It may never happen

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.

12 Responses to It may never happen

  1. ame says:

    you make some really good points. i’ve really never thought about how manga developed in Japan itself. I guess i just assumed that it’s always been this huge industry that has always included evey age group. and i think you’re right about your assestments. But i don’t know, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating though…i mean i’ve been reading manga since i was 13 and i’m 21 now…and i just wish there was more of a market for manga i can relate to.

  2. thirstygirl says:

    I think that manga is currently in the slump between “oooo New! Shiny! thing” and just a part of every day life. So of course there will be a bit of a boom when *finally* it’s suddenly readily available but before it loses its cachet as geek-cool indicator. [This is purely speculative but is based on Geeks I Know]

    The boom years may not come back BUT there is still a growing crowd of people who are familiar with manga and for whom it may just be one more entertainment option among many. This isn’t a Bad Thing. This is what slowly grows your market in a sustainable way.

    I think that publishers can do their part by not relying on book stores so much. Get a good online store, make sure that your long-tail titles are available there, this is where you can push the edges with seinen and josei titles, or older series that are just really really good – CMX do a really good job of this and I am now more likely to take a punt of one of their series because I know they pick good ones and I will be able to finish them.

    [And I didn’t start reading manga till my early 30s- it just Wasn’t Available.]

  3. […] “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.” – David Welsh […]

  4. JennyN says:

    I think you’re probably right about the Japanese audience for manga, David, in both its historical and contemporary aspects. If I recall the potted history given in Frederick Schodt’s MANGA! MANGA! correctly, both before and after WWII – i.e. from the 1930s to about the mid-1960s – manga was very definitely seen as something for the school-age set, something you left behind as you took your final exams or started that first job. Manga for adults emerged as rigid social norms were questioned in the 60s and 70s (I believe it’s Matt Thorn who points out in one of his essays that the generation who first read these titles was that born *after* the war). The puzzled reaction of various Japanese friends and acquaintances on finding out I’m interested in “that stuff” also makes me think that a lot of adults continue to drop any interest in manga as they grow older.

    There may be another factor at work in the US market, too. One of the most successful markets for manga outside Asia is France, or rather the French-speaking countries. Publishers there are putting out a good number of seinen, josei and other older-skewing titles, presumably because there’s a market for them as readers who cut their teeth on shonen and shojo move into their twenties and thirties. This is partly because they do a much better job than their US equivalents seem to of publicising new titles and authors through various media – e.g. the well-established magazine ANIMELAND – and of annotating cultural or historical references so readers get the full flavour of the text. BUT I think it’s also because Francophone countries had a flourishing bande dessinee (comics) culture already, centred not around superheroes but covering a wide variety of genres: thrillers, SF, adventure (historical or contemporary), fantasy, romance or just everyday life. (One book published in the past few weeks, for instance, deals with the adolescence of twin brothers in a small town in Normandy, in the 1950s). Some were aimed at children or teens; many others were meant for adults. This meant that the French manga audience already accepted that you could read BDs after the age of, say, fifteen. Now until recently the main choices for Anglophones have been between superheroics or the descendants of underground comix (with a few honourable exceptions). That’s changing, however: think of CASTLE WAITING or TRUE STORY SWEAR TO GOD or LOVE AND CAPES or DEATH JR – or practically anything Oni Press puts out, from POLLY AND THE PIRATES to CAPOTE IN KANSAS to SCOTT PILGRIM. Yes, these titles are still being bought by a minority; but it’s getting larger all the time. Plus, even if they don’t buy them, the young’uns are still seeing these books on the shelves, and maybe reading reviews or discussions in various forums and blogs. If this new comics culture does take hold, it might well be that that nurtures the new manga culture.

  5. davidpwelsh says:

    ame: I’m curious: does your peer group include a lot of manga and anime fans? How many of them are sticking with those forms of entertainment, and how many who do share your (completely understandable) frustration with the ways the market isn’t growing with them?

    thirstygirl: You’ve hit on another thing that I’ve wondered about. I’m under the impression (and perfectly willing to be contradicted) that manga sales in the U.S. aren’t declining; they just aren’t growing as vigorously as they were for the past three or four years. I think you’ve put your finger on the nature of the current plateau really well.

    JennyN: Thanks for bringing in the French connection, because it really is interesting to look at a culture with a more established comics-for-adult market and the evolution of manga there.

    I got an e-mail from Ed Chavez of MangaCast and Otaku USA fame that did contradict one of my assumptions, the one about the relative volumes of magazines targeted at various demographics. The kids-to-adult ratio is a lot closer to even than I would have suspected. I hope Ed posts the content of that e-mail somewhere.

