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.