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Tuesday, September 28, 2004

U.S. MANGA PUBLISHERS: SCRAPING BOTTOM OR SCRATCHING THE SURFACE?

Once again, we're seeing warnings of an impending manga bust, analogous to the recurring busts in the comics direct sales market (via Christopher Butcher and Fanboy Rampage). Personally, I'd be inclined to bet against it, but my skepticism isn't based on any particular evidence, just my sense that what manga is experiencing now doesn't feel to me like a glut. It certainly has happened in the past that a rapid expansion of a field has led to a flood of poor-quality products, turning off consumers and causing a collapse of the market; one example is paperback "gothics" in the 1960s or 1970s, iirc.

Manga does have one advantage in this respect, though. Usually when a "genre" of popular culture suddenly explodes in popularity (and I know that manga isn't a genre, but bookstores and publishers treat it like one), the only way for publishers to take full advantage of the opportunity is to rapidly crank out as many examples of the genre as possible. Naturally, most of what is cranked out is lousy. But in the case of manga, there is a huge reservoir of material waiting to be licensed.

But, doomsayers might object, U.S. publishers are already scraping the bottom of the barrel! (I've seen this assertion online, though I don't remember where.) This is simply wrong, and in this case I do have evidence. Far from scraping the bottom of the barrel, U.S. publishers have barely scratched the surface. And I'm not even talking about manga of high artistic merit but marginal profitability, the kind I tend to review; I'm talking about "mainstream" series which are popular in Japan, and which there's every reason to think would sell here. People who say U.S. publishers are scraping the bottom of the barrel must have no idea how much just how much manga there is. If you live in New York or San Francisco, it's educational to visit the Kinokuniya bookstores there and just check out the size of the manga sections: the manga section of even the most well-stocked Borders is minuscule in comparison. And at that, those stores presumably only carry titles currently in print in Japan.

For people used to the current shrunken U.S. comics industry, it's hard to grasp just how much manga Japan puts out every year, and has been putting out for decades. Weekly Shounen Jump and Weekly Shounen Magazine each put out around 400 pages of story a week; between them that's enough to fill 200 paperback volumes a year. (Another way of looking at this figure is that either Weekly Shounen Jump alone or Weekly Shounen Magazine alone publishes approximately as many pages of story per month as all of Marvel's 32-page comics put together.) And that's just two magazines; there are dozens of others. Granted, most manga magazines are monthly or semi-monthly, rather than weekly; but even if a magazine only publishes 400 pages of story per month, that's still enough to fill twenty-four paperbacks a year, and many monthly magazines are bigger than that. And, as I said, this has been going on for decades.

To be sure, not everything published in Japan in the past forty years is a suitable candidate for licensing. No doubt even some series that have appeared in Shounen Jump will never be licensed. But my feeling is that the proportion of manga that's "too Japanese" for the U.S. market is much smaller than a lot of people think. After all, a series dealing with a board game virtually unknown in the U.S. has become a big hit (Hikaru no Go); two series leaning towards shounen-ai, long regarded as a peculiarly Japanese genre, are popular (Fake and Gravitation); and even a cooking manga seems to be doing fairly well (Iron Wok Jan).

There may be companies whose lines consist of substandard manga (though I what your and my definitions of "substandard" are different from the average manga reader's). But if so, it would be because of bad editorial judgment and/or insufficient capital, rather than because all the good manga have been taken. And I'm not saying that there will never be times when the growth in the supply of manga outpaces the growth in demand. We may be in one of those times now, though I don't know of any solid evidence of this. If so, I'd expect smaller publishers in particular to have a difficult time. But as for an industry-wide crash, while it can't be ruled out, I haven't seen any convincing arguments that it's likely to happen.

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Saturday, September 25, 2004

JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL

A couple days ago, I finished reading Susanna Clarke's widely lauded new fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Neil Gaiman's blurb calls it "unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years." He does throw in "English," which clears him of asserting that it's better than Little, Big; but if it indeed is the finest English fantasy novel of the past seventy years, then the fabled British fantasy tradition isn't what it's cracked up to be.

Oh, the book is enjoyable, to be sure; but what's missing from it, which is present in both Little, Big and the best of the nineteenth-century novels Clarke imitates (and in Lord of the Rings, for that matter, though I'm not a Tolkien fan), is any sense that what happens in the book matters. For all Clarke's skill, ultimately the book feels like a literary exercise. In his New York Times review (registration required) Gregory Maguire declares that the book's chief character is neither Strange nor Norrell, but the books contained in it. This is an exaggeration, but Clarke does seem to have put the largest share of her imaginative energy not into her characters, or their world, but into the tradition of scholarship on magic that she has invented. And, unlike Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare or Tom LaFarge's The Crimson Bears, Clarke doesn't manage to make something unique out of her work's bookishness itself.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2004

TWO GRAPHIC NOVELS I DIDN'T BUY

I was in a local bookstore yesterday (one of those independent bookstores that has survived by emulating the chains) and saw two graphic novels I'd been curious about, as they've both been highly lauded, though they're quite different. I read parts of both, but ultimately decided not to buy either.

