On a similar note…

December 15, 2008

Writing for The Christian Science Monitor, Amelia Newcomb looks at the growing influence of Japan’s pop-culture exports:

“In France last year, for example, 1,787 foreign comic books were translated – 64 percent of them Japanese. In the US, total manga sales in 2007 rose about 5 percent, to more than $210 million, according to ICV2.com, a trade website. Otakon, a convention devoted to Japanese pop culture in Baltimore, saw a record-breaking 26,000-plus attendees this past summer.”

Q and no As

December 15, 2008

Yesterday, Tom Spurgeon posted a list of questions he’s going to be pondering over the upcoming holiday season. They’re all worth a think, but I naturally gravitate towards the last item:

10. What Is The Big Picture Future Of Translated Manga?
“I haven’t seen anyone describe in even general terms a future for translated manga beyond some folks making assurances it will continue and be really, really successful and other people writing semi-snotty articles and message board posts that the opportunity for traction from bigger licenses seems to be on the wane. I’d love to see someone address the future for this kind of publishing in more direct fashion that didn’t seem like a snow job, and be allowed to do so without people proclaiming that this means they hate those kinds of comics or that they’ll eventually be shown up for betting against that field. I mean, I assume the future is at least different from the present, right?”

I haven’t been doing much big-picture thinking lately, and my reaction to the recent mini-wave of preliminary manga autopsies has been to shrug and/or roll my eyes. But that’s more laziness and evasion on my part than a thoughtful response.

Still, I think Tom’s question isn’t immediately answerable, and while I’m not exactly Jesuitical in my thought process, I find myself responding to the question with more questions.

1. What does the economic downturn, here and abroad, mean for comics as a whole? I’ve seen arguments that comics and other forms of entertainment have a history of maintaining during economic downturns. There was a piece on NPR the other day about movies during recessions and depressions, pointing to their history of providing escape during the Great Depression. But that was when movies were cheap. Comics were relatively cheap then too. And on the price-per-page scale, I still think manga paperbacks are one of the better values available in the category, so maybe that will give them a leg up.

2. Will Borders survive its seemingly inevitable bankruptcy or reorganization? Borders was one of the earliest adopters of manga and arguably played a huge role in popularizing the category for people who might not otherwise have ever picked up a comic, so trouble for the bookseller won’t be without consequences for manga. But while it was an early adopter, it’s been followed by other outlets like Barnes & Noble and Amazon. And if my memory is functioning correctly, graphic novels (including manga) are one of the few sectors of the book industry that are maintaining, if not thriving.

3. Are big hit titles a rising tide or a crushing wake? In other words, what will manga do when books like Naruto (Viz) and Fruits Basket (Tokyopop) conclude their runs? Does evergreen demand for those books and others like them suck up shelf space and make it harder for marginal titles to find an audience? On the one hand, there are lots of the usual suspects in the monthly BookScan graphic novel numbers. On the other, there seems to me to be a reasonable sprinkling of other books (particularly shôjo) that don’t have the sales-driving of a high-profile cartoon, so some readers are still finding new titles to enjoy outside of the five or six blockbusters.

4. What happens when the current teen and pre-teen audience grows up? Will they keep reading comics, or will they leave it behind as an adolescent habit? This one always intrigues me, though I think we’ve already seen at least a portion of the first teen/pre-teen readers grow up. And some kept reading, and some moved on to ignoring their college textbooks, or whatever comes next. But I think it’s one of those questions that can’t be answered for a while yet. I know a lot of people think that readers who couldn’t leave adolescent fixations behind is part of what’s strangling Marvel and DC creatively, but I don’t know if the same set of conditions apply with Japanese comics. If the current crop of readers does keep reading and their tastes mature, there’s product available for licensing that can suit their evolving tastes.

5. What’s the future of alternative or experimental manga? A lot of the answer to this one is tied into the previous question, but I think there are a couple of other factors. I think the mainstream audience for books created by North Americans (like Fun Home and others) could be lured by similarly thoughtful, intriguing Japanese comics, provided those comics are attractively packaged and readily available in bookstores.

6. How will mainstream publishers with comics initiatives do in the current economic climate? There have already been layoffs at Random House, home of Del Rey, and it seems inconceivable that many big book publishers will escape the fallout (or score a government bailout). But if the relative health of the graphic novel market sustains, might those corners of publishing houses be left untouched? Because they’re steady earners

7. Will Japanese publishers continue to cut out the middlepersons? Viz continues to steam along, which must be an alluring example for other publishers. Kodansha is apparently in the midst of starting its own manga publishing outpost, but who knows when we’ll see that manifest itself in actual titles. Broccoli recently announced its closure, and ICE Kunion got absorbed by Yen Press, but Aurora and Netcomics are still plugging along under their own auspices. The occasional story bubbles up about economic problems for Japanese publishers and declining readership on their home turf, but that could conceivably make foreign markets more attractive rather than less, provided they have the resources to maintain a North American outpost.

8. What role will libraries play in all of this? I don’t know if this is borne out by any evidence, but I suspect that it must be tough to be a librarian during a recession. On one hand, you’ve got a larger audience looking for free content, but you’ve also got inevitable budget cuts from local governments paring down their expenses on what they view as non-essential services. (I’m not saying libraries aren’t essential. I’m saying that local governments might view them that way when compared to roads and law enforcement and other concerns.) But I do think that librarians probably have a unique perspective on the aforementioned teen/pre-teen audience. They know what they read over and over again, and they know what they read when the blockbusters aren’t available. They can gauge demand and spot trends.

It’s really a hydra of a question. Hack off one of its heads, and more slither out of the scar. What do you think?