Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Steven Grant says manga not a fad... 

Thanks to Dirk for linking to this edition of Master of the Obvious. He makes a good point that one reason why a lot of iconic superhero characters are still around is that they were put on life-support during times of trouble and eventually ressurected in popularity. It goes far beyond just providing what people want...

The main difference between "icons" like Superman and Batman, and "new" ideas like THE AUTHORITY (which, not too long ago, was outselling both those characters) is support. Left to their own devices, a lot of "familiar" titles would've been dead years, even decades ago, but their publishing houses took special measures to keep the books alive, even if sales sank to 30,000 or 40,000 copies per issue. Artificial resuscitation cannot be cited as natural law. Sure, against overall average sales of less than 15,000 per issue, 150,000 for BATMAN or NEW X-MEN looks great, but are either anywhere near saturation of the potential market?

He then goes on to say that the big reason for holding up manga's success as a big story is not just their success at getting new readers, but that in general their business practices have shown to be very strong and cast a light on just how troublesome the American model may be proving. I do agree that the manga companies seem to be doing a very good job on the business side or exploiting their advantages and running with it in a sensible way. He also brings up the linking up with anime and video games, which they do seem to be quite good at organizing.

But the most interesting thing in the article, IMO, is his direct comparison of the current popularity of manga to both the b&w crash and the 90s crash. He points out how bad the content was in much of the comics coming out in the b&w boom and how both crashes were driven by speculation instead of content (looking for the next TMNT breakout hit in the b&w crash, and the various chromium covers and such in the 90s crash). In comparison, he argues that a lot of the manga released is at least competent and that a lot of the people reading the stuff are actually fans of the stories and not driven by any sense of how much the stuff will be worth in a couple of years.

He aknowledges that eventually there will likely be a glut of too many titles, and perhaps companies bringing over titles that aren't as good (even though as he points out, the fact that there are several companies with a good foothold on the market, as well as new material coming out all the time in Japan may help to mitigate it at least a bit), it isn't likely to all just disappear, in the same way that something like the mystery or romance sections in bookstores didn't go away after they were first introduced. He also points out that if instead of a sudden huge crash, if there is a slow decline, American companies should be able to step in and fill the void, but a sudden crash is more likely to just have bookstores drop comics entirely and do more harm than good. I think this is a nice quote:

The curious subtext to the "manga will die" predictions is the intimation that if manga dies on the market, American comics will rise again, but that's like saying that when hip-hop dies, Henry Mancini will make a big comeback. There's no basis to assume cause and effect. Likelier would be hip-hop dying and it having no effect on the sales of Henry Mancini recordings at all. If the manga craze dies slowly, there's the possibility of niches opening up that smart American publishers could swoop in to fill. If it dies abruptly, it'll probably just kill the bookstore market for comics material, regardless of country of origin, and it's unlikely the death of the bookstore market would drive hordes of hungry readers back into the comics shops because there wouldn't be any hungry readers. That's what the manga craze ending means. Any American comics fan or comics shop owner eagerly anticipating the death of manga as a market force may as well anticipate shooting themselves in the book, because that's what it will amount to.

That is something I agree with 100%. Instead of just hoping manga goes away, people who care about the local industry should be trying to see why what is happening is happening and figure out ways to exploit it for the gain of the whole industry. I think people like Oni Press see what is going on and are actively working to use it to their advantage. A lot of other people in the industry aren't as confident about the direction to go in, especially if they have a big vested interest in the old way of doing things. I think there's also a lot of fans who feel threatened by their favorite comics not necessarily being the biggest thing anymore and instead just another piece of the pie. What is happening with manga is very much a part of the American comics landscape and not something that is happening off in isolation somewhere. It is going to effect things whether people like it or not, and I think it is really a case where people need to be examining the effects instead of trying to look the other way...

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