The Manga Evolution Goes Day-and-Date

Manga isn't dying, but it is changing: It's going digital, it's going global, and it's going simultaneous with Japan.

Publishers have been working in these three directions for years, and they announced several successes to announce at this year's New York Comic Con. The digital weekly magazine "Shonen Jump Alpha" will begin releasing manga simultaneously with Japan. Yen Press has partnered with the Japanese publisher Square Enix for worldwide digital distribution of Square Enix manga. And at the Kodansha Comics panel, which was so full that some people were locked out, editorial director Dallas Middaugh told a roomful of fans that the new "Sailor Moon" artbook would be published simultaneously in seven countries, including the U.S. and Japan. Kodansha will also speed up releases of one of its more popular titles, Hiro Mashima's "Fairy Tail" putting it on a monthly schedule for print volumes and twice-monthly for digital. Last year, Kodansha brought Mashima to NYCC as a guest, and many of the questions at his spotlight panel were about volumes of the series that have not been officially published in English yet.

Manga sales are down sharply, and this was the first year there was no New York Anime Fest associated with NYCC, but nonetheless, cosplayers thronged the halls and packed the panel rooms, and publishers announced plenty of new titles.

At the ICv2 conference that preceded NYCC, CEO Milton Greipp presented a White Paper that summarized sales and trends. While the picture was fairly rosy for comics and graphic novels, it looked grim for manga. Greipp estimated the total manga market at $105 million; this follows a series of down years, dropping by 13% in 2011 and another 35% during the first half of 2012.

Greipp put this year's drop squarely on the shoulders of the Borders bankruptcy. When the liquidation of stores began, and the books were marked down, people simply bought more volumes then and fewer later. "When the liquidations were happening, sales were pulled ahead," he said. "People said, 'I'll just get all of 'One Piece', 'Naruto'' -- whichever was being discounted. Those buys weren't happening over a longer period of time. They happened last year, so they don't happen this year." (Although Borders discounted the books during the liquidation, publishers received their full share of the price.)

The top-selling manga right now is the new edition of "Sailor Moon," which launched in 2011, but while this shows the enduring popularity of the property, which was first released in the U.S. in the 1990s, it also points to a problem with manga in general: A lack of new titles with mass appeal. While there are manga that sell well within their particular niche, there is no new manga that is making an impression across the entire culture -- and this is true in Japan as well as in North America, according to Greipp.

Piracy is also a factor, and to compete, most manga publishers have introduced digital products and are trying to catch up with Japanese releases. Viz Media has been the most aggressive; earlier this year, they changed their "Shonen Jump" magazine from a monthly print magazine to a weekly digital magazine that carries new chapters of a selection of manga just two weeks after they appear in print in Japan. Greipp pointed out a problem with that strategy: Viz's print releases had been running far behind their Japanese counterparts, so they sped up their releases, but many readers simply dropped out rather than spend the money.

Viz Executive VP of Publishing Alvin Lu had a different take. In a later ICv2 panel on transforming the business model, he said "Shonen Jump Alpha" had helped Viz develop something that American comics have had all along, the regular customer who is such an important part of the community. "With Shonen Jump Alpha we have got this weekly customer, and we can interact with them very directly digitally," Lu said. "We can speak to them through social media, and what we are seeing from that digital aspect is that it comes back into the real world, so that we can do print exclusives as opposed to digital exclusives that we are offering to members, and we have been multiplying these mini events, they are very much social media -- almost flash mob -- because you can bring together Shonen Jump Alpha fans on the fly."

Lu said he expects sales of digital manga -- via their own Viz app and their Vizmanga.com website -- to triple this year compared to last year, which is the same rate of growth as the larger digital market. "That growth is not technically eating into our print sales, that we can detect," he said. "On the other hand, I wouldn't say it is a completely divergent customer." Viz has been aggressive about digitizing its backlist, and Lu said backlist sales are particularly strong. On the flip side, the whole point of "Shonen Jump Alpha" is to get fresh chapters of new manga to readers as soon as possible after the Japanese releases. "This is just the beginning of what I call 'real-time manga publishing,' where the English language versions are moving in sync with the Japanese original product," Lu said. "Toward that end, I would ask everyone to pay attention to 'Shonen Jump Alpha.' We will be moving to a simultaneous-with-Japan model very soon."

Maasaki Shimizu, chief operating officer of the digital manga site JManga, concurred. "Like Alvin said, we are experiencing more and more core users coming to our services," he said. "We would like to make it more for light users, and that is why we started our new service." JManga, which is supported by 39 Japanese publishers, recently launched a sister site, JManga7, which provides manga online for free.

