An ongoing conversation about the philosophy behind manga both in the U.S. and abroad.
Part marketing compass, part demographic indicator; how manga is packaged can often tell you more than any press release ever will. 2007 in particular began with an overhaul of manga ratings systems, particularly on the part of Tokyopop, and rightfully so--many of TP's age estimations were [and still remain] laughably off the mark. Age rating revisions on the part of most publishers also act as a sort of fallback in controversial times; the world has seen enough young-child-violent-manga-shocked-parents stories to know that companies can always point to the ratings and cry "it's marked 13+!"
On a similar note, 2007 also saw the revamp of genre indicator tags, with publishers now trying to make the difference between "Fantasy" and "Action" explicitly clear, even with small icons in Tokyopop's case. [The case for these tags is slightly dubious; plenty of manga sprawl across several genres, so to pigeonhole them into one does a disservice to the material.]
Cover design--and imprints bearing specified cover designs--are all the rage, and Viz in particular is taking this strategy to town. Viz ports all books under it's Shoujo Beat imprint into a design template; clear markings on the front, side and a specific back layout in the case of Shojo Beat are designed to guide female readers to other series under the same label that might appeal to them as well. Although many pubs lean on an imprint system to pull certain demographics to other works, nowhere is the lean stronger than Viz. 2007 saw the advent of its "Signature" and "Viz Media" imprints. Viz Media functions as a catch-all imprint for books with a shounen or seinen bent, particularly for anything that stands in opposition to the elements of their Shonen Jump imprint. Signature, on the other hand, skews towards an older demographic, with Viz funneling most of its new horror titles into it and editor Urian Brown touting it as "manga for smart people."
It follows then that Signature's cover designs are the most ambitious and abstract; Signature is moving in on Vertical territory, particularly by picking up older or more adult-oriented titles and then wrapping them in older, more adult-oriented design. Vertical has mastered the art of selling the old like it's new; find an old title that's both intellectually stimulating and "classic," wrap it in some Chip Kidd-designed semi-abstract eye candy, and sell it like the hipster cool you wish it was. It's a brilliant formula, with adults able to gravitate towards titles that appear a little more subdued, a little less 12-13 age demographic, sometimes even in a larger and/or hardcover format a la Drawn and Quarterly's gekiga titles Abandon the Old in Tokyo, and The Push Man and Other Stories.
Cover redesign also functions to hide the retro nature of the titles, masking what would otherwise appear to be old school art in new age design. Of course, how companies choose to redesign their product indicates tailoring for a specific group of readers or brand name hubris. Tokyopop in particular gains infamy for this; every title in their catalogue features a TP spinebar that spills over to the front and back, garishly eating into the cover art with their logo. To boot, many of TP's cover fonts and symbols are retooled to appear more in line with the title, and often badly at that. In the world of organic manga design, Tokyopop is Cheese Whiz.
DH's Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service covers are left relatively unchanged from the way Bunpei Yorifuji first conceived them, aside from translation, and the original brown paper bag feel of the cover paper has been carried over to the English version. As manga editor Carl Horn noted, "You may not miss a good design when it isn't there--but once you see it, you're glad it is there."
In the upcoming year of licensing, old is new. Barely two months into 2008, and the list of pre-1980 manga titles set to street is both sizeable and various. From Tezuka to Takemiya, the trend of mining manga's history is here to stay.
When it comes to older titles, U.S. manga companies have been less than forthcoming, largely thanks to the awkward transitional period of figuring out just who older titles should be aimed at. Viz tentatively broached the topic early in 2002, first releasing volume two of Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix as a standalone single book, while later (and rather haltingly) releasing the other volumes in the series. The effort proved less than successful, but Viz's handling of Phoenix was an unfortunate victim of hazy target marketing and minimal support; the book has always been a rara avis in bookstores and failed to strike a chord with any particular readers.
Therein lay the marketers' conundrum - Who would buy older titles? With minimal other media tie-ins, none of the standard "new series" buzz and a manga market just beginning its expansive growth in the U.S., the atmosphere at the time proved to be too stifling to go out on a limb and start releasing dated series to the mass market.
