Many four-panel (yonkoma) manga have received anime adaptations in recent seasons and this summer is no different with Servant x Service, Kiniro Mosaic, Love Lab, and Recorder and Randsell Mi among them. The first three shows I mentioned feature full-length episodes while other recent ones like Poyopoyo, Sparrow’s Hotel, Aiura, Mangirl!, and Ai Mai Mi have had short episodes of less than 5 minutes long.
The first four-panel adaptation most people remember getting popular in the West was Azumanga Daioh, which originally aired in 2002 as 5-minute segments that were gathered into 25-minute episodes at the end of each week. ADV Manga published the 1st manga volume in November 2003, months before ADV Films released the first DVD volume in April 2004.
A boom in four-panel adaptations kicked off in 2007 with Hidamari Sketch and Lucky Star debuting with full-length episodes and Doujin Work, Potemayo and Sketchbook coming later that year. Hidamari Sketch (aka Sunshine Sketch) is currently being published by Yen Press, which released the first volume in May 2008. Bandai started releasing the Lucky Star manga in June 2009 and Media Blasters/AnimeWorks put out the 1st manga volume in February 2009, both by itself and in a bundle with the 1st DVD volume.
Tokyopop caught onto the Hetalia wave in fall of 2010 before that publisher went through hard times as the third volume was about to be released. The manga’s publication was revived through a print-on-demand partnership with RightStuf and Japanese publisher Gentosha. Stu Levy had announced at Anime Expo 2012 that the 4th and 5th volumes will be released in English in North America but no further details have come out since then.
JManga was an platform for niche titles to gain some attention during its existence from 2011 to 2013 and some of those were four-panel series including Morita-san wa Mukuchi, Neko Rahmen, PoyoPoyo’s Observation Diary, Recorder and Randsell, Shiba Inuko-san, and Yurumates (many of which had anime adaptations around the same time).
The leader in publishing four-panel manga/manwha in the West seems to be Yen Press, having released the following titles in English since its founding in 2006: Aron’s Absurd Armada (manwha), Azumanga Daioh (rescued from ADV), GA: Geijutsuka Art Design Class, Ichiroh!, K-On!, The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi-chan, Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro, S.S. Astro, Sunshine Sketch, and Suzunari!
The Reverse Thieves actually asked YP Publishing Director Kurt Hassler about this trend in a 2009 interview:
RT: Is there any reason Yen Press seems to be tapping the 4-panel comic market more than other companies?
KH: Tapping the yon koma market wasn’t a particular initiative or strategy for us. We simply fell in love with a lot of that material and felt that it was something readers here would appreciate as well.
As a fan of some of the recent anime adaptations of four-panel manga including Yuyushiki and Yama no Susume, I would like to see more of the source manga published in English as well as those that have not been adapted into anime such as Retroge. and Radio de GO! (which I made posts about on the Tankōbon Tasting tumblr).
– Jason Thompson’s “Why Manga Publishing Is Dying (And How It Could Get Better)” article for io9 in January 2012, in which he suggests “four-panel manga might be the wave of the future” among other points.