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Nut In The Shell:
Manga Nation By Keith Giles
WHY DOES MANGA SUCCEED WHERE AMERICAN COMICS FAIL?
According to Frederick L. Schodt's recent book, Dreamland Japan, "almost 2 billion manga books and magazines were sold in Japan in 1995, which means over 15 manga-related items for every person in Japan. The manga industry boasts $6 billion in annual revenues, which amounts to a staggering $50 spent on manga for every Japanese person." That means that nearly "every Japanese person" is a consumer of Manga in one form or another.
-Frederik L. Schodt (www.jai2.com) is the author of two highly respected books on Japanese comic art -- Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics and Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga -- among other writings. -Tony Leonard Tamai (www.tonikoro.com) is an American Manga artist now residing in Nagoya, Japan. TAMAI is currently working on a project called Godland with Hollywood Comics (www.hollywoodcomics.com/leonard.html) for the Japanese market, and is a respected member of the PLASTIC ANIMAL STUDIOS collective (www.plasticanimal.com). -Keith Giles is indie comic book creator with too much time on his hands, and an opinion column on the web. While not exactly an “expert” in the subject of Manga, he is more like a facilitator here for the discussion at hand.
The main question is, “Why does Manga enjoy such fantastic success?”
We’ve identified eight key elements that contribute to the dominance of Manga in Japanese culture for the purposes of this discussion. In no particular order they are:
1) CULTURE & HISTORY: For hundreds of years Japanese people have loved art similar to modern manga, such as scrolls, woodblock prints, or sketches. Those art forms primarily are composed of line drawings, and often are fantastic, violent, erotic, humorous, and narrative in structure.
2) TRAINS: The crowded, fast-paced, modern commuter culture of Japan's urban lifestyle has had a gigantic impact on the proliferation of Manga. Today a huge number of people in Japan spend a great deal of time on trains.
3) LANGUAGE: There are aspects of the Japanese system of writing that help contribute to a pre-disposition towards the sequential medium. The Japanese ideograms used in Japanese writing are a type of cartoon.
4) FREE EXPRESSION: The Japanese Comics Industry has never dealt with anything resembling the American Comics Code Authority. This freedom of expression has allowed them to enjoy a greater level of freedom, creativity and expression in their art.
5. DIVERSITY: Manga explores varied subject matters. Unlike the spandex-happy US market, Manga covers anything from sci-fi action to private school girls to basketball and every form of weirdness in between. There’s literally something for everyone to enjoy when it comes to Japanese Manga.
6. PRODUCTION: Manga is done cheap and fast, printed mostly on newsprint, and published weekly instead of monthly.
7. MARKETING: No comics-shop love here. Manga are sold on newsstands, at book shops and at kiosks all over Japan.
8. DISPOSABLE MEDIUM: The Japanese Manga Market is largely a disposable one, as opposed to the “Collector” mentality that dominates the US market.
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THE QUESTION IS...
With all this in mind, is there anything that the American Comics Industry can learn from Manga? Or is the widespread popularity of Manga simply a product of the unique Japanese culture, and therefore, something that cannot be duplicated here in the States?
GILES: Today, Manga seems to have reached a zenith of popularity in Japan that rivals anything the American comics market could ever imagine. Why is it so popular?
SCHODT: Actually, if you talk to manga publishers in Japan, they will sob and moan and groan about the poor state of the industry. There's a decade-long recession going on. Young readers are spending more and more time on video games and the internet, and spending all their disposable income on cell phones. Manga sales have been static, sometimes even declining for the last few years.
Of course, most publishers (comic and non-comic) in other countries would still be dumbfounded by the sales and profitability of manga in Japan. The problem for Japan is that from the early sixties to the mid-nineties, annual growth rates in the manga business were astronomical. People took it for granted that sales would continue to increase exponentially. But the manga market in Japan is now saturated, and the only real potential growth areas left are among senior citizens and overseas. It's one reason we are seeing so many more manga exported. It's not just the intrinsic popularity of the manga themselves; it's the fact that Japanese publishers are actively seeking overseas markets now, just like Japanese car manufacturers and computer manufacturers before them.
