Why We Like Manga

Via Mangablog, I discovered today a very nicely done post about why manga has taken off, and perhaps more sadly, why U.S. comics are not catching on. The author works in a comics store, and so has a lot of backup from anecdotal and sales evidence.

Now, I heartily agree with most everything halifax_slasher has to say. It’s a trend I’ve observed in my own library, especially as I noticed in recent circulation stats that manga makes up a whopping 70% of the circulation in my teen graphic novel section. And that count includes what gets pulled off the shelf and read (rather than actually taken home.)

Despite the fact that I have been, in recent years, a pretty rabid manga fan, that does not mean I do not still love all graphic novels. I sincerely hope that someday, everything will just be comics, and that having a good story will matter more than where it comes from.

That being said, I want to add my voice to a few of halifax_slasher‘s points that I think bear repeating and discussion.

To the “satisfying chunk” idea: the idea that manga is read more because you get a sizeable chunk of the story in your paperback rather than the tiny bit of story you get in reading it from a comic book.

I certainly agree with this idea — but it’s also interesting to notice the simple shift away from the direct market (i.e. comics stores and thus comics books) to the reader market (bookstores, and by extension, libraries.) I don’t read comic books, and didn’t get any satisfaction out of them when I did for precisely the above reason — there wasn’t enough story in there to tide me over until the next installment came out.

I do read graphic novels and TPBs — so when I get the latest Gotham Central or Fables, I get a whole chunk of story. I’m perfectly happy to wait for it to get published in book format. I think more and more comics readers are thinking this way, and thus the industry at large might think about how to do this. DC has already gotten started with this with their new Minx line (all snarkiness about the name aside). Perhaps the time has come to really acknowledge the shift away from the collector market and go after the reader market as it’s forming.

Also, one thing I think that’s been interesting to watch is the strange attempts of the U.S. industry to capitalize on manga’s popularity. It’s odd to me that it took so long for the industry to realize that it isn’t all about the style (which lead to far too many unfortunate manga-style comics that were too terrible to even mention) and it isn’t about the size so much either (just because it’s a small, stout paperback does not mean the manga readers will automatically pick it up, especially if it’s just a superhero story repackaged so it’s muddy looking and too tiny to read.) It’s the stories manga tells.

The reason, for example, that Runaways has done so well, I would argue, is not because of it’s trim size, but because it’s a damned good story. The trim size makes the colors murky and the text quite hard to read. The other titles of that size don’t go out in my library because of their size — if they’re not well-told, they sit on the shelf as much as anything else crappy.

So please, comics industry folks? Get it into your heads that manga works more because of the stories than anything else.
halifax_slasher also talks a bit about the idea that girls read manga, but girls don’t read comics. I don’t really want to quibble with the point that girls do read comics — while they do, they don’t en masse in the way that guys have and still do.

What he never quite articulates (and perhaps doesn’t feel he needs to) is something I feel is vital: manga actually has comics girls want to read. Girls want to read manga ’cause, well, for too long there’s been very few comics aimed at girls here in the U.S.

This is further elucidated when he talks about the appeal of the sex/romance aspect of manga. Manga tends to acknowledge sex and sexual desire more bluntly than U.S. comics, and in some ways this is refreshing. As he points out, U.S. comics have also been about sex for a long time, given female superheroes pin-up poses and costumes. What isn’t quite said, though, is again a point I’ve made a few times in my own presentations: while U.S. comics are about sex, they are about sex for a male audience. Not for a female audience, or any audience that finds men attractive rather than women. Batman is not in a pin up pose, nor do we get extraneous close-ups of his butt or package, nor is he in his underwear for the benefit of ogling. I’m not sure I want to see that — for one thing, it’s entirely out of character — but then again, why is it considered in character for all the female superheroes who’s attitudes and brains are much more akin to Batman’s than a femme fatale?

I remember distinctly a few years back speaking with librarians and industry folks about the prevalence of pin-ups featuring female characters, especially in series that I had once enjoyed but now found difficult to read (i.e. Birds of Prey) precisely because of the art. I love some the strong, smart, and kick-butt female characters that are in superhero comics — except for the way they’re all too often drawn. You can’t tell me how feminist and forward-thinking it is to have Black Canary, for example, and then show me a comic full of breast and butt close-ups on every page.