The first was The Filth by Grant Morrison. I've never been much of a Morrison fan, to be candid; the only stuff of his that I've really liked was the Flex Mentallo issues of Doom Patrol and the issues right after that. I didn't care for the first TP of The Invisibles, and I recorded my reaction to the first portion of his New X-Men run here. But I've seen The Filth lauded as his masterwork, so I thought I'd check it out. After reading the first few chapters, my main reactions were:
1) Morrison is trying way too hard to be cool, and
2) He really does seem to hold humanity in contempt.
So I quit. As I said, I only read a few chapters, and those only superficially, so don't take this as a review or full-fledged critique: I'm just stating my reaction, for anyone who might be interested.

The second was Jimbo in Purgatory, Gary Panter's graphic novel inspired by Dante's Purgatorio (from the little I read of it, that would seem to be a more accurate description than calling it an adaptation of the Purgatorio). This is a hardcover of about forty pages that costs thirty bucks; but the pages are really large, and so dense that each page is really the equivalent of at least two ordinary pages. Of course, thirty bucks for eighty pages isn't a bargain, either. But the money isn't why I didn't buy it. I passed it up for two reasons. First, I've never been particularly wild about Panter's art. Second, from the few pages I read, I got the impression that to comprehend the book, you have to both be intimately familiar with the Purgatorio, and have read many if not most of the many other classic works of literature which Panter quotes (he helpfully lists his sources for each page on the bottom). Since I meet neither qualification, I concluded that I'd be unlikely to get much out of it.

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Sunday, September 19, 2004

DAREDEVIL: KING OF HELL'S KITCHEN

Well, I finally read Daredevil: King of Hell's Kitchen, the trade paperback collecting the arc of which Daredevil #56 was the first issue. And I'm sorry to disappoint anybody looking for blood, but I didn't hate it. Which is not to say that I liked it, or would be willing to spend money for it; but I have to confess that I found it mildly interesting. In any case, whether because this time I knew not to expect anything like real literature, or because right now I don't feel compelled to be an aesthetic missionary, I have no urge to dissect King of Hell's Kitchen the way I did its first few pages. (By the way, all that stuff about Daredevil "saving the city" which I took such exception to plays no role in the rest of the arc whatsoever, as far as I could see.) There were a couple of things about it which struck me as strange in an interesting way, though.

In issue #59, one of the yakuza says "Killing an American hero? This has never been done." Bendis's overall aim seems to be to combine superheroes with the hardboiled city-as-cesspool school of crime writing (viz. Milla's speech about how "the city" has taken everything away from Matt); and this latter presupposes an amoral cosmos. On the other hand, to state that heroes never die implies a cosmos that's fundamentally moral. You can't have a hardboiled crime story in which it's guaranteed that heroes never die: like the proverbial irresistible force and immovable object, these two can't both exist in the same universe. (Please note that I'm not objecting on the grounds that it's unrealistic; I have no desire to revisit that argument.)

Second, while I haven't read much of Bendis's Daredevil aside from this arc, I did look at #50, the final issue of the arc that proceeded this, and I've read some online discussion of that arc. And in both that arc and this arc, the climax depicts Daredevil crushing his opponents with ease. Now of course, everyone knows that Daredevil will overcome his opponents; the trick to maintaining suspense is to make the reader wonder how he will do so. And it just seems to me that if you repeatedly show Daredevil beating formidable-appearing opponents with no trouble, you're going to undercut this suspense. Maybe the point is that though Daredevil has no trouble with external foes, he can't slay his inner demons. But actually he doesn't seem to have much trouble with his inner demons, either. All he needs is a good talking-to from Ben (plus being attacked by a hundred yakuzas).

UPDATE: Dave Fiore provides an intelligent critique of the above post on his blog (to which I've replied in the comments). Among other things, he takes justifiable exception to the phrase "real literature." Even before reading his comments, I was regretting having used it; but if I sat on my posts until I was sure they were perfectly polished, I'd never post anything. At any rate, for the phrase "anything like real literature," substitute "anything of aesthetic value."

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Thursday, September 16, 2004

THE REPUBLICANS AND DEMOCRACY

Here's a very good quote from Nick Burbules of Progressive Blog Digest:

"Here then we see another legacy of the wholesale Republican hijacking of the electoral process. By jobbing every aspect of primaries, convention dates, absentee voting, redistricting, campaign financing, FEC rules, digital voting machines, and even the ways in which votes get counted — all with a guise toward maximizing their electoral chances — they have left in tatters a basic principle essential to democracy: a set of fixed ground rules and procedures that apply to every vote, regardless of whom they might help or hurt. When every decision is made opportunistically ad hoc, and the rules keep changing, the essence of one person/one vote and every vote counting is compromised beyond repair. Not that this prospect concerns them: they’ve been clear from the beginning that the vestiges of true democracy — accountability, openness, responsiveness to public questioning, acceptance of protest and opposition — are mere nuisances to them."

