Manga Is Still Hugely Popular, So Why Don’t We Talk About It More?
In its modern form, running in magazines weekly or monthly and then collected in book volumes known as tankobon, manga dates back to just after World War II, with series like Osamu Tezuka’s Mighty Atom/Astro Boy leading an explosion in manga publishing that still continues today. In America, however, manga only blossomed rather recently. Though heavily edited and dubbed anime like Astro Boy, Gigantor and Speed Racer were staples of 1960s kids’ TV, manga only entered North America in 1979 thanks to translator/writer Frederik Schodt. As the 1980s rolled on, companies like Viz Media — today North America’s largest manga publisher — were founded. Marvel even got in on the game, printing Akira through its Epic Comics imprint.
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, manga publishers targeted the direct market by printing manga like comic books. They were flipped — put in the American left-to-right reading order instead of the Japanese right-to-left — and in some cases, like Marvel’s Akira, colorized. While it succeeded at the time (issue #4 of Viz’s translation of Pokémon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu is reportedly one of the highest-selling comics of all time), after the 1990s speculator bubble burst, it was clear manga needed to change to capture the audience that had grown up watching anime on Toonami.
In 2002, Tokyopop — a once-dead-but-now-resurrected publisher with a troubling reputation — hit upon the idea of translating and publishing manga in book format, with right-to-left formatting and at a smaller size, meaning lower cost.
The result, advertised as “authentic manga,” was an instant hit, selling out at bookstores all across the country and spurring what’s now called the 2000s “manga boom”. Teenagers and kids not only sat on bookstore floors devouring volumes of Naruto and Dragon Ball; they bought them too. This made companies like Viz absolutely huge. Even as the Internet decimated other parts of the US manga industry — Viz discontinued its monthly magazine Shonen Jump (a version of the Japanese magazine of the same name) in 2012 for the digital Weekly Shonen Jump — print volumes of manga are a constant in bookstores, comic shops and libraries.
But despite its important market share, huge visibility and ever-rising, record-breaking sales numbers, manga is still largely ignored or scorned by the Western comics community — a term that here means retailers, readers, publishers and some creators — while the critical press and general public thinks of manga as something separate from comics. But why?
The perception of manga not being comics irks a lot of people. None more so than Deb Aoki. The former manga editor for about.com, Aoki — who grew up in the large Japanese-American population of Hawaii — now reports on manga for Publishers Weekly and her own site, Manga Comics Manga, where she frequently Storifies the lengthy Twitter conversations she holds about manga.
Aoki has loved manga since she was young. “I guess I first really got into manga when I was in 3rd grade [and] first went to Japan,” she says. “I was visiting relatives and my aunt took me to a bookstore and gave me a copy of Nakayoshi, a shojo manga magazine for girls. I got hooked on reading Candy Candy by Kyoko Mizuki and Yumiko Igarashi, partly also because the subtitled anime was showing on local TV too… My uncle who lived in Hawaii also read manga, so he had manga magazines with stuff like Devilman by Go Nagai and Tiger Mask by Ikki Kajiwara and Naoki Tsuji in ’em.”
Aoki gravitated towards manga because “the stories and visuals were so strong, I could understand what was going on even without being able to read Japanese fluently. I’m still not fluent in Japanese to this day, but I can enjoy manga in Japanese because the visual storytelling is so compelling… It was years until it hit me that making comics was considered a “guy thing” in the US — shojo (girls’) manga had me under the impression that it was something that both men and women did professionally, equally.”
Mike Toole, a columnist for Anime News Network, also found manga as a kid. “I discovered manga via Eternity Comics’ release of Area 88 in 1987,” he says. “I got floppy issues of it at New England Comics. The hook was simple — I’d just finished and loved Robotech, and Area 88 looked a little bit like it, with its elegant character designs and finely detailed fighter jets. Other early manga offerings — Lone Wolf & Cub, Mai the Psychic Girl — were similarly distinctive and interesting to me.”
In contrast, The Eisner-winning Canadian cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks detailed in a recent video interview with Viz how she discovered manga as an adult through Naoki Urasawa’s Monster and Hiromu Arakawa‘s Fullmetal Alchemist.
“The way I think about drawing a comic page changed a lot after I started getting into manga,” Hicks says, “I started trying to decompress emotional scenes in a specific way especially. It was something I was trying to do already in my comics, but reading Urasawa’s comics made it more clear how I could decompress effectively. I started drawing noses differently after I read Urasawa as well, so maybe he would’ve been more apparent in my art style if I’d found him earlier.”
Both Monster and Fullmetal Alchemist are published in North America by Viz which, through its various imprints (Shonen Jump, Shojo Beat and the younger-skewing Perfect Square, to name a few), and huge licenses like Naruto and the various Pokémon manga, means they’re the largest manga/anime publisher in America. The company is even owned by Japanese publishing giants Shueisha and Shogakukan.