  6. ame says:

    well, let’s see…i don’t really have a ton of close friends..but yes, most of my friends read manga/watch anime. heck, even my little brother likes it. and he’s 17. But not until he got into Naruto, he refused to even try manga. But now he owns all the available naruto volumes and buys Shonen JuMP. But he doesnt really read the other series. Ofcourse i pressured him hardcore to get him to atleast try Slam dunk (he plays basket ball i thought he would appreciate it) and he did..he said it was okay..but then he kept reading it..but now he’s watching the anime episodes on Veoh, and i think enjoying that more.
    However. No my friends don’t really have the same frustrations as i do. My best friend only really likes Yaoi. and D.N Angel, and some series i think is Called Sensual Phase or phrase..or something(i keep thinking sensual i’ve just recently purchased for her Rumi Fujoshi.
    But their problem mostly comes down to the fact that they don’t have the money to spend on it like i do. Cuz of car payments, credit card bills, rent…those kinds of things. So i think they would be more active if they had the means.
    My bestfriend’s boyfriend has never really watched anime, but i asked him what he thought, and he said he didn’t like it. he couldn’t get over the fact that “they’re like…cartoons.”
    i don’t know how to change this perception. but it’s damaging for us getting more josei over here.

  7. David!

    Excellent post. I think you’re right on all counts, and I feel like I let my optimism and cynicism colour the post I wrote, when I do have a very realistic view of the market (I think). You’ve given be a good direction to go for part 3 of my little essay series, about developing the manga market, and I’ll make sure to throw a link your way, thanks!


    – Christopher

  8. davidpwelsh says:

    Thanks, Chris! I’ve really enjoyed the first two parts, and I’m looking forward to the rest. (I’m also stitching your comments on the Manga Sutra into a needlepoint pillow, because they’re words for the ages.)

    And I should add that I was responding more to the articles that made Anime Expo sound like a funeral cortège than your piece, which was a really nice blend of optimism and cynicism.

    And now I’m trying to come up with a reasonable set of definitions that distinguishes between “manga for mature audiences” (like, say, The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service) and “manga that should only be sold to legal adults” (like, say, Gantz).

  9. Chloe says:

    Nice post David- I’ve always held that it’s an issue of slimming and much slower growth in older demographics, but it will eventually, slowly, certainly happen as the first generation to experience the market proliferation ages. I remember FNAC back in the 90s and, unless the vestiges of my memory fail me here, they stocked a lot more shoujo and shounen back then too. (Or at least, now have healthier seinen/josei sections, especially josei.)
    (On a completely unrelated note, your blog is blocked by ethical conflict filters in Syria, which I found out only by hitting a government firewall. I suppose that explains the dearth of Syrian commentators here…)

  10. I think the problem may be more in the distribution than in the genre itself. After all, part of what a solid but small demographic of “american” comics readers do when they grow up is look for indie-comics. Given that the less popular stuff probably can’t get a publisher in the US, it’s harder for Americans to get the manga/anime that might appeal to an older demographic but won’t show up across the pond due to costs.

    Because I know in my own reading, there’s a tendency to go, “another Shojo, ho hum” (and don’t even get me stared on the Shonen stuff, which I find too childish to even try now) and would jump at more horror manga, for instance. Or even Shojo set for people in the 30s instead of half that age.

  11. GG says:

    I’m about ame’s age (1 year younger) but seem to have had the opposite experience. There’s definitely a visible minority of kids who are still manga/anime fans, but in the schools I went to they were always seen as a sort of nerdy fringe. In my university at least most people would be fine with me saying I read comics but wouldn’t know what I was talking about if I said I read manga, and would probably see it as weird if I said I watched anime regularly. I was never part of the manga/anime group so I can’t really state this definitively, but at least to outside appearances they seem to be really into stuff like Naruto or Inuyasha as opposed to The Walking Man or Tekkonkinkreet, which I guess doesn’t bode well for those hoping for more adult manga.

    The plus side is that I don’t think there’s really the same stigma for comics in general that older generations have. A lot of people have read stuff like Watchmen or Jimmy Corrigan and your typical “indie comics” big name authors are definitely seen as hipster acceptable.

  12. […] to my last message, and probably to Kai-Ming Cha’s blog post from the floor of Anime Expo, David Welsh put up a really lovely, reasonable little essay about a mature manga industry, and the schedule upon which it will arrive. David makes the very […]

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