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Much soul-seacrhing in the blogosphere today over whether manga is doomed to be a medium of kiddies and wanna-be ninjas. Much of it was kicked off by Kai-Ming Cha’s frank comments:

But that’s not the way manga fans work. Mike G. (and Lillian of TokyoPop who I posed this too as well), was like, they (the fans) don’t care. “They don’t care who publishes it. They only care that they have it.” I would go so far as to say that fans only care that they can read it – and not necessarily buy it.

It was a very strange moment of feeling a bit slighted. Like “she’s just not that into you.” It’s not the shirt, or the hair – she’s just not that into you. And that’s the overall feeling that I’m starting to get. It’s not the books, it’s not the company – fans are just cherry picking their faves and sticking with those.

Personally we see creator as opposed to brand loyalty as not necessarily a negative, but anyway, more weigh-ins:

Tom Spurgeon:

As a result, any industry observer making any observation along these line opened them up to derision and charges of player-hating (sorry, but I think it’s the closest term) from people whose advocacy for and support of manga seemed to depend on an emotional investment in the publishing success of that expression of comics to equal that of American comics fans and that group’s joy in the superhero movies and TV shows and whatnot. So I think this blog post provides the notion of a potentially limited manga readership a bit of legitimacy it didn’t have before, and it’s good to have the idea on the table.

Simon Jones with his usual splash of cold water:

This may sound cold-hearted, but all the recent focus on American manga publishers, and attempts to extrapolate their health to the manga medium overall, smacks of unjustified self-importance. Sure, the US market has become financially important for Japanese publishers, but we’re still just a line item on their quarterly earnings report. When have we, the US market, ever really driven crucial development of manga itself?

John Jakala‘s weigh-in is lengthy and wide-ranging:

1. Yeah, I joke about the lousy taste of teenagers, and I wish everyone read what I read (or at least enough people to keep my favorite series from getting cancelled), but it doesn’t really surprise me to learn that fans who were drawn into manga and/or anime fandom by a particular series or two might not stick around when the works that captured their imagination in a particular way ended or failed to hold their interest anymore. I doubt all of the rabid fans who simply couldn’t get enough Harry Potter turned to other series to fill the void left in their lives by the end of that popular saga.

David Welsh looks to the motherland:

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.

We’re somewhere in the middle on all this. When was literary ever mainstream? Is Haruki Murakami the most popular author in Japan? Who sells more, Margaret Atwood or Nora Roberts? True, Tezuka was the most popular manga-ka of his day, but would his later books have made him so?

I personally think expecting otaku who dress up as Goth Lolita or Hellsing to suddenly develop sophisticated literary tastes is unrealistic. However, we are always surprised that such gross-out masters as Umezu aren’t more popular among regular comics fans. If anything would cross the line between pop and literature, J-horror would fit the bill.

It’s worth remembering that a lot of movie viewers won’t go see foreign films on principle, even if it’s SEVEN SAMURAI. There are a lot of cultural divides to be crossed here and having realistic expectations is key to the process.


  1. Great roundup, Heidi.

    Have to be take your bait and respond that, yes, Haruki Murakami has been the most popular author in Japan. Norwegian Wood was a publishing phenomenon (especially with young women), the popularity of which left the author snubbed by the “serious lit” community for years. His #1 status has been surpassed, but he’s still very much popular art.

  2. I seem to recall reading that Murakami had to leave the country after Norwegian Wood because his popularity was making his life unbearable. But that doesn’t invalidate the general point; some people write as if “growing up” from, say, Naruto to, say, The Push Man was a normal process, but I don’t see most prose readers making that kind of progression. (If it is a progression and not merely a change.)

  3. Manga’s inversely proportioned popularity::literary acumen is no different from American publishing, but one key characteristic of the market for Japanese content is that die-hard American fans can find much more manga in original Japanese, VERY EASILY. For the hard-core Taiyo Matsumoto fan, it’s so much more satisfying to buy an original Japanese copy and talk about it online than to wait YEARS for its American adaptation.