To be fair, the Democratic Party doesn't have perfectly clean hands on this issue. But there's no question that the Republicans in the last four years have taken electoral manipulation to a whole new level.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

MANGA CORNER: MAJIHEN!?

Today's manga corner covers something light for a change. Majihen!? vol. 1, by Miki Toriyama (the title is an abbreviation of "majikaru henshin," or "magical transformation"), is an odd book. I haven't read it yet, but it's pretty clear what's going on. In the opening chapter, Ichika, the heroine, is thrilled when the boy she has a crush on visits her house. But her joy is considerably tempered when virtually the first thing he does upon arrival is try to feel her up. She's even more dismayed when her boyfriend and her younger brother somehow exhange personalities, so that her boyfriend is now in her brother's body, and permanently ensconsed in her house, where, undaunted by considerations of possible incest, he fondles and licks her breasts at every opportunity. Ichika's usual response to this is not to clobber him a la Love Hina, but merely to turn red with embarrassment and/or arousal. Meanwhile, her brother, in her boyfriend's body, is living in her house too, adding further complications. All this is a comedy, by the way, presented as a series of four-panel strips.

It must be admitted that the above is not too unusual for a manga, though it's not the sort of manga I usually cover. What makes the book strange, at least to American eyes, is that it's a girls' manga. The strips originally appeared in Shoujo Comic, an anthology for girls, and the book appears under the imprint "Flower Comics," which is a line of girls' manga. I've seen other shoujo manga with nudity (though no genitals), and even discreet sex scenes; but in those instances the nudity and sex are part of a romantic plot, not used as a running gag as they are here. If I had only the strips themselves to judge by, I would have taken them for a seinen (young men's) title, though they differ from a seinen sex-oriented strip in at least one respect: the heroine has very small breasts

Nor does the book's packaging conceal the sex-oriented nature of its contents; in fact, it highlights it. The front cover shows Ichika with her blouse partly unbuttoned, so that her bra is visible. In the background, portions of panels from the book can be seen; in some of these Ichika has the flushed face, open mouth, and closed or half-closed eyes which indicate of arousal. Above the title is a "teaser" line in Japanese; with my imperfect knowledge of the language, it's a bit difficult, but it means something like "incomparably etchi (sex-crazed) group small breast 4-panel." The back panel is even more explicit, showing Ichika's boyfriend simultaneously licking her face and fondling her naked breast. In one of the background panels, he's fingering her panty-covered crotch. Toriyama has another series out, called Tsunami chuuihou ("Tsunami Warning"); judging by the covers, it appears to be the same sort of thing.

The book is 189 pages long and sells for 390 yen; its ISBN is 4-09-138601-6.

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Monday, September 13, 2004

PROGRESSIVE BLOG DIGEST

I've added Progressive Blog Digest to the sidebar: a useful summary of news and commentary on the Presidential election and the Bush administration's crimes and blunders.

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Sunday, September 12, 2004

BOOK CORNER: SPORTS LEAGUES AND TEAMS

Sports Leagues and Teams: An Encyclopedia, 1871 through 1996 by Mark Pollak is a seven hundred-page reference book. As such, it's one of the least practical, but most fascinating, reference books I've come across. It's basically what the title says: a listing of sports leagues and the teams belonging to them. It aims to list all leagues that aspired to be major professional leagues, as long as they played any games at all. Thus, there are forty baseball leagues listed: in addition to the usual suspects there are such leagues as the International Association and the Northwest League from the 1870s and the United States League of 1912-13, as well as fifteen negro leagues, six women's leagues, one indoor baseball league, and one senior baseball league. There are no less than fifty-three leagues listed for basketball, among them six women's and one height-restricted league. There are forty-five leagues listed for roller hockey, which apparently was quite popular in New England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and there are leagues listed for football, ice hockey, soccer and a variety of other sports, from bowling through wrestling. With so many leagues, it's not surprising that the listing of New York City's teams covers three columns of small type (soccer alone has a whole column). Even Champaign, IL, the small city where I live, had a "major league" team: a roller hockey team in the Central Polo League, which played for part of the 1905-06 season. Maybe it's just me, but for me there's something fascinating about looking at lists of teams like the Lynn Live Oaks and the Rochester Hop Bitters (from baseball's International Association), or the Paterson Silk Sox (from the second Interstate [Basketball] League), who had previously been known as the New York Treat 'Em Roughs. There are also listings of the stadiums, arenas, and/or playing fields used by each team.

It's published by McFarlane & Co., and its ISBN is 0-7864-0252-0.

APOLOGY

Sorry about Thursday's non-post (I don't view my own blog regularly, so it was only today that I realized the body had somehow gotten lost). The above is the one that should have been posted Thursday.

