Insert “flexing muscles” pun here

According to this piece in Publishers Weekly (found via Blog@Newsarama), DC has joined forces with Flex Comix, a newish Japanese manga company that provides digital content for handheld devices, with eventual collections in print. Why would they do such a thing?

“DC Comics president Paul Levitz described Flex Comi[x] as an ‘innovative force.’ Flex Comi[x] CEO Seiji Takakura said the new venture ‘will bring authentic Japanese manga to the worldwide English-language audience in new and exciting ways.’”

That strongly suggests Flex’s interest is in building with a U.S. manga imprint to facilitate English-language licenses for its properties. And while DC probably wouldn’t mind having a first-look relationship with a Japanese publisher, something tells me that’s not their only interest in the partnership.

Simon Jones of Icarus Publishing notes:

“[T]his news combines manga, one of the biggest stories in the past ten years of comics, with alternative digital distribution, which may be the biggest news for the next ten. This will, at the very least, give DC valuable experience in both key areas as they develop a future online strategy for their own domestic output.”

I think the experience is probably the key attraction. DC doesn’t seem to have trouble securing interesting properties for its CMX roster so much as marketing those titles as successfully as some of their competitors in the category. And given that Flex is in its early days in terms of content creation (it’s only seven months old), there’s no guarantee that it will funnel solid sellers (or even licensable properties, as Jones notes) into CMX.

So that leaves digital distribution as the likeliest lure, which certainly makes sense. I suspect that any licenses DC picks up from Flex will be gravy, and that the success or failure will rest on the portability of Flex’s business plan and how it helps DC to position itself to digitally distribute its own properties when handheld technology catches up. (I think digital distribution of DC’s properties in Japan would also fall into the category of gravy, though I don’t know enough about the demand for U.S. comics in Japan to parse that. Every source I’ve run across indicates that demand isn’t exactly roaring, though.)

15 Responses to Insert “flexing muscles” pun here

  1. gynocrat says:

    According to the young woman representing me in Japan, there’s a modest audience for ‘american comics’ but it’s small, novelty-like, and it spans many genres…but in terms of DC, it’s the ‘animated properties’ that are most recognizable.

  2. Matt Thorn says:

    The market for non-Japanese comics in Japan is small indeed. Japan is the Hollywood of comics, and Japanese readers are accustomed to the manga style. Just as Americans are reluctant to watch foreign (non-English-language) films, Japanese are for the most part unwilling to read comics that are “backwards,” in which the text is horizontal rather than vertical, which have a large amount of per page, and which, well, aren’t manga.
    I teach a “comparative comics” class to the manga students at Seika University, and getting them to see the good in non-Japanese comics is like, well, trying to extol the virtues of the Koran to a group of Southern Baptists. Every year I get one or two students who become fascinated with non-Japanese comics, but most just whine about the amount of text per page or the lack of motion lines or the fact that, well, they aren’t manga. In the first semester (which covers everything up to the 1960s), I have them read the first episodes of Superman and Captain America, a couple episodes of The Spirit, an episode of Little Lulu, one of the goofiest 1950s romance stories I could find, an episode of Barks Uncle Scrooge, the first episode of Toth’s Zorro, some Peanuts, three classic E.C. stories (Master Race, High Tide!, and The Flying Machine), and the first episodes of The Fantastic Four and Spider-man. Which do you think are the most popular? I’m teaching this class for the sixth year, and this roughly how it works out:

    1) Uncle Scrooge (Just about all my students appreciate Barks)
    2) Little Lulu (ditto)
    3) the romance comic (just because it’s so hilariously goofy)
    4) Zorro (because many of the students appreciate his composition, use of black and white, and stylization)
    5) The Spirit (because about a third of students appreciate Eisner’s skill and experimentation)
    6) Master Race (just because of the last two pages) and the Flying Machine (just because it’s so beautifully drawn)
    7) Peanuts (just because everyone loves Snoopy)
    8) everything else (They like Superman, Captain America, and the FF, just because there’s so must to make fun of)

    Oh, and I show them a few pages of Topffer’s M. Jabot (the scene in which his pajamas catch fire), which I translated into Japanese, and they get a real kick out of it. They are amazed that something written to be funny in French in 1836 (or whenever it was) is funny in Japanese in 2007.
    In the second semester, which covers the 1970s to the present, reactions are all over the place. A lot of people like Hellboy, some like Castle Waiting, etc. Not many are turned on by the first episodes of Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, or Astro City. Similarly, Crumb, Maus, and Tomine tend to fall pretty flat. Some are vaguely intrigued by American Splendor. People are amazed by Enki Bilal, but none would actually buy one of his books and read it. Blacksad goes over much better.
    In short (well, that was really long, actually), the Japanese judge comics from a completely different stance than do most American comics fans. And about half are frankly chauvinistic. To them manga are the best kind of comics in the world, period, so why bother reading anything else?
    There is something of kitsch fascination with American superheroes, but D.C. has as much chance of making it big in the Japanese market as I have of being elected Pope.

