Well howdy everyone. It's been a super busy week for me. Well two weeks even. So, let's just see what happens here as we jump into this!
There! I said it. The m-word. The m-bomb. Oh yeah. I dropped that baby like it was nothing!
But seriously folks. I cannot sit here, as an honest human being, and write a weekly column about the decline in readership of comics, with out addressing manga.
For starters: The whole oddness and uncomfortable vibe I get from even starting to mention it is key into one of the issues that is probably holding comics back. What's that? Well, the fact that a lot of "American comics" (and I have to put that in quotes since a vast number of our iconic American comics are written folks across the puddle) readers look down their noses at manga, or consider them somewhat "outside" of comics. Something separate. Search your feelings. You know this to be true!
Want and example? Look at this website. Its dedicated to comics, and comics fandom. How much manga do you see represented here?
And when all is said and done, I'm pretty sure manga fans look at "American" comics much the same way. Now, yes, there's plenty of crossover appeal, and yes, there are many folks who happily read both (though I don't read a lot of the stuff coming out stateside today, I did read me my Ranma 1/2, Ghost in the Shell, and Gunsmith Cats). But there is a clear line drawn between the two.
Why that is, I can't really say. Other than that its odd, and I think it clearly supports a sort of genre exclusivisity (boy spell check sure doesn't like that one), that is plaguing the medium. In short, people on both sides are making boxes and saying "this is comics, this is manga." Once again, making it harder for folks on the outside to get in.
But what I really wanted to touch on was the explosive popularity of manga. It's died down some, and its certainly not news, but its still undeniable. While we may mourn the steady decline of American-style periodical comics, "graphic novel" sections of book stores are being overtaken by volume upon volume of manga. The licensing is insane and there's a huge rise in manga in webcomics too. Its all over.
How is manga succeeding and American-style is not?
There's a few reasons, but what it really boils down to is financing and marketing. If you want to talk about a marketing machine, manga is it. Not what we experienced when we were kids, which was manga being the interesting stuff that popped up alongside other indies at the comic shop. Now its a well oiled machine. Take a look.
First off, you have what I believe to be the cornerstone in the current manga phenom: Shonen Jump. Well, SJ and magazines like it. Want to talk about penetration? This baby is on every news rack. We're talking grocery stores, book stores, Target, Walmart, you name it. More places than Archie digest, I'd say. And then there's that price point: $5.99 for, what? 300-plus pages? To equal that in American periodical purchases, you'd probably be approaching $28-30 or even more.
Now of course, this is where that financing issue comes in. Manga can afford to be cheaper. Why? Its old stuff. I mean, its new here, but a lot of it ran in Japan in the 90's or earlier this decade. So its done. Paid for. All the production costs have been covered by Japanese sales. They don''t even bother flip flopping it to read left to right any more (which I believe to be more of a money saving tactic than a "purist" phenom, as its been taken, but that's a whole other column I suppose). Not to mention its black and white and on cheaper stock. Both money cutters.
So, anyway. You've got Shonen Jump in every store imaginable at a really decent price. The key is that its not comic book stores its your general every day store that folks go into for many things besides comics. And if that wasn't enough to get awareness going, surely the Naruto and One Piece cartoons on Cartoon Network that are sure to tell you that the cartoons (ahem, anime) are from the pages of Shonen Jump. That's the second part of the machine. The kids are being fed a steady diet here.
The final part is the collected volumes that dominate over the rest of the comics at the book store. So once the kid is hooked on Naruto from the TV show, interested in the comics from Shonen Jump, now they need to catch up by purchasing volumes... y'know... all 33 of them (eventually). Oh yes. And here not only do non-SJ books reap the benefits of SJs marketing plan, but SJ it self gets to reprint the comics once again and charge even more for them (per page, vs a copy of SJ, though considerably less than what you'd pay just buying the issues of SJ to make that one volume).
So what's happening here is the cycle is ending here in a book store. Now while typical trades, too, are available here, consider this: What is your average kid tagging along with the folks at the book store going to nag their parent for? The Naruto volume they've been heavily marketed by, or any of the "American" trades featuring subject matter they are only vaguely familiar with (particularly in comic form).
It's smart if you ask me. DC and Marvel have plenty of great cartoons, but they don't have anything to back it up comic wise. Sure they have comics at comic book stores, and a couple trades that are often mid-continuity, and not familiar to the cartoon/movie. Heck, they don't even really mention that fact that you can read the comic. I mean, you can make 4 or 5 billion dollars off of a Batman flick, but you can't get folks interested in a comic book? What's wrong there?
I know the financial structures are different. The marketing structures are different. And most certainly the distribution structures are different. But I think if manga can do it, some, if not all, of that model can be replicated by at least the big two. They have huge back catalogs of material that they could surely reprint as their own SJ style book (or perhaps a couple SJ style books). Heck I think this would even be popular with older comics fans who would dig seeing the old stories reprinted. Market those books and those books only on news racks to at least draw folks into being interested in comics. Cause, let me tell you, as much as I love the guy, Archie isn't doing it.
Just a thought.
Anyhow, I've actually ran a bit off course here. My original intent was to talk about exclusion and bringing manga into the fold and realizing that its all comics... ah... but this stuff seemed more important today, so next time perhaps.
As a side note. For anyone who thinks I may have blown the Manga/American division out of proportion (I kind of would have, since I'm happy reading both, though admittedly my manga tastes are a bit for older stuff). When I was running a similar column as a blog a while back, I touched on the concept of American artists drawing manga... well I got a fairly enraged letter from an anti-manga person that included words I'd rather not repeat, but basically they thought that drawing manga was the worst thing a person could do.... So it can get pretty heated out there I suppose.
Well, thanks for reading... till next time. Give a friend a comic!
Matt Grant is a graphic designer and self-publishing comics and webcomics creator. His comic MastorisM can be read at www.MastorisM.com and updates Tuesdays and Thursdays. A long time comics fanatic and advocate for the medium, Matt eats, sleeps, and breathes comics. They’re actually pretty good if you fry them up and add a little Tapatio.
Matt would love nothing more than to hear from fans, retailers, creators, and publishers that have anything relevant to contribute to his column. He believes that, only by working together, we can bring the comics medium to a wider deserving audience. Please feel free to email him at email@example.com, private message him here, or harass him on the street! Matt does not claim to be an industry expert in any way shape or form, but rather an opinionated pundit on the sidelines.