Yet despite their huge market share, Viz is rarely discussed in the same terms as Marvel & DC. There’s a variety of reasons for this. “As big as Viz is,” Toole says, “Marvel/DC are much bigger, in terms of licensed merchandise, diverse product lines, earnings… Also, I think that publishers like Viz will always get short shrift because they’re pushing a product that isn’t American-owned.”
“From a strictly business perspective, I don’t know why [Viz isn’t] spoken about in the same breath as Marvel and DC, especially when it comes to comparing sales,” says Hicks. “But they are very different in that they don’t publish non-Japanese creators, so it’s not like young cartoonists can have a dream of working for them, unless they want to do translation, or move to Japan and work in the industry there.”
Aoki sees Viz’s (and manga’s) lack of profile as stemming from complexities on both sides. “‘Manga’, as it’s used outside of Japan, refers to Japanese comics, and that’s fine with me,” she says. “It’s a useful label in that it quickly defines comics from Japan as something that’s distinct from Western comics, in an art/aesthetics and visual storytelling tradition sense, and in a business sense, because the business and production of manga publishing in North America has different considerations than US publishing of comics.
“[M]ost US manga publishers are licensing content from the original Japanese publishers. So this creates a different level of complexity, because, one, business decisions to publish manga are not solely made by the US publishers, and two, because the content was originally created with Japanese consumers in mind; adapting it for consumption by North American comics readers requires additional work: translation, editing/localizing, graphics production work — re-drawing sound effects — and so on.”
As to why comics fans tend to ignore manga, Aoki feels it’s a generational thing. “Manga readers and anime fans in North America tend to be… younger. You can see that at any anime convention, where the average age of attendees tend to be teens to early 20s. Compare that to your average mainstream comics show… where attendees tend to be older, usually 30s–40s and up.”
“People who now run the mainstream comics news sites and run comics shops tend to be older and may not have grown up with manga. Therefore, they may not have the same kind of fondness and familiarity with manga as their younger counterparts. That’s changing… Eventually, the manga generation will assert themselves as a bigger part of the publishing, comics retailing, and comics journalism worlds.
“There’s also some ‘otaku insider’ mentality from within manga publishing/fandom too, where there’s a desire to keep manga as Japanese as possible to keep it ‘authentic’. I get this desire to prevent things from being white-washed or lost in translation but when you need pages of translation notes to understand what’s going on in manga, that’s got to be confusing and off-putting to new readers who aren’t already devoted Japanophiles.”
A core component of Western manga fandom is piracy. While all media is affected by Internet piracy, it’s particularly endemic to manga, with scanlations (literal translations hastily photoshopped over the existing artwork) appearing sometimes mere hours after a new chapter is released in Japan.
So do these easy-to-find scanlations — often fan-made and poorly translated — negatively affect how comics fans perceive manga?
“I think the trend in general is really dismaying, and wish it were easier for the publishers to act against scanlation aggregators,” says Toole. “It’s hugely irritating when I’m trying to pull up the Wikipedia page or official site for a manga title, and the first four or five search results are for pirate sites. I don’t feel like scanlations are going to negatively impact comic readers’ perceptions, however, unless the comics in question are materially altered. Manga is manga.”
Aoki sees it as a fandom problem. “[T]here is a significant portion of people who read manga today that think it should always be free; not just kids, but adults who really should know better,” she says.
Another problem that manga and comics share is being defined publicly by a single genre. While comics have always been incredibly diverse, the common perception is that all American comics are about superheroes and all manga is shonen (boys’) manga about endless power-ups, yelling and punching. Despite this perception, a wide variety of manga often make the New York Times bestseller list.
When asked if the success of diversity in the manga sphere has helped diversify the broader comics industry, Toole says, “I think comics have always been pretty diverse, but now they’re just more diverse. I think it’s a good thing.”
“There are a lot more diversity of comics being published in the American comic book industry now than twenty years ago,” Hicks agrees. “I think manga has definitely contributed to this blossoming of the American (and Canadian) industry, especially when it comes to proving that girls and women are very eager to read comics. I think that’s something that isn’t spoken of enough in comics journalism, the importance of the manga boom and its impact on young female readers, some of whom then went on to make their own comics.”
Hicks herself is proof of that. She’s the forefront of a wave of manga-influenced cartoonists and illustrators like Babs Tarr, Jake Wyatt, and Matt Cummings. This group is emblematic of what Aoki calls the “Sailor Moon Generation” who “got into comics partially because manga and manga’s availability in gender-neutral spaces like bookstores and libraries helped to make comics more accessible and appealing to girls.”
