the series, Kadokawa. We very much appreciate their help and support in making this direct-to-omnibus plan a reality. As always, I have to thank also our senior director of licensed publications, Michael Gombos, who was essential in bringing this about.

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is known for touching on a wide variety of topics, like undocumented immigration into Japan, Arthur Rimbaud, or a zombie robot otaku. What can fans expect from volumes five and six of the omnibus series?

Book Five contains the previously published volumes 13 and 14. Vol. 13 gets into a murder when Kurosagi's leader, Sasaki, is chosen to serve on Japan's unusual form of real-life jury duty, which, unlike the US system, allows you to act as a judge and as an attorney. Vol. 14 concerns The Black Heron, an unauthorized American cartoon version ("What is anime…?") of Kurosagi set in Los Angeles. Book Five will also contain the previously unpublished stories from Vol. 15, including an elderly woman who may have Cotard's syndrome (that's where you think you've already died), the return of the mad scientist grad students Tezuka, Nagai, and Tomino eager to demonstrate their brilliant proof-of-concept (if you can deliver corpses, why not use corpses to make deliveries?), and a mystery tied to a terror cult that takes the Kurosagi gang deep into Japan's real-life dead zone of Fukushima.

Book Six contains nine stories, all previously unpublished in English—as just a sample, we get to encounter Numata's fujoshi acupuncturist, get involved with the making of a zombie movie in China, and meet a mysterious American who may be Kereellis's sister—and since Kerellis happens to be an alien that possesses a hand puppet, it's just the kind of thing you'd expect from a Kurosagi story.

A friend of mine from anime and manga fandom said Dark Horse would marry Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service if they could. What drew Dark Horse to the title initially, and do you have a favorite Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service story?

At present no US state allows manga marriage, although several candidates have come out in favor of civil unions.

Dark Horse discovers its manga titles through different routes—of necessity, since there are so many manga, past and present, that no single person could know about more than a fraction. Kurosagi was one that was scouted directly by our president, Mike Richardson. He was at Kadokawa's office on a trip to Tokyo in 2005, and asked to take a look at their new releases—vol. 5 had just come out in Japan then. With its cover design by Bunpei Yorifuji and artwork by Housui Yamazaki, it stood out right away, and he sat down with Kadokawa to hear more about the manga and its author, Eiji Otsuka. When he got back to the US, Mike asked if I'd like to edit it.

There's so much variety to the stories that my favorite is probably one we haven't even gotten to yet. Even though Kurosagi constantly delivers on weird adventure and bizarre mystery, Otsuka keeps things grounded and relatable by the simple fact the Corpse Delivery Service doesn't make a lot of money through their supernatural job, and has to constantly work different mundane gigs just to make ends meet. That's a reality a lot of people can relate to, especially people trying to get by in an expensive city, as Tokyo is. Of course, Otsuka doesn't waste anything as a writer, and in Kurosagi, even the most ordinary-seeming temp jobs (like delivering newspapers) often either lead into a corpse encounter, or provide some perspective that helps them solve a mystery, or both.

Another reality that Kurosagi reflects is how college students get by, and the Corpse Delivery Service, like many people, have one foot in the working world and the other still on campus. There's the stereotype that college students aren't in "the real world," but the truth is that a lot of students have to struggle to balance work with their classes, and even if they're fortunate enough to have a good financial aid package, that package also often requires a job.

But the campus side of their life allows for one of my favorite genres of manga, going back to when I read Urusei Yatsura in high school—the campus comedy. And just as he does with their working life, Otsuka uses aspects of their campus life to lead into corpse discoveries, as happens for example with the doll club, or with the robotics students. So to finally give some sort of answer ^_^ one favorite story of mine was "A Cafe in a Campus Town," in omnibus book three, where, in order to keep their meeting space, the delivery service goes on recruiting drive among the new freshmen, only, of course, to freak them out in nothing flat.

Can we expect a similar program for MPD-Psycho, Mr. Otsuka's other horror manga, drawn by Sho-u Tajima?

We'll have to see how things go with the Kurosagi omnibus revival, but I hope it can happen. I'm a fan of Otsuka-sensei's work in general, and I could easily think of five or six other works by him that I'd like to put out.

Will future volumes of the omnibus series cover the spinoff volume Matsuoka Kunio: Youkai Exterminator?

Kurosagi fans will know Kunio Matsuoka as the famous real-life Japanese folklorist who was referenced as early as the second manga story, "Lonely People," in omnibus book one. As an anthropology student and writer himself, Eiji Otsuka paid tribute to his spiritual forebear with a story at the end of omnibus book two that depicted him as a suave supernatural investigator of Japan's late Meiji era (as this was the Edwardian period in England, it influenced the tone of the story). However, that Kunio Matsuoka story was a part of the Kurosagi manga itself, and we'd have to make special arrangements to release the spinoff volume. Our priority is getting out more of the main Kurosagi series.