Nonetheless, in 2003, Vertical began releasing Tezuka's Buddha with a slick new cover redesign and a clear target audience of older readers, perhaps even those who had yet to pick up manga. Since then, older titles have carved out a distinctive niche: manga for the comic literati; mass market enough to merit space in a bookstore, but with an appeal distinctly different (and perhaps slightly more pretentious) than standard shonen or shojo fare. Yet larger licensing companies have been slow to move in acquiring older licenses, as it's undeniable that the best-selling titles are brand-name, 12- to16-year-old age-bracket shojo and shonen.
The result is a smattering of smaller companies picking up all sorts of older material. From Drawn & Quarterly, jaPress and Vertical, to Last Gasp and PictureBox, you don't need an arsenal of licenses under your belt to get in on the older action. Titles run equally across the board, and continue to multiply in variety. What began with Tezuka has now expanded to gekiga titles and the Year 24 and Post Year 24 group, the women mangaka who busted the field for shojo manga wide open in Japan during the 1960s to 1970s.
There remains, however, a flipside to this perfect formula. Older manga has now become synonymous with an older demographic, creating some serious gaps in the market, creating a distressing situation where a meaningful group of titles can fall through the cracks. Most older titles out on the market pander to older readers in their content, generally mixing moral philosophizing with heavy themes and, of course, plenty of death, angst and weltschmerz. This leaves little room for older titles barren of the above mentioned traits, namely those aimed in their original runs at younger age groups. Tezuka's Black Jack may have market potential, but his Princess Knight apparently does not.
Thankfully, there remain signs of a willingness to keep branching out, as Vertical plans to street Dororo in the upcoming year and - strange but welcome - manga imprint CMX continues putting out volumes of From Eroica with Love and Swan. Past titles, it seems, may still have some growing up to do in the present.
It can hardly be called financial summertime, but for manga, the living's been easy. Each year has heralded news of new licenses, bigger sales growth and expanding distribution, particularly in chain bookstores-a kind of manga cladogenesis that continues each quarter. But underneath all the USA Today lists and Bookscan figures lurk several troubling questions, foremost among them what kind of end is being achieved by all this growth, and indeed, whether it's sustainable as the first "manga generation" ages into unknown territory.
It's clear that the tween to teen age demographic figures heavily into who's doing the buying (or at least, the selecting); a glance at ICv2's list of top properties last year  shows a top heavy load of shoujo and shounen titles, as well as a 4:6 female to male title ratio. In the here and now, that translates to more shoujo and more shounen licenses in upcoming sales quarters- but what about five, ten years down the road? Will kids grow out of their manga reading phase, or continue to consume well into their twenties? The question is particularly dire for underrepresented josei, otherwise known as manga aimed at the post-shoujo age bracket. The male counterpart, seinen, is facing more favorable odds, as it's much easier to convince a twenty something male to pick up a Japanese comic book than a twenty something female. To that end, older male readers seem not to need an acclimation period in their buying to "evolve" into seinen; many simply jump in cold. Women, although much more hesitant buyers, have long been the overlooked in the comics industry, but explosive sales figures of shoujo properties prove they can spend like anyone when courted properly by companies.
As of right now, however, josei remains largely absent from the market. Tokyopop has made forays into josei territory with a handful of titles, and Aurora (the US child of parent Japanese josei publisher Ohzora) is beginning to make its presence known with Walkin' Butterfly and a growing lineup of titles to be transplanted from their Japanese holdings. Viz, on the other hand, is taking an innovative and hopefully effective route to sneaking josei in: just don't advertise it as josei. Ai Yazawa's NANA and Umino Chika's Honey and Clover bear all the trappings of josei manga, but are planted squarely in Viz's Shoujo Beat lineup.
There's some merit to this strategy, as girls at the older end of Shoujo Beat's readership may find Honey and Clover to be a sort of gateway drug into other josei titles, building off of their familiarity with Shoujo Beat manga to the end of making them comfortable buying josei. The 12 step program to josei seems to lie in tempting younger female readers to stay with manga into their older years, supplying them accordingly along the way. Additionally, a clever company would do well to court the yaoi/BL populace, whose age and gender generally run hand in hand with that of josei's, both in the US and Japan. The manga generation may be growing up, but that doesn't mean it has to be growing out.