“I also suspect,” Aoki says, “that some of the resistance to manga is the … fact that manga and anime fandom is perceived to skew toward female fans/creators/buyers. That’s not exactly wrong — manga readers are pretty much 50/50 male/female, if not 40/60 male/female sometimes. This is no accident. Manga has a lot of great stories that appeal to female readers, and not just the ‘girly stuff’.”
Toole points out that manga influencing Western comics is nothing new. “I’ve been reading manga-influenced comics since the 80s and Ninja High School, so this phenomenon doesn’t seem new to me. Even Scott Pilgrim is over a decade old. I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”
Another challenge facing North American manga publishers is a familiar one: how to survive and thrive in the digital marketplace. Currently, Viz, Yen Press, Kodansha and others offer digital releases through platforms like iBooks, Kindle and Comixology, often at a cheaper price than the print edition. Toole, Aoki and Hicks all see this as a net positive.
“Digital does for manga what digital has done for all other comics — it makes it readily available to readers who don’t live near a comics shop — and there are more of them than you might think,” says Aoki.
Toole agrees, saying “I think digital releases are a good idea if they’re priced way down — that’s what makes a Shonen Jump subscription such a good value. But at the same time, I think that any bored teenager is going to have a hard time resisting the allure of a giant manga section [in a bookstore]. I have a hard enough time not browsing for hours myself!”
“It’s an excellent idea,” says Hicks. “I think all publishers should be in the digital comics game. You’re throwing money away by not having your comics on every platform. Not every wannabe manga reader has access to a good bookstore, but most have access to the internet and computers and iPads. Publishers definitely should be catering to those readers.”
Aoki travels to Japan frequently to cover its publishing industry and sees similarities between it and the US. “It’s about the same as in the US — there’s a fair amount of interest in how digital publishing has changed things,” she says. “Bookstores are still going strong in Japan — there’s not really an equivalent slump like there was in the US when Borders closed. However, print magazine sales are dropping at a pretty fast clip, so there’s some concern about adapting to new channels for selling books/magazines content domestically and overseas.
“There’s concern that things like video games and other interactive/multi-media entertainment are eating into manga’s mindshare/market share. I often see more game-related cosplay at US anime conventions than cosplay inspired by manga. It’s not a perfect leading indicator of entertainment consumption trends, but it’s something I’ve noticed. I think the Japanese publishers are adapting though. You’ll definitely see more digital publishing straight from Japan in the months and years to come.”
Even with digital sales steadily rising and a huge North American audience already present, and some even making their own comics, manga still has a stigma surrounding it, to the point where the average layperson still thinks of Superman and Spider-Man instead of Goku or Doraemon when they think of comics. So how does that change? The answer isn’t clear.
“The only general change that occurs to me,” says Toole, “is to stop ghettoizing manga — no more manga-only New York Times list to avoid embarrassing the comic charts, for example, and no more filing manga and ‘graphic novels’ as discrete categories in bookstores. After all, I grew up buying manga floppies at the comic store next to all of the other comics. But I don’t see it happening. Something else is going to have to change peoples’ attitudes, and I don’t know what that is.”
“I really don’t know,” says Aoki, “other than reading more manga? Getting good recommendations for manga that are more like, ‘Liked Interstellar? You’ll like reading Planetes’, or ‘Are you into Jane Austen novels? Try reading Emma, it’s a historical romance about a maid who falls in love with a man of the gentry.’ That’s a way more productive and enticing description for a new reader than saying, ‘It’s like Fist of the North Star, but way more violent’.
“I’m also a fan of comics creators, comics influencers, who can describe and recommend manga in a way that’s interesting and accessible to ‘civilians’ — people outside of the anime/manga fandom bubble. Faith Erin Hicks does a great job of this. So do Brandon Graham, Jog Mack, Chris Butcher, and David Brothers. More of that, please.”
For her part, Hicks says that comics culture should realize manga simply isn’t going away anytime soon. “Like it or not,” she says, “manga is an important facet of the comic book industry as a whole. It’s as important as superhero comics or indie comics, or any of the niches within the industry. So of course it will continue to influence future generations of cartoonists. Manga is comics, so if someone is interested in comics as a whole, and interested in making their own comics, it makes sense that they would seek out as many comics as they can. Which, of course, includes manga.
“I don’t know if it will change. Maybe manga being from another country will always make it an ‘other’ to the comics industry. Or maybe this next wave of cartoonists who’ve grown up with it will eventually take over the comic book industry, and since they don’t tend to see manga as ‘other’, everything will just become ‘comics’.
“I hope it’s the latter, because I really like manga and I think any cartoonist or comic reader who deliberately ignores it because of hang ups about art style or whatever is missing out.”
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