TAMAI: All I can say about that is that if you consider the unfortunate drop in the Japanese Anime Industry's economics (domestically) and expenditures for big budget Anime (Like Ghost In The Shell, Jin Roh, or Akira), comics in Japan are like the one economic stable which has gone virtually unscathed by the recent recession. That's really amazing when you think of recent market conditions. To its credit, unlike the American-side, readership accounts for almost any age and gender demographic. That's a distinction that is not as exploited in the States, unfortunately.
GILES: Of all the key elements in Japanese culture that have made Manga such an ingrained part of Japanese lifestyle, the "Train factor" and the "Ideogram Alphabet" elements seem to be the most specific to Japanese culture. Would Manga have ever exploded into the Japanese mainstream WITHOUT the "Train" and "Ideogram" factors? Talk about these two factors and how they have specifically impacted the popularity of Manga in Japan.
SCHODT: I think that Manga would be popular in Japan even without trains and without influence from the Japanese writing system, but probably not as popular. Japan's cities are very crowded, and Manga magazines and books are a great way to entertain oneself. They're quiet (very important in Japan), and don't take up much space, and after working all day in an office or studying at school, they're a nice light form of reading material. Also, they're very portable.
It's no coincidence that audio books are far more popular in the United States, where people spend long hours in the cars commuting, than in Japan, where most people in cities commute by trains. Manga are also great for reading at coffee shops, barber shops, noodle eateries, and in other crowded places. Maybe if we had more coffee shops and ramen stores in America we would read more comics!
TAMAI: What’s weird about the whole "read Manga while sucking up some noodles" thing is, most Ramen-ya (Noodle shops) I go to are so friggin' fast, I don't have time to sit and enjoy a Manga. But at a Manga-Kisa, I'm going there to read comics, so the food and drink come after the fact.
Most anyone you might see eating ramen in a noodle joint, riding a train, construction guys taking a break on a hot summer afternoon drinking a poccari sweat, or attendees at a "Manga-Kisa" (or "Comics Cafe"), are in some way contributing to that vast multi-million to billion yen economic consumption all over Japan. It can in many ways be considered an "escape" art form. Many will tell you it's "Jikan-Tsubusu" or “Killing Time.” If you know the pressure of working and living in Japan, you'd seriously relate.
I can go into any convenience store in Nagoya and see not one, but several persons browsing a comics magazine. The same for bookstores here, twice the size of a Barnes & Noble, that have a devoted area or floor just for comics. Hell, I didn't even know Ghost In The Shell 2 was out in Japan until I myself saw a guy on the Subway reading it. I remember I nearly blew my wad, then I raced out and bought a copy of my own. That was nearly Fall of last year.
GILES: Japanese Manga consumers purchase thick, black and white, cheap digests to read on a long train commute and dispose of them when they're done. American comic consumers purchase expensive, thin, full-color pamphlets to read on the toilet and then save them in boxes forever. Manga is cheap. American comics are not. Is there any way, in your opinion, to change American reading habits and comic tastes in this regard?
TAMAI: In the States, the smaller monthly serial is more of a printing fanfare, and expensive, full 4 color art at that. I'd feel pretty jacked if I tossed out a copy of Frank Miller's Sin City or Mignola's Hellboy after giving it a reading, and a few months later to go buy it again in a TPB. And, if you recycle the pulp paper, you get more manga post consumer printed pulp. Also, I do know that the Japanese print industry has also been using Soy ink, so less chemicals end up seeping into the ground, and, more importantly, into your body. You'd be surprised if you knew how toxic some printing inks and varnishes were involved in printing a spiffy 4-color deal. But not all comics are printed in the States on totally expensive paper, it's just not the kind of thing you’re going to toss out to recycle.
