Rocket Bomber - 5by8

5by8 #29: The Blind Men and The Elephant in the Room

filed under , 10 January 2009, 22:32 by

Like the Blind Men and the Elephant (an apt allusion, given my family name), I’m going to tackle this question from many angles and I probably won’t be able to directly address this issue, or explain it, to anyone’s satisfaction. I’m going to take a stab at it, though, and we’ll see just how many Views of Mt. Fuji I come up with before I get around to my weak conclusions and answers to what started out as a pair of simple questions

##

An offhand comment in one of my gee look at this posts prompted someone else to say, hey, there may be a point there that you just tried to humourously gloss over with a crack about fanboys, maybe someone should look into that.

Links and blocks, to bring others up to speed:
I Said:

Lucky Star was one of those [recent fan favorites], and we can argue about what’s wrong with depicting high school students so they look to be about, what, 12? 10? (and what that implies) or why American nerds seem to have adopted Japanese depictions of Japanese fans as their own (though only one character in Lucky Star is a die-hard fan girl, and an atypical one at that) or we can question just why the show is so popular when there isn’t even an ongoing plot or any character development — which makes sense to me now that I know the original was a 4-koma comic strip.

[and it’s that first bit we’re going to concentrate on.]

Melinda, blogging at There It Is, Plain As Daylight, responds: [And I am going to call you Melinda, Ms. Beasi ;) — it’s an inside joke, folks, just keep reading]

In his post, he brought up the whole high-school-students-drawn-like-little-kids thing, and I admit that was weird for me at first (though I’ve gotten used to it), but I was thinking about that recently, as we’ve just started watching Shugo Chara! which features fifth graders who (in my opinion) look like high school students, and wondering what does it all mean? I know that the high school students who look like eleven-year-olds are supposed to appeal to twenty-something men who are into cuteness, but who are the eleven-year-olds who look like high school students supposed to appeal to? Shugo Chara! is a shojo series, so I suppose the answer is young girls. Is it because (as one friend suggested) young girls wish they looked like teenagers? Or do the kids in Shugo Chara! really look authentic to their age, and my perspective has just been warped from too much moe?

I’d love to know people’s opinions on this. I like both series, so I find it all pretty interesting.

Of course, I also like both series, and in the comments on this particular post I pointed Melinda to a review I wrote of Shugo Chara vol 1 as a stop gap, with the promise to write more.

Specifically, a promise to write “an analysis of age appropriateness of characters vis-à-vis depiction of such vis-à-vis the audience, and the approach taken toward one as it relates to both of the others, considering not only the ‘target’ Japanese audience but also how it has been presented to the American fan base…”

[damn, do I really talk like that? I sound like a pretentious git. What are they putting in this beer?]

Righty-o, then. Best to roll up one’s sleeves and set into the matter at hand if this is the dogs’ breakfast that’s being served in place of high tea.

This is a tad complex. It’ll be a long post. Settle in, go get a beer.

##

[let’s number these for convenience]

1. The idea was in your head to begin with.

Before I even approach what can be an emotionally charged debate about *subject*, allow me to instead look at theory. I was thinking hard about whether or not The Drawing itself is the problem.
(it’s not; let me ‘splain)

Art is a participatory process. Artist & Audience. Whether the goal is to please, shock, entice, or sell — and money is a big part, perhaps the largest part, of art (don’t let artists double-talk you into doubting that universal truth) — there is still the aspect of art that is internalized by You, the Viewer.

Without interpretation, it is merely an object — in the case of manga and comics: a slurry of wood pulp, recycled paper, water, & a little bleach that has been pressed & dried, and trimmed to size, and dirtied on its surface with a smear of soy-based pigment — more than suitable for combustion in most wood-buring stoves; or separated out into its leaves, usable as a thin layer beneath mulch that will prevent weeds from sprouting in one’s garden.

I suppose there are other uses: house insulation, papier-mâché, piñatas…

It’s paper. (or pixels, but e-books are another column) Until you read it, that’s all it is. And when you read it, the impact it has on you depends as much or more on what you bring to the process (as opposed to the art itself) and in fact: your impression of the artwork may consist of almost entirely your reaction to the work, that is to say, it’s all in your own head.

Exhibit A: Are stick figures sexual?

They Can Be, and thanks to the creative genius of Randall Munroe and a Creative Commons License (not to mention the invitation to hotlink) I can even show you:

So you tell me: Are stick figures sexy? How much of that can be attributed to the writing, the captions and dialog added to the art? How much came from your own experience and expectations? The drawings themselves are merely a framework onto which we can project: our hopes, our dreams, our desires, our kinks.

It’s not just stick figures, folks. Any Drawing — and extending it out, indeed, any artwork — is merely an invitation. They, the artists, want you to react. But any sin in the reaction is not the fault of the artist.

Oh sure: every now and then the punk with the pen is looking to set you up, to present something so awful you have no choice but to condemn it. Activist Art is a part of the intellectual landscape. But drawings? Line drawings? Stick Figures?

Manga is a bit more realistic than a stick figure. But also (and I hate to do it but I’ll link to Wikipedia because even if you know the French you might not get the reference): Ceci n’est pas une pipe

2. In Defense of Porn

[that should be “in defence of porn” since I use a British spellchecker, but anyway]

I am comfortable enough — in my relationships, in my employment, in my conception of myself as an adult and a human being, and as a blogger of record (however minor that last point) — to admit that yes, *Like Everyone Else*, I Like Porn.

I am in fact partial to manga porn, not an expert or connoisseur — an enthusiastic dilettante at best — and I feel no shame in admitting the fact. I also like Comix porn, and some regular porn, and naked women in person on those rare occasions when I am presented with such — and I am not above paying for that privilege.

So I am not an uninterested, impartial observer. I Like Porn. So do a significant fraction (…approaches 100% ) of the rest of you.

NSFW warning:


(embedded video from Good Magazine via YouTube. Not too bad [good] but Lots of Skin and so Possibly not Safe for your Workplace. And while I have no idea what their sources are or their research methodologies, I just love their presentation — beats the plaid miniskirt off of PowerPoint slides any day of the week)

Whatever the stats are, we like porn. Because we like sex. Because if we didn’t — say it had gone out of fashion around 1890 or some such — then there would be significantly fewer of us around to debate this point on the internet today. The fact that people started saying Sex was Bad in 1870 is a hypocritical point ably disproven by the fact that so many people today are even alive to still try and gain any sort of ground with the same argument.

I’ll let you figure out that last bit by yourself.

SO. Sex. It’s a human function as popular as breathing, and I think people will stop breathing first.

Porn is a related point — directly related to the popularity of sex and inversely proportional to the availability of such in most cases. …though it also seems to be popular even with the dudes (and up to 56% of you ladies) who are already in relationships.

Here’s a diagram: (a Venn-ish diagram, in point of fact)

Not all comics are manga. Not all porn from Japan are comics, and not everything from Japan is either manga or porn; it just seems that way if you spend too much of your time on usenet.

and COMICS and MANGA ARE NOT (necessarily) PORN. It’s a stereotype perpetrated and perpetuated by folks who are trying to keep us from having any of the three.

Some of us seek to reinforce this stereotype, actually, or will ironically repeat it to others — because we like the fact that our hobby is on the edge, a bit risqué. Or we stress the manga that is the sexy because our other stuggle — against the perception that ‘manga is just for kids’ — is more important day-to-day than trying to explain away the mountain of porn manga produced by Japan each week. Each Day. By Fans. Man, once you learn about the existence of doujinshi it’s hard to make any moral arguments about any sort of comics, let alone manga, with a straight face.

Porn, at its best, is a lovely expression of the beauty of the human form. And comics, at their best, will be a depicition of the same — plus, you know, story and action and plot and the rest — but in the end comics are just drawings, smudges of pigment on bits of wood pulp. I’m not an Iowa prosecutor with no experence in art appreciation and whose multiple law degrees do not inform in the same way that even a couple of Intro to Psych courses might. I’m just a guy with a blog, a lot of comics, and a case of beer. (and I’ve taken those two psych courses)

My final argument is this:
Porn is art. Comics are art. Correlation is not causation — and it was all art to begin with.

If you can’t grok the logic in the above statements then I can’t help you, and your hang-ups about line-drawing depictions of boobs are the least of my troubles, and yours.

##

Before we move on, let me note that the details in the Iowa case are murky. While the links below provide some context, we don’t know exactly what comics are involved, and what they contain.

It’s just a shame. For a number of children involved with the production of such materials, it’s a tragedy. It’s not defensible. My regret, though, is that the ‘lolicon’ implications (and possible precedent established in court) provides a brush just loaded down with tar that First Amendment Opponents can use to paint us with.

Further reading:

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3. Are we supporting some sort of objectification of young girls? What is the appeal of an 17-year-old drawn like a 12-year-old? Or middle schoolers drawn like swimsuit models? Or 11-year-olds drawn like fashion plates? Or [insert manga trope here] [interpreted as] [insert western hang-up here]?

Art.

I said it above, but now we’re going from general forms and applying it to your favorite manga, so I’ll have to break it down and spell it out or else your going to bring up all sorts of citations and exceptions in the comments even though you agree with me.

there are a number of points that I have to draw to your attention, even though I feel like a lecturer doing so. Sit down, shut up, and let the Professor school you:

3a. Sealed Universes

The only way to judge a work, in many ways, is by itself. Take the spur for this debate, the anime Lucky Star: Every main character, nominally high school students, look to be about 12. But so does their teacher — and the parents and other older relatives of said students.

Everyone looks 12. That’s just how it is.
In the anime, the one guy character with any lines is wearing that typical black high-collared uniform (even when depicted as the “actor”, out of character) that makes everyone look vaugely 13-18.

Let’s pull a western reference just for kicks: Peanuts. Schultz. As much a part of the Western Canon as anything else I might choose to cite. These ‘kids’ all talk like adults — not in a South Park way, that’s not what I’m saying…

Look, compare Peanuts to Calvin & Hobbes: Calvin is a kid, acts like a kid, thinks and reasons like a kid, daydreams and imagines things fantastically like a kid, and Waterson is a Genius. I simultaneously salute him for abandoning Calvin as a complete conceptual work that couldn’t go further, while lamenting that I can’t read daily new adventures in Calvin’s universe. Waterson drew kids.

