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Anger, Pangs for Less-Than-Sanguine Manga Fans As The Market Contracts

The cover of Vampire Knight, a manga title

Vampire Knight is one of many manga titles published by VIZ Media. VIZ Media hide caption

toggle caption VIZ Media

Long ago, I worked at a bookstore whose owner insisted on shelving all graphic novels in the Humor section. Why, yes, it does still rankle, why do you ask?

So there, hidden among Garfield Gets A Goiter and copies of Andy Rooney Forgets What He Was Just Saying But He’s Pretty Sure It Was About Shampoo, lay some of the usual funnybook suspects — Maus, The Dark Knight, Watchmen, etc.  

He also stocked a few manga series, which was unusual for the time. One day I made the mistake of mentioning to him that none of the other bookstores in the area bothered with manga at all, and that he might want to make a bigger deal, or indeed ANY deal, about his modest selection.

The next time I came into work, I saw that he hadn’t given the books more prominent placement or allotted them any extra shelf space. Instead, he’d simply slapped a fancy embossed shelftag under them, reading:

MAGNA [sic]: COMICS FOR GIRLS AND LADIES!!!!

That, at the time, was manga’s fate, in a U.S. comics culture dominated by steroidal super-types: No respect, no respect at all. But the fortunes of manga publishing and readership in the US were about to change for the better. Just a few years later, you could walk into a Barnes and Noble or Borders and know that you’d found the manga section when you started stepping over the sprawled forms of teenagers littering the aisle like a pod of somnolent elephant seals.  

Annoying, sure, but even so: Teenagers! Reading comics! It was astonishing, manga’s ability to attract a sizable audience that was so unlike mainstream comics’ familiar fanbase — in that they it was considerably younger, less paunchy, less prone to flights of outrage over slight deviations from canonical X-Force continuity, and less likely to use phrases like “canonical X-Force continuity.”

Soon the shelves of bookstores and libraries bulged with an increasing number and variety of manga offerings, both translated Japanese/Korean/Chinese series and Original English Language (OEL) titles by US/Canadian creators who adopt manga’s stylized approach.  News stories about manga began to appear, thankfully supplanting “POW! ZAP! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!” fare with reports of a lively and engaged online community of retailers, librarians, creators and fans.

It was a manga boom, and it lasted a good long while.  

Over the past few weeks, however, manga has been making news again, at least in the comics blogosphere.  And the thing is, none of that news has been good.  

Readership is down; DC Comics shuttered its manga imprint; VIZ comics, one of the largest publishers of manga in the US, announced significant layoffs, which led many to conclude it’ll have to scale back the titles it currently licenses and set off a wave of “Whither Manga?” speculation over the fates of smaller publishers. Then, of course, there’s the online piracy.   

Many manga now fans find themselves immersed in a complicated ethical relationship with websites that scan and translate (or, in the portmanteau-happy parlance of fandom, “scanlate”) comics from Asia.  In the early '00s, this was the only way fans could find and enjoy any series beyond the relative few that publishers had by then brought across the Pacific.     

It became more difficult to cling to that rationalization during the boom, as the number of manga offerings increased and those bright, digest-sized series kept annexing more and more retail and library shelf space throughout the US.  

Last week a consortium of US and Japanese manga publishers announced an initiative to crack down on scanlation sites. Meanwhile, manga fans continue to ask the same questions all fans of the medium are now asking about how digital distribution will affect every sector of comics publishing.

There’s more to what’s been happening these past few weeks, much more than a single blog post can cover. But what just about everyone agrees is coming — what’s already started happening — is a manga market contraction: fewer offerings, less variety.  

Was the manga boom unsustainable? Is the bottom about to fall out completely? Or will manga’s youthful, devoted and tech-savvy audience afford it some measure of protection from whatever changes digital distribution will bring?  

I don’t have those answers. But here’s some smart types who might –- go-to bloggers who cover the manga industry like whitetail on rice:

Start with Brigid Alversen’s Mangablog, which covers the saucer-eyed, tiny-nosed waterfront in an exhaustive-but-never-exhausting way.

Johanna Draper Carlson’s Manga Worth Reading is a friendly and insightful mix of industry analysis and manga recommendations.  

I like and admire Deb Aoki’s About.com Manga blog so much I’m willing to visit About.com to read the thing. So.

And, as always, if you want a useful, carefully curated balance of news and reactions from both the industry and the fans, Heidi MacDonald’s Comics Beat can’t be ... bested.

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