It may never happen

July 9, 2008

Man, there’s some major gloom in the air regarding the state of the manga audience. I’m not going to disagree with the assessments floating around, but one recurring element does strike me as a little out of scale.

A cornerstone of the recent wariness seems to be that manga’s primary demographic has stagnated at a certain age group, which is true. Booksellers are reluctant to shelve titles that don’t promise immediate returns (i.e. anything outside of the shônen and shôjo categories), and publishers are less likely to license titles for older readers as a result. Borders, the earliest and most enthusiastic retail adopter of the category, is on shaky financial ground, the nation’s economy is in the toilet, and everyone is being cautious. Those are facts, and I’m not trying to minimize them.

At the same time, I’m detecting a tendency to expect the U.S. audience for comics from Japan to evolve at a geometrically faster rate than the Japanese audience for comics from Japan did. I mean, how long has what might be considered the mainstream North American market for manga been in place? (Del Rey is just about to turn five years old, and Japan’s third-largest manga publisher is just now taking the bull by the horns and opening its own stateside initiative.) How long did it take Osamu Tezuka to realize his dream of comics for everyone across the lifespan, and how does the adult audience for comics in Japan compare to the younger audience for comics in Japan? Were I to hazard a guess, based on casual observation and reading accounts from people who are a lot better informed than I am, I’d say the majority of the indigenous manga market is still geared towards kids, and that a healthy chunk of the people who enjoy it as kids leave it behind as they get older.

So I guess I’m spotting an uneven set of expectations in play. Didn’t it take decades for a healthy market of comics for grown-ups to evolve in Japan? And is there a comparably healthy market of comics for grown-ups – not “babymen” or anything, but a casual reading audience that isn’t dedicated to the medium exclusively – in the United States? If there was such a market, I’d think there’d be less shock when a book like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home gets mainstream acclaim, or when Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings gets a serious review in The New York Times.

So why expect the English-reading audience for comics from Japan to mature faster than the Japanese audience did? There are still plenty of people who love comics top to bottom who won’t touch manga with a ten-foot pole, no matter how similar a lot of it is to what they’re already enjoying. And most days, it seems like the North American comic industry can’t even decide which underserved age group, kids or grown-ups, it’s trying to reach. In an average week, you’ll see pieces bemoaning the lack of options for both demographics, or pieces bemoaning the neglect endured by the properties that do try and serve them. (I mean, I’ve written those kinds of pieces over and over again.)

I guess I’m also hard-pressed to spot a particular tipping point where the current generation of kids in the United States and Canada who are manga’s primary consumers are revealed to be the only generation of kids who consume manga ever to reside in North America. Or the evidence that everyone in these generations will simply stop reading comics when they take the SAT. Most of them probably won’t ever pick up a comic again after the last volume of Fruits Basket comes out (though I’m not ready to picture that day too clearly), but some of them surely will, and as new generations of manga readers enter the audience, some of them will surely keep reading too, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on. It’s not likely to be a fast process, but I don’t think that kind of audience development has ever been speedy, has it?

Listen, I used to watch soap operas, so I’ve heard the old saw that “It takes a while to turn an ocean liner” before, used by producers and executives when asked when a given show would stop sucking. As a fan, I hated that argument, but I recognized the truth of it. Maybe the meteoric early rise of the shônen-shôjo market has created unrealistic expectations for the seinen-josei phase, but I can’t help but believe that the two periods aren’t entirely comparable, and I don’t think the latter will happen nearly as quickly as the former.

I love manga targeted at grown-ups, and I’m tremendously grateful to the publishers to provide it to audiences. I wish mainstream booksellers would consider the possibilities and be less frightened of shrink-wrap, but I can abstractly understand where they’re coming from in an economic climate that doesn’t encourage risk or expansion. I think they will consider those possibilities eventually, I really do, but I don’t think it will happen as quickly as I would like. At the same time, I don’t think that promises an eternity of super-teens and spunky heroines. I’m not an optimist by nature, but I do believe in the incremental growth of an audience for mature works.