  3. Matt Thorn says:

    Oops. I meant to type “which have a large amount of text per page,” and the sunglassed smiley was meant to be “8 )”. Oh, and I meant to type “something of a kitsch fascination#

  4. […] @ 11:06 am I know it’s probably bad manners to link to my own blog, but I thought Matt Thorn’s summary of his Japanese students’ response to western comics was so interesting that I wanted to […]

  5. Simon Jones without a blog says:

    The Japanese do seem a great deal fonder of European stuff than American stuff. There are a lot of BD’s on Japanese bookstore shelves.

  6. […] in the comments section of David Welsh’s weblog, Kyoto Seika University associate professor Matt Thorn discusses why Japanese comics fans are […]

  7. Garen says:

    Simon (or anyone) – I’m interested in your comment about BD on Japanese shelves. How does the older ‘classic’ stuff go over in Japan – like Tintin – any Blake & Mortimer or Yves Chaland etc? Asterix? Cheers.

  8. […] about the possibility that DC will use online marketing to push its comics in Japan? Matt Thorn comments at Precocious Curmudgeon: Just as Americans are reluctant to watch foreign (non-English-language) […]

  9. davidpwelsh says:

    Garen, I was wondering the same thing about something like Tintin.

  10. Simon Jones without a blog says:

    I’m not sure how well it actually sells. But I know I saw a fair bit of TinTin and there was at least one Tintin store, devoted to Tintin merchandise. What I did see was a lot of Moebius and assorted other Metal Hurlant sort of stuff. There’s also a hell of a lot of Milo Manara.

    The other thing, though it’s German, Vicky the Viking, which seems to be in every childrens book section in Japan.

  11. Matt Thorn says:

    A few Enki Bilal books were translated, but they don’t sell well. There are a couple of small publishers who put out Japanese editions of such books, as well as such American underground stuff as Ghost World or Adrian Tomine’s stories, knowing full well they won’t sell. It’s a labor of love. And a handful of hardcore fans do actually buy them. But the average manga reader wouldn’t give them a second look, and you can only find them in specialty shops. Simon, I don’t know when you were here, but I have never seen Mobius or Manara in Japanese, though I’ve looked hard enough. I seem to remember hearing that some Mobius was once available in Japanese. These kind of books have small print runs, and the kind of hardcore fans who buy them never part with them, so you can’t even find them used.

    Tintin has been popular for many years, but few Japanese readers have ever noticed that it’s a comic. It’s printed in an album format and shelved not in the manga section but in the children’s book section. But Tintin is more popular as a character than as a book. You can buy Tintin merchandise all over the place. We’ve got a cute Tintin shop here in Kyoto. Asterix was translated into Japanese years ago, but I suppose it didn’t sell well either, because it’s long out of print and few Japanese would even recognize the character. You’d think Disney comics would have a market here, but while they were somewhat popular in the 1950s, they, too, have long since disappeared. By the way, most of the comics I have my students read I had to translate into Japanese myself. These days, every time there’s a reasonable successful movie based on a comic, a Japanese translation of the original usually appears, and some of them, like Sin City and Hellboy, actually seem to sell reasonably well, at least by the standards of translated non-Japanese comics. A Japanese edition of 300 just came out. Has a nice slip cover, too.

  12. Garen says:

    Many thanks for that Matt and Simon. Really interesting.

  13. Sarapen says:

    On the subject of Japanese reception of bandes dessinées, Frédéric Boilet’s manifesto for Nouvelle Manga is quite informative, especially for his discussion of the deliberate use of cinematic techniques to make his style of BD more accessible to people new to the medium.

  14. Sarapen says:

    Just in case it’s not obvious, there’s a link in the above comment, reproduced below:

  15. […] – Matt Thorn, associate professor in the School of Manga Production at Kyoto Seika University, on his students’ response to American comics […]

%d bloggers like this: