Why Manga Is Eating Comic Books’ Lunch

One of the things that comic book fans have been complaining about for the last ten years has been how comic books-specifically the “top two” comic book companies (DC and Marvel) have not been selling like they did in the 1990’s. Or even how Disney and Warner Brothers claim they’ve been selling. 

The issue has been that it’s very difficult to see direct sales numbers for comic books, because of how they’re sold. There are some very tricky reasons why, but the biggest one is that comic books are sold in a way similar to cars. They aren’t sold to the consumer, through a dealership or comic bookstore. They’re-for all intents and purposes-leased and the comic bookstore or dealership handles the sale…but the comic book company or the car company counts that lease as a sale. 

However…there’s been a lot of anecdotal reports from comic bookstores about bad sales numbers. Especially when you have to sell to the collectors, who want the rare variant covers and the #1 edition copies (which have the highest resale and collector’s values). This means that Marvel and DC have been able to persuade comic bookstores to buy large quantities of comic books that they normally wouldn’t buy, to get the variant covers and books that they wanted to sell.

(Seriously, if you’re wondering how Captain Marvel—who even at the best of times until her movie had been announced was a C-tier superhero—suddenly became a “best-selling Marvel character,” there were rumors. The one I believe the most was “if you want the current popular books and variants that your collectors will buy, you need to buy a certain number of Captain Marvel and Ms Marvel books on spec.”)

And this doesn’t even include things like ideological capture of the entertainment industry, writing staff with…dubious qualifications to write anything, artists who’s “art” should have been caught by the editorial staff…and the list goes on from here of the various issues that the comic book industry has been having.

But, if you’re willing to look and look hard, you can find some relatively accurate sales numbers…and it’s bad for Western comic book makers. When we see the number of the top ten comic book and graphic novel books out there, Marvel and DC combined barely make into the top five. And the top four companies on the list are Japanese manga companies.

Over the last few years, manga has been doing exceptionally well. Long-running series like One Piece, Naruto, My Hero Academia, and such have been selling very well. Many popular titles are on back-order in the US, because they can’t print them fast enough to sell. One particular tankobon of One Piece outsold the entire American comic book industry in one year. Even smaller series (when there aren’t “translation issues”) are doing relatively well-and much better than most Western comic books and graphic novels.

(The exception, according to the people that know-librarians and people who actually work in bookstores-are the “fun” YA stories like Dog Man, Baby Sitters Club, and such. The “woke” YA graphic novels just sit on the shelves, while manga has back-orders and is checked out the moment it’s put on the shelves after being returned.)

So, why is manga doing so well? There’s a lot of reasons, but the five big ones that I can see as a writer and fan of graphical art are obvious to me. They’re so obvious that you wonder why other people can’t see them. These five reasons are-

There’s Something For Everyone

Almost everyone when you say “American Comic Books” instantly thinks of one genre-superheroes. This wasn’t always the case-in the 1950’s and 1960’s there were several major lines of comics that covered everything from westerns to science fiction to horror. However, as time went on…superhero comics pushed out most of the other comic genres in the United States and other places.

Manga, on the other hand, has a lot of variety. You have everything from superhero comics to action/adventure stories to romantic comedies to horror stories. If there is a genre, there is a manga out there…somewhere. Even somewhat esoteric concepts and ideas have at least one or two series for fans to find. While this means you will get some series that should never be made…but somehow do manage some success. A little.

And, for a creator, isn’t that what we want? Some success of some kind?

It Doesn’t Pander

It might be more accurate to say that manga doesn’t pander to many of the things that people hate about most Western comic books. Many of the heroic characters are actually heroic. Most of the villains are terrible people. The action is often good, with few compromises. And-with few exceptions-the plot makes sense and even sudden twists at the end are made clear through what there was in the rest of the story.

Most manga makes you feel like the money you spent was worth it for a final product that you can enjoy.

It’s Actually Fun To Read

For the most part, that’s what is missing in most Western comic books these days. They’re like the books you had to read in school, because they were Great Works of Literature and the concept of reading something that was actually fun was forbidden. 

Wrong. 

Evil.

Most manga is fun. It’s enjoyable to read and the stories might not be Great Works of Literature…but they’re fun to read. You don’t feel like you have to put on hip-waders to try and slog your way through knee-high adjectives. That’s what a lot of people want when they read for fun-something that is fun to read.

It Doesn’t Outstay Its Welcome

One of the biggest problems with Western comic books and especially superhero comic books is where do you start if you’re interested in the stories. Just about every major comic book character has a history that has lasted nearly fifty or more years. Keeping track of the continuity of even one character like Batman or Captain America is a full-time job. Even more modern characters tend to have long histories in one form or another.

And anyone that can explain the main X-Men continuity without at least two infographics and a half-hour PowerPoint presentation is someone that you shouldn’t lend cash to.

Most manga series tend to have a certain brevity (the exceptions tend to be exceptions and tend to drag on for a while…). They have a defined start and ending point, so you know where the story begins and ends. And series that aren’t very popular tend to be wound up rather quickly or canceled, so you don’t have to worry that you’ve missed out on something. There’s no Fear Of Missing Out that you get from most Western comics.

There’s A Clear Pipeline For Further Products and Materials

Let’s explain something-it often isn’t the original product that makes the money, but the secondary materials that come from the original production. For example, George Lucas made his nut not just because of how well Star Wars (Episode IV) did, but because he was willing to make less money all around…except for the merchandising rights. And those merchandising rights made at least a hundred times as much-and consistently for the most part-money than the movies did.

The Japanese manga market has a clear vertical marketing system that has a lot of experience in turning semi-popular manga series into popular anime, live-action movies, visual novels, light novels, video games, toys and figurines, adult dōjinshi, cosplay to be worn at Comiket

You can argue about how this eats into the “purity” of productions if you’re having to think about how to make your series toyetic (i.e. able to sell toys when making Saturday morning cartoons), and you might be right. But if the toy line is paying your salaries and gives you money to try some more “artistic” creations…isn’t that a good thing?

And, for the fans of manga, it’s like having your good taste and good values rewarded. If the series you love now has a full cour, with the second season coming out, and maybe even a live action movie…it means you were right about something. And feeling right is a wonderful thing, especially when so little does feel right.

Conclusion

Manga has succeeded because when it works, it keeps the audience interested. If the audience is interested, they buy manga compilations, tankobons, toys, the eventual anime series coming out in a few months, resin figurines…and that money eventually gets reinvested in making more manga.

Comic books, especially American ones from the Big Five publishers, don’t kindle that same kind of desire. They don’t have the institutions that can quickly turn a popular new comic book into a whole lot of other media products and things to entertain people. And there’s this continual feeling of hedonic adaptation, that there is nothing really new under the sun. One can argue that we’ve seen the same kind of stories from manga on a regular basis…but it’s like coffee. We know what we’re getting (for the most part) when we get coffee, but it’s the variations on the theme that keep us interested.

So, now that we know what the problems are with Western comic books and how Japanese manga gets around them, what do we do to solve this problem?

That’s what we’ll talk about next week, so…same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s