GILES: Here in the States the average fan would never dream of purchasing, reading and then tossing away a comic book.
Is there a way to make a shift towards "cheap and disposable" comics here in the States that you can see working towards improving the acceptance of comics in our culture?
SCHODT: I don't see any reason for the U.S. industry to import the disposabilty aspect of Japanese Manga. It would help, however, if U.S. comics were priced lower for children, and if they had more pages, so artists could tell more complex stories. The catch here, of course, is that in order to bring the price down, the publishers require an economy of scale that would be difficult to achieve in the U.S.
GILES: Is the disposability factor something that has played a positive role in the popularity of manga in Japan?
TAMAI: To Japan's credit, the recycle effort is a must to some degree in Japan.
Japan is roughly (not true scale) about the size of California. It is a crowded, congested ecology with only so much natural reserves, and it would suffer a serious burden if it did not make efforts to control natural resources and ecology. The same follows for energy, air quality & fuels, etc.. If you could imagine in the States, how many individuals would follow a strict program of separating plastics, paper, burnable, and organic trash? Hell if you get it wrong here in Nagoya, the trash men will put a refusal sticker on it and leave it there. So, Manga fits into that same recycle effort. The key for the Manga publisher is to make collected "Tankohbon," or the TradeBack. At maybe 6x8 or smaller, the tradeback is what you'd collect and keep on your shelf at maybe 500-1200 Yen a pop.
GILES: Because Manga is supported by so many Japan-Specific factors, is there really anything that American Comic Book companies can learn from the Japanese Manga industry to achieve similar success in our culture?
SCHODT: There is a lot to learn, and many practices of the Japanese industry are already being implemented here in the U.S. I believe the increased visibility of "graphic novels" in U.S. bookstores, is partly due to Japan's influence. Companies like Viz Communications, in California, and Dark Horse Comics, in Oregon, have been actively putting out comics in paperback format, a la the Manga tradition. Viz is a 100% owned subsidiary of one of Japan's largest Manga publishers, so it is not surprising that it is importing many of Japan's publishing conventions. Another aspect of Japan's industry that is being imported is the media-mix strategy; the increasing link between Manga and games, animation, and movies.
U.S. publishers have tried to do this to some extent with characters like Superman and Batman, but I think they see now that the Japanese formula is much broader, and ultimately more lucrative.
TAMAI: The Big Question. First off, American Comics as a business can learn, but it has to WANT to learn from foreign material industries. It has to diversify its range of story content to broaden it's reception to a wide audience, which should be more adult-oriented. After all, the adults make more money. Mo'money, Mo'money to buy comics. How can you do this?
Advertising and positioning.
When was the last time you saw Time-Warner make a campaign on Buses, or Subways in New York, or, God forbid, T.V.?
After all, Warner owns D.C., right? Got more money than the Federal Reserve, but what does the public get? A movie option that will push a few more sales and then they'll start a universe hot wire like the "Death of Superman" thing. That will get a nice little chuckle on Good Morning America, and then those already buying comics (Geeks, not new readers) will rush to the Ma & Pa retail store to get it. Kind of like ejaculating without the erection if you ask me. Jokes aside, Marketing and positioning are everything. Hell, branding a Comics Publisher should be no different than ABC, CBS, or the newest Hollywood Picture. If the Comics creators had the type of cash the MIB film hype had, you'd have people lined up at the stores to get a copy.
GILES: Wait a minute, you’re saying that American Comics need to diversify to a more “Adult Audience.” But, in my opinion, one of the main problems with American Comics is that they’re only selling to adults and not to children. At the moment the industry is in a stagnation period. Without actively reaching out to a younger market, the American Comics Industry will die with the current generation.
TAMAI: Well, I think there's something in the formula of marketing Comic Magazines to specific age group and gender. If you were to look at Kodansha's HP (www.kodanclub.com) you might notice that the magazines and titles are categorized as such. In this the market is already factored. The States needs this. But also, kids now have a lot to contend with like video games, the Internet and television etc.. It makes it hard to compete with. Maybe if comics were becoming more technologically savvy, I don't know. But there might be something in that.