— Schultz drew Schultz: good ol’ Charlie Brown is a stand-in, an everyman who comments on the human condition. Peanuts may have been as revolutionary and as on point as Calvin & Hobbes during it’s first decade too (that’s what makes the Fantagraphics collections such a joy and treasure) but Shultz didn’t stop. He should be admired for putting out daily strips over a lifetime, but a lifetime of reflection means it’s about much more than just the adventures of a gang of likeable kids.

but I’ve drifted off point. Charlie Brown is drawn like a kid, but is he?

Unless one counts wah-wah trombone voice-over as meaningful to any degree, they operate in their own sealed universe, talking and reacting like little adults — and when they do act like kids, they tend to be ridiculed by the other characters. (Linus, blanket, et. al.)

No one looks at Peanuts and says, “Hey, these kids are unrealistic!” Hell, can anyone tell me how old Charlie Brown and the gang are supposed to be? No age is ever given, to my recollection. It’s an amorphous age between 8 and what? 18, 16, 13? 80?.

And yet: the need to apply an exact grade level to each and every manga character seems to be the first concern of many critics.

3b. Artistic License

Stick. Figures. Op. Cit.

If you’re drawing every damn character as a kid, then it’s just Chibi style. I hate chibi style, by-and-large, but I recognise that it represents a legitimate style choice and these art choices are separate from the story being told and the characters of that story.

Similarly, super-deformed [short, cute sketched versions of characters] artwork makes the artistic depiction of emotion and humor so easy it’s hard not to use for many manga artists — and it’s part of the visual vocabulary that differentiates manga from other comic forms — and if it works for the narrative (or for comedy), well, then it works.

That, and chibi characters are part of the Moe/Kawaii Industrial Complex that has taken over Japan and is attempting inroads in America, and globally. Soon, all characters will look to be 12. Or younger.

3c. Artistic Intent

Some Greasy Cheeseballs out there are drawing high-school students and their struggles with the ever-present winds of modern Tokyo just because they like drawing panty shots.

Can’t fix that. Happens.

But in and of itself that odd habit is largely harmless. (the problem with panty shots is not the depiction of underwear, but the reaction to same — ref point #1. The idea was in your head to begin with. and see below) The intent of the artist was to draw pretty girls in a way that conveys their concept of ‘pretty girl’

It’s the age of the characters that makes some balk. I mean, compare manga to the kids on American TV: Dawson’s Creek, the OC, Gossip Girl, 90210, One Tree Hill, the whole corpus of MTV Reality Programming.

Sure there are other things on TV. There are other manga, too.

3d. Intent versus Interpretation

If some blogger picks only the rated-18-plus manga to recommend because the respective artists are particularly adept at drawing panty shots… well…

It’s a bit slimy, but we’re still in the big grey area.

Can a twelve year old American girl read an ecchi romance manga? Sure. But while our hypothetical 35-year-old blogging slimeball notices lace, small bows, and the careful depiction of seams and stitching in a certain very small part of a character’s wardrobe, the 12-year-old manga fan has already moved on to the next panel, where the heroine clocks the ‘perv’ who just saw her panties with a loaded book bag. And maybe kicks him in the head when he’s down.

…and then the next page, where the character complains to her friends about the peeping tom who stole a glance
…and then the next chapter where the shy hero complains to his friends that it was just an accident, and he didn’t deserve the abuse
…and then the next volume where the two characters, hero and heroine, still kind of hate each other but are forced together by circumstances
…and the heroine starts to think the hero may actually be kind of sweet, when he’s not being (or seeming to be) a perv
…and the hero is tired of being hit all the time, but sees that the heroine isn’t just a bag-slinging harridan, and how when he isn’t around to peep up her skirt she’s working hard, helping her friends, and caring for her family

And there’s a whole lot of story there: a sweet, chaste romance… with the occasional panty shot. IF you focus only on the lingerie, you’re missing it.

I might draw the line at handing Negima to a 12-year-old girl — but then again Negima is full of powerful, dynamic female characters, most of them quite skilled, even expert, at their own talents and abilities, and (other than their near-universal and inexplicable fascination with Negi) also portrayed as complex characters with their own motivations, interactions, and goals.

Considering that the things in Negima that [*cough*] distract me would be invisible — well not invisible but also certainly not as insistent — to a pre-teen or teen girl reader, I’d be most interested to know what they think of the story in Akamatsu’s book.

##

Let me tackle this from a different angle: Simpsons. We all know the Simpsons, like them for Bart’s impishness or Homer’s cluelessness or Lisa’s continuing idealism in the face of idiocy; or for the wide range of secondary characters or the steadily built and often consistent universe and backstory; or for fart jokes or beer jokes or fat jokes. It’s funny… and it can be slightly subversive, or insightful, or touching, or informative of the human condition, or just plain nuts.

About the only thing it isn’t, is salacious. Oh sure Homer and Marge are married and occasionally that means what that means — but it’s usually played for laughs. Sure they’re naked, but they’re naked in a windmill on a miniature golf course. And there are other things which should go right over the head of younger viewers but likely don’t but that’s OK; kids might know what the joke is but they don’t think about it in the same way I do since they lack the life experience.

My point is, given the source material, there shouldn’t be any reason, need, demand, or inspiration for Simpsons Porn.

And yet, it exists.

I could beat you over the head with that, tell you that fan-produced porn is a reflection of what’s going on with that very small percentage of fans (what was inside their head before they saw the source material) and has nothing to do with the original art, that when presented with something so familiar (Simpsons) and Rule #34 of the Internet (“If you can imagine it, there is porn of it.”) and my own arguments above you can draw your own conclusions about the origins and relative prevalence of the corresponding very small percentage of manga fans.

But I hate to belabor the point.

3e. Cultural Differences
[not that there’s anything right with that]

The Beach Episode. The Hot Springs Episode. I could try to defend these but it’d just be me (western fan) trying to excuse obvious fan service. However, in some contexts casual nudity is acceptable — and depictions of nudity in film, on TV, and in comics are also acceptable to a point —

Anyone who has seen the transformation sequence in your average Magical Girl show knows that there are allowances made in Japan that seem to irritate some western prudish preferences. It would seem that the female form by itself isn’t the problem.

That said, the Peeping Tom is as much a meme in Japan as it is in any western story (presented as a male duty, in some anime). So salacious nudity is the same in either language. Nudity itself isn’t the problem, it’s a matter of context.

Not that I’m arguing the Japanese are more advanced or mature on this topic; certain manga and anime artists are very good about making sure we have the proper context.

[final aside:
But I have heard anecdotal stories about salarymen openly reading manga porn on the subway on their way into work. If true, well, damn. Can’t get away with that here]

##

Enough about art. Let’s get back (more directly) to the psychology:

4. The Tease.

…and there is a difference between the Payoff and the Tease.

The Tease is a powerful draw. So important, that one can build on just The Tease and not even get to the payoff. (Betty Page, Marilyn Monroe, Gypsy Rose, Ann Margaret — any sex symbol from before 1967 built their reputation on the tease.)

How many episodes, how many series, has Tenshi Muyo gone through without a single damn thing happening? Oh, sure: he saves the universe once or twice, but that isn’t the Payoff we’re looking for.

Most shows and manga follow the same pattern. Almost all tease and tease (and tease) and at best, you get a Shakespearean (or Disney) happy ending where the two leads get married and go live Happily Ever After. That’s the standard.

Just off the top off my head, I can think of two exceptions — but exceptions that prove the rule:

Ai Yori Aoshi spoiled a good initial premise by quickly degenerating into just another Harem comedy — and dragged on through way too many volumes and episodes — but by the time we get to vol 17 of the manga, Boy Finally Marries Girl and on top of that we see a tastefully depicted scene of what can only be described as a toe-curling orgasm. (It’s fiction; I doubt all interactions between mutual virgins are quite that successful). The point there is that two people can love each other and suffer hardships and remain chaste — and tease and tease and tease — and that it works. Temptation Avoided and True Love Prevails …and within the institution of marriage, at that; hell, instead of putting an “M for Mature” ranking on it, some abstinence advocates should be working to put this book into middle school sex education programs.

Kare Kano (manga by Tokyopop, DVDs released by Right Stuf as “His and Her Circumstances”) is another exception. Boy meets Girl. Boy discovers Girl’s deepest secret, and blackmails her into doing paperwork for the student council. Girl discovers Boy is also not all that he seems, and the two reach first a cease-fire, and then an understanding, and then a relationship, and then one rainy afternoon Stuff Happens. But the story isn’t about that, any more than it’s about student council paperwork. The depiction and development of human emotion is the point. And while Stuff is certainly a part of His and Her relationship, it’s not the end of the story or even the last chapter. It’s like in the middle somewhere.

There can be a payoff, but the context once again is key.

Build build build build. Tension, characterization, deepening bonds, and mutual dependencies. The long tease is the rule in manga & anime — it keeps us coming back chapter after chapter, episode after episode. Sometimes there isn’t even a payoff.
(at least not through official channels; there is definitely a doujinshi for that)

(Unless we’re talking about porn; porn is all about a payoff — every 16 pages or so.)


5. Enough Dithering: back to the point. Immature depictions of females.

Yep. Happens.

What? Does this bother you? What does that say about you?

Related to but also in addition to all the other points I’ve made on intent and interpretation in multiple paragraphs above: It’s a comic originally written in a foreign language for a foreign audience. They have different social norms, politeness and respect are concepts built into their language, they were raised in and practice a completely different religion, and on top of all that their comics look nothing like the comics any of us were used to just a decade ago. What does the comic strip Cathy say about America, and given that supposition, why hasn’t another country nuked us off the map?

Moe. Kawaii. Cute. Hello Kitty and Bearbricks. Pokemon and Monkichi. There’s this whole thing, a concept I think all of us can see which I can’t quite articulate that is uniquely Japanese, on the surface appealing but also deeply disturbing and it is a mindset, a world view that is as foreign to the West as sushi.

Of course, many of us are at the point where we eat raw fish for lunch without blinking.

##

Allow me to dial down the snark, efface the self-deprecating humour, and file off the fine language I’ve larded around the issue. Bluntly:

Are Manga Depictions of Children Harming Children?