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CIRCULATIONS OF JAPANESE MANGA MAGAZINES

It's no secret that the manga industry in Japan is a lot more successful than the American comics industry, which has prompted some suggestions that the American industry should imitate its Japanese counterpart. However, there's not that much actual information about the Japanese industry available in English, as far as I know. Frederick Schodt, and more recently Paul Gravett in his book Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, provide generalized overviews, and Sharon Kinsella's Adult Manga provides a more scholarly examination; but the sort of detailed (even obsessive) coverage of the American industry one sees in The Comics Journal and online is unavailable for the Japanese industry in English.

I myself know little about the Japanese manga industry; however, I found a table of magazine circulation figures for 2003, including manga, from the Japanese Magazine Publishers Association online. Since this table is in Japanese, I've translated the sections dealing with manga below.

I have no idea whether these figures represent average circulation for the year, or the circulation of the latest issue, or whatever. Nor do I know how complete these tables are, or what the criteria were for inclusion: erotic manga seem to be absent, with one exception, and alternative magazines such as Garo and Ax are also absent. A table on p. 82 of Schodt's Dreamland Japan reports that there were 265 regularly published manga magazines in 1995. That table reports 23 boys' manga and 37 seinen manga, which corresponds approximately to the lists below (21 boys' and 44 seinen). It also reports 45 girls' manga, which would seem to correspond to the 28 shoujo and 19 josei titles listed below. But the table in Schodt also lists 52 "Ladies'," 21 "4-panel," and 69 "miscellaneous adult" magazines, as well as 18 magazines in three smaller categories; virtually all of these seem to have been omitted from the table below, though it appears from Gravett's book that they're still being published.

Each entry has the title, followed by the publisher in parentheses, followed by the circulation in tens of thousands. If the title is one for which Dreamland Japan gave the circulation, I've appended that in parentheses. For example, Weekly Shounen Jump is published by Shuueisha and has a circulation of 3,240,000, and in 1995 had a circulation of 5-6,000,000. I've tried to give the titles in the form you're most likely to see them referred to, so I've translated the words meaning "weekly" and "monthly," and words which are clearly Japanese transliterations of English words I've converted back into English. I've put translations of other Japanese words in brackets.

SHOUNEN (BOY'S) MANGA

Weekly Shounen Jump (Shuueisha), 324.0 (500.0-600.0)
Weekly Shounen Magazine (Koudansha), 319.0
Weekly Shounen Sunday (Shogakukan), 131.1
Corocoro Comic (Shogakukan), 122.2 (75.0)
Monthly Shounen Magazine (Koudansha), 114.0
Weekly Shounen Champion (Akita Shoten), 80.0
Monthly Shounen Jump (Shuueisha), 51.0
V Jump (Shuueisha), 31.0
Monthly Shounen Gan Gan (Ekuwea Enikkusu) 30.0
Shounen Ace (Kadokawa Shouten), 30.0
Bessatsu [special volume] Corocoro Special (Shogakukan), 26.3
Ace Tokunoh [special thick] (Kadokawa Shoten), 20.0
Comic Bom Bom (Koudansha), 20.0
Dengeki Comic Gao! (Mediaworks) 20.0
Dragon Age (Kadokawa Shoten), 20.0
Magazine Special (Koudansha), 11.0
Monthly Gan Gan Wing (Ekuwea Enikkusu) 7.0
Monthly G Fantasy (Ekuwea Enikkusu) 7.0
Zoukan [Special edition] Shounen Sunday (Super) (Shogakukan), 6.5
Monthly Magazine Z (Koudansha), 5.0
Nintendo Keys (Futabasha), 5.0

