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Manga Before Flowers – “Manga for Adults” (Part One)

by  in Comic News Comment

Today’s column will cover a topic near and dear to my heart – manga for adults (but not “Adult manga” if you know what I mean). Adults who read U.S. comics, particularly superhero floppies instead of trades, may have absolutely no idea how to start with respect to manga reading. (For the purposes of this column, I’m going to assume these readers might be curious about trying out manga titles, even though I know many folks are perfectly happy with superhero or indy books and don’t feel the need to look for something different). I suspect folks who have already bought into the trade system – whether they buy superhero trades or indy trades – probably have an easier time testing out manga titles, since in the U.S. manga also operates on the graphic novel or trade system. This column will attempt to explain how the diversity of manga genres developed out of a Japanese system of content delivery that contrasts greatly with the U.S. comic book delivery system.

I’ve recently spoken to a number of people who don’t read manga (or U.S. comics for that matter) but somehow think they know all about it; as far as they are concerned manga (and by association anime) is either cutesy-wootsy or flat-out pornographic. Not, to borrow a phrase from Seinfeld, that there’s anything wrong with that. Either of those “that” to be honest. Readers more familiar with U.S. comics probably think most manga is intended for a youth audience. The second assumption is actually a pretty accurate view of most manga titles published in the U.S.

There is no contesting the fact that the majority of the U.S. manga market is aimed squarely at the teen consumer market. For example, practically all of Viz’s current releases – Viz being the largest manga publisher in the U.S. – are branded as Shonen Jump (“Boy’s Jump”), Shonen Jump Advanced, or Shojo Beat (“Girl’s Beat”). While I’ve enjoyed a ridiculous number of titles about high school life or fantasy titles aimed at the tween set, the overwhelming number of teen-oriented titles available in the U.S. marketplace can exhaust and turn off adult readers. It has gotten to the point that stories that actually venture to cover the collegiate experience, or heaven forbid the workforce experience, go to the top of my pull list even if the title’s premise has yet to fully develop. I’m so desperate for manga that tackles adult experience that I’m often more forgiving of these title’s flaws that I am of flaws in other types of manga genres (I’m looking at you, Tokyopop’s Suppli and CMX’s Venus in Love).

I would argue that this current glut of teen manga titles is why manga has done so well (at least up until this point) in the U.S. U.S. manga publishers like Viz and Tokyopop have smartly marketed youth-oriented texts to young kids and teenagers who might not be interested in continuity-heavy and generally adult-oriented superhero books published by D.C. and Marvel. It is vital not to forget that in the U.S. we are seeing Japanese manga genres that suit the need of our publishing industry and consumers and not necessarily the books that suit the needs of Japanese publishers and consumers. In other words, there is a wide and varied world of Japanese manga targeted to adults that is not published in the U.S. or even when published it tends to fare poorly in terms of sales numbers in spite of its quality (Dark Horse’s Eden: It’s an Endless World being a prime example.)

However, the manga industry can’t survive on teenagers alone if its health as a comic-book form is going to prosper in the U.S. I believe that U.S. comic book publishers have the opposite problem – they need to develop a stronger hook to get younger readers, since their core readership is aging and is also predominately male (a fact that is no shock to the readers of this blog, I’m sure). It should be noted that at my comic book store it is still the superhero titles that drive the business. While trades and indy titles do quite well where I work, it is clearly the superhero floppy that gets the foot traffic going on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Working at the shop on Wednesdays, however, I tend to see one kind of customer – men in their twenties, thirties and forties. That means U.S. comic book publishers aren’t really attempting to lock, or at least haven’t successfully wooed, younger readers, and females in general, into their distribution system from start to finish. I believe that adult female readers are far more likely to buy collected trades if they read superhero books, and in my opinion they are far more likely to read independent graphic novels if they read comics at all. Finally, I suspect that female readers are far more likely to buy these trades at bookstores rather than comic book stores.

While in the U.S. comic book genres have gotten narrower in scope (some genres have been entirely eliminated) since the 1950’s juvenile delinquent scare and creation of the publishers’ self-censoring comic book code, Japanese comics have proliferated in terms of targeting to specific audience markets. While the U.S. has relied upon the floppy system all these years (now supplemented by collected trades), the Japanese publishers developed a manga magazine system (which also is supplemented by a collection similar to a trade called a Tank?bon). The virtues of the magazine system are great – for about 3-4 dollars readers can buy about 200-400 pages of manga on cheap, recyclable paper. These magazines run chapters of different series in each issue, releasing on a monthly, twice monthly, or weekly basis. These magazines are cheaply produced and meant to be thrown away, recycled, what have you. Perhaps what is most important about these magazines is that they are everywhere, at the drugstore, bookstore, magazine stands. I’ve heard it said that you couldn’t avoid manga in Japan even if you wanted to.

If a manga series is deemed popular enough – determined by reader response / feedback – and once enough chapters have been released, individual titles are collected in a small paperback form (that Tank?bon again), which is produced in black and white and is usually around 200 pages long. These cost about 5-6 dollars in Japan. Manga titles can be as long as one tankoubon collection while some reach 50 volumes (the average is probably between 10 and 20 volumes I suspect, but certain genres are more likely to stretch on past 30 volumes while titles from other genres will usually fall under 10 volumes). The magazines are so cheap, though, that there isn’t the obstacle to buying the same content twice (i.e. buying the magazine and the tankoubon) that currently exists in the U.S., considering that $2.99 for 32 pages (albeit in color) can hardly complete with around 300 pages (in black and white with a few color pages, actually intended to be disposable) for about the same cost.

In addition, in Japan there are manga magazines for every market imaginable. Young girls, young boys, teenage girls / boys, college aged women, working women, working men, seniors, housewives – yes, comics targeted to housewives! Manga didn’t start out this diversified, though, it took a few decades for manga publishers to begin to realize that they could follow their readership as it aged. By targeting very specific groups of people, artists working within certain genres (as represented by their titles appearing in specific manga magazines) developed schools of style and narrative conventions to specifically to attract these groups. It should be noted that manga readership is declining in Japan – manga used to be the perfect way to pass the time on public transportation but now with the proliferation of personal electronic devices there are many other distractions to keep people entertained on the train ride into work or school. The question of whether or not manga will make the electronic jump has been debated often in the past year or two, but whether not manga manages to keep up with the times isn’t as important to the U.S. manga market as the fact that there is such diversity of comic content available for licensing due to the structures of the Japanese delivery system. The question remains, though, if children and teen readers will follow manga as it matures in the States, crossover to superhero comics at some point (and some already do), graduate to independent graphic novels, or perhaps manage to incorporate all three types of content into their comic book consumption as I currently do.

It is the potential diversity of Japanese manga I’ve discussed above I hope one day to see reflected on the shelves of U.S. comic book stores and bookshops. While the majority of the U.S. manga market today may be oriented toward the teen reader, there are still plenty of manga titles published in English to excite, astonish and thrill comic book lovers from any culture. Next week, in part two of Manga for Adults, I look forward to recommending stylish and intelligent manga narratives for U.S. comic book readers who may not be familiar with manga, or its varied genres and stylistic conventions. But more about that next week!

*This discussion of Japan’s delivery system for manga was made possible by consulting Paul Gravett’s wonderful text Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics (2004). I highly recommend this title if you are interested in learning more about how manga developed in Japan as an art form and a consumer product.