Why manga is not going to “save” comics

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You almost can’t have a discussion about the state of comics in Britain or the USA without somebody piping up with something along the lines of the following:

“The weekly anthology format is dead, manga, on the other hand…”

“US comics are all superheroes. It’s not like manga, which…”

“Comics have lost their way. The kids are all reading manga, so…”

And so on. If you ask me there’s a great deal of nonsense talked about how manga is some sort of magic potion that will put British comics back on their feet. After all it works in Japan doesn’t it? And just look at those shelves creaking under the weight of so many of those paperback sized volumes! Remember when the corner shop had that many comics in the seventies?

Let’s begin by looking at the format of those paperback sized books. Apparently “kids love that chunky format” and anyway “the weekly anthology comic is dead”. Well in Japan the nearest equivalent of “that chunky format” are books called Tankobon.

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They’re a tiny bit smaller and have pointless dust jackets that keep springing off.

Tankobon are what the US comic fans would probably irritatingly call “trades”. IE they are collections of a number of chapters of one story. Ever notice how the end of every chapter of a manga book contains some cliffhanger or major plot revelation?

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Read right to left, by the way!

Why would they go putting a cliffhanger in the middle of a book? Because the stories were not originally published in this way. They were originally published, one chapter at a time… in a weekly anthology.

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You wouldn’t want to bind a year’s worth of these.

I had a book at one point that said “manga” “in total” sells 5 million copies “an issue”, but there is also monthly anthologies as well. On the other hand Wikipedia says that Shonen Jump, the most popular of the weekly anthologies has a circulation of 2.8 million. That’s the best-ever selling issue of The Beano (1950) plus the best-ever selling issue of Viz (1991?) and then a few hundred thousand more. Weekly anthologies are dead? It’s all a matter of perspective!

According to Bakuman, which I should think gets the technical details of the manga industry right amid the expected dramatic licence, reader surveys are everything to the editors in Japan. An unpopular series will be ruthlessly dropped whilst a big hit will run and run, even to the point of silly artificial extensions to the story. Britain dropped that sort of thing in the 1840’s! Of course only a popular series will make it to Tankobon format, and only the most popular of those will ever escape Japan. Nearly all the Japanese-originated manga on the shelves in Britain is only there because people bought it in a weekly anthology – in their millions.

But, you say, that is Japan! Kids and casual readers in Britain today aren’t after serial stories that they have to remember to buy every week. The days of title-loyalty are gone, today people want something they can buy the odd issue of – ideally something that has a complete story in it. Why can’t British comics do more of that? Why cant…

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…oh, yeah. Those.

Yes, those. Remind me again how many pocket libraries are still going?

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(NB: Actually two pocket story papers are also still going – but they’re aimed at old women and so I don’t own any!)

 Of course, part of the popularity of manga is it’s style… or is it? What is “manga style”? Big eyes and pointy chins?

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Like this, yeah?

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And this is textbook

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And that’s pretty typical too

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And, wait… they don’t all have big eyes.

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Neither do they!

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“Small eye syndrome” makes it’s way into the most popular series!

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Chins aren’t always pointy…

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This could be Corporal Clott!

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If there was no text in this picture would you even call it manga style at all?

All of those are pictures from my own collection, which is not exactly huge by any standards. And I’ve only stuck to ones originated in Japan and not taken anything from the UK small press!

The fact is claiming there is a “manga style” is as absurd as claiming there is “British style”, “American style” or “European style”. Reading comics is as popular in places such as France and Belgium as it is in Japan, yet when was the last time you heard anybody saying Ligne claire was going to save British comics?

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Though Ligne claire Hurricanes have saved Britain.

I would suspect many of the people claiming that “manga” is some sort of miracle cure that will put British/US comics back on their feet are working with this equation in mind:

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I don’t know about the USA, But surely us Britons ought to know better than that? Does this terrible ebay auction composite image I’ve knocked together ring any bells?

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It didn’t work for them!

“Ah” you say, “what about Scott Pilgrim?”. Well every rule has it’s exceptions, and the Viz ripoffs very nearly had their own exception in the shape of Oink! (ironically it lacked both the swear words and vicious social satire that made Viz so popular, but that’s because it wasn’t just a cynical copy!). Oink! only failed because of prudish 1980’s WH Smith staff putting it on the top shelf. The rest of the cynical “if it worked for them it’ll work for us!” publications, however, collapsed because they were simply poor copies cashing it in – and the readers knew it!

Another commonly heard view, primarily relating to US comics, is that they’re “all about superheroes”. Manga on the other runs over a huge range of genres – including wizard battles, basketball, romantic comedy, political tirades, war, noir, space adventures and even creating manga. And that’s just my own collection! And so, runs the argument, “doing manga” will introduce a range of new genres and bring in new readers.

what?

To say US comics are “all superheroes” is like saying British comics are “all slapstick and WW2”.

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And current affairs, obviously.

The mainstream titles available in ordinary shops now might be, but it was not always like that – and need not be like that again! British comics of the past encompassed a vast range of genres including detectives, football, nurses, romance, schools (boarding to secondary modern), horror, spies, horse riding, sailing… Even sprinting got a look in! There are many reasons why we aren’t seeing the launch of new and varied comics – but “they’re not paperback sized and full of screentoning” is not one of them!

And even if it was, would it really help? Imagine a company that took it upon themselves to licence translations of Japanese manga, and at the same time commission hundreds of new local titles in the same format and style. If “manga is going to save comics” was really true, that company would be raking it in wouldn’t they?

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Pictured: This is not what “raking it in” looks like.

The fact of the matter is that sales of all periodicals are falling. Comics, newspapers, car magazines, music magazines. All of them.

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Pictured: Publications that are in trouble

In the end, manga is not some magic potion that the British comics industry is going to take and suddenly everything will be alright. The reason comic readership in this country is so low and so high in other countries is simply down to the culture. Publishing and retailing are businesses, and they are only going to take on things that will make them money.

In countries such as Japan and France comics are part of mainstream culture and are read by a huge cross-section of society. Any publisher who shut the door on the idea of starting a comic, or a shop who tried to prevent a new comic from being sold by charging ridiculous shelf rental prices, would be committing suicide. But simply copying the format and style of the comics in those countries (though there is a place for both!) is not going to help a great deal.

So what will save British comics? What will create a new generation of avid readers? What will turn people who haven’t touched a comic in 20 years to have another go and be pleasantly surprised?

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One of these is a start

That’s right – you! Do you work with anybody who has young children? Ask them “when are you starting them on The Beano?”. Know anybody who is off to see the latest Green Lantern film? Remark “of course, the comic is better”. In fact, when somebody says they are off to see the latest Harry Potter you could always slip in “Who needs Harry Potter, I’ve got Billy Bunter!” – you never know XD.

The publishers won’t touch comics if they aren’t popular, the retailers won’t stock comics if they aren’t popular. So let’s make them popular. Success won’t be won by idle expectation, we need to be Alan Sugars and not scratchcard addicts!

 

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