The answer to that is No. Unless artists are exploiting actual child models (bad artist! don’t be a creep!) I think the only harm done is Pops smacking Junior ‘cross the gob for pilfering the ‘good’ comics from his private stash. I don’t think any damage is being done to minors. And Let Me Expand on That:

Even if a child reads the worst porn manga, or even lolicon manga, I doubt it is any more corrupting than the old 60s and 70s Playboy centerfolds I managed to get my hands on [from a frightenly young age]; kids are curious about this stuff and the more ‘dirty’ you make it sound the more they want to see it at least once. Going further back, even past my own misspent youth: the Tijuana Bibles or Art Slides or stag films or pin-ups or the works of Allegrain, Bellini, Bernini, Blake, Bosch, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Cezanne, Chagall, Correggio, Courbet, Cranach the Elder, Dali, Degas, Donatello, Duchamp, Dürer, El Greco, Ernst, Fragonard, Gauguin, Giorgione, Goya, Guercino, Hayez, Heintz the Elder, Ingres, Kirchner, Klimt, Leighton, Leonardo, Magritte, Mailol, Manet, Matisse, Michelangelo, Modigliani, Moreau, Munch, Palazzolo, Parrish, Perugino, Picasso, Platt Lynes, Pollaiolo, Poussin, Pradier, Raphael, Rembrandt, Renoir, Riefenstahl, Ritts, Rodin, Rubens, Schiele, Scopas, Seurat, Spranger, Tintoretto, Titian, Toulouse-Latrec, Van Dyck, Van Eyck, Van Gogh, Vargas, Von Stuck, Waterhouse, & generations of classicists and other unknown artists of antiquity.

Oh My God it’s out there and some of it is hanging on walls in museums! Public Museums! Some of them free, and considered ‘educational’ institutions!

Am I arguing that Panty Shot Manga is fine art? No. Hell no. …But neither is it a great corrupting influence on our youth.

And for those of you who take exception to my comparison of art nudes to porn, that the depiction of the nude figure isn’t the same as a story, it’s just a pic of a girl: Might I refer you to The Rape of the Sabine Women and it’s many portrayals?

##

Do Manga Depictions of Children put Children at Risk?

No. The problem isn’t the manga: Creeps are creeps. They’ll be creeps even without comics.

Condemn someone for being a creep. Question their motives. Arrest them and convict them, when and as needed. But condemn their Comics?

Just because some perv happens to like them, does that make the comics themselves abhorrent, nausiating, reprehensible, burnable & shreadable, subject to exorcisms and excommunications, a blight upon the bloated ass of an incorrigible, corrupt humanity?

Yes?

Really? Drawings?

Photography is an entirely different matter. A photograph is a record of a live subject, a person. Any artistic work of photography that exploits its subject, well, exploits its subject. There is no interpretation allowed: Some Creep with a camera needs to watch out or Pops will, justifiably, smack ‘em ‘cross the gob for taking snaps of Junior. And then the police will step in. They should step in.

##

And back to the beginning.

Lucky Star is a cute comic made into a cute anime that has an appeal to a male, otaku fan base because one character (Konata) is a cute girl, depicted as being even shorter and less developed than her classmates, and who shares all of their bad habits: lazy, unmotivated, willing to put off school work for video games, online games, anime, manga, dating-sim games — please note that last one, it strikes me as particularly Exceptional — she works at a cosplay cafe to earn money to support her habits and persists in all of her hobbies despite being (as is portrayed explicitly in the series) athletically capable, quite intelligent, and female.

She’s drawn like a doll: No curves, big eyes, long hair, short. She’s not a sex object, she’s a blank onto which the viewer could ascribe any physical characteristics; even her anime-generic-blue hair could be any color from black to blond (maybe not a redhead, though) in the imagination of the viewer.

Given that she is a die-hard female otaku, she could be drawn as a stick figure with long hair and backed up by the series writing would still be a figure of interest.

Along-side Konata, add on a pair of twins (one moe, one tsundere) and a clumsy girl with glasses — and a knowing author who not only makes the most of the stereotypes but has the characters do the same, in character, in the comic — and, well, duh. It’s popular.

Sure, they’re high school students drawn like kids. But unless you watch the show on mute, you stop noticing. It’s about dialog and interaction; given that there is no plot, it’s all about dialog, humor, in-jokes [very specific otaku in-jokes], and the interaction between characters. The art style is tertiary, or even less important but I can’t think of what comes after tertiary.

It was an artistic choice to draw the main characters as mere characterizations of the manga&anime tropes they are meant to make fun of. The work then builds on that to send up wide swaths of Japanese popular culture in a way that I only get, as an American fan, at say 50%

And that 50% is wonderful.

Some — Myself Included — could criticize the show for the character design; it makes for a quick, snide swipe at the show and at loser fanboys who like it. Thinking about why, though, and looking at what the show is, makes any such comment not just superfluous but in fact bends it back to bite the snarky commentor, as their objections only prove the humor and insight of the creator.

##

Shugo Chara is a cute magical girl show that takes the old form, ‘oh I have magic powers now, must be time to fight evil’ and uses it to ask deeper questions of identity and personality, the difficulty of fitting in and getting by, the sense that we are lying when we put on our ‘public’ face and the deep insecurities we hide behind false façades, and the disconnect between who we are and what we might be — that frisson of potential that we occasionally feel when we go beyond what we thought our limits were, and succeed.

And… it’s a cute magical girl show.

To address the age appropriateness of Shugo Chara (which is where we started, ages ago) it seems that Del Rey Manga does have an Y rating, cited as ages 10+ but as near as I can tell, they’ve seldom used it. It appears on Cartoon Network tie-in titles and on Sugar Sugar Rune

…And by the time Sugar Sugar Rune is up to vol 6, it’s been upgraded to T 13+ as well.

Del Rey even says, “it can be difficult to judge the age-appropriateness of any given manga by its cover.” Del Rey defaults to T 13+ for any licensed title.

I have no problem with kids boxing out of their weight class, as it were, but then again I had scarffed down Tolkien and Lewis by the age of ten, and was tackling Beowulf, Dante, and Homer by the age of 13. (I’m big into myth and fantasy; when I discovered Campbell as a high school senior it was like, “oh, this is what all this is leading up to”)
(yes, I’m a nerd, but we all knew that)

So *I* think the Shugo Chara manga is fine for kids, as young as 8 even — depending on the kid — and to the other point: fifth graders drawn like high schoolers, well, not all the characters are in school. It seems to me that the oldest looking characters are villains of indeterminate age and origin.

The Kids, our heroes, look like kids to me. They dress older, and maybe act older, but they all fit into that manga-generic ‘school age kid’ mode and some look much younger (like half the height) of the others. Which makes sense as 10-13 is a dynamic time for most kids, and the difference between boys and girls of that age is even more pronounced. The characters of Shugo Chara run the gamut — from the chibi Shugo Chara of the title through little sisters through small 4th graders through athletic 6th graders through bishi villains and on to parents and teachers — from chibi to kid to tween to teen and then beyond. With this dynamic range available, the depiction of any one character in any given mode need only make sense in context. Sure, Amu is decked out like a fashion plate — but as explained on pages 15-16 of volume one, it’s her mom who chooses her outfits, and her “ultra-cool”, reserved reputation is just that she is shy and scared in most public situations and so talks in short sentences and tends to be brusque.

Once again, characterization drives the artistic depiction. And she’s still flat as a board.

##

Any other arguments about the apparent age of characters in manga & anime I’d like to diffuse with the following assertion:

Some things are lost in translation. Some issues Gain in translation, inflated all out of compass by people who have no idea what it is that they’re commenting on. And some people see some porn of a particular type and assume it’s all porn.

And some people see what they want to see and can’t be deterred because they saw it and it’s hard to convince someone that their own hang-ups color their perceptions mightily.

I didn’t want to go there but it’s the end of the essay: Take cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. From the western perspective it’s nothing. We do worse in caricaturing our own leaders on a daily basis. It has to do with perception, tradition, and beliefs about what is appropriate — even as a stylized, obviously false depiction.

A cartoon, just a shade removed from a stick figure scrawl, is just meaningless scratches on paper.
But people have died.

Died.

A little T&A, even entirely inappropriate borderline-criminal T&A, pales in comparison. And cultural differences are no joke.



5by8 #28: Conditions on the Ground, and Your Weekend Homework Assignment

filed under , 21 August 2008, 17:59 by

Manga isn’t growing by leaps and bounds anymore; it never was a license to print money and now the initial boom (which I’ve dated to 2004-2007, though others say it started earlier) is settling into something more like steady single-digit growth.

Steady single-digit growth isn’t just good, it’s excellent. We all need to get our heads to a place where we can agree on that, instead of obsessing over what the fan world used to look like and lamenting the crash of the anime DVD market. It’s a shame, that, but manga isn’t anime and with Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan all partnered-up (or getting into the game themselves) the books will be available for quite some time.

quick review for those who haven’t been reading my stuff for the past year:
Between the 5 of them, these companies account for about half of the US book business. [48.8% – Source: Michael Hyatt, Dec 2006] Each of the 5 also acts as their own distributor, shipping new titles direct to book stores. Since not everyone is going to know this off the top of their head

We can discuss which third tier (or major) manga publisher is going to go under or is struggling or might not meet their deadlines (or has never met their deadlines) but at $10 a pop and with this much publishing muscle behind it, manga as a category isn’t going anywhere.

Steady single-digit, year-on-year growth is a Great place to be.
Got it?

Good.

##

Making the books is only half of the equation, though: Retail is suffering a bit.

Let’s start with conditions on the ground:

I had occasion over the weekend to visit not one but two of the bookstores closest to my home — neither of which is actually the bookstore I work at, handily enough, and also handily: of the two, one is a Barnes & Noble while the other is a Borders.

Survey Says…

At Barnes and Noble I encountered three bookcases full of manga, each 6+ feet tall and containing 7 shelves. You’re thinking, “Only three bookcases, eh?”

Here’s a tip for all you would-be-experts who are looking to compare bookstores: the key figure is linear feet. At this location, each shelf is 4’ long, so the 21 shelves gives us 84 linear feet of shelving. (plus other displays, see below)

Borders is better, and looks a lot better at first blush: 12 bookcases, 4’ tall, 5 shelves each (except for the first one, which only had 4 to accommodate taller hardcovers and art books on the top shelf). Each shelf was only 3’ long, though, so Border’s 59 shelves ended up being only 177 linear feet. —4 times as many bookcases (and 4 times the footprint — that is to say, the square footage of carpet occupied by the section) but only twice the linear feet.

