I tend to avoid bookstores these days – not because I’m opposed to them in any way; quite to the contrary, I have a ravenous book-owning addiction, and I prefer to remove temptation when possible. But this past Thursday was my birthday, and I decided that it was acceptable for me to go ahead and treat myself with a visit to Barnes & Noble. Not knowing quite where to start, I headed over to the manga/graphic novel section in the hopes that I could find some new material to write about for this column. Boy did I ever.
Before going too in-depth here, I have to extend an apology to those of you who have been leaving me comments along the lines of, “I had no idea that manga like this existed!” I have been assuming that you are all just not paying enough attention, but the fact of the matter is that I’m the one who hasn’t been alert enough to the kind of work that is currently being licensed in the United States. The selection I found at Barnes & Noble was absolutely abysmal. There were, naturally, the popular big-name series…and then a whole bunch of series that look as though they’re trying desperately to be the popular big-name series and grab a little bit of that success. I could easily cry out, “What are the publishers thinking?!” but the fact is that I already know: Things that are popular sell, therefore things that appear similar to popular things will also sell.
Flipping through the pages of the manga on the shelves, I was horrified at the lack of attention given to the page layouts, backgrounds, and gradients – to say nothing of the contrived plots. All the art looked like it was cranked out of the same manga-machine, it was so static and boring and cookie-cutter. And it occurred to me that this is what people are thinking of when I talk about anime. Meanwhile, across the aisle, the Western comics display a myriad of different styles of art and story. What’s up with that?
I understand that children are a really lucrative demographic – they always have been. But at the rise of anime’s popularity in the West were children who have since grown considerably, and who yearn to find new titles that can appeal to their more mature sensibilities – while still being able to revisit their childhood favorites should they choose. As a lover of manga as an artform and a mode of storytelling, I’m feeling alienated. And it goes without saying that publishers are perpetuating the idea that comic books and cartoons are meant for kids, and that adults couldn’t possibly be interested in such a simplified medium.
Needless to say, I didn’t buy myself any new manga. But I did buy a copy of Otaku USA magazine, and I’m rather left to wonder if the lack of diverse material in the manga section of the bookstore is solely the fault of publishers in the West, or if it’s more likely the fact that there’s really nothing that innovative coming out of Japan right now. The feature article in Otaku USA for the month of April concerns the classic series One Piece. Apparently, there’s a new One Piece movie which recently hit theatres in Japan, totally obliterating The Hobbit at the box office. Very impressive. But guys, One Piece was first serialized in Shonen Jump in 1997. The series is fifteen years old. I don’t begrudge the series its success, but I’m concerned that a major anime news magazine can only find a fifteen year old series to discuss as a featured article; the new movie hasn’t come to the States yet, so the feature is just an overview of the last decade and a half! The last copy of Otaku USA that I purchased featured InuYasha, a series which started in 1996 – and concluded in 2008.
I’ve read articles that are concerned about the manga industry in Japan not being able to keep up in the digital age (which is somewhat ironic, considering that Japan has regularly been at the forefront where technology is concerned). Manga that haven’t been licensed in the States are available on various websites, translated by fans and free to read. When everything is so readily available, why would people put out the handful of yen it costs to buy the chunky weekly copy of Shonen Jump that includes manga they don’t necessarily want to read? And to be fair, I suppose this is happening in the general publishing industry in the United States, as well; the ubiquity of quality work available for free has made it so that too many people feel entitled to consume goods without paying.
Is the quality of what’s being published affected by this desire for cheap material? How can we make a push for more variety in manga in the West? Like the Japanese, Americans are huge consumers on the whole – an ideal market for any type of serial media. But as long as the content appeals chiefly to children, the market is going to remain at more or less the same level.
Comic books are big in the States right now, what with all the blockbuster hits being produced in Hollywood. The same people who are seeking out the newest issue of Batman might be potentially interested in a hard-boiled noir manga (they exist!), but when they glance across the aisle, they see one of two things: 1. That silly show their eleven-year-old nephew won’t shut up about; or 2. Girls with oddly-colored hair and absurdly be-ribboned dresses gazing up with sparkling blue eyes. Shonen and shojo manga are absolutely awesome – but they are by no means the be all and end all of what manga has to offer.
So I just ask that readers not be discouraged by what they see lining the shelves at their nearest book retailer. I’m not lying when I tell you that there’s great depth and breadth in the medium of manga. Right now, however, it takes a lot of digging to find just what you’re looking for – which I hope changes soon, as methods of producing manga progress with the rest of technology.