It doesn’t work, and it isn’t helping the lack of more female comics characters, not to mention female writers, artists, and industry folks in general. The very fact that people will start rattling off the names of the women in the industry is disappointing — there needs to so many that you can’t name them all. There needs to be so many that you can’t make a list of women in the industry in the same way that it would be ludicrous to make a list of men in the industry because, really, there would be too many to make it worth it.

In a way, I admire Japanese manga for at least being equal opportunity — since they’ve acknowledged that women make up half the population and thus are reasonable to target as a market, they’ve also gone that extra step and acknowledged that, wonder of wonders, girls like ogling pretty boys as much as boys like ogling pretty girls. Otherwise shojo manga would not be quite so full of pretty boys as it is.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if we must have objectification, at least have it be equal opportunity.

To end on a slightly up note, I’m glad to see that both bookstores and librarires have become places for kids and teens to discover comics — much like the dime stores and grocery stores of old. When I grew up I never saw a comic book anywhere. No one gave me one, though I took cartooning classes and I wanted to be a Disney animator. I read comics strips, sure, and those I had in books, but comic books were nowhere. I’m glad today kids are seeing them in their local bookstores and libraries — it means to discover a different way of telling a story no longer means you have to have a comics fan in your life to take you to the comics store.

Comics are becoming a larger part of culture, a more ordinary part of culture, and the kids and teens that are growing up with comics today are not going to give up on them. So there’s hope for the future.

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  • http://www.yaytime.com dave roman

    Really great points!

    • RobinB

      Thanks! ^-^

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  • Jen Webb

    Right on, my friend. I think the comics industry is going to have to change to survive. They need to shake off the cobwebs of the collectible comic book model and get back to the *stories*. You can tell a great story serially, but the U.S. comics industry often gets so distracted by visuals that they forget about the storytelling. Hence the assumption that anything with big eyes and small pages will sell.

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  • http://iagainstcomics.blogspot.com/ Joel

    Right! Those are all excellent points. I think there are enough readers for manga and western-style comics… but a lot of them aren’t reading comics at all these days.

    What DC and Marvel need to do to get to these people is get back to making quality stories with art that doesn’t rely on exaggerated “sexiness.” That’s been the model of success since the mid-90s and with declining sales, it’s run its course. And they still do it, being clueless, insular and incestuous.

    The stories. That’s what’s important. Not massive events or skimpy outfits.

    I think they take the most superficial aspects of manga only.

    • RobinB

      It’s like any good medium, really. It should always be about the story, whether it’s a TV show, or film, or book, or graphic novel, or 4 panel comic strip.

      And, of course, manga has its own pitfalls, and is no less prone to its own pin-up-ness. There’s just so much more of it that it’s easier to pick and choose and avoid what you want to.

      DC is making a good step in the right direction with P.L.A.I.N. Janes. Still, for me the point is — while I admire the coolness of this new title, I still find it annoying and/or worrisome that there’s still little done to have a P.L.A.I.N. Jane-type character in the stuff they already do — i.e. superhero comics. Where are my spunky, lanky, flat-chested, goofy female superheroines? I ask you.

  • http://iagainstcomics.blogspot.com/ Joel

    I’m with you Robin!

  • Karakuri

    Thank you so much for saying this. I’ve thought these things all the years I’ve been into manga and I found it curiously unsaid among the manga fans (or ANY fans) I knew. People just didn’t seem to notice the lack of an expected female gaze in western pop culture. This difference, though, is to be expected as the majority of manga has been made by women. Manga, being a cheap medium, is more accessible to women, who aren’t likely in powerful positions in the entertainment industry, and can get a lot of readers at comic events just by self publishing. Another difference is the lower degree of homophobia in Japan, maybe due to religious reasons, and men aren’t as afraid of acting “feminine” as men in the west. And girls, from my experience, find these sorts of men far more attractive than hypermasculine ones.