While my local Borders has double the shelving compared to it’s closest competitor, the local B&N, there are two other merchandising points to consider: at B&N, every shelf was packed— if you pulled out a volume it was iffy that you’d be able to reshelve it. Borders, at least my local Borders this particular weekend, wasn’t just loose, it looked a little weak: bare wood showing in spots and one or two titles shelved face-out (instead of spine-out) on each shelf.

This particular B&N also had two spinner racks for new releases (one each, Viz and Tokyopop: room for 40 feature titles on each), along with half of a display table (the rest was non-manga GNs) and an endcap. As a bookseller, I can tell you the titles that overflowed onto the table and endcap weren’t there because someone thoughtfully selected titles for recommended reading — they ran out of room, and shunted the new stuff (and stuff they had in quantity, and omnibus editions that were just taking up too much space) onto displays because there wasn’t room anywhere else. Borders… doesn’t have to do this. There aren’t any ancillary manga displays at Borders — at least at my Borders — but they’ve twice the dedicated shelf space and it isn’t quite full at the moment.

Don’t get me wrong, Borders is still stocking more manga. Complete or near complete runs of things like Hana-kimi, Red River, Prince of Tennis… hell, for Red River or Prince of Tennis you’d be lucky to find the first volume at B&N, more likely you’d see just the most recent volume and that’s about it.

Speaking of Tokyopop, (we weren’t, but I can’t think of a clever segue) I also saw a near-complete run of Chibi Vampire (all the manga volumes, though not all 5 novels) and Fruits Basket at Borders, and a healthy sampling of other series (DNAngel, Rave Master, Kingdom Hearts — and the OEL series Warcraft and Warriors) and most representatives from the popular back list (Live Hina, Chobits) — I don’t carry a title list in my pocket (hm. maybe I should…) and I won’t claim encylopedic knowledge but there were enough Tokypop titles in evidence that I can’t corroborate previous reports of Tokyopop being ‘stripped’ from shelves.

At least here in Atlanta, I’d call both of these locations average, if not representative. I’d have to plan an excursion (several, in fact) much farther afield to be sure, and I’m not going to spend that much in gas —this week. Maybe next year.

—A quick, non-scientific sampling of my shelves at home shows that each linear foot holds 17-18 volumes of manga. Calling it 17 and rounding down to the nearest hundred: my local B&N is stocking 1400 volumes, plus whatever is on the spinner racks et al. — so 1500 volumes plus — while my local Borders has room for 3000, and even at only 75-80% full (which is where they’re at right now, I reckon’) they’re still stocking 2200-2400 books. Someone else can tell me how that translates into titles stocked — I didn’t bother to count how many different series were on the shelves, or multiple copies of the same book; I was strictly looking at fixtures
— if pressed I’d say about 200 series at either store (Borders has more complete runs)

##

When considering retail space for books, there are 4 things to consider:
1. Linear Feet of Shelving
2. Location Location Location
3. Footprint
4. Category Adjacencies

Actual shelf-feet is most important, as this translates directly into the number of books shelved. The location (where is the manga: up front, near the coffee shop, near the newsstand, or in back on the 2nd floor?), footprint (how much of the square footage of the store is used) and category adjacencies (is your manga next to sci-fi or kids?) also matter, but it all differs wildly from store to store — and to a limited extent all that doesn’t matter: fans will find manga wherever you put it.

But honestly? Give manga a dedicated space near the magazine rack, toward the front entrance or coffee shop if you can swing it, and don’t hide it either in genre fiction or next to the kids dept. (oh sure, the kids are buying it, but they don’t associate Kingdom Hearts with Judy Blume, the Boxcar Children, or—godforbid—other Disney books.)

Forget for a minute that manga look like books. These are periodicals —in the original meaning of the term: items printed periodically; volumes in a series and coming out multiple times a year. Your customer base comes in at least once a month, and while they’ll find manga in that furthest back corner if that’s where you insist on placing it, you’re only getting the trufans if you market it that way. Really, what you need are the 6-19 year olds who don’t know they want manga yet — but will buy it if they happen to walk by it (“oooo… Naruto! And Bleach! And Vampire Knight, I don’t know what that is but it sounds so cool! and this looks cute but, um, …what’s a Shugo Chara?”).

##

Here’s your homework:

  • Field Trip! Go to your local. (no need to make a special trip, I know you’ll be in sometime this week or next for your fix)
  • Count the number of manga shelves
  • Estimate the shelf size. If you can’t do this by eye, there are some handy rulers just to hand at most bookstores: the ‘standard’ manga size (Viz/Tokyopop/Del Rey) is 7½ inches high, a copy of Shonen Jump (or a DC/Marvel GN) is 10 inches high. Or use a 'cloth yard': for most folks, stretch out your arm and from the tip of your nose to your finger tips is going to be 3 to 3½ feet. (If you plan on using this method I hope you can think of a casual way to employ it; I don’t advise sticking your nose on the bookcase)
  • (hint: I think for a lot of the chain bookstores, shelves are either 3 or 4 feet long)
  • And then… math. (Sorry, but the math isn’t too bad): # of shelves x length of shelves = linear feet of shelving.
  • linear feet x 17 manga volumes per foot = total number of manga.

I’m not doing it (enough on my plate as is) but it might be interesting if someone could take these instructions and see if internet volunteers might be willing to take the 15 minutes to survey their local and post a short update (zip code, Store name, # of bookcases, linear feet of shelving/# of manga volumes) just to see if there might be a way to track what the retail penetration of manga actually *is*. We can trade anecdotal stories all we like, which is fine, but if you wanted a pseudo-scientific metric, here’s your metric.

maybe set up a wiki. Wikis are ‘web 2.0’ and all that.

(And this would work for any genre/format—say, Graphic Novels, mayhaps—though the volumes/ln.ft. constant would be different.)

Until some other blog or individual takes on this project:
go ahead and post your own observation in the comments. If enough (i.e. more than three) people do it, maybe it can serve as both a starting point and inspiration for someone who does have the time to follow through.

[Editorial Note: I’m still working on moving archives over from comicsnob.com; if you’d like to read previous 5by8 columns a handful are available here, though all older columns (#1-#27) can be found at Comicsnob]



5by8, #26: So what’s the target?

filed under , 15 September 2007, 01:49 by

originally written for and posted on Comicsnob.com [Dec ’06 – May ’08]

Before we get into today’s topic, an extended aside: Why no column for 3 months?

Those who have been following the site (I think there are three of you now) know that I used to do a weekly column, titled “5by8,” and while in the beginning it was mostly filler — an easy one-off (usually an opinion piece) that I posted on Mondays in lieu of actual content — over time the column evolved past baldly-stated-opinions-disguised-as-pseudofacts into a set of mini-research papers that quickly got out of hand:

for column #25 (the last one) even restricting my “research” to easily-Google-able web pages, I cited 34 sources. It takes a couple of hours just to read that crap, let alone analyse it and type up something that might be informative and entertaining based upon it. And so: the 13-week hiatus of my “weekly” column.

What have I been doing for all this time?

I’ve been slide-rule deep in corporate financial reports, geeking out over the lovely ICv2 numbers (which post monthly), and trying to draw some parallels between graphic novels (and manga) and the rest of the book trade, in an effort to wrap my brain around comic book sales in a numbers-and-dollars-kind-of way. One offshoot of the ongoing research that you’ve already seen is the Pulse column, with its summary take on online sales each week. This has gotten a few links here and there (anyone read Japanese?) so I’m guessing it’s something that people were interested in seeing, even with the limitations of my method. The peer-to-peer rankings are subjective, though. How many volumes does each manga series actually sell — and past that, what magnitude of sales are we going to consider to be a “success”?

As I’ve noted in the past, when developing my own version of weekly sales tracking, actual numbers are hard to come by. Even the excellent numbers available from ICv2 are just estimates, and only reflect Direct Market sales. A lot of what we’d like to know about manga sales is in a no-man’s land — small enough that it isn’t really covered by major news sources, but so important to individual publishers that they horde their own numbers and will never release figures to the general public. Since none of the US manga publishers are publicly traded companies, hell, we don’t even know the total dollar amounts for manga sales unless they deign to share that information with us. We scrape together what info we have. We draw parallels (deserved or not) between the direct market and bookstores, and try to extrapolate from Graphic Novels as a whole to Manga as a category. So far, none of this works — at least not for me; if you have numbers, post ‘em. What I’ve found, though, I’m going to share with you in this column.

Hell, other than the fact that they have taken my 10 bucks a couple hundred times over, no one can say just how much money is being made in manga.

Well…
OK, so individual company profits and margins are still mysterious, but we can look at some overall sales estimates: The Wall Street Journal quotes ICv2 twice, and the numbers cited look pretty good: $640M for the comics industry as a whole; a little over half that, $330M for graphic novels and of that, $200M is the manga. If you were to second-guess the Journal and go to original sources, in this case ICv2’s own press release, then you’d see manga wasn’t given an exact number but a range ($170M to $200M, WSJ cites the high end) and a subtle emphasis on one other fact: the graphic novel format has for the first time overtaken its floppy “comic book” ancestor in sales.

A little more digging (PW reporting on the same conference) will reveal another tasty tidbit: general bookstores sell two thirds of all “book” comics, and their sales are growing at a faster rate than other market players (no one pointed a finger but I’m guessing the direct market). If I may be allowed to add my own interpretation: Comic sales are up, because graphic novel sales are way up, because your local big box bookstores are selling more graphic novels, and you know, manga is a big part of that. (You can spin it however you’d like. Show your work.) (Can’t wait for the 2007 numbers.)

Of course I’m biased. I like the manga, I know the book trade and how it works — that’s why some big corporation pays me a manager’s salary — and one exciting part of my job is getting the hobby to work for me in the workplace. If I can tie larger trends in books to graphic novels (or vice versa) then I can make a little extra bank for my store. If my store makes more money, in turn the soulless corporation may kick in a tiny sliver of extra tinsel for my paychecks. (Ah yes, my meagre paycheck. You wouldn’t believe how much of it gets ploughed back into the store in manga and anime purchases.)

Let’s start there. No, not my paychecks: the book trade.