While manga sales are down, popular wisdom has it that the demand is still there, because attendance at anime cons has been growing. The exception to this, apparently, is New York Anime Fest, which went from being a standalone convention in 2008 and 2009 to being combined with NYCC in 2010 and 2011 to winking out altogether this year. Nonetheless, NYCC had several standout Japanese guests: Moyoco Anno, the creator of "Sakuran," "Happy Mania," "Flowers and Bees," and "Sugar Sugar Rune," and Yoshitaka Amano, who illustrated the "Vampire Hunter D" novels and did the character designs for the "Final Fantasy" games. Other guests included Japanese culture figure Danny Choo; manga-ka Masakazu Ishiguro (creator of "Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru," a JManga title); Masahiro Ohno, Ishiguro's editor at "Young King Ours" magazine; and Nagumo, the creator of "Let's Eat Ramen," who was a special guest of the digital manga magazine "GEN."

Here's a roundup of news from the manga publishers at the con.

Viz: The Viz booth was packed throughout the con, and just as Lu said, they had a fan meetup Friday night at the Kinokuniya bookstore that featured "Tiger & Bunny" character designer Masakazu Katsura. The publisher was heavily promoting "Shonen Jump Alpha" and its new anime channel, Neon Alley, at its panels and in its booth. Viz publishing marketing manager David Eicke announced at the Sunday panel that Viz has licensed the "Tiger & Bunny" manga, as well as Taiyo Matsumoto's "Sunny" and an art book, "Pepita: Takehiko Inoue Meets Gaudi," the "Vagabond" creator's trip to meditation on the works of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. Two series that are currently running in "Shonen Jump Alpha," "Barrage" and "Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration," will be published in print in 2013. Panelists also confirmed Lu's statement that "Shonen Jump Alpha" will publish new manga chapters simultaneously with Japan.

Kodansha Comics: The American arm of the largest publisher in Japan is riding high on the success of its re-release of "Sailor Moon," and director of publishing Dallas Middaugh kicked off the panel with the announcement of a new Sailor Moon art book, which will be published simultaneously in Japan, the U.S. and five other countries, with some material exclusive to each country's edition. Four new manga licenses were announced: "Vinland Saga," a historical story about the Vikings, by the author of the much-loved (but low-selling) Sci-Fi series "Planetes"; "Sankarea: Undying Love," an odd story about a young man who is obsessed with zombie girls; "No. 6 Story," a Sci-Fi series about a city where everyone's lives are carefully controlled -- and the boy who breaks away; and "Tokyo Mew Mew A La Mode," the followup to the popular "Tokyo Mew Mew" series. Middaugh also announced that new volumes of Hiro Mashima's "Fairy Tail" will shift to a monthly schedule beginning with volume 24 next March, with two new volumes coming out digitally each month.

Yen Press: Yen remains on solid ground with a combination of licensed manga and manga-style adaptations of American prose works, including the young adult versions of James Patterson novels and Anne Rice's "Interview with the Vampire" series. The big news for Yen came at the Anne Rice panel, at which they announced a second graphic novel based on her novel "The Wolf Gift." Most of their other announcements also had a familiar ring: "Puella Magi Kazumi Magica" and "Puella Magi Oriko Magica," both spinoffs of "Puella Magi Madoka Magica," a current Yen license; two "K-ON!" spinoffs, titled "K-ON! Highschool" and "K-ON! College"; and a second volume of the full-color edition of "Highschool of the Dead," which will collect volumes 5-7 of the series. Two other licenses were announced, "Are You Alice?" which is based on a dating-sim game, and "Doubt," a survival manga by Yoshiki Tonogai. Yen will also publish an artbook based on their "Soul Eater" series. Editorial director Kurt Hassler announced a new partnership with the Japanese publisher Square Enix, the publisher of "Black Butler" and "Soul Eater": Yen will be the sole digital distributor for Square Enix manga outside their members site. "For the first time ever, this partnership is going to be done digitally on a worldwide basis," he said. "We are not going to have any North American territorial restrictions."

JManga: Like the other panels, the JManga panel was packed. Business manager Robert Newman worked the crowd, offering free subscriptions, anime, and CDs to audience members who screamed the loudest; at the end of the panel he also gave away two Nexus 7 tablets. JManga has recently picked up a number of series formerly published by Del Rey, and Newman had more to announce at the panel, including "My Heavenly Hockey Club," "Gakuen Prince," "Fairy Navigator Runa," an "Yozakura Quartet." In addition to publishing the volumes that have already been translated, JManga will finish the series that are incomplete, Newman said. He also had a handful of other titles to announce including "Neko Ramen," a gag manga about a cat who runs a ramen restaurant that was formerly licensed by Tokyopop, as well as "If You Wanna Destroy the World," "My Sweet Dragon," "Aoi Hana," "Elemental Gelade" and "Yasuko and Kenji."

Vertical: Marketing Director Ed Chavez had two new manga licenses to announce. The first was "Twin Knight" by Osamu Tezuka, the sequel to "Princess Knight" which Vertical published last year. In this followup, Princess Sapphire (who was born a woman with the heart of a man) has twins, who continue her adventures. The other new title is "Helter Skelter," the story of a fashion model who will go to any extreme to stay at the top of her profession.

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