SEINEN (YOUNG MEN'S) MANGA

Young Jump (Shuueisha), 127.5
Young Magazine (Koudansha), 122.0
Big Comic Original (Shogakukan), 118.4 (170.0)
Big Comic (Shogakukan), 74.1 (145.0)
Morning (Koudansha), 66.0 (110.0)
Big Comic Spirits (Shogakukan), 55.6 (147.0)
Weekly Manga Times (Houbunsha), 54.0
Weekly Manga Goraku [entertainment] (Nihonbungeisha), 50.0
Weekly Comic Punch (Shinchoosha), 45.0
Business Jump (Shuueisha), 44.0
Big Comic Superior (Shogakukan), 42.8 (70.0)
Super Jump (Shuueisha), 41.0
Manga Time (Houbunsha), 40.0
Mikosuri Han [half] Gekijou [theater] (Bunkasha), 40.0
Manga Time Original (Houbunsha), 38.0
Evening (Koudansha), 33.0
Gundam Ace (Kadokawa Shoten), 30.0
Manga Goraku Nekusutaa (Nihonbungeisha), 30.0
Manga Goraku Manga Pachinko Dairenshou [big winning streak] (Nihonbungeisha), 30.0
Manga Time Family (Houbunsha), 30.0
Weekly Manga Sunday (Jitsugyohnonihonsha), 30.0
Young King (Shounengahousha), 30.0
Young Sunday (Shogakukan), 28.5
Bessatsu Weekly Manga Times (Houbunsha), 25.0
Comic Dengeki Daioh (Mediaworks), 25.0
Bessatsu Manga Goraku (Nihonbungeisha), 24.0
Young Animal (Hakusensha), 24.0
Shuuman [abbreviation for "weekly manga"] Special (Houbunsha), 23.0
Manga Time Jump (Houbunsha), 22.0
Weekly Manga Action (Futabasha), 22.0
Young Champion (Akita Shoten), 22.0
Bessatsu Shuuman Special (Houbunsha), 20.0
Comic Ran [disorder, riot] (Riidosha), 20.0
Young Magazine Uppers (Koudansha), 18.0
Comic Ran Twins (Riidosha), 15.0
Kairakuten [Pleasure heaven] (Wanimagajinsha), 15.0
Young Comic (Shounengahousha), 14.5
Afternoon (Koudansha), 14.0 (20.0)
Young King Ours (Shounengahousha), 11.5
Bessatsu Young King Kingdom (Shounengahousha), 10.0
Zoukan Manga Asahi [rising sun] Geinou [entertainment] Erotica DX (Tokuma Shoten), 10.0
Ultra Jump (Shuueisha), 9.0
Ikki (Shogakukan), 7.5
Comic Beam (Entaaburein), 5.0

SHOUJO (GIRLS') COMICS

Ribbon (Shuueisha), 99.0
Ciao (Shogakukan), 91.0
Nakayoshi (Koudansha), 52.0 (180.0)
Bessatsu Margaret (Shuueisha), 46.5
Hana to Yume [flower and dream] (Hakusensha), 34.0
Deluxe Margaret (Shuueisha), 29.0
The Margaret (Shuueisha), 28.0
Shoujo Comic (Shogakukan), 26.5
Margaret (Shuueisha), 26.0
Dessert (Koudansha), 22.0
The Dessert (Koudansha), 21.0
Shoujo Comic Cheese! (Shogakukan), 20.8
Asuka (Kadokawa Shoten), 20.0
Bessatsu Friend (Koudansha), 20.0
Horaa M (Bunkasha), 20.0
LaLa (Hakusensha), 20.0
Cookie (Shuueisha), 19.0
Juliet (Koudansha), 17.0
Mystery DX (Kadokawa Shoten), 15.0
Princess (Akita Shoten), 15.0
Petit Comic (Shogakukan), 13.1
Bessatsu Hana to Yume (Hakusensha), 13.0
Ciel (Kadokawa Shoten), 12.0
Betsucomi (Shogakukan), 11.0
LaLa DX (Hakusensha), 8.0
Flowers (Shogakukan), 7.5
Erutiin [All Teen?] (Kindaieigasha), 7.0
Petit Momo [peach] (Kindaieigasha), 7.0

JOSEI (Young Women's) COMICS

Manga Home (Houbunsha), 28.0
Lady's Comic You (Shuueisha), 27.0
Manga Time Special (Houbunsha), 25.0
Be Love (Koudansha), 24.0
Kiss (Koudansha), 24.0
Elegance Eve (Akita Shoten), 20.0
Manga Grimm Douwa [fairy tale] (Bunkasha), 20.0
Manga Time Lovely (Houbunsha), 20.0
Manga Town (Futabasha), 20.0
Young You (Shuueisha), 19.0
Chorus (Shuueisha), 18.0
Judy (Shogakukan), 18.1
Katei [home, family] Mystery (Bunkasha), 15.0
Kyoofu no Kairaku [pleasure of terror] (Bunkasha), 15.0
Office You (Shuueisha), 14.0
One More Kiss (Koudansha), 13.0
May (Shounengahousha), 10.0
Melody (Hakusensha), 10.0
Feel Young (Shuueisha), 8.0

COMICS FOR MRS.

For Mrs. (Akita Shoten), 21.0
Jewel Suteki na Shufutachi [splendid housewives] (Futabasha), 20.0
Silky (Hakusensha), 10.0

On the one hand, it's evident that the comics are indeed far more popular in Japan than in the U.S. The top-selling books have circulations that Marvel and DC far beyond anything that Marvel and DC can hope for these days, and all but the worst-selling manga sell better than all but a few American comics. When you consider that Japan's population is less than half that of the U.S., the contrast is even more striking. On the other hand, things aren't quite as rosy for comics in Japan as the more starry-eyed accounts would suggest: circulations of three million are very much the exception. In fact, the circulation figures form a steep pyramid: at the top are Weekly Shounen Jump and Weekly Shounen Magazine, each with over twice the circulation of #3; then come less than a dozen magazines with circulations around one million; and all the rest have substantially lower circulations than this. Actually the manga industry has been in a slump for some time in Japan: Shounen Jump's circulation is way down from its one-time peak of six million, but other magazines and publishers are suffering too. (Note that all but one of the magazines for which Schodt's figures can be compared with the current figures have lost a substantial amount of circulation.) Publishers blame the prevalence of used manga stores, which enable readers to buy paperback collections of the series they want cheaply; others blame the lack of interesting series (sound familiar?).