##

–Let’s put the book biz into perspective for most of you, big-picture-type-stuff:
Source: the June 2007 Harper’s Index *

Minimum number of different books sold in the U.S. last year, as tracked by Nielsen BookScan: 1,446,000.
Number of these that sold fewer than 99 copies: 1,123,000.
Number that sold more than 100,000: 483.
*and I paid $26 for a subscription to verify on Harper’s website what I thought I’d read a couple months back — I might have saved the money because the same info can also be found via a Google search cited at a “random blog“http://dogsbody.blog-city.com/harpers_index_on_book_sales.htm or two. But now we all know.

Yep. Out of all the titles sold in stores and online, more than three-quarters are either dead or slowly dying an ignoble death, and only .0334% can be considered runaway successes — a third of a tenth of one percent.

Out of the top 25% (the roughly 323K books that sell between 100 to 100,000 copies) it is hard to say how many earn back their advances, or in the case of manga, turn a profit for their licensees. No one is saying, but I’d be willing to bet the entire graphic novel output of DC, Marvel, Tokyopop, Viz, and every second, third, & fourth tier comic publisher we can think of all fall into that top 25% (they only have to sell 100 copies of each book, right?). That’s the good news.

…going back to ICv2’s numbers, they say there were “about 2,800 book format comics” published in 2006. (Now are those brand new books, new books and reprints, or is it just the overall total? Can’t say from the article. but..) Taking that number at face value and working backwards we find that graphic novels make up just 1% of the 2006 total. Maybe we knew this already, but here’s a little proof: as cool as they are, graphic novels are still just a small small crumb of the overall pie.

It may be enough to note that the book trade is rough. Though the odds on making a fortune from books may be marginally better than the lottery (1 in 3 million, give or take) the “tickets” are harder to come by. I’ll cap this section with a quote from John Steinbeck: “The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.”

##

The numbers are small but growing. Building on the 2006 ICv2 statistics as posted, we can dig a little deeper and find additional sources (in this case not a publication but an industry expert) who can give the numbers some historical background. It’s only 5 years of history, but I’ll take it.

John Shableski told me and a few other trade show attendees this past August that, yes, the category is growing: from 2001 to 2006 the graphic novel market grew from $43M to $330M. In just five years, that’s a lot [a scientific term]. By a very rough reckoning, and assuming a straight line growth curve, over that time period the business doubled once every 20 months. –you can do your own math, of course. And I doubt the industry is still growing at that pace, though I’ll happily be proven wrong when the 2007 numbers come in.

If we’re talking books, Nielsen BookScan numbers are the Holy Grail of sales figures — but they know it, and they have a cadre of snooty French knights to keep us and Arthur (and anyone else who isn’t a paying customer) away from them, on threat of cow-tepult. Some other sales numbers can be found here and there, if you’re Google savvy and the supply of beer holds out. (though perhaps the beer-contingency only relates to my own search heuristics) Even the sites found on Google aren’t giving away the information, though — info is valuable, and they’re saving the good stuff for “members” or “subscribers”. We can get a part of what we need from the sales pitch, though: info-nuggets like the publishing industry being worth roughly $35B — note that’s b-as-in-billions. (Makes me want to break out in fits of throaty evil laughter, tossing around figures in the billions like that.)

The $330M sales number we’ve been using gets a whole lot smaller when matched up to $35 Billion. All graphic novels are, once again, less than one percent (.94, by my math) and even the entirety of the comics industry–$640M in sales, cited above–doesn’t crack 2% of the big book enchilada.

We’ve considered numbers, and dollar amounts, and yep: comics are small potatoes.

…but comics are posting year-to-year double digit percentage gains at a time when overall book sales are largely flat, so it’s no wonder that the larger publishers and their potential manga partners both are always looking for that next big synergistic deal (ref: 5by8 #25.) Graphic novels, manga trade paperbacks, and cartoon archive collections are an exciting part of the book market these days. Just about every publishing house has at least one junior VP looking at not just comics, but how to make a euro or two off of all kinds of comics. (If you don’t, please email me at mblind[at]comicsnob[dot]com and I can have my resume in your inbox faster than a heart attack.)

##

If I can be forgiven for stretching an analogy: even small potatoes are important if all you sell are potatoes. There have been grumblings going around the various blogs-of-note, spurred by the intersection of one guy’s bad afternoon and a company’s effort to take vertical integration of their niche a big step forward. Of course when The Guy is a suit at Fantagraphics and The Company in this case is Diamond, ever-beneficent Darkseid to the Apokolips of Local Comics Shops, even two isolated, unrelated events can be taken up by the blogosphere, set up as opposite poles in a thermionic valve and we’re going to see some sparks.

The best redux comes from a pair of–once again–largely unrelated posts on PW’s the Beat & The Comics Reporter. I can wait while you go read.

Other folks can talk authoritatively about comics publishing, and where the industry is headed. (that’s not really in my writ.) There are also a lot of people who can speak to the difficulties faced by independent retailers, particularly comic shops, and how the current “lean boom” looks great but isn’t improving the prospects of your local comic retailer.

…Maybe it could have been avoided; wow, I almost wish someone had said something, like, I don’t know… seven and a half years ago about how the direct market could improve — Maybe someone like Warren Ellis could have posted suggestions to a comic book resource site

heh.

Honestly, I’m trying not to laugh, but it’s hard. There’s nothing new about the current “controversy” or “debate” about the direct market. There is a stereotypical “comic book shop” and “comic book guy,” both stereotypes have been around for at least a decade and honestly neither has much to do with customer service and actual sales. (and I can keep using “quotes” until you all get the “point”)

Our business is books: whether you’re a drugstore with a single spinner rack, the proprietor of a mom-and-pop-sized Local Comic Shop™, a big fancy established comics utopia (available in both foreign and domestic flavours), or just the drudge assistant assistant manager slogging it out in a far flung outpost of the Big Box Bookstore chain — then guess what: You sell books for a living.

You can call them comics, or trades, or collections, or whatever — doesn’t matter. If your product is made of more than two pieces of paper and your customer base is using their eyeballs to enjoy it, then you’re selling books. (The trade in trade paperback refers to the book trade, in point of fact.) This is one barrier (one of many mental blocks) that DC and Marvel share with their direct-market outlets: they don’t think of the product as a book. They know their production costs, sure, which includes slave work-for-hire artists and lawyers’ salaries, and printing and distribution, and they may occasionally refer to their output as “books” — but they still think they are selling you Batman or Spider-man. This is why the characters are so heavily trademarked and jealously guarded. This is why there is so much flash and costume and so many stupid variant covers, and so little story.

Newsflash: we’ve already bought into the characters. They are beloved icons. You don’t need to re-sell us on concept, you have to execute on concept and then give us more books. I’m not buying superheroes, I want to buy superhero stories.

(I take that back. I’m *not* buying superheroes anymore. I’ve found this stuff called manga — maybe you’ve heard of it? — and it more than satisfies my jones for story.)

The switch from floppies to paperback books isn’t going to be easy for many comics shops. It means more space dedicated to shelving — and more actual bookshelves — and fewer tables and longboxes. I don’t know that polybagged-cardboard-backed collector’s issues will ever fully disappear, but I’d love to see them relegated to the rarefied realm of Ebay and other auctions, and dropped from daily commerce. Sell us stories, sell us Books — but don’t run a book business just to sell collectibles. If you want to open an antique and curio shop, yeah sure go ahead, but don’t hide behind a cape and then pretend you’re selling anything but dust and nostalgia. Screw resale value and encourage your customers to open things and to read them, and hell let’s recommend a few good stories for them to read while we’re at it. The future of comics is not in the secondary market; let’s put that most hideous hangover of the 80s comic boom behind us, and bury it, once and for all.

Or not. Hell, if you want to stick it out while fans of the spandex age of comics age themselves, into their 50s and 60s and on into that good night, I hope you can see that your chosen market is shrinking. I’m betting on the kids who come into my store and read manga in the aisles without buying it. –Yet. But in 20 years? That sponge might just be nostalgic and itching to buy Naturo volumes 1 through 80-whatever, and looking to pick up (even used) copies so he can read it all again — or maybe his daughter might clue him in that the library still has them on hand — while your copy of Wolverine #1 circa 1982 will be still be perfect, untouched, worth more than ever… and still unsold. And more tragic, unread.

##

If you choose to leave comics behind and instead join the wide wonderful world of books, Welcome!
I wish I had punch and cake for you but instead we’re diving back into the realm of retail sales numbers. Since no one is posting sales numbers online, and since the sexy-just-comics-numbers are non-existent, well, I have to sift through whatever is left, and that would be boring (gods, they’re boring) corporate annual reports.
Comicsnob: “We sift through annual financial reports, so you don’t have to.” (SM)

Most of our usual major corporate suspects list revenue from “media”, not books — that is, books + CDs + DVDs + whatever; I don’t care anymore. I’m calling it all “sales”, and if my own purchases are any guide your average fan buys a fair amount of CDs and DVDs on top of his books & comics anyway. Besides, the number we uncovered earlier for the industry was $35billion; I think we’ve some wriggle room.

(Links to the actually SEC filings are at the end of the article, so yeah, if you want to call me on it go have some fun with the raw data. No — I dare you.)

Annual sales, vintage 2006 (media: books, CDs, & DVDs) (in millions)

  • Barnes and Noble (BKS)
    overall $5261M
    online $433M
  • Borders (BGP) $4113M
  • Amazon (AMZN) $3582M
  • Books-a-Million (BAMM)
    overall $520M
    online $26M
  • Chapters
    overall $768M (809M CA$)
    online $81M (86M CA$)

So there are foot notes — Amazon has no corresponding physical site sales component: all of their business is online. Conversely, Borders (up until recently) ran a co-branded online sales site through Amazon, and so they’ve no real online sales presence. yet. (If they get that up and running, they’ll look much better to investors.) Even with those caveats, that puts the rankings at 1-2-3 B&N-Borders-Amazon, and combined they account for (even fudging for errors) a third of all books sold.

[aside: This is why the Borders/B&N buyers have clout, and why Amazon can coax publishers to participate in their “search inside” function–and why Amazon volunteer “trusted” reviewers may be one of the great untapped (though ultimately, uncontrollable) resources of comics marketing.]

The online-only portion (at least until Borders re-enters the market, they may/may not bump it up further) accounts for about an eighth of the overall market. This seems a large enough sample (at least to me) which is why I run an analysis every week, but I know any in-depth study of online sales is likely a prime example of bad data yielding bad statistics — so yeah it’s a fun exercise but we need to take the numbers with a grain and a half of salt.

