And on Earth Day weekend, no less

April 23, 2006

I can’t quite figure out Erik Larsen’s latest One Fan’s Opinion column at Comic Book Resources. The teaser text on the front page pitches it as Larsen putting the Asian comics market “in perspective for fans and readers alike,” but I don’t think it quite achieves that.

“(Japan’s) comics are 240-pages long (or more), weekly, black and white, and printed on shitty recycled newsprint. Their best selling books sell in the millions and their cover price is about $2. The stories are clipped into 20 page bits much like our comics are, only their weekly comics have 12 to 20 different features and those are what is collected as the small single volumes that we see here in the United States.”

Well, yeah, but those weekly comics are widely viewed as loss leaders for the end product, the collected volumes of individual stories. American comics seem to have two end products: what Larsen describes as “small, neat, trim, pretty little books with colorful covers on a thicker stock,” and trade paperbacks that collect those individual pamphlets. A better comparison would be the western creators who initially offer their comics online and later collect them in sturdy volumes rather than individual floppies.

As for the “shitty recycled newsprint,” there’s a sound reason for the quality of the weekly and monthly anthologies published in Japan. As Tony Leonard Tamai explained in an interview at Slushfactory.com:

“I do know that the Japanese print industry has also been using Soy ink, so less chemicals end up seeping into the ground, and, more importantly, into your body. You’d be surprised if you knew how toxic some printing inks and varnishes were involved in printing a spiffy 4-color deal…. Japan is roughly (not true scale) about the size of California. It is a crowded, congested ecology with only so much natural reserves, and it would suffer a serious burden if it did not make efforts to control natural resources and ecology. The same follows for energy, air quality & fuels, etc.. If you could imagine in the States, how many individuals would follow a strict program of separating plastics, paper, burnable, and organic trash? Hell if you get it wrong here in Nagoya, the trash men will put a refusal sticker on it and leave it there. So, Manga fits into that same recycle effort.”

Larsen seems to be tripped up by the comparative delivery systems:

“Years ago, I subscribed to a few manga weeklies. Through a (then) local Japanese bookstore in the Seattle area, I had them ship me comics on a monthly basis and they were terrific. I didn’t understand a word, mind you, but the art and the storytelling and the energy was inescapable. Those manga books added up so quickly that they threatened to push me out of my apartment so I had to put an end to my subscriptions.”

It’s an interesting illustration of the opposing collector mentalities evident in different cultures. Floppies here are viewed as collectible objects in their own right, and the notion of throwing out comics is seen with varying degrees of horror.

Larsen also suggests that manga “suffers from being excessively padded. Dozens of pages are devoted to things that would get a page or panel in an American comic — if they made the cut at all.” It’s a matter of taste, but one reader’s padding is another’s nuance. I love the willingness of certain manga-ka to focus on a seemingly small event or emotional moment, describe an event with almost ridiculous specificity, or wander off of the driving narrative to explore thematically supportive subplots and sidelines.

In the same Slushfactory article mentioned above, Frederick Schodt (author of Manga! Manga! and Dreamland Japan) takes a more balanced view of the different publishing models:

“I don’t see any reason for the U.S. industry to import the disposability aspect of Japanese Manga. It would help, however, if U.S. comics were priced lower for children, and if they had more pages, so artists could tell more complex stories. The catch here, of course, is that in order to bring the price down, the publishers require an economy of scale that would be difficult to achieve in the U.S.”

I certainly agree with Larsen’s basic desire for a good story, no matter where it comes from. And I can’t argue with his observation that “the contradictions and inconsistencies [of shared-universe comics] have become insurmountable and overwhelming.”

But overall, if you want an overview of the manga market and its increasing place in the western comics formula, I’d recommend the latest offering from Paul Gravett at his website.