Can online comics save manga?

Jason Thompson has one thing to say, “Manga publishing is dying.”

Well… more than one thing. The other part of that is that manga is alive and well… in digital format. His article on io9 zeroes in to the main ailments plaguing the modern manga industry, and it’s potential salvation in the digital world. A few excerpts:

Manga sales in America have dropped 43% since 2007, an even bigger drop than domestically produced comics and graphic novels, suggesting that more than the bad economy is to blame. A few doomsayers like Toren Smith had claimed for years that the market was headed for a bust since publishers were glutting the market with too much junk.

But the problem isn’t just about fickle Americans — the Japanese manga market is hurting too. Sales of manga magazines, the traditional delivery medium for manga in Japan, peaked in 1995, and have been falling ever since. Graphic novel sales remained steady longer, but have also declined.

Manga is hurting the way that all print media is hurting — but in some ways it’s worse, because manga is ill-equipped to adapt to New Media. Like American comic books, manga started out as cheap entertainment for kids, but while American comics faced their dwindling readership by turning into an adult collector’s item with color, thicker paper and higher production values, manga magazines (and to a lesser extent, graphic novel collections) still use cheap ink and cheap paper to cram in as much pages-per-yen value possible.

This makes them an anachronism in an era where newspapers, phonebooks and pretty much any disposable printed media seem inconvenient at best, and environmentally irresponsible at worst. No matter how cheap you make it, you can’t get people excited about grimy newsprint anymore: in 2007 the Japanese company Digima founded the first free weekly manga magazine, Comic Gumbo, which they hoped would be funded by advertising, product placement and graphic novel sales. But like free weekly newspapers everywhere, they discovered it was hard even getting readers to pick them up, and both company and magazine went out of business after 48 issues.

And yet, manga is still popular: it’s just all being pirated online. A Google search for “manga” returns seven “scanlation” aggregators and zero manga publishers in the top ten, while searches for “comics,” “books” and “graphic novels” turn up stores and publisher sites, and even a search for “anime” turns up mostly legitimate sites, apparently thanks to FUNimation’s aggressive use of DMCA Cease & Decist notices.

The truth they don’t want you to know, perhaps, is that publishers are unnecessary; Japanese self-publishing is booming. The traditional model of manga success, as promoted in Bakuman, is all about getting picked up by a big publisher and enduring harsh hazing and having your manga ripped up by your editor in front of you to teach you humility and so on. (What do you expect a manga in Shonen Jump to say?)

But the Japanese market for dojinshi (self-published manga) has grown massively over the last 20 years, even while the mainstream has stagnated, and although most dojinshi is porn, there are also big original hits like Onani Master Kurosawa, which started out as a not-quite-Death Note parody with lots of (off-panel) masturbation, but became so popular it’s been adapted into a voice drama.

And self-published online comics are starting to become hits and get turned into anime, such as Kyo no Nekomura-san, Boku Otaryman, Tonari no 801-chan, and of course the most successful of them all, the megahit Hetalia.

Some digital artists have even produced their own international editions, such as Yoshitoshi Abe’s iPhone and Kindle manga and the digital manga magazines/collectives Gen Manga and Comic Loud.

Though of course time spent self-promoting and talking to readers is time away from the drawing board, artists who publish their own stuff are probably going to have more street cred and have less problems with piracy, as opposed to the traditional big-publisher model of secretive artists guarded by their publishers and working in isolation from their fans.

As digital media inevitably takes over, the two big questions are (1) whether the big publishers will survive, and (2) what essential “manga-ness” will survive in manga itself. Perhaps the expectation of free content online will mean that publishers spend even more time courting licensing opportunities, like with Broken Blade, an anime based on a manga from Flex Comix’s online magazine Comic Blood.

But digitization definitely empowers individual creators, even as the digital format pressures changes to the detailed B&W artwork and long-running melodramatic narratives that produced manga’s Golden Age. Still, maybe the future won’t be so different after all; the dominance of scanlations does show that there’s a huge audience for poorly scanned, low-res JPEGs of B&W art designed for print. The manga market is still much bigger than the American comic and graphic novel market, so don’t count it out yet. While One Piece, Bleach and Naruto stagger along on their creaky geriatric legs, new manga are waiting to step out of their shadows.


Posted on January 24, 2012, in The Webcomic Overlook. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I think he’s spot on. Self digital publishing is where the future is at.

  2. duh of course there was a decline in 1995 that year dragon ball ended,
    from oricon and anime newss network..
    “The market research firm Oricon reported on Tuesday that Japan’s comic (manga) sales totaled 271.71 billion yen (about US$3.533 billion) during the 2011 fiscal year. About 503.61 million copies of comics sold in Japan last year, and that was 99.0 percent of the total from 2010.

