The Changing Manga Scene - What Does the Future Hold?

Manga: What Does the Future Hold?

We’ve looked at the past and the present of manga in a Western market, but what about the road ahead? Kodansha has set up shop in the US, Viz is looking to produce original material, and Tokyopop is undergoing its own set of changes. What does the future hold?

While in its country of origin, manga sales have been slipping for more than half a decade now, with sales slipping another 2.3% in 2007, in North America, there were 1513 new manga releases in 2007 compared to roughly 200 individual volumes of manga in 2001. So, even though manga grew at a slower rate in 2007 than in years past, industry sources have said that it accounted to more than half of the overall graphic novel market in the United States last year.

Naruto, published by Viz Media, which is co-owned by two of the largest Japanese manga publishers, Shueisha and Shogakukan, emerged as the top selling and most popular manga series in North America, regularly placing in both Graphic Novel and Overall General Fiction categories on BookScan and USA Today Top 150.

Concluding our extensive five-part look at Kodansha’s entry into the US manga scene and its impact on manga publishers, we contacted Jake T. Forbes and Jason Thompson for their views. As an added bonus, we also have Becky Cloonan with us for some comments.

Jake Forbes has edited and adapted over 50 Japanese manga and Korean manhwa for TokyoPop (where he served as Senior Manga Editor), Viz Media and Go! Comi (as Editorial Director). He also co-edited the Warcraft manga written by Richard A. Knaak and has written Return to Labyrinth, an Original English Language (OEL) manga based on Jim Henson’s 1986 fantasy film, Labyrinth. Therefore, he definitely qualifies as a manga expert.

According to him, the first wave of manga releases – the pre-TokyoPop era – was driven largely by advocacy. “A handful of people with the connections and willpower to get licenses worked hard to bring manga to American comics fans who were largely ignorant of its existence, but no one was getting rich in the process. (Toren Smith, feel free to contradict me from your yacht.) The next wave was based on entrepreneurism and servicing a demographic. It took ballsy American opportunism to expand the market, and suddenly manga was serious business. Publishers weren't caretakers anymore, but content conduits.

“I think the days of licensed-based publishing being big business are over,” he continued. “For companies like Dark Horse and Vertical, whose businesses are really about books, there will always be quality manga titles to compliment their catalogs – titles with appeal outside the otaku demographic. And there are enough small publishers in Japan, and niche tastes abroad, to support boutique publishers. But for the mass-market stuff, Japanese publishers don't need a middle man. Viz is the evidence and exception to this – they are perceived as a licensee, and to a large degree they function like one, but they are also owned by the companies that provide most of their content, the biggest manga publishers in Japan, Shueisha and Shogakukan (which in turn share the same ownership, but maintain the appearance of competitors in Japan).

“TokyoPop's biggest challenge of the last five years is in proving its relevance outside of the licensing business. One way it's been trying to do this is by billing itself as a lifestyle brand and community. Another is by attempting to stay on top of technology trends, focusing on delivery independent of content. Most ambitiously, TokyoPop has been attempting to build a content creation pipeline, modeled in part on the Japanese system, with the hopes of launching those books into other media. Ultimately, though, the brand was built on Japanese entertainment. – it's right there in the company's name. Can TokyoPop rebuild its cache without new top licenses from Japan? Time will tell.

“Where I see things going in the next few years is that Shueisha/Shogakukan and Kodansha will more overtly start developing new manga series for a global audience. Industry panels at conventions will be increasingly about announcing brand new series, not licenses of previously published works. These "Big Three" publishers, and some of the savvy second tier companies like Square-Enix and Kadokawa, will look for ways to make up for declining sales in their home market by more aggressively servicing foreign markets, whether by creating new content specifically for those markets, working with foreign talent, or by moving towards more coordinated international release schedules.”

Meanwhile, Jason Thompson, Manga Editor of Otaku USA and author of Eisner-nominated Manga: The Complete Guide is taking the optimistic view. “[M]anga will continue a slow but steady growth as it becomes more of an entrenched part of general American pop culture. Certainly, I don't see any crash in the future. From what I understand, TokyoPop's problems aren't a death knell for the industry as a whole, they're the result of a combination of bad timing and bad licenses, combined with unexpectedly large returns from Borders, which is more of a symptom of general recession rather than problems for the manga industry in particular.