In addition, the US comics industry needs publishing tactics, and targeting to a wide age group beyond its normal and current readership. Would any American publisher push creators for a weekly or bi-weekly? Some creators have a problem getting monthly books to Diamond as is.
What's with Shojo Manga (Girls and Women's comics) in the U.S.? Women in the States buy tons of supermarket romance novels, How can comics fit that in the line-up? I was just mentioning recently how interesting it would be in the States to see more female creators creating and tailoring comics for women. Besides, in a male dominated media, women have been highly under-served unfortunately. Why aren't there some comics about American or World History? I mean true literary comics?! Hell, Shakespeare! I could see somebody doing something like Hamlet.
GILES: Actually, Ben Templesmith started something like that over at UnboundComics.com doing specifically an adaption of Hamlet that I thought was excellent. In fact, I agree with you. The idea of literary or historical comics could go a long way to breaking comics into a new market, get into the school systems, and possibly even attract a new, younger generation of comics consumers. Why doesn’t Marvel or DC explore this?
TAMAI: We in comics must be prepared to push publications beyond our reach of experience and our particular interest. Editors of the comics industry need to challenge the platform, and vice versa artist/writer to editor.
Last but not least is the really deeper conspiracy for reform: DISTRIBUTION! Comics will, should, and have to hit the Barnes & Noble/Amazon.com level to see changes on a wider consumer level. As it is, Comics share some floor space at stores like B&N, but it's like one rack. You and I know there's more to comics than that. "Gentlemen, it is a War...a war that can be won!"
GILES: The Japanese Manga industry has benefited from not being constricted by a Comics Code Authority. How important has creative freedom been to the success of Japanese Manga?
SCHODT: Creative freedom is a huge factor in the popularity of Manga today. In the 1960s, 70s, and even 80s, Manga were a place where people with interesting, bold ideas could experiment. Manga attracted some of Japan's top creative people, who otherwise would have become novelists or film directors. Today Manga are not quite as exciting as they used to be, because video games, TV commercials, the internet, and other fields have siphoned off some of the creative talent. Nonetheless, ambitious minds in Japan still regard Manga as a place to try out new ideas, and, if lucky, to gain considerable fame and fortune.
TAMAI: This touches on some really interesting cross culture issues I can personally relate to. When I was younger, when Anime and Manga importation were still fledgling followings state side, I decided that being a comics creator in Manga (U.S. or whatever) was something I wanted to do. I studied Japanese to basically try and really grasp real Manga. In a sense, I've grown up being weaned on Manga. I’m age 30 now. I'm already seeing a good number of kids who are part of a generation that may take after Manga and the art form with more influence than say the "conventional" style. Out of that, a small percentage may decide to start studying Japanese to read Manga. That is a really interesting factor, culturally speaking. Like Fred mentioned...
GILES: Now that the CCA has been all but abolished here in the States, do you think there's any way to overcome the damage done to comics here in America?
TAMAI: I can't say much about the comics code, but I will say this, the CCA seems a bit of an antiquated Hoover-Era tactic to not only censor, but to enforce morality on the reader. A newer, more contemporary system is long overdue.
SCHODT: I sense a difference in the last few years in the States. I think there's a broadening of subject matter in comics, which should help. But comics have been terribly stigmatized, and it may be too late for them to ever regain the popularity (not to mention circulations) they once had in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I have heard that some schools in the U.S. are now using comics to teach children to create stories and narratives. This is a major step forward, and may help popularize comics considerably. Also, more and more American children seem to love Japanese Manga, and in the long run this should help the U.S. industry, too.
GILES: Is the American perception of Manga success a bit skewed? I mean, only a small percentage of Manga gets translated into English and distributed here. Isn't it true that we basically get the "cream of the crop" and the rest of the phonebook digest stuff is really just not worth importing?