    Case in point: Though I love Kinokuniya, it’s unfathomable that any other non-English bookstore could keep up with midtown rents when something like Coliseum couldn’t (maybe Spanish…maybe). It’s the double-edged sword of our fascination with things “authentically” Japanese. And so what if Kodansha has their own people doing American work? It may be cannibalizing some of the already small market, but that manga fan looking for some ephemeral literary masterpiece is not going to wait around.

    Trust me, an ex-Vertical-marketer knows.

    And so it makes sense that “low brow” manga sells via branding and translation — younger readers want the narratives (can’t blame ’em). “High brow” stuff is selling via Kinokuniya in original Japanese because “more mature” readers want the experience, even if only through the lens of a year of beginner’s Japanese or a year abroad on the JET program.

    And when all else fails you can get the T-shirt at Uniqlo.

  4. I don’t know…. I mean, I know everyone thinks I miss the point, but what the Hell is wrong with manga being popular with kids and only kids??? Who cares? Anime-franchised manga is selling by the boatload and no American comic can even touch it.

    I guess to me, all this just reads like sour grapes. “The kids aren’t buying our American comic books! This is terrible! Kids must be stupid!”

    To any American comic book creator – the gauntlet has been thrown. Either man up – or woman up – or give up and go get a different job.

    A buddy of mine was talking about this – not everyone gets to do their dream job. Like I wanted to be – Hell, I still want to be – an astronaut. But I’m not whining that there’s other people being successful astronauts and I’m not one of them. Instead, I tried other things and found stuff I like just as much.

  5. My impression is that kids get caught up in the novelty of manga and anime early on and then become bored with it and move on,…to Metal Gear Solid.
    By the way,…what’s the story on American comics in Japan? Do they sell there? Are there Japanese publishers doing reprints or whatever of U.S. comics? I’ve seen manga versions of Spider-Man and Star Wars,…but, those were adaptations,…especially the Spider-Man stuff. What about reprinted translations with the original western art? Does that happen over there? I’d be interested to hear something about that.

  6. No one is saying that manga for kids are bad, they are saying that this narrow focus on kiddy big eyed shallow manga is as bad as the narrow focus on superheroes for boys in Western comics.

    It devalues the art form and doesn’t allow the medium and industry to grow.

    Poor Jeff Smith doesn’t seem to have failed to make a Western comic for kids, so it’s been done and all that, even by whiny Western creators who want to do their dream jobs while not deserving the privilege.

    He’s sold millions, by the way, and so have many other Western comics, in case you don’t know…and apparently, you don’t.

    It is disappointing that none of the mature manga are catching on with manga fans in the US, no matter what age they are. I guess those mature manga artists need to man up and go get different jobs!

    I am disappointed because none of the josei manga I enjoy are doing well, and it is unlikely many more will be translated at this rate. They don’t sell. As a manga fan, that is bad news to me, even if you don’t care and don’t think anyone else should.

    Who cares?

    People who care about the medium do.

    And you’re right, yes, everyone thinks you miss the point.

  7. @Steve: As far as I know, there is no or almost no western comics material available in Japan. I once talked to Stan Sakai, who told me, that not even “Usagi Yojimbo” has ever been published there.

    Besides … most of the Japanese manga reader are teens. According to this statistic – “How many manga do you read per month?”:

    Older Teenager: 2.4

    20-30 Years: 1.1

    30-40 Years: 0.4

    40-50 Years: 0.3

    50-60 Years: 0.1

    60-70 Years: –

    > 70 Years: –

    (Source: Japanese Book News Spring 1996)

    While those numbers aren’t new and can be criticized for this, they show an overall trend for manga as mostly youth culture even in Japan. If anybody has newer numbers, I’d be grateful.

  8. A question I really have to ask is why is that manga will forever be a mostly teen/YA adult based audience such a bad thing? I mean, it’d be nice if more stuff for older audiences came out. Or even just some older stuff that’s important to the medium. But as long as it doesn’t get trapped pursuing that same aging fanboy audience as american comics have lumbered itself with, why exactly is it an issue?