“It's tempting to say that the US market will turn into a big Cold War between Shueisha and Shogakukan (Viz) on the one side and Kodansha on the other side. But the truth is, the US market at the moment is really "Viz and everyone else." Even if companies like Del Rey and Dark Horse are doing healthy business, Viz, with its Naruto-level licenses, still dominates in terms of raw sales. It's possible that Kodansha's new company will be more successful than Del Rey was as a Kodansha licensor, but I'll believe it when I see it. Kodansha publishes some excellent manga, some of the most interesting manga being published today, but in terms of mass-market licenses, how many titles do they have which are on the level of Shonen Jump manga? There are second-tier publishers like Square Enix and Kadokawa Shoten whose licenses are just about as good from the perspective of mainstream fans. Basically anything I'd say about Kodansha would be just speculation at this point; obviously I hope they manage to truly expand the manga market and not merely cannibalize the existing sales base. But we'll see.”

Thompson was also the first American editor for Viz’s Shonen Jump magazine, based on the popular Shueisha manga anthology Weekly Shonen Jump. The magazine has a circulation of 215,000. Viz also produces Shojo Beat, a sister publication that appeals to young female readers in North America. So, have anthologies like these really helped grow the market audience and then bring this dedicated audience to sample/check out the more popular and fan favorite titles in digest trade volumes/tankobon? “I'm not sure how many people, if any, have discovered manga initially through the magazines and then only later gotten into the graphic novel editions,” Thompson said. “So I don't know if it's expanding the market, apart from the added visibility on magazine racks (and in other places that carry magazines, like libraries). Here in the US, the magazines seem more like a supplement to the graphic novels, rather than the other way around. However, I believe that Viz's magazines are doing reasonably well in terms of sales, and I have high hopes for Yen Plus.”

Forbes said that telling a story over serialized graphic novels is a “very risky format. Publishers must make a huge monetary commitment and artists must make huge sacrifices in time and work without reader feedback for as much as two years before anyone knows if the series is a success. Anthologies are certainly a way to increase awareness for new series and get artists work into the public eye sooner, but it's by no means a sure thing in this market. Shonen Jump is as big as it is not because it's an anthology, but because it houses the biggest brands in boys entertainment, like Naruto and Yu-Gi-Oh, and often includes exclusive game cards for those proven brands. Shojo Beat proves that a manga anthology can work without TV tie-ins, but the magazine's effectiveness as a marketing tool is debatable (one could argue that star series NANA has way underperformed). Both these examples have a huge advantage over an anthology not based around licenses, and that's an understanding and trust by the reader that these series will continue. In Japan, anthologies will drop series that underperform. If Viz drops a series from the magazine, it's still released in trades. I don't think Americans (or advertisers) will pay for an anthology unless they believe they're getting consistent quality content for the long haul. Yen's got a hybrid situation, and a proven brand in Svetlana [Chmakova], so they're off to a good start.”

For the uninitiated, Yen Plus is a new manga anthology from Yen Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group USA. The first edition is scheduled for late July and it will offer Japanese content on one end and Korean manhwa and OEL manga on the other end, later this month.

On the subject of OEL manga, Thomspon said that “There'll definitely be more OEL manga -- like you say, people who grow up reading manga will grow up drawing in a manga style. The question is to what extent this OEL manga will imitate manga and affect a "Japanese" identity, and to what extent it'll become mixed with influences from Western cartoons and comics and other media. Will manga continue to be viewed as a genre (mainstream shojo and shonen) by the majority of fans, as Kai-Ming Cha of Publisher's Weekly recently said, or will it be viewed in a broader sense, as a medium, with more room for artistic diversity? The answer to that, I don't know. Personally, I'm just happy if it leads to more opportunities for American comic artists to find work, and hopefully express unique styles.”

Does Forbes agree that OEL is the way forward? “If by OEL, you mean "5" x 7.5", black and white, 180 pages, with artwork and themes inspired by Japanese manga, then the answer is a resounding no,” he said. “It's silly to think that a one-size-fits-all solution would still be the answer 8 years after it was introduced. I would say that strict adherence to this format actually stifles the growth of manga-influenced comics by holding creators up to a set standard our industry isn't built for. Much of manga's appeal is based on the epic length of series, while the longest running OEL series are only at 5 volumes. Even when artists emerge who can keep up with creating for that challenging format, there's not enough demand to pay livable wages. Publishers should work on developing new formats that show creators' work in the best light. Maybe the answer is a new book format, maybe it's digital, but it's definitely not a standardized ‘manga digest.’ As for manga-influenced art, that's here to stay, but it's in no way limited to OEL.”

Forbes added that “There's no doubt that many emerging artists have a huge manga influence in their works, and that influence will only continue to grow, but the struggle to label that work has only hurt the artists, readers and publishers. Judging by the majority opinions online, manga-readers seem to agree that if you're going to call something manga, then it needs to be able to compete against Bleach and Fruits Basket in art and storytelling, whereas super-hero readers by and large have no interest in imported manga, so applying the label to home-grown comics is an instant strike against it. I don't know of any creators who embrace the OEL label anymore -- it just kind of emerged online as a backlash to TokyoPop calling all of their books "manga," regardless of origin. Is Brandon Graham[‘s King City] "OEL" when published by TokyoPop and Indy when published by Oni? As is often said in these silly debates, "it's all comics."