A couple other points of interest: while manga do better than American comics at appealing to female readers, manga for male readers are still dominant, both in terms of number of titles and circulation. (Though it may be that some of the circulation of "male" magazines is made up of females: Kinsella (p. 49) reports that in 1994, housewives made up 18% of the circulation of Morning, which is listed as a seinen manga in the table above.) Both Schodt and Gravett describe Koudansha, Shogakukan and Shuueisha as the "Big Three" publishers, taking up the lion's share of circulation. I haven't added up the figures myself, but just looking at the table that seems about right. (Kinsella adds Hakusensha and Akita to this list (p. 40), but their inclusion seems more dubious.) At the same time, the Japanese industry doesn't seem to be quite so oligopolistic as the American direct sales market.

(Edited 6/25/06 to fix an error: "Deluxe Margaret" was mistakenly transcribed as "Deluxe Magazine")

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Tuesday, September 07, 2004

MANGA CORNER: GARDEN

Once more, there's been a longer wait between appearances of this feature than I'd like, but hopefully the quality of what's being reviewed will partially make up for this. Garden (the title is in English) is a collection of stories by Usamaru Furuya, some of whose works have already been published in the U.S.: Viz published the two-volume Short Cuts, and selections from Furuya'a avant-garde gag strip Palepoli appeared in Secret Comics Japan, also published by Viz (a few Palepoli strips are also included in the non-comics anthology Japan Edge). Both these works are worth checking out, particularly Palepoli (it's a pity that Viz hasn't published a complete collection of this strip), but Garden is quite different from either of them. Both Palepoli and Short Cuts are humor series made up of very brief stories, the former of four-panel strips and the latter mainly of single-page stories. Garden contains seven stories, originally published separately, ranging from 12 to 114 pages, and only one of these stories is humorous. And while the stories in Garden eschew the formal experimentation of Palepoli (with one exception), in terms of content they are far edgier than any of Furuya's work yet published in the U.S. Thematically, in fact, Garden is closer to Suehiro Maruo's work than to any other manga published in the U.S. that I know of. Although Furuya's images are not as extreme as Maruo's (with a few exceptions), three stories in Garden, including the two longest, deal with one of Maruo's characteristic themes: the abuse, often sexual, of young girls.

The first story in Garden, "Ratai no kigen" ("The Origin of Nudity"), is a dreamlike, surrealistic, sixteen-page story in full color inspired by Bosch's painting "The Garden of Earthly Delights." The color is gorgeous: unlike the garish colors of "mainstream" American comics, the coloring here is subtle and restrained. The story itself is virtually impossible to summarize in a coherent manner.

The next story, "Tenshi no ferachio" ("Angel's Fellatio"), is a twelve-page story in black and white (as is the rest of the book) combining sex and humor. In tone and visual style, it's very similar to Short Cuts; in fact, you could consider it "Short Cuts with explicit sex." The heroine, Maria, is a present-day Japanese schoolgirl who has been told by an angel that although a virgin, she will conceive a child. She doesn't like the idea, so she tries to disqualify herself by losing her virginity to a geeky schoolmate; but she is foiled at the critical moment by the "angel's fellatio" of the title, which puts her partner out of commission. Much of the humor derives from the reactions of Maria's geeky partner, who is drawn with a deliberately shaky line, unlike the polished line used for Maria and the rest of the story.

The twenty-four page "Yumekana" (the title derives from the names of the two protagonists; but it could also be read as meaning "Was/is It a Dream?') is also about sex, but it's not humorous. It's about two friends, both schoolgirls (a caption gives their ages as 10,013 [sic]), one of whom forces the other to act out a pornographic comic she found in order to satisfy her own curiosity regarding sexuality. It's a disturbing story which does have a pornographic aspect (though neither of the protagonists is explicitly shown engaging in any sexual act), but it's also a serious portrayal of how sex can appear as an alluring, dangerous enigma. Yume, the girl who forces her friend to act out the comic, is a believable character despite her strange behavior. This is the most recent of the stories collected here, and the art shows a great advance upon Short Cuts and "Tenshi no ferachio," both in the subtlety of facial expressions and in panel composition.

"Umi kara kita kikai" ("The Machine that Came from the Sea") is a twelve-page story about a strange machine that, as the title states, emerges from the sea, follows a high school girl home, and can change its shape to match whatever she thinks about. Like "Yumenaka," it also deals with a girl's awakening sexuality, but it's a slight story compared to that, though Furuya's rendering of the machine and its metamorphoses is amusing.

