Tuesday, September 28, 2004


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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