Sunday, February 18, 2007

On the US Manga Phenomenon

Several days ago I passed by the comic store and the bookstore and one of the things that surprised me was the fact that I was buying various US-translated manga titles. I’ve been an anime/manga fan for more than a decade now but it’s only recently that I’ve taken up such shopping habits. One look at the manga shelf and there seems to be a plethora of titles to choose from—a stark contrast from a decade ago where the choices were minimal. The US manga industry might not necessarily be at its peak right now but it is definitely on the rise. And while many people have speculated as to the reasons why manga has proven popular in the US (and I have my own theories as well), I’ll perhaps tackle one reason that isn’t often cited: the marketing and the industry.

It seems that it’s only in the past few years that manga seems to have picked up steam even if it’s had a presence in the US for more than a decade now. Of course back then, the format is very different from what we know it now to be. Manga didn’t really come in the small digest format nor in the right-to-left reading layout or more importantly, at $7.99 or $19.99 an issue. I think that change made a significant impact in the US manga industry, the popularity of Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh notwithstanding.

If you wanted a glimpse of what manga was back then, then I suggest you look at Dark Horse comics. Dark Horse, of course, has been one of the pioneers in the manga industry. While they’re not limited to manga titles, they have, over the years, published a lot of non-mainstream and mature content. And in a way, they were ahead of their time. A point of contention right now among manga fans is “non-authentic manga” (a.k.a. Ameri-manga), which is manga that was not made by a Japanese creator. Right now TokyoPop, a leading publisher of manga titles (and perhaps responsible for the current manga paradigm shift but I’ll get to that later), is getting a lot of heat for their release of “original manga” but Dark Horse has been ahead of the game in that department. Just look at Adam Warren’s run of Dirty Pair under Dark Horse as far back as ‘98. But getting back to the topic at hand, manga titles wasn’t packaged in its present format but was originally presented in the way most comics were released back then. Instead of the collected volumes we now see or even the anthology of manga titles every month, manga titles were released in the singles format on at least a monthly basis. For those not familiar with comic jargon, singles are those slim, nearly A4-sized comics that had anywhere between twenty plus pages to forty. Pick up any superhero comic and you’ll see what I mean. And in a certain way, that tradition of distributing manga continues on. Just look at Dark Horse’s Blade of the Immortal series, which comes in that format if you want the latest chapter.

Of course Dark Horse wasn’t the only pioneer back then. I’d say Viz is in the same category as well. Much like Dark Horse’s business model, a lot of their comics was released in the same format, such as their Dragonball series. However, I will point out one problem with their business model (and to a certain extent, still plagues them in the present). Some of those manga “chapters” which got released in the US monthly at best was released in Japan on a weekly basis. US comic fans who bought those manga singles will most likely find the stories to be decompressed (to be fair, I find the US comic style to be compressed, but that’s because they have a page limit and it’s released as a monthly), hanging, and perhaps even finding some of the art inconsistent (because the art had to be “flipped” to present it in the left-to-right format). Of course eventually, those singles would be collected into “graphic novels”, a Western comic term that was coined decades earlier. Now most graphic novels back then seems like the manga titles we see now on the shelves—but that’s only for the untrained eye. The manga graphic novels back then were slightly larger in size and more importantly, more expensive. The price differential might not seem as much now—a title could go for around $14.95 to $19.95. Not really so expensive to US comic fans who purchased graphic novels but what the market didn’t realize then that the US comic fans who purchased graphic novels weren’t necessarily the target market of manga graphic novels. There’s also the fact that the manga graphic novels are indeed larger than the present manga titles but they’re smaller than most of the graphic novels back then (think A4!), not to mention that manga graphic novels were in black and white, while their Western counterparts came in color. Suffice to say, the entry point to manga was steep. Also be aware that while there was knowledge of manga back then, it wasn’t as prevalent as it is today, where manga titles can be seen in bookstores and people stop asking you to define what manga exactly is.

In the late 90’s, some of the publishers also experimented with Japan’s anthology format, releasing a phonebook-sized comic anthology that featured various titles on a regular basis. Again, it was plagued by similar constraints with the comic singles—what got released in Japan on a weekly basis got released in a monthly basis. For some publishers, especially the likes of Mixx and Viz, it worked, or at least gave them moderate success. For others, such as Raijin comics, it didn’t. But it did alleviate some of the problems of the singles—instead of just getting one title to read, you got around three or four different titles to peruse monthly. And as expected, some of the popular titles eventually got released as graphic novels.

Eventually Mixx, an unlikely publisher in the scene, managed to gather some steam, publishing phenomenal manga titles such as Rayearth or the lesser-known Parasyte (which has now been acquired by Del Rey). Eventually, they started releasing manga graphic novels not just in the right-to-left format but also in a smaller, leaner package that despite its size, was affordable: the $9.99 price tag. This, I think, gave them the edge of their competitors like Viz, who had similarly great titles like Ranma 1/2 and Nausicaa but were nearly twice as expensive. Of course manga veterans will know Mixx by its present name—TokyoPop. Around this time, anime was also at its peak in the US, with the likes of Pokemon and Gundam hitting the mainstream market.

Perhaps a testament to TokyoPop’s efficiency isn’t just in its popularity, or the fact that it’s still publishing presently. It lies in the fact that others have adapted to its format. Take Viz for example. Its manga collections have been scaled down but are priced more cheaply at $7.99 per issue. And it is gaining popularity—just look at the Shonen Jump line. Of course another strength of various manga publishers right now is visibility: whereas manga was usually found at the comic shelves, now it has a wider presence from bookstores to online. I think the fact that it’s in bookstores has made a big impact, drawing upon an untapped customer base. Of course US comics have made it to bookstores in the form of trade paperbacks (a practice that has been in the US for quite some time but only gained popularity in the 80’s with the likes of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series but is the main comic model in Japan) but I think manga is outselling its US counterpart in that arena.

One of the biggest, most important transition in the US manga industry, I think, is the acceptance that they shouldn’t work with the US-comic business model—their markets are different (although of course there are overlaps, and I’m proof of that as I read both US comics and manga). In fact, only few manga titles right now are being released as a single on a monthly basis—the closest you have are the anthologies like Shonen Jump and perhaps what’s saving it from premature doom is that it is an anthology and thus drawing a diverse crowd rather than one specific fan market (i.e. fans of both Naruto and Death Note are forced to buy the same publication to get their regular dose of translated manga). There’s also the fact that the US comic market has been trying to court half of manga’s readership, namely the female segment and it has made many attempts (they do have good titles that address both female readers and go beyond the superhero stereotype). I think an important part is also the very terminology we use. Manga isn’t called graphic novels any more to gain it credibility and acceptance—manga is simply called manga and it carries with it all the preconceptions (as correct or erroneous as they may be) of the term. It even stopped pretending to be other than what it is as more and more manga titles are retaining more of their Japanese authenticity, not just in the right-to-left format but in sound effects, subject matter, and translation (of course there will be those titles that suffer from lack of time or some other constraint that makes them suffer in quality—look at TokyoPop: some titles have good translations, while others simply don’t).

So the next time you look at the next big thing, whatever it may be, aside from taking the artistic and aesthetic considerations (I don’t think Viz failed in that department yet it bestow upon them TokyoPop’s success), one should similarly play close attention to the business model you’re working with. Arguably TokyoPop’s model might have only acted as a catalyst to manga’s inevitable success, but few people in any industry will deny that having a good business plan isn’t a factor in their success.

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