Then again, I just started. Let’s see how the online rankings perform over a whole year. (Oh gods did I just commit to compiling online sales data for a whole year?)

##

So far, we’ve looked at big numbers, and talked our way all around the business, and snarked a bit about small chucks of the business, but hell can we figure out how comics are actually doing?

One benchmark that Harper’s helpfully pointed us to is 100k. (the topest of the top one percent)
And I’m a big fan of ICv2 and their monthly numbers, so if we stack one against the other where do we stand? The top comic books (the floppies) actually hold their own, selling 100K through the top 10 and a couple places down besides; the collections and trade paperback originals sell significantly less (a tenth, if that) but the book format comics have a longer shelf life, and the ICv2 numbers only include the direct market (which, we discovered above, is only a third of the overall trade sales, the rest being sold by traditional book stores) so we could easily multiply the results by three, for each month, and we’re going to end up with a nice little stack there by the end of the year. Add onto that the difference in cover price ($15-20 rather than $4-6) and we see why graphic novels outsold comic books — at least for 2006 and presumably moving forward.

100,000 copies is nothing though. I mean, If you’re some Scottish chick with a handful of character stereotypes and a D&D Monster Manual (deepest apologies, Rowling-sensei) then selling 11 million copies or so is a walk in the park.

Rowling is a “lottery winner,” though. An outlier that has little to do with overall sales trends. Selling 100K copies puts anyone in the winners’ circle, and selling even a quarter of that will put a title solidly in the midlist; something like Watchmen sells 25,000 annually through the direct market (and so, likely 75K overall) and if you were a publisher and had a book that sold 1 copy for every three Watchmen you’d be promoting marketing drones to vice-presidencies and having a party too or some such.

(aside: damn, we’re still buying Watchmen at that rate?)

If we were to look at manga (via Mangablog, thanks Brigid) then the direct market is warm, but not exceptionally hot, for this part of the market. If the Wall Street Journal or any of the other sources cited above are to be believed, though, then manga is the new hotness– and I suppose, the ICv2 numbers just indicate that the direct market is missing out.

My own take on sales continues: I’ll be expanding the scope of the Pulse rankings and anchoring it to a calendar week (Sunday to Saturday) and while that does mean some additional work, I do enjoy the exercise. I’m hoping that moving past a top 10 or a top 40 reveals something — deeper trends or at least the “almost made it” titles that we all should be reading but probably missed.

A number of very good sites (alibris, half.com, abebooks, powell’s) can’t contribute much to the online sales rankings, because what makes them good (giant swap-meet like atmosphere for used books) is what makes their site numbers bad for the report. I like the mix I have, but am open to further suggestions: if you know a site that should be included you should drop me a line.

##

References:

Comics Shops Debate:
Ms. MacDonald at The Beat
Mr. Spurgeon at the Comics Reporter
Old School: Warren Ellis circa 1999 at CBR

Business news — the Wall Street Journal
Manga Mania
Pow! Romance! Comics Court Girls

Not cited above, but go read it anyway:
Sequart on long term comics pricing, compared to the overall price index

Damn I love the numbers at ICv2:
Graphic Novels Outsell Comics
Comics and Graphic Novels Both Up Double Digits
ICv2’s Top 300 Comics & Top 100 GN’s Index

Publishers Weekly is also right there:
Industry Sales Flat in ‘06
Graphic Novel Market Hits $330 million
Diamond Summit Marks Industry in Transition

The Book Industry Study Group is more helpful than they intended to be: link

Annual Reports:
AMZN link
BAMM link
BGP link
BKS link
IDG link



5x8 #18: Ages of Fan IV

filed under , 17 April 2007, 01:14 by

originally written for and posted on Comicsnob.com [Dec ’06 – May ’08]

I was thinking of a different, more involved intro but honestly, what else do I need to say:

Robotech!
(no, no… imagine the voice-over guy saying it, with the Minucci/Ober score starting to swell in the background.)

Dateline 4 March 1985, on a TV station near you…

##

the Ages of Fan IV — ’85: toys, shows, Robotech, cons, and the new fan culture

So we’ll begin this week with an extended aside: occasionally in reviews and in other off-hand commentary, I’ve referred to one anime or another as a “recycler”; this refers mostly to the re-use of animation sequences, but also to the re-use of plots. How many times can a giant monster attack Tokyo? (this is actually a zen koan.)

One of the earliest recyclers any of us in America will be familiar with is Voltron. Watch the lions assemble, here comes the force sword, and the monster of the week goes down in a blaze of vaguely non-violent carnage. Voltron has been a staple of the otaku and proto-otaku diet for decades now (before we even knew…) since the original U.S. airing in 1984. Voltron and other sentai (“task force”) shows — like say Power Rangers, not that I’m admitting that Power Rangers has anything to contribute to the current discussion past the obvious parallel I just cited — owe an obvious debt to Gatchaman (aka “Battle of the Planets”), right down to the fact that there are five members on the team. Gatchaman and Voltron may have become such a part of the fan landscape that you don’t realize—or didn’t even know—that kids TV series right up to today are still riffing on these old shows.

The two rivals, the princess, the big guy, the pee-wee/sidekick — these are anime archetypes now, but at one point it was all brand new… Voltron, even with it’s faults, is part of the anime canon; like Speed Racer or Astroboy before it. This was the first introduction to Japanese visual culture for many young American fans. If you aren’t six years old, though, Voltron (Hyakuju-ou GoLion, in the Japanese original) lacks a certain something. Voltron is certainly important, but we need to wait until the following year (1985) to find the next milestone for our otaku timeline.

##

Maybe you’ve heard of Robotech, or it’s lesser-known-but-better alter-ego, Macross. I say “maybe” as in “maybe you’re an indigenous warm blooded sentient mammal or visiting alien species who has been on the planet for at least 10 years.”

The success of Robotech has nothing to do with the merits of the original series, Macross. It’s not like there’s some sort of freak-genius adaptation that made the American show an instant icon in sci-fi television either. In many ways, Macross/Robotech is just a rip-off of the earlier Gundam series, and the original English dub, while inspired in it’s own way, did nothing to alleviate the faults of the original — they were merely masked because no one watching it had ever seen Gundam, let alone would have known enough Japanese to begin nitpicking the adaptation. Heck, at the moment I can’t find the half-remembered sources, but I could swear that even the creators of Macross knew it was a Gundam rip-off, and occasionally played up points in the new series for comedic effect. I mean, the battleship transforms into a giant robot; is anyone taking this seriously?

Oh, we all took it all too seriously.

Robotech had a head start: the model kits were already available. In fact, before it was used as a show title “Robotech” was a blanket brandname used by Revell for a number of model kits derived from several unrelated Japanese properties, including Macross. This may be a contributing factor to the latter aggregation that now defines Robotech: Carl Macek and Harmony Gold had a show they knew would be a winner, but the trick was they only had 36 episodes. To make the property more palatable to U.S. syndication customers, who were looking for enough eps to do weekday daily broadcasts (a minimum of 65 eps; that’s one each daily weekdays, for 13 weeks) some drastic measure seemed to be called for. This is how two unrelated series (Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada) were tagged on to the end of Macross. It helped (and no doubt made the licensing a bit easier) that all three series were produced by the same anime studio, Tatsunoko Productions, so there were some vague compatibilities in both style and production values. Further continuity was manufactured by a over-arcing gloss provided via creative translation, some narrative voice-overs not present in the original, and a new music track to provide further continuity across the three story arcs. All this, to get us to the 85 episode epic known to American audiences as Robotech.

There was the TV show, and there were models and toys. There were trading cards and role playing games. Later, there were books and comics (not manga, but American style comics; reprints collected into trade paperback are still available from Wildstorm).

And the show itself must have run through all 85 episodes several times over, because a number of my younger friends (as in, up to 12 years younger) also have fond memories of this show.

##

Robotech and Voltron inspired an explosion of anime fandom, briefly, in the mid 80s. Bolstered by the fans of previous generations (say, those raised on Astro Boy or Star Blazers) and enjoying a false sense of importance that ephemeral fans can bring to any property, the Robotech geeks went forth and staked ground they thought would be “Robotech” for decades to come.

It was of course premature. It is great to have demand for anime, but it would be another decade before the ability to supply shows to sate that demand would be in place. There was Robotech… and that was it.

But for a while things looked fantastic. All the different Robotech things had a multiplying effect, and while the timing was still just a bit early, some of the newly founded institutions had real sticking power; the long, slow decline of Robotech made it the vehicle for fandom through the long drought until the mid 90s.

And at least two Robotech institutions are still in operation today. In October of 1986, there was the first convention devoted just to Robotech, in Anaheim; it would run in one form or another for the next 20 years — and Harmony Gold still carries on in slightly modified (perhaps expanded would be the way to phrase it) form with The Robotech Convention Tour, which likely has a stop this year at some con near you. In early 1988 a fanzine named “Protoculture Addicts” published it’s first issue, and though repurposed as a general anime magazine, is still found on your local newsstand.

##

Let’s say you were born in 1973. You would have been 7 when Star Blazers first aired, perhaps a little older if you caught the show in later syndication. As a 10 or 11 year old, you would have watched Voltron, and still been able to enjoy it — though Robotech, a slightly more challenging show, would have hit you a year or two later at exactly the same time that you first thought you were leaving childhood behind.

After the next long drought, in ’93 when you were at college, MTV started re-running Speed Racer (after midnight, but you’d stay up for every episode). Maybe you saw Sailor Moon, starting in ’95, or got hooked on Dragon Ball in ’96 (or depending on your preferences, maybe even both).

At this point, on the cusp of the new “kids” anime boom, when Pokemon started showing up on broadcast TV, you’d be around 25 years old and wondering if this kids stuff is all the anime that American TV had to offer, cable or otherwise. But if you look for it, at this point, in 1998, there would be all sorts of new series just now becoming available on the new DVD format. If you’d managed to cash in, even in small part, on the dot-com boom and now had both a little disposable income and fond memories for the cartoons of your youth — well then, this new market niche would have an immediate appeal. Some skill at internet searches would no doubt lead you to this whole new world of licensed anime, and eventually to manga too. From this point, compounded over the following eight years, it’s hard to say just where one might end up…

Hi, my name is Matt, and I’m an otaku.

I’m 33 years old, and I am Macross Otaku; there are many of us, and I’m not even the oldest member of this group. Someone out there was printing magazines, and organizing conventions. But as merely a fan I would like to think I’m indicative of the type: one of many teens who saw Robotech and became hooked.