We've all had the unfortunate encounter. It comes in the papers, on the internet, creeping discretely through the bit feature sections of local news, or splashed garishly across the "Arts" or "Business" sections of major outlets. Yes, the manga gimmick article is an old friend, albeit one you wish would simply stop visiting.
The problem is not so much one of poor writing, but of writing consistently turned to the same topics, the same interviews, the same "gee, whiz!" attitude that leaves even the most mildly acquainted manga readers disillusioned with the wider press community's handling of the subject. Small town or local newspapers are more excusable in this respect, as they pander to a much more homogenous group of readers and generally spin the stories as a kind of pseudo local interest piece on the rising popularity of manga nearby.
Larger outlets, however, deserve no such concessions- yet most have continued to spin the same kind of slanted, poorly researched articles that plagued manga when it first arrived on the scene nearly a decade ago. Perhaps most frustrating of all is this lack of forward motion, this inability to move past manga's foreign, Japan-weird aspects and into a realm where it can be discussed like a form of media, not a genre. To be fair, comics and graphic novels have faced the same uphill battle to mainstream recognition as a serious medium for storytelling. It took decades of articles, prizes, and "whod've thought, comics can be serious!" articles for outlet writers to sit up and recognize that a wealth of pictures does not imply a dearth of substance. But can we really not be a little more prompt with manga?
As if to add insult to injury, most articles that fall decidedly under the "bad" heading employ the same gimmicky language and perpetuate the same clichéd stereotypes that slant the collective view on manga. A Bloomberg opener hits all of the offending phrases, touting manga's "doe-eyed girls with melon-sized breasts, slasher samurai, resilient teenage heroines wielding magical powers and adventurous ninja boys." The phrase is bad enough as it is, but most articles then progress into overemphasizing manga's explicitly sexual and occasionally illegal underbelly, vaguely intimating that manga and pornography share much more space than they actually do and plugging negative connotations into the medium. The whole mess is held together by the usual manga sales quotes in the US, perhaps an "I love to read manga!" quote from a tween reader and a quick rundown of the popular US series.
It's undeniable that there are some benefits to manga in the news, as while well written pieces are few and far between, the occasional positive press is better than no press interest at all. That said, the quality level and handling of the subject needs some rejuvenation, and soon: as manga expands into new demographics and topics, the "genre" label is going to wear ever thinner. The lack of research done is also, quite frankly, embarrassing; as it seems even a five minute conversation with a semi knowledgeable industry insider would render most articles' raison d'etre a moot point. Safe to say if similar journalistic quality cropped up on a finance section feature on, say, sub prime mortgages, the outpouring of letters to the editor would be swift and furious. Manga's subject may occasionally be comical, but its handling is anything but funny.
Just when booksellers thought it safe to return to their graphic novel sections, in comes another mystery item to send them confused and scrambling back to the stock rooms. Light novels, or prose accompanied by illustrations (often centered on a manga or anime franchise, with illustrations by the series' author) bring with them a headache inducing slew of questions: is it a book? A comic book? And perhaps more importantly, where the heck does it get shelved?
Light novels are perhaps the newest addition to the manga publishing industry in the US, and have thus far encountered a notably mixed market. Tokyopop, so far the largest importer of the medium, has seen some titles fare decently (Twelve Kingdoms) while others, like Kino's Journey, have entered an unclear suspended status, presumably after poor sales. Nonetheless, the number of light novels available on shelves has continued to rise, with publishers like Seven Seas and Udon bringing out new titles. The question of who's buying remains an elusive one; many light novels pertain to a particular series (a la Hot Gimmick S, a light novel offered by Viz to complement their Hot Gimmick series' ending) while others are original creations that ran exclusively in Japanese light novel magazines. The light novel also proves a harder sell in general, as chunks of prose with pictures does not a manga volume make. The reading period required is certainly longer, and translation becomes a much more hazardous minefield as a few lines of dialogue over numerous panels turns into a lengthy description in the novel.