"Tsuki no fumi" ("Moon Letter"), at forty-eight pages, is the second longest story in the book. It's also the best. Its genre is fantasy, but it's the sort of fantasy that Gene Wolfe or John Crowley might have written. It's about an apprentice alchemist; his master; the bizarre, isolated world they live in; the strange experiments they perform on young girls; the apprentice's friendship with one of these girls who has escaped; and his "birth" into the world and into full humanity as a result of this friendship. The story is narrated by the apprentice, to whom the strange world he lives in is perfectly normal, as he has never known any other; and the subtle, realistic art corresponds to this unquestioning acceptance. I could spend pages analyzing this story; if I'm hesitant to proclaim it a masterpiece outright, it's only because I worry that the symbolism might be a bit too neat and tidy. Still, it's one of the best manga I've ever read. For that matter, it's one of the best comics of any kind I've ever read.

"Egao de sayohnara" ("Goodbye with a Smile") is the only story in Garden to share the formal experimentation of Palepoli, which it actually preceded: if I'm reading Furuya's afterword correctly, it's the first "self-conscious" manga he drew. In twelve pages, each in the two-by-two grid of Palepoli, it depicts the dying actions of a man who's been stabbed by his girlfriend in a quasi-Cubist style (according to the afterword, it was inspired by a painting by Francis Bacon that I'm unfamiliar with). It's interesting, but I found it the weakest story in the book.

"Emi-chan" is the longest story, at 114 pages, almost half the book. In the book, the story is divided into groups of approximately sixteen pages apiece, each of which is sealed shut on the outside, making it impossible to browse the story casually, even after you've removed the plastic wrap. Preceding the story is a page on "How to read 'Emi-chan,'" advising readers to take an exacto knife (lacking one, I found a penknife to produce an acceptable if ragged result) and cut open the first group of sixteen pages: if these pages are too upsetting don't read any further; if not, then repeat the procedure with the second group, and so on. While the admonitory tone is partly tongue-in-cheek, "Emi-chan" is indeed horrific, and some of the images are very rough. As the story begins, Emi-chan, a girl of about thirteen, is dragging a mysterious sack through a forest, holding a teddy bear. She runs into a man who has abducted, tortured and killed a bus of nursery-school girls (it's implied, though not actually shown, that he has also sexually assaulted them). Furuya adeptly builds the sensation of mounting horror in these scenes; but we eventually discover that another, deeper, horror lies concealed. The visual style is quite different here from that of the other stories in the book. Furuya's line is much shakier; and several early pages break the action down into numerous small, irregularly-shaped panels, each showing only a small segment of the scene: a technique that can easily be overused, but here works effectively to speed up the tempo of the action.

In Furuya's afterword, he says that the drawing of the original version of "Emi-chan," which was serialized in Garo, was like an explosion, propelled by a sense of professional and personal crisis: Furuya wrote and drew each eight-page installment without having determined the content in advance, without doing a rough draft or any advance planning, and without any thought of what the next installment would be. The version in Garden has been substantially revised; but even so, it's hard to believe that the story had its origin in such a complete improvisation, so well is it constructed. Furuya concludes that though "Emi-chan" was a success in terms of resolving the crisis which inspired it, it is a failure as a manga, but I disagree.

When there are manga of the caliber of "Moon Letter" to be read--and I've already read and reviewed several others which are equal or better than the best U.S. comics, even though I've only looked at a tiny sampling of "alternative" manga--it's not surprising that I can't work up much enthusiasm for 99% of the comics which are lauded in print or online--and this includes alternatives as well as "mainstream" comics. On the other hand, it's frustrating that very few American comic fans are likely to ever see this stuff. Ordinarily, I'd expect Garden to have a better chance of getting translated than the manga whose reviews I've linked to above, since it's more story-oriented and less contemplative. However, the subject matters of "Yumenaka" and "Emi-chan" make this unlikely. Even "Moon Letter" might be dicey, as there are depictions of nude children, and one brief implied sex scene. So, while I hate to say that your only hope is to learn to read Japanese, I'm afraid it's probably true. (It's really not such a dreadful prospect, though; I did so in my forties, entirely on my own. Maybe sometime I'll post about it.)

The other Japanese-language manga by Furuya I own is the first volume of a series called Pi (written as the greek letter), which came out in 2003. Unlike the stories in Garden, which appeared in alternative publications such as Garo and Comic Cue (mainly the latter), Pi, like Short Cuts before it, was serialized in a commercial magazine (Big Comic Spirits in the case of Pi), and is unabashedly designed to appeal to teenage boys and young men. I haven't read it, but it seems pretty clear what it's about: it's a high school sex comedy. The main character is a young man who is obsessed with breasts, though he keeps up a facade of indifference, thereby attracting the interest of a busty but short-tempered girl. The series seems to be popular: the last time I looked, it was up to volume five.