From this point forward, being an otaku is no longer a odd hobby of just a few. We step into our own (though still small) spotlight to take our place as part of overall fandom. That is to say, it’s still a marginal hobby, but we’re now well known to fellow fans, and as the numbers continue to grow, the general public has also become aware.

In past posts I’ve referred to Robotech as my gateway drug; just good enough to get me hooked, but not quite enough to keep me satisfied. It engendered a lingering hunger.

further readings and references:
Fred Patton’s book Watching Anime, Reading Manga, an excellent resource on early fandom.
wiki: Anime in the United States
wiki: Robotech
- Super Dimension Fortress Macross
- Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross
- Genesis Climber Mospeada
wiki: Voltron
wiki: Mecha



5x8 #17: The Ages of Fan III

filed under , 10 April 2007, 16:35 by

originally written for and posted on Comicsnob.com [Dec ’06 – May ’08]

the Ages of Fan III — ’80, ’83, Flying Battleships, the original BFG, and the first outposts of fandom.

Though the decade-long drought was a dark time indeed for your average anime fan, there were probably only two or three actual anime fans in that era. The kids and teens who were watching the shows in syndication only saw them as cartoons, and either didn’t know or didn’t put any weight on the shows’ Japanese origins.

Consumers of visual culture, the type we refer to collectively as fandom and forming one of the core stereotypes of the geek, nerd, and dork phyla, had other things to chew on during this time period. Star Trek, from ’66 to ’69 and continuing for many years after in syndication, and Star Wars, in ’77 and ’80.

Also during this period, science fiction conventions — up to this point dusty literary affairs, I would imagine — began to change to accommodate the new TV and movie fans, and the new interests of old fans.

Many long-running (and still running) conventions can trace their origin to either this period, or right after. (One notable exception is the WorldCon which dates to the 30s, actually — and I’m sure others will no doubt be name-checked in the comments on this column by their respective adherents.) This era is when conventions became the beast now known to fans everywhere, and taken as a given of the culture. Whether one is a trekker who performs Hamlet in the original Klingon, or a padawan who lists Jedi as his religion on census forms, the con is the place one goes to brag about such accomplishments. The most concise definition of a modern multi-genre, multi-focus, multi-day fan convention is “con” (often supplemented by the recommendation to “just go to one, you’ll see”).

Since 1991, several anime-only (or primarily anime) conventions are also held each year, but that is roughly a decade past the scope of this instalment of the column, and a point we’ll likely get to next week.

No, it is at these general-purpose sci-fi cons that our story strides boldly forward, and the next generation of proto-otaku begin to come into their own — not as part of the main schedule of events, but rather in dark rooms apart from the overall convention. The first anime-screening rooms were just the hotel rooms of convention guests who happened to be fans, and who had VHS tapes of the shows.

But what were they watching?

The unexpected and unparalleled success of the original Star Wars changed the rules for science fiction, particularly sci-fi shows and movies, and sent everyone in Hollywood scurrying to find something else to meet the new demand for space opera. How handy it was that science fiction is one of the staples of Japanese animation.

The first to make the jump, post Star Wars, was re-written and adapted to fit a space setting, and re-titled “Battle of the Planets.” I have no idea why. There was plenty of space stuff just kind of lying around — They could even have gone the giant robot route, and maybe beaten Harmony Gold or World Events to the “false dawn” of the early 80s anime boom.

But these are easy points to pick out, in hindsight. And it really is a matter of slowly building on past success; even with the spikes in popularity, the overall curve trends pretty flat and may even level off some day.

So after the adaptation of Kagaku ninja tai Gatchaman into “Battle of the Planets”, and the success had there, next up was Uchu Senkan Yamato, translated, with a few changes, as Star Blazers. What makes Yamato special?

There is Leiji Matsumoto, whose style is instantly recognisable even for the people who write off Japanese anime as “all looking the same”. There was an epic story, left largely intact this time by the translation-and-adaptation grinder, with a lot of the darker “adult” material still in evidence. This wasn’t just a cartoon for kids. And rather than being an episodic or monster-of-the-week recycler, Star Blazers told a longer, complete storyline, about the efforts of the Yamato/Argo to save the planet earth. In its first run it aired from 1980 to ’82.

This was the bait that drew the ordinary sci-fi fan into the realm of Japanese anime. This was a show worth re-watching. And this is the first recorded instance of anime at a con. Casual, non-sanctioned anime rooms had been around for quite some time, but since I don’t have a stack of programs from all the conventions for the decade or so prior to ’83 and instead rely on printed sources, I can’t authoritatively cite the “first” anime events; but we do have this:

Lunacon, New York, March 1983: Michael Pinto, Brian Cirulnick, and Robert Fenelon set up a “Star Blazers Room,” kicking off an unbroken tradition of having anime viewing rooms at Lunacon that now dates back 24 years.
(ref. Fred Patten, Watching Anime, Reading Manga, in this case pulling from a chapter he wrote for the Complete Anime Guide, in 1997.)

There are other fans in other places who had been doing much the same thing, and perhaps for longer. …I just don’t have sources.

Later, anime-only conventions (like say, Anime Expo, starting in ’91 or ’92, depending on how one wants to parse it) would appear on the scene. And the original sci-fi fan cons are also still going, and growing. In fact, I got one of my first exposures to “real” anime (Sol Bianca in Japanese, subbed, among others I can’t quite remember) in ’88 as a young teen at the 2nd Dragon Con. Dad just dropped us off, not knowing…

The date I’m selecting for this era’s fan is 1965. Our fan boy (or girl) born in ’65 would have seen Speed Racer at some point in their youth, been 12 or 13 years old when Battle of the Planets graced our TV sets, and at age 15 would have first started watching Star Blazers. Unlike the initial wave of anime imports, or the butchering done to Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (damn I love that translation of the title), Star Blazers would have been an engaging storyline for our teen — or for anyone who happened to tune in — and would have captured their imagination. I choose ’65, because for the 1983 Lunacon they would have been 18, and as stupid college kids & road-tripping fools (and sci-fi fans) no doubt went several cons.

Now 42 years old, I’d being willing to bet these Uchu Senkan Otaku are still fans of the genre, still going to cons (or running them) and are also busy raising the next generation of fandom. Somebody has been bringing all the damn kids to these things…

##

Further readings and references:
Fred Patton’s book Watching Anime, Reading Manga, without which I wouldn’t be writing this column, or perhaps anything else for this blog for that matter.
— The Lunacon ref. and the use of the phrase “False Dawn” for the 80s anime boomlet are both pulled directly from Fred.
wiki: Anime in the United States
wiki: Star Blazers
wiki: Battle of the Planets
wiki: science fiction conventions



5by8, #16: the Ages of Fan II

filed under , 3 April 2007, 01:07 by

originally written for and posted on Comicsnob.com [Dec ’06 – May ’08]

The on-going series where we look at just how American anime & manga fandom developed — to the point where today we use the phrase otaku, we know what it means, we know it’s not complimentary, and we still describe ourselves as otaku anyway.

(You know, in one of these columns I suppose we’ll get to that word, otaku, where it comes from, what it means, and the rise of that bastard pseudolanguage Fan Japanese… but not today. Dateline Japan, 1963…)

##

the Ages of Fan II — 1963, Tezuka again, and landing on foreign shores

So, by the 60’s the Manga industry was humming along nicely. Of course, someone who isn’t a wikipedia editor would argue that it always was doing just fine, thanks, but with the contributions of that guy Tezuka (ref. last week’s column, and comments) manga had shifted from a trifle aimed just at the kids market to a new art medium and commercial product with a growing number of fans of all ages. At some point when I’m coming back to the manga industry in Japan, we’ll take a look at the gekiga genre, and seinan and josei comics and the transformation of shoujo (girls) comics when they started being drawn by, you know, women back in the 70s. (oh those wacky Japanese, what will they think of next?) But actually, I’m a little tired of bandying about Japanese terms that I myself am still a bit vague on, so I’m changing gears.

Let’s talk about cartoons.

In the beginning, the first imports of Japanese visual culture to the States weren’t manga, but cartoons. Oh I’m sure there is an apocryphal story out there of an American GI stationed in Okinawa or elsewhere in Japan who got hooked on their comic books even though he couldn’t (initially) read the language; if there is, no one has posted his story to the ‘net, yet. (or her story; it could just as easily have been an Army or Navy nurse from the 50s).

But the first seeds of American fandom were planted in the 60s and because of TV, not print.

Tetsuwan Atom was a manga title started in 1951 by our friend Osamu Tezuka (what, him again?) and it had pretty long legs; Wikipedia lists it at 23 volumes and with an overall run from 1952 to 1968, and with that kind of longevity I’m guessing it was pretty popular. In 1962 when Tezuma decided to start an animation company to produce shows for the new and growing television market, falling back on an established property like Tetsuwan Atom was likely a no-brainer. It featured a kid robot fighting evil, and I’m sure a lot of the manga read like an old movie serial or episodic TV show already.

Tetsuwan Atom, “Mighty Atom,” premeired on Japanese TV in January of 1963 and had a good run: 193 episodes over 4 years. Not that Tezuma and his company, Mushi Production, were operating in a vacuum and suddenly invented TV cartoons on their own. Mushi Production was formed to compete with Toei Animation, which had already made a half dozen animated films, and had their own show (Ookami Shonen Ken, “Ken, the Wolf Boy”) which also premiered in 1963. And Disney, both the man and the company, had been on the air for 9 years at that point, and his show (Originally “Disneyland” and later known as “Walt Disney Presents”) used recycled theatrical shorts as a staple for decades. Hanna-Barbera had been chugging along for five years already, with 8 shows to its credit including the flagships Flintstones and Yogi Bear.

Tetsuwan Atom gets a little special recognition in that it was Japanese, one of the very first shows of it’s kind (what we now call anime) and also the first export. Amazingly, the first English-dubbed episodes aired on American TV just 9 months after the Japanese debut. The show was now known as “Astro Boy”, since DC comics already had a character called “Mighty Atom”, and 104 of the 193 original episodes were bought up by NBC for translation into English. It had a great run for a few years, though as a black-and-white series it suffered as more and more households switched over to colour.

Since it was offered in syndication, I guess it is a hit-or-miss proposition as to whether or not you (or your dad… or grandpa) saw Astro Boy on local TV. But a few folks did. And quite a few have been fans ever since.

