Thursday, August 31, 2006

Manga or: The future of comic books part 2

Some of you reading yesterday's The future of comic books posting may have noted that Manga was a significant influence on my theory of expanding American comics, so I think I ought to talk about it more directly.

Manga is growing in popularity in the US, as it has many significant advantages in the market. They're generally cheaper and have more pages than the standard US trade paperback. They're also generally sized like a paperback book, portable and easy to carry on the bus, in a desk drawer, in your purse or in a pocket of a full bookbag. These are the reasons I suggested this size and format for the hypothetical Tom Clancy book in the previous posting.

Manga is also widely read by nearly all Japanese, so Manga has a much larger selection in more genres than US comics. This is why they can appeal to many people outside the circle of influence that we have in this country.

The disadvantages are significant as well, however. The obvious foreignness of how people and situations in even the most mundane stories are handled have traditionally been part of the appeal to the people drawn to it. Also, because its market here has traditionally been through comic shops and other geek emporiums, so the selection of what is important and translated in this country still skews heavily toward the same subjects that the 10 percent of US comics mentioned in the previous post do. These things both put a ceiling on their potential readership.

US comics could create comics to use those advantages and avoid the disadvantages. They have been trying, largely half-heartedly, to do so, in fact.

DC Comics has Paradox Press, which has produced books like A History of Violence and Road to Perdition. Oni Press puts out the wonderful Courtney Crumrin books. Strangers in Paradise is coming out in the format now. Dark Horse Comics not only has the amazing Usagi Yojimbo books, but has also reprinted the Sin City books in a format that more closely resembles Manga. Just as some examples that come to me off the top of my head.

CrossGen Comics was working the format rather hard before it collapsed, although it seemed overly tied to its own brand-new shared universe, which I think may have turned off many of the exact people it was created to attract.

Marvel Comics has a line in the format, too, but they seem designed to appeal almost exclusively to their existing audience... or to the next hairline out, the people who their existing audience is trying to draw into reading comics. I've seen nothing in it to attract new readers outside the existing realm of geekdom. They're basically a lighter toned version of the same strategy comics geeks have used for the last decade, hoping Watchmen or Maus would, in their brilliance, convince readers that all comics were somehow as great.

Many of the best books, and likely many more that I've not thought of or even not heard of, are wonderful and could appeal to a broad audience but they're not getting into the face of the exact casual buyers their advantages are designed to appeal to. As I made some suggestion of, the mainstream publishing industry would fall apart without casual buyers. Even to the extent it would exist, it would be a banal specialty market appealing to only a small group or two... just like comics.

The period where comics were at their healthiest, creatively and financially, was immediately after the second World War. GIs became comics fans because comics were packed with easy to read stories, they were highly portable, they were easy to read casually while keeping an ear out for enemies. They came home and continued their habit. The genres that broke out during that time reflect that, the dark inky horror, the war stories, crime titles, westerns.

Fredric Wertham and the Comic Book Code ended up completely destroying that healthy readership, and while there have been peaks since then, the industry has never come close to restoring the kind of vitality it had then.

The potential for those casual readers exists, but someone needs to push. By definition, they'll never come looking for comics. Comics have to jump into their faces and grab them and say, "Read me!"

Unfortunately, the industry is addicted to hedged bets and easy sales, however, so no one has been willing to take the kind of risk it would take to get them out there.

It really could be done, though.

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