Garden is 240 pages and sells for 1111 yen. It's published by Iisuto Puresu (East Press) and its ISBN is 4-87257-204-1.

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Monday, September 06, 2004

BUSH'S SUPPORTERS

I read a couple of things in the past couple of days which between them seem to sum up why I find current politics so depressing. The first, via Progressive Blog Digest, is a post by Digby on the fact that the Republicans actually got a bounce from their convention. The whole thing's worth reading, but here's a choice quote:

"It's time to recognize and put to use the ugly truth that not only do people respond to smears and dirty tricks --- they actually enjoy and respect them. "By any means necessary" is no longer a revolutionary concept. To many people, it is an All American ideal. It means that you believe that winning is the only option and you will do anything to achieve that. Apply that belief to terrorism and you can see why people respond to talk radio eliminationist rants and George W. Bush's Rambo rhetoric.

"People did not recoil at the Republican convention's ugliness as they did in 1992 because that rhetoric was aimed at parochial culture war issues alone. This is about a much bigger, nationalist grievance at the entire world. People believe that it's us against them, good against evil and they want our leaders to sound like movie heroes, not politicians, because in the movies the good guys always win."

The second is an article which Timothy Burke, of Easily Distracted (see sidebar), wrote at the time of Abu Ghraib, expressing his despair that a large number of Americans seemed to think have no problem with torturing Iraqi prisoners. While rejecting comparisons between Bush and Hitler, he sees the present-day political climate as comparable to late-Weimar Germany in the extent to which large numbers of voters and commentators are willing to discard morality.

More and more, this country seems to be becoming (or perhaps has always been) something that I don't want to be part of. Bush isn't Hitler, or anything close, thank God. But Bush's voters seem to me disturbingly similar to the sort of people who voted for Hitler: a coalition of the gullible and the evil. Setting aside the hard-core conservative ideologues, you have on the one hand those who want a "strong leader" and to hell with democracy and civil liberties, and whose "morality" is that whatever advances America's self-interest is good, period. On the other, you have those who are gullible enough to take what Bush and the Republicans say at face value.

And, like Burke, I don't know what we can do about it. Digby says "the stakes are so high that we have no choice but to try to win today by any means necessary and begin the hard work of repairing our politics --- and honestly, our culture --- after we have wrested power from those who have brought us to this place." I agree unreservedly with the first part of this statement. I agree with the second part too, but how? Even if Kerry wins, the people who bought the Swift Boat slander and cheered the Republican Convention will still be out there.

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Thursday, September 02, 2004

MORRISON'S NEW X-MEN REVISITED

Johanna Carlson was kind enough to link to, and quote approvingly from, my post on Morrison's New X-Men from two days ago. But the truth is that I wasn't entirely candid then when I said that what I read of the comic (the first hardcover volume) didn't interest me. In fact, I was repulsed by it. Why such a strong reaction? To start with, early in the book, Genosha, a country with a population with sixteen million mutants, is wiped out and all its inhabitants killed in a matter of hours. On the second page after we discover this (the first page after is a pin-up of Emma Frost), we see the Beast, on the scene, holding the skeleton of one of the victims and making a wisecrack. The wisecracks continue on the next three pages, and Jean Grey joins in. At this point, I permanently lost interest in whatever Morrison was seeking to accomplish. True, Morrison does give the Beast a line to the effect that he has to make jokes to keep sane (though I don't see anything to show that he, or any of the other characters, have suffered any lasting trauma becuase of what they've seen). But the real reason the wisecracks are there is that Morrison thought it would be shocking and cool to have a hero whose first pictured reaction to genocide is a callous joke.

In general, I was distressed at the amount of gratuitious sadism in the book. (I had the same reaction to the only issue of The Filth that I read.) This sadism did impel me to read, or at least skim, the rest of the book to assure myself that the U-Men and Cassandra Nova were defeated; so you could say that it was a smart move from a commercial viewpoint. But it also left me with a disinclination to look at the book again, even to analyze it.

It wasn't the violence itself that repulsed me. I enjoyed the very violent Stacy, and I've enjoyed other violent works of art as well. Rather, it was the contempt Morrison seemed to have for his characters, regarding them not as people, but as toys to be played with and sometimes broken. As evidence of this, here's what Morrison said about the destruction of Genosha in the "Morrison Manifesto": "It's like Hiroshima with robot monsters and we can have all manner of superfluous mutant bastards wiped out in one genocidal spree." Don't get me wrong--I'm not saying that Morrison is personally callous. I'm sure he reacts to real-life genocides with the appropriate horror. Nor am I accusing those who enjoyed his New X-Men of callousness: I'm just describing my own reaction, not trying to impose it on others.

In any case, I think that writing primarily about the "Manifesto" was really a way for me to evade thinking about those aspects of Morrison's New X-Men which disturbed me. Unconsciously, my dislike of the book may also have distorted my speculations why it wasn't embraced by the general public, though I still think my points are generally valid.

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