TAMAI: We have to remember, the stuff that's been published in the States is for the most part adapted by about four (at best) publishing or adaptation houses. What we get in the States is a tenth, at best, of what our marketing can get comic buyers to purchase. There are some things in Japanese comics that culturally, might not perform due to lack of cultural comprehension in American audiences. By the same right, Japanese people don't always get the jokes in American movies, so they just sit there instead of laughing. But what Japanese people get into is the storytelling of the thing, and that is the more noble consciousness of the Japanese audience over Western audience.
If I can be so honest, Japanese people are not always as concerned about the articulation of the illustration as much as they are the thoughtful direction of story. Guys like Mignola, or any American creator re-printed in Japan, if they're popular for a minute here in Japan, it's usually at a cult-ish level. That doesn't mean they ever rise to the level of a household name like Matsumoto Reiji (Yamato, Harlock). In fact, in comparison to how much Manga is going to the States, I have completely no idea where I could get an American Comics ("Ame-Komi" as said in Japanese) title here in Japan.
SCHODT: The U.S. perception of Manga is completely skewed. It has nothing to do with what most people are reading in Japan. It has everything to do with the nature of the marketplace in the U.S. The only Manga imported and translated are those for which there is a market in the U.S. Since the U.S. comic market is still dominated by young males and collector-types, titles selected almost always are designed to appeal to them. With the influence of animation, this is changing somewhat, but by-and-large most Americans get what they seem to want. Simple, action stories with lots of cute girl characters.
GILES: Are there any Japanese Manga titles that you would like to see translated and brought to American audiences?
SCHODT: I'd love to see Taiyo Matsumoto's Ping Pong brought over, but it might not sell. There are dozens of Japanese Manga that I love that would have no market here. I have a huge set of award-winning Manga by Natsuo Sekikawa (writer) and Jiro Taniguchi (artist), based on the novels of Soseki [Natsume]. There are five books, each with 250 pages. It's beautifully done, but the readers in Japan are mostly in their forties and fifties, I imagine. It's hard to see how it could ever be marketed here in the U.S.
Are either of you familiar with a title called Blame by Tsutomu Nihei? (www.studiokrum.com/blame/blamepag.html) This title was serialized in the same digest as Blade of the Immortal, and yet it has been reprinted in nearly every major language and country except here in the States? What keeps certain titles from gaining a US distributor?
TAMAI: Yes, Blame would be cool. Also, Kamikaze by Shiki Satoshi, and Kumakuchi Yuichi's King of Bandit Jing might be cool. Older works from Otomo Katsuhiro, or retro-Japan Manga's like Cobra, or Matsumoto Reiji-era stuff would be great to see also.
SCHODT: I'm not familiar with the title you mention. It's usually a matter of market demand. Occasionally there are cultural issues involved, but mostly it's about economics and money.
GILES: One of the keys to Manga success is the extreme variety of titles and genres. American comics are now more diverse than ever, (although still spandex-heavy), but still nowhere near the level of that found in Japanese Manga. Could diversity be a key to expanding the popularity of the American Market?
SCHODT: I would love to see American comics regain the diversity that they once had, in the 1940s and 50s, when there were many romance and even sports comics. It would greatly help to erase some of the stereotypes people have of comics-- that they are only good for depicting super heroes and so forth.
GILES: Honestly, do you really think American Comics could EVER achieve the same level of saturation as that of Manga in Japan?
SCHODT: No. At this point it would be impossible. You would have to completely change people's reading habits, and life styles. You would also have to vastly increase literacy levels in the U.S.
TAMAI: I'm afraid I'd have to concur with Fred on the literacy level.
In Japan, the literacy level is quite high. There are more periodicals and publishers than you could shake a stick at here. Not to mention Bookstores are off the hook. In addition, we're talking just over 1900 kanji ideograms (in the Japanese Language) for the basic literacy level.