”It'll be interesting to see how Viz's first forays into ["comics"] are received. With their huge pull with younger manga fans, I think they might have better luck in acceptance - maybe coming up with the OEL equivalent of Avatar: the Last Airbender.”

For Becky Cloonan, who co-created DEMO with Brian Wood and also wrote/illustrated an OEL manga for TokyoPop called East Coast Rising, she doesn’t consider herself an OEL creator. And she’s never heard anybody calling DEMO manga, she said. “[T]he closest it got was when it was categorized as "an American comic that manga readers would like." DEMO just isn't manga. It's not up for debate. I have never even felt like I've drawn manga, even when TokyoPop stamped the front of my book with it. I never approached East Coast Rising any differently than I did any other comic that I've worked on. I get really exhausted with the name debate, and working with TokyoPop I feel like it's constantly in my face, as hard as I try to avoid it.

”I don't think the term OEL will carry over to other publishers, since it was a term coined for the purpose of promoting and categorizing TokyoPop books and creators. I'm curious about the future of the term, but personally I was never able to relate with it. Overall, I don't think the term stuck; there is more debate over the words "Original Global Manga" than there are people using it. If it had stuck, TokyoPop might not be in the position they're in today.

“Japanese comics are the only comics in the world that we're playing the name game with,” she continued. “What about French comics? Do we call them comics or BD's [bandes dessinées]? And if I wanted to draw a BD, would it be an OELBD or a OGBD? Is it format that dictates label, or the country of origin? Oni publishes in a format similar to Japanese tankoubons, but their books aren't called OEL manga. Is it publisher that dictates label then? This is a debate where the guidelines aren't clearly marked and it seems, from a creator's standpoint, to be totally useless and exhausting. I'm here to make comics; if my publisher wants to market my book as manga, does that automatically throw the rest of my body of work into question as well? Creators should be free to label their books how they see fit: if a creator thinks of their work as manga, think of how irritating it must be to hear people complaining that it's not. Ever since TokyoPop burst on the scene with their “Manga Revolution” marketing campaign, this debate that has boiled to the surface hundreds of times.

“In TokyoPop's case, they were trying to create a new category of comics under the manga umbrella (their selling point) by grouping all of their original books together. This, however, had a ripple effect on the manga-reading community, and the term began to stick in places outside of their publishing range, creating debate. The term Original Global Manga also throws other labels into question: Korean comics are called manhwa, but shouldn't they be also grouped under the OGM umbrella since they're non-Japanese? And also, in Japan they call their manga "comics" as well. So what dictates a name? Is it the publishers? The fans? The origin? The format? The marketing department? Or maybe the creators?

“Let's take a look at another acronym: OGN. The Original Graphic Novel. This is a term that has stuck, because it defines a type of format and it differentiates itself from the collected graphic novel, or TPB. These terms make sense and there isn't any debate surrounding them because they describe an undebatable, concrete format. The terms "OEL Manga" and "OGM" haven't been fully accepted by the comic community because there is too much ambiguity and debate surrounding what they stand for. The sign of a bad acronym is when it has to be explained, it doesn't explain itself.

“On the bright side, at least the comic industry has it better than the music industry! As long as we don't start inventing genres like "Nihilistic Electro PoMo Prog," "Ambiant Future Knock Knock Math Rock" or "Fantasy Symphonic Teutonic Metal Core." Actually, maybe that would be kinda cool... I'm gonna start drawing Post Prog Grim Manga Fusion Comics, and see how everybody likes it. PPGMFC, baby!”

Finally, what about distribution channels? Does digital/online distribution work when it comes to manga? “So far the only truly successful form of online manga is scanlations. No one has offered a viable commercial model, whether via the Web, cellphones, or whatever. There probably will be one eventually, and until then, online previews and promotions will probably play a growing role,” Thompson concluded.

While Andy and Larry Wachowski’s live-action Speed Racer, adapted from Tatsuo Yoshida’s Mach Go Go Go manga which first debuted in 1966, crashed at the box-office, could upcoming film adaptations of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball (with James Marsters as Piccolo and Chow Yun-Fat as Master Roshi), Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (Leonardo DiCaprio as Kaneda, anyone?), Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Death Note, Naoki Urasawa's Monster, and Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita (with James Cameron writing, producing and directing) kick off another round of heavy interest in manga?

We’ll see.

Related articles:

The Kodansha Fallout: More Manga Changes?

The Kodansha Fallout II: The Manga Landscape

The Changing US Manga Scene: Where Does Viz Stand?

The Changing US Manga Scene: Remembering When West Has Met East

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