Friday, January 30, 2004

Culture in Comics and Manga... 

Ok, this is mostly inspired by this great article by Neil Cohn.

I almost didn't read the whole thing because the beginning seemed like it was going to be another dry definition of what are comics. However, his real distinction is about the medium of comics versus the culture of comics. Everyone knows that comics aren't in as good shape as they used to be and could use expanding. But he asks a very important question. When we talk about expanding the readership, are we talking about expanding the medium or the culture? The difference is fairly profound.

He also proposes that for the most part, companies like Marvel and DC are not publishers, not in the normal sense anyway. A publisher would be publishing the works of various creators, but these companies tend to have their own properties and then hire people to work on them. An interetsing distinction that I haven't really heard put in that way before. But I'm more concerned with the expansion stuff:

He argues that most of the strategies have involved have been to bringing new people into the current kinds of titles, or current readers into a particular title and thinks that isn't the best way to go:

The problem with both of these approaches is that they do not create new readers in new markets, but only attempt to bring new readers into an old market (or to draw in buyers from within the existing readership). In terms of the previous partitions, these strategies are attempting to perpetuate the second type . the genres and culture(s) that comics currently represent.

Moreover, these tactics also do no good towards progressing the majority's public opinion of comics beyond the stereotypes inherited from over four decades ago. While this may be liberating for the industry artistically, it pales in the importance that it serves for those who face legal consequences determined by this broad scale ignorance. Perpetuation of stereotypical genres and markets does no use in changing the public's perception of comics.

He mentions that a better way to reach out might be to approach a certain sector of people with their own interests and sell it in a place they already go to. He mentions the silliness companies doing stuff like trying to appeal to football players by taking a star quarterback and giving him superpowers. Instead the example is given of making a regular story about surfers and selling it in a surf shop. A good example of this that has already happened may be the Johen Vasquez stuff selling in places like Hot Topic. The most important point I think is as follows:

An additional point should be made about the example illustrated above. Not only does the creation of a surf comic bring in new readers, it also potentially leads to new creators. Given time and inspiration, perhaps those new readers would either turn into or breed people who would want to create their own surf comics.

This strategy does not bring new readers into existing comic genres, and there are no guarantees that these hypothetical readers would want to buy more comics of different types of genres. This is the key: rather than trying to draw a larger populace into the smaller niche comics culture, it dissolves the boundaries of that enclosed industry into the larger populace. Indeed, as I see it, this is the only true type of integration possible: dissolving the boundaries of comics into the other print cultures. By maintaining segregation of comics from other types of books, all the while espousing their equality, the comics industry and culture merely perpetuates the difficulties that they face.

However, this type of approach does fulfill the first type of expansion: it expands and propagates the readership of visual language. It brings the "comics medium" to a new audience on their level, and even leads to the possibility that there would be the creation of more surf comics from within the community itself. To think that outsiders should for some reason magically become interested in comics without actually branching out to what those other markets might themselves enjoy reading about is simply pretentious and bad business.

I think that point is amazingly important. You don't need to create a fan who "comes into the fold". Who goes to comic shops, who reads superheros, or even who reads any other kind of comic book. The point is that you are selling them a comic book, and if enough different groups read the comics, it doesn't matter if they overlap with each other!

I can find interesting parallels. When anime was just starting to get big on TV, a lot of people claimed that DBZ and Sailor Moon weren't making new anime fans. These kids were just fans of those particular shows. On the one hand, it seems like the fear wasn't totally founded, as a lot of those kids did end up getting more into culture of anime and watching a variety of titles. However, even if they hadn't, it would have been ok. We always like to push everything on people. We want everyone to be into it as we are, but that isn't really the point. Even if there is one show that they like, well that is still a show that they like. They'll probably be more open to other stuff in the future, but even if they don't, they still are enjoying something from that medium.

Also, as a lot of people have been saying lately, a lot of people claiming to be "comic fans" may not even be so. If all you like is superhero titles, there is a good chance you aren't a comic fan. You are a superhero comic fan, or perhaps a general superhero fan. As someone said recently, a person may be into the superhero culture. Buying comics, watching cartoons, buying action figures and busts, etc.

But if we switch to a different medium.. like movies, and the genre of horror. There are plenty of horror movie experts. They might go to conventions like fangoria and read magazines about it. They also may or may not be into horror novels and such. But would you claim they were a movie buff? No, they are a horror movie buff.

But I don't say this thing to be insulting to superhero fans. This isn't a popularity contest where you have to be the biggest fan. There is nothing wrong with not being a "comics fan". But just as some might focus on superheros in comics, we need other people who focus on other genres. I think this is also part of the clashes between american comic fans and manga fans. The Japanese stuff has grown up with its own culture in the US, and a lot of people might be scared off by the people who learn Japanese, eat pocky and sushi, make anime music videos, dress up in cosplay outfits, and call themselves "otaku".

But you don't have to be an otaku to read manga, the same way you don't have to bag and board with big longboxes or go to comic conventions or draw your own fanart to enjoy american comics. We could use more people who are just generally casual readers and might not be involved with any comic cultures, or even create their own cultures that are separate.

As much as it is good to get new people involved with comics, try not to look at it from the standpoint of "conversion". Try to find some comics this person might enjoy based on what they like in other mediums. But don't expect them to suddenly become a big comics fan and get their own drop box at the comic shop. They probably only watch certain shows on TV, too, and may not even have the time to do a lot of reading. Besides, depending on what they actually like, there may not be tons of stuff out there that they'd enjoy.

Say you get a girl hooked on Elfquest. How many other comics are really like Elfquest? Trying to somehow morph that interest into loving Spider-Man is probably an effort in futility and rightfully so if she just isn't into that sort of thing, IMO. A lot of the manga out right now has certain categories represented with multiple things in it. If someone is into standard high-school romance, there is plenty for them to buy without worrying about any other manga. But if there is a cook who only loves Iron Wok Jan, they still might not like most manga, and that is perfectly ok too. But the availibility and strengths in particular genres that haven't traditionally been well-represented (romance again) have opened up the comics medium to new readers, and that's a good thing. And if new cultures come up (like a group who read Elfquest, talk about it, draw fanart, and maybe some day make their own comics inspired by it), so much the better...

As Neil says, a lot of people want to bring people into the fold of our own little cultures, but if we really want the medium to be successful and ubiquitous, it should be more about dissolving those barriers and letting comics appeal to different people in different forms and contexts, in their own ways...

I also discuss some aspects of culture here, about how local preconceptions can skew what people read, and again fans of a medium/culture versus casual readers.

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