Ten years of studying, and I couldn't tell you how much kanji I know or don't. If you were to take the case of literacy in the States, we might be disappointed when taken seriously.
GILES: Ouch! Uh....ok. The truth hurts. You got us there.
Let's talk about how the Japanese Anime Market has helped in the proliferation of Manga? Is this symbiotic relationship something that could be mimicked here in the States?
SCHODT: I think I partly answered this before. In Japan today, Anime helps drive Manga sales, although most animated works are still based on Manga stories. I think we will see more and more attempts to mimic this relationship in the United States. Viz Communications will shortly be bringing out Jump, a translation of Japan's best selling Manga magazine, on a monthly basis. You can be sure that the stories selected for serialization in the magazine will mostly be works that are showing, or have shown, as animation on U.S. TV.
TAMAI: Manga and Anime are very skewed in the States. I'd go further to say Manga and Anime have on an art level been a bit mottled into a generalization of being the same thing. It's not. Of course, one influences the other, but you must keep in mind were talking about motion and static storytelling. The differences can be seen in some of the devices. It's not just the “Big Eye Syndrome,” and a bunch of speeding lines and fancy screentone work that make up the art. Those who will study good Manga, do your homework. All the answers are there in the pages. I'm still trying to get it down pat.
GILES: One of the by-products of trying to survive in the phonebook digests market of Manga is the tendency for the stories to just "out-weird" the next guy and get the attention of the readers so they can stand out in the sea of other serialized stories. Is this something you think helps or hurts Japanese Manga Creators? Are more sedate, thoughtful and slow-burning titles left out in the cold because of this tendency?
SCHODT: The tendency you mention is most noticeable in the mass-market magazines for children and young people. There are lots of magazines that aim for something higher in Japan. Many go out of business, but there are always new ones that appear to replace them. It's sort of like the market for videos and fiction novels in the U.S. Frankly, as others have said in more colorful ways, most popular culture is trash. But when a certain scale is achieved, there are always people who try to do serious, meaningful things. I'm not trying to put down the trash. Sometimes trashy Manga (or books or films) can be great!
TAMAI: Right now I'm producing a comic, and one publisher I'm going to approach is a Weekly. These are publishers where some guys loose sleep for a few days, and have up to eight or nine assistants working on a particular episode. I find that hard to beat. I might need two assistants just for a bi-weekly or monthly. But all in all, that's what it takes to be a comic artist in Japan. Guys like Shirow are somewhat rare in the case of taking a few years in seclusion to do books like GITS 2. But it's well worth the wait.
I hear the happiest people are into Bi-weekly and Monthly. But popular artists make good money in Japan. It's all about keeping the readership. Manga recently is a driving influence of popular T.V. Drama, not to mention PS2 games, Anime, Toys, and other merchandise running down to telephone card graphics. Comics in Japan bring out a large element of competition.
GILES: Fred, I know your expertise is Manga, but are there any areas in the American Comics Industry where you can see a need for drastic changes?
SCHODT: Like TV and films, in comics I crave fewer formulas, and more interesting stories about ordinary life.
GILES: Tony? What about you, any last thoughts?
TAMAI: As far as drastic changes go, I'm not quite sure what I could say that would have readers signing up in the droves. I can say, there is a more pro-active approach we should consider. there are a lot of smart people in comics, we as creators should see the art for what it is, "Limitless." We should examine our readers, and give them stories that will influence them culturally and socially, and yet most importantly, challenge the very intellect of the reader.
Frederik L. Schodt's book, Dreamland Japan: Writings On Modern Manga, is available for US $16.95 from Stone Bridge Press, P.O. Box 8208, Berkeley, CA 94707. E-mail: email@example.com.
Keith Giles is one of the world's greatest enigmas. Ruggedly handsome, and yet surprisingly gentle and compassionate with small animals, Keith actually has a very weak grasp of reality and often talks to himself in the bathroom mirror. He’s currently writing his own original sci-fi novels and putting together a few comic books of his own in his spare time.