Accordingly, the translations in light novels are often hampered by both the translator's ability and the original material itself: the books aren't exactly masterful prose even in Japanese, something that is apt to come out in a less than inspired English translation. All this amounts to sluggish movement off of the shelves- if, that is, booksellers can figure out how to shelve the novels in the first place. The issue seems simple for light novels that have the accompanying series available in English- simply shelve the Hot Gimmick light novel next to Hot Gimmick. But for series that lack companion manga in English, the future is far murkier. Shelve by publisher (and group Tokyopop with Tokyopop, all in the manga section?) Or shelve under young adult fiction when the series stands on its own? Both methods have cropped up in bookstores, but until sales numbers can differentiate between the two, the question is fated to remain unanswered.
The ultimate fate of the US light novel market remains in the hands of consumers, particularly those with vested interest in the series that spawned them. Light novels are a niche within a much larger niche, and thus have much less room to wiggle in when it comes to genre or target demographic variance. There's an appetite for the books- but whether it's enough to ensure repeat servings in yet undecided.
With 2009 bearing down upon us, the imminent end of the year brings signals a time of resolutions, sparkling wine and, of course, exhaustive, year-end cumulative lists. Here to oblige you with a look back at this year's headlines-in-manga-publishing is this month's Panelosophy.
Banks are failing, the government is buying up assets and Americans everywhere are seeing their homes and businesses foreclosed upon in record numbers. Naturally, such dire events should accordingly trigger a series of reactions in the everyman: shock, dismay, anger/fistshaking and, of course, one nagging question: what is the economic fate of the American market for Japanese comic books?! Thankfully, I come armed with soapbox and Bookscan numbers in hand to answer that very question. Sit back and/or continue stuffing your mattress with dollar bills; it's time to take a look at a post-recession manga landscape.
Effect One: The Leaner Market
Perhaps most obvious yet consistently overlooked in the plain, simple fact that the market must contract in order to support itself. The rate at which pubs have been putting out new books and titles per month has risen enormously, to the point where over a hundred new volumes hit store shelves each month. Americans are saving more and buying less across the board; not even the manga market is immune to the paring down that must occur. That can mean several things: either publishers will be choosier with what new licenses they choose to acquire and commit too, will be slower with releases of their existing licenses, or they will start hacking the low performers from their publishing lineup. I would expect the pubs with larger, sprawling catalogs to be more inclined to drop low performers, whereas smaller publishers may opt to simply be careful with output and licensing acquisitions. Of all three options, the first two are obviously the more attractive, as they do not entail the annoyance of mid-series drops; number three seems thus much more likely in dire situations.
Effect Two: The Homogenous Market
And you thought it was hard to get indies and josei six months ago. With slenderer prospects on the horizon, the idea of licensing series that move fewer units and don’t always break even (as, regrettably, many josei and independent or experimental titles are want to do) becomes even less attractive than it was several months ago. (Throw in Diamond’s new distribution model and even less hilarity ensues.) Yet the artsy and the adult won't be the only genres to suffer: middle of the road performers with little to distinguish themselves from the pack will also be feeling the bite. The demise of Broccoli USA, while not entirely due to its title lineup, nonetheless is further proof that a publisher will have a much harder time subsisting on a catalog with few titles that crack the higher half of sales charts.
Effect Three: The Wealth Gap
It's no secret that many publishers have a handful of high performing titles that generate big numbers and a larger tier of other titles that don't prove seriously profitable. As consumers are forced to make hard and fast decisions about what they really, really truly want at the register, I would expect the gap betwixt top and bottom performers to widen accordingly. Of the publishers, Viz holds the highest number of top-tier properties, with Tokyopop and Del Rey bringing up the rear- but several of these series are approaching the end of their US runs, creating an intriguing power void and the potential for a new title to step in. Keyword here is title: while I wouldn't expect the list of top properties to change particularly much, as early editions continue to sell well consistently, but there is renewed potential for more unexpected or previously uncharted series to appear on the monthly bestsellers lists.
Effect Four: The Rise of the New Format?
One newly-attractive option for shorter series of all colors and genres is the omnibus format- the ability to release, say, a two or three volume series all at once in a single, higher priced volume. While publishers may be unable to move all three single units of a lower-sales series, they may be able to break (closer to) even on it if they can move more copies of the entire series in one cheap, four inch wide paper brick that retails for anywhere between $15 and $20 dollars. Whether publishers seize upon the format and use it to new ends remains to be seen; both Viz and Tokyopop have been steadily expanding their omnibus options, so the future looks promising.