The online manga magazine GEN launched in April, and at first, it looked a bit dubious. The first issue, which contained the first chapters of four different series, was free. Each new issue costs $2.99, but once two more issues come out, it becomes free as well, so with the debut of issue 5, readers can access issues 1-3 for free. It's a little complicated, but it makes a lot of sense: Readers can catch up on the stories for nothing, then pay a small amount to get the latest chapters. In an interview with Otaku News, editor-in-chief Robert McGuire said that the magazine is covering its costs and looks like it will be good in the long run. Eventually, he says, he will collect the stories into volumes, just as other manga publishers do now.
While many manga publishers place restrictions on their content, allowing it to be read only in a particular app and only in certain countries, GEN is DRM-free. You download the PDF, and that's it—it's yours to keep, to move around from computer to iPad to any other device that reads PDFs. It won't expire, and if the company goes belly-up, you'll still be able to read your manga.
This is truly a subversive idea, letting readers all over the world just download the comics and read them. GEN is currently published in English and Japanese, but McGuire said that readers in other languages have expressed interest, so French, German, and Italian editions are possible in the near future.
What about the manga? It's independent manga, which means you have never heard of the creators or the characters, but the storytelling is very good. Each series has a different style and tone, but all the creators use fairly sophisticated methods, switching points of view and varying their panels to control the pacing of their stories. There are no rookie mistakes; the work is professional quality or at least close to it, with one exception: The magazine seriously needs a copy editor and proofreaders, as there are a lot of typos and instances of bad usage (such as "their" for "there")
In the first story, Wolf, a young man travels to the city to confront his father, who abandoned him as a child to become a boxer. Naoto, the lead character, lands one solid punch on the old man and then takes a drubbing, so he decides to stick around and train at the gym. The plot is fairly minimal—resentful young man joins a larger organization to work out his grudges—but there's a nice twist in the form of Naoto's friend Shota, a cheerful, sweet, enormous young man who is training to be a Sumo wrestler. In fact, despite the fact that it's basically about guys hitting each other, Wolf is a very sweet story with a lot of heart. The art is fluid, with a brushy look, and creator Nakamora Shige has wisely opted for simple backgrounds, only breaking out the speedlines when a punch really needs to stand out.
VS Aliens starts out like a dopey shoujo manga: A girl tells a boy she suspects her classmate is an alien, and hijinks ensue. As the story goes on, though, it slowly slips into a suspense story as new facts come out and the dynamics of the romantic triangle shift. It's hard to say more than that without spoilers, but this has all the elements of a good shoujo romance, plus more.
Kamen is a historical story set in some far-off warring country where a cruel ruler has rounded up a bunch of people and plans to execute them, partly to teach his free-thinking warrior niece a lesson. This is a manga without a lot of backstory: We don't know what the war is about, really, and we don't know who this guy is who suddenly appears, wearing a mask that gives him orders but also forbids him to speak. What we do know is that the masked guy is pretty badass. Despite the lack of backstory, this manga gets off to a slow start, but once the action begins, it's pretty powerful.
McGuire acknowledges that Souls is the least popular series in the magazine. It started out as one of those freeing-the-soul-of-the-dead stories, featuring a sad daughter who was unable to leave her angry mother, even in death. Had this been one chapter long, it would had been a fine, if unremarkable, little story. Stretched out to three chapters, it was an unbearable pity party, made worse by the inconsistent character designs that made the story hard to follow. Now that arc has ended and there is a new yaoi story about a boy who lives in a brothel, which seems more promising. The art has improved as well.
Fujimura Takiyuki's Sorako, a one-shot story in issue 4, looks like GEN's answer to Inio Asano's solanin, a slice-of-life story about a restless twentysomething girl and a lost dog. The round-headed style even looks a bit like Asano's work, but the characters are more likable. I'd love to see more from Takiyuki.
Alive, a new story debuting in issue 5, is darker than the other stories, and it's a bit hard to figure out what's going on—the first chapter is about a suicidal girl who gets a new lease on life after an odd coincidence; the second is about a loveless love affair. The art is a little rougher in this story than the other ones—the figures are a bit stiff and not always in proportion—but and the story is hard to follow. Still, this manga shows promise if the creator can pull it together a bit more in the next chapter.
Overall, GEN is a pleasant surprise. Most of the stories are solid and well constructed, and each one—even Souls—has me wanting more. The business model is designed to keep a steady flow of manga coming at a reasonable price and bring in new readers without soaking them for a ton of cash. Just the fact that GEN has kept going for five issues is impressive in itself.