    Despite selling fewer copies, the total revenue from comic sales did increase from the year before. In 2010, the total revenue from comic sales was 270.67 billion (about US$3.519 billion) yen, also a small increase from 270.31 billion yen (about US$3.515 billion) in 2009.

    In 2011, the top-selling manga by series in Japan were One Piece (37,996,373 copies), Naruto (6,874,840 copies), and Blue Exorcist (5,223,712 copies). Oricon reported that top-selling
    manga by volume were One Piece #61 (3,382,588 copies), One Piece #62 (3,207,568 copies), and One Piece #63 (3,073,175 copies).”

    by the way one piece rocks one of the best manga ever, even if 10 years old is super interesting and still fresh, and since the competition model helps to create new series unlike american that is always spiderman, super man or batman when naruto ends(probably in 2013 since they are already in the final battles) for example toriko is becoming the flagship series in jump and its about food!
    and Remember most of the money comes from licenses video games, animes, luchboxes etc.
    according to bakuman the editor its not there to humillate you he is there to help you to make your manga reach its potential and grow together along with the artist.

    (if I remember well cellphone mangas are the sensation in japan rigth now)

  3. I think saturation and availability is the problem. The market is so saturated with manga that too much crap has been leaked out as well. Most modern manga has a lot of problems and the censorship battles in Japan don’t help either. Not to mention the overpricing of manga volumes. The usual price for a Tokyopop manga is 4 USD and that’s only for about 150 pages, with color pages printed in an ugly blotchy greyscale to save paper. Viz manga is still 9 USD. And it takes a while to translate. Why should I buy volume 1 of Deadman Wonderland when I’ve already read it and I’m up to chapter 45 in scanlations? Its a great manga but I’m not going to reread everything I already know. Most of the manga I buy now are on sale at conventions, not available in regular stores, or special like Osamu Tezuka’s MW or the Book of Human Insects.

  4. I stopped buying Shonen Jump when they stopped printing Bobobo-Bo Bo-Bobo.

    “Why should I buy volume 1 of Deadman Wonderland when I’ve already read it and I’m up to chapter 45 in scanlations?”

    Often official translations are of a much higher quality than scanlations.

    Has there ever been any attempt to really dig into the whole scanlation thing? Because the way I see it, there’s two different kinds of scanlation: stuff that’s being published in America, but not fast or cheap enough for some people, and stuff that isn’t currently being published or licensed in America at all.

    I’m not gonna say I’ve never read pirated versions of stuff that’s been released in America, but I get why that’s wrong. I’ve never heard a case against the stuff that’s not being published in America, though, and I refuse to feel bad for reading it instead of… what? Tracking down an importer who gets rare mangas and then hiring a translator to type something up for me?

    I’m curious what the scanlation demographics are. How much more popular is the licensed stuff then the stuff nobody planned to sell to English speakers anyway? And for that matter, what’s the reaction by publishers to seeing a manga scanlated? Do they say “clearly there’s an audience for this” or do they say, “Well, they’re already getting it for free, so we’ll never be able to sell this”?

    Everything about the comics industry is horrible.

  5. The Internet makes me wonder if manga will just become an online-only interest given the state of the industry. I posted some thoughts at:

    The whole idea of scanlations saving manga would be interesting. I just think Japan is so afraid of globalization because of online piracy. The Internet is still so new to them and part of me thinks they’re afraid because they can’t control it.

    • I think the damage is already done concerning piracy and manga and comic books in general. Even if they shut down every filesharing website, people will still share manga through communications like email, AIM, and MSN. They’ll just go back to the traditional way of sharing files and with online forums of people who are willing to exchange and discuss manga they like but isn’t available, it’ll be a lot easier.

      The biggest problem is what Christopher said: even if you want to go through the legal channels to buy an untranslated manga, its a real pain. You need importers, translators if you yourself don’t speak Japanese…after going through all that trouble why not share it with like minded people? I’ve been scouring the internet for years for a legal way to obtain Tezuka’s rare manga I.L. and Alabastar and they’re only available in French or Japanese, neither of which I speak. The best way to do things is to loosen these ridiculous copyright laws and make things easier to obtain online.

  6. Not scanlations, I should say legal online manga.

  7. It makes sense that print manga sells have gone down while manga is having success in the digital areana. That’s the case with all media.

    And it’s also normal for the big estiblished companies to be slow to make the change because they are still holding onto the model that as worked for them for years, while the small guy who doesn’t have much stake in the print world are more open to digital.

  8. info yang sangat menarik, sepertinya harus dicoba 🙂 , Affleck

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