As a kids cartoon, let’s say the oldest kid who would have fallen in love with the show during it’s first airing was 7 or 8. This first-grader of 1963 would have then been 10 when he saw Kimba, the White Lion and Gigantor (‘65), and aged 12 for the first run of Speed Racer (‘67). He might have been a senior in college, or maybe a grad student studying Japanese, during the first runs of Battle of the Planets and Star Blazers. During the 80s he watched Robotech, because even with it’s flaws it was still a good story (through the Macross plotline) and he probably traded fansubs of Harlock and other shows on video tape with a small but rabid circle of other fans.

If he could then just tough out a few lean years, a lot of badly dubbed dialog on video tapes, and the emergence of Pokemon as a phenomenon, his persistence and faith would be duly rewarded.

Being a fan today, with cable networks and DVDs and the growing demand/supply chain reaction, is easy. Back then, it was work. There are many many younger kids, because almost all of these shows had long life in syndication, but our oldest Otaku was born in 1955, and today he is 52 years old.

We salute you Tetsuwan Otaku! You were the first of us.

##

Further reading and references:
An article from Fred Ladd, the American Director of “Astro Boy”
wiki: Astro Boy
wiki: Anime in the United States of American
imdb: Astroboy
Also, Fred Patten’s excellent book, Watching Anime, Reading Manga

Astro Boy (all 104 English Episodes) is available on DVD from The Right Stuf in two, count ‘em, two box sets.

Matt Thorn (see also, here) was kind enough to comment on this post at Comicsnob.com — since his comments added so much to the original post, I politely requested if I could copy said comments here.

Matt is a good guy, he said yes.

Comment from Matt Thorn
April 3, 2007, 11:01 am

Howdy. No corrections this time. Just something of a footnote. I don’t know how many American otaku have actually ever seen those old black-and-white Atom/Astro-Boy episodes, but the production values are jaw-droppingly awful, even by the standards of Hanna & Barbera at that time. The thing is, TV producers had decided that home-grown TV animation was simply impossible, because of budgetary restrictions. (Remember, this was before the Japanese economic miracle.) Tezuka, who was desperate to do TV animation told whatever network it was (I forget) that he could produce weekly half-hour episodes for some ridiculously low price (which I also forget), and when the network accepted, he had to keep his promise. For years, Tezuka and his company cut every corner imaginable and still managed to drive themselves into bankruptcy (in 1973). Tezuka used to say that manga was his wife and anime was his lover, and many people felt and feel that he should have remained faithful to his wife. He should have died a rich man, but he spent almost every yen he made through his manga (which was plenty) on making animation that rarely proved to be popular. It was an obsession with him. Week after week he would pump out these wretched episodes, packed with recycled footage, and once in a while, just to prove he could do it, he would produce these fantastic and artistic short films that never made a single yen but won awards around the world (such as “Jumping,” “Broken Film,” etc.). But he set the bar for early TV anime so low that it took years to raise production values to a reasonable level. When Tezuka died, dozens of famous manga and anime creators were asked to write eulogies. Miyazaki Hayao had the gall to write an honest one, in which he bitterly accused Tezuka of crippling the budding anime industry, and keeping it crippled for almost his entire life. Miyazaki had a point. On the other hand, I would argue that what gives anime its distinctive style, and makes it so attractive almost universally, is precisely the repertoire of tricks Japanese animators developed over decades to compensate for low budgets. While Disney poured money into the production of glorious, fluid detail, and Hanna-Barbera stuck with low-budget style that American audiences found tolerable, Japanese animators innovated continuously, coming up with remarkably effective techniques that are still in use today. I don’t think they could have done it if they had had money to burn, and today, even when they do have money to burn, they stand by these thrifty and time-proven techniques (Ohtomo Katsuhiro notwithstanding).
Um…really long footnote. Sorry.

Comment from Matt Blind
April 3, 2007, 5:02 pm

Thanks for the comment, Matt. Like at least one other commenter, you’ve said more in less space and with considerably less ’snark’ than I can usually manage

Every now and then (because my “roommate” on comicsnob is not an otaku) I fall back into cheerleader mode and I’ll be caught out saying that if it’s Japanese, it must be good! Go Manga! Astro Boy is a fine example. From the column above you might think it was an early masterpiece of the art.

It’s not. Personally, I think it’s crap.

…but for the sake of my extended multi-column argument I had to start somewhere, and Astro Boy is first. Historical landmark, earliest possible exposure, all of that.

Next week we’ll pick it up with anime series that were actually good, and touch on the first boom that fizzled, a point Todd Murry brought up in the comments on #14. There’s a lot of meat there; I have to re-read Patten and I have a feeling that one may run a little long, and may post late.



5by8, #15: The Ages of Fan (I)

filed under , 26 March 2007, 23:32 by

originally written for and posted on Comicsnob.com [Dec ’06 – May ’08]

The first of several columns where we look at just how American anime & manga fandom developed — to the point where today we use the phrase otaku, we know what it means, we know it’s not complimentary, and we still describe ourselves as otaku anyway.

The Ages of Fan I — that guy Tezuka

Of course, those of the modern generation of fans bear little resemblance to myself (broke, alcoholic, 30 y.o. otaku fanboy loser… hm. actually, I think I’ll put that on a t-shirt) just as the fans of my ilk (which we’ll likely refer to as the Robotech generation in some future post; I was 11 during Robotech’s first run) bear little resemblance to our forebears, the the brave pioneers who got hooked on Astro Boy, or Speed Racer, or Battle of the Planets, or Star Blazers, or… well I suppose this is why we are inaugurating this mess as an ongoing feature here on 5by8.

But as our first column on this topic we won’t yet be looking at these American shores, but rather across the Pacific and back through time, past even Astro Boy, to the dark and dismal days right after the giant buzzkill known as World War II (the obvious nadir of Japan-US relations, except it wasn’t… odd that) and more importantly back to the dark ages before manga. Back to 1947.

Manga, as a word, predates 1947 by at at least 150 years. Translation is always a tricky science, but the definition I most often see for manga, particularly in regard to the earliest efforts, is “whimsical pictures” …or dare I say, [*cough*] “comics,” if one cares to scratch even a millimeter into the entymology of that equivalent English term.

However, 1947 is the date I cite as the origin of manga because of that guy Tezuka and his book Shin Takarajima, most often translated as “New Treasure Island”.

Here’s why:

New Treasure Island was a cheap one-off targeted to kids, sold not through bookstores, but rather through toy stores. It was an akahon (a “red book,” so named from the garish red ink used on the covers) printed on cheap recycled newsprint rather than the more expensive rice paper used for the “real” comics of the day.

Here’s the thing: as a cheap one-off, it was free from a lot of editorial oversight, so Tezuka could tell the story he wanted. (Then as now, some publishers and editors seem certain that they know better than anyone else what is salable.) Additionally, at roughly 200 pages, it offered the kids some real value for their lunch money. (also as opposed to the other manga of the day). And even though it was cheaply printed, it was expertly [edit: for the time] done.

- Are there other Japanese comics that predate Tezuka? Yes.
– Are there manga—that is, extended storylines— that predate Tezuka? Yes.
– Were there other artists with cinematic sensibilities making comics in Japan, even as far back as when Osamu was a kid? Well, yeah, actually there were.

Did any of those turkeys sell a million copies?

Now ya see, this is were the deification and installation of Tezuka at the head of the manga-ka pantheon really begins to get some traction. New Treasure Island sold 400,000 copies during it’s first print run, and I’ve seen uncorroborated but plausible sources that indicate that they sold twice that many in subsequent reprints. (over 60 years, in reprints… I’d bet it’s sold two million, easy)

Let me backtrack a half step, and go back to “Cinematic sensibilties”. Osamu Tezuka was a movie fan going way back; (if internet sources are to be believed) due to a connection of his father’s, he used to watch movie reels all the time, including Disney and Fleischer Cartoons. Whatever the provenance, it’s hard to argue with the printed record: Tezuka’s work certainly reflects a debt both to the cinematic arts and to western-style animation of the 30s and 40s. We can note the use of a “camera” perspective; with pans and close-ups, panels unfolding in “slo-mo”, and a rather definite break with the proscenium arch utilized in so many comics up to this point.

What else can we blame on Tezuka?

Big Eyes. Yep, that was him. Though as I noted in 5by8 #1, he borrowed that from American cartoons, so it’s always interesting to hear Americans complain about manga, but not Mickey.

There’s gender-swapping characters, from Metropolis (1949). Someone else may have thought of it, but I think this is the first manga instance in print.

In 1950, there was Jungle Taitei (aka Kimba) — which was the first long-running serial. Today most of what we call manga are serialized in chapters, running for months or years. [edit: good point, but proven to be false at its base by comments on the original post]

In 1954, Princess Knight, the first Shoujo manga—from Tezamu, and presumably ever (at least according to wiki)—premeired.

And shonen (or seinen) comics were of course developing: “the appearance in 1959 of the two weekly children’s manga magazines, Shonen Magazine and Shonen Sunday, served to firmly establish the sort of manga culture we see today.” Just as most manga are serialized—anthology magazines like these are where they’re first printed.

In the meantime, we should note the women comickers of the magnificent 24s (from the 24th year of the Showa Era, alternately known in English as the fabulous 49ers) were just starting to grow up and read comics; as well as the genesis of the first “manga” generation, those lucky fanboys born in 1950. I’m sure we’ll touch on both of these later.

All this is about Japanese comics and fans, though: ’63 is the date of note for American audiences, and Astro Boy on American TV is where we’ll pick up the column next week.

Further reading and references:
Wiki: Manga
Wiki: Shoujo
Matt Thorn — Mangagaku: A History of Manga
Web Japan: Manga
Locus: Manga
Paul Gravett: Manga
Global License: Manga
Kyoto Manga Museum
wagging the dog

Matt Thorn (see also, here) was kind enough to comment on this post at Comicsnob.com — since his comments added so much to the original post, I politely requested if I could copy said comments here.

Matt is a good guy, he said yes.

Comment from Matt Thorn
March 29, 2007, 9:57 am

A few corrections, if I may.

TAGAWA Suihou’s Norakuro (”Stray Black”), which was serialized from 1931 till 1941 in the boy’s magazine Shounen Club, sold far more copies in its various manifestations than all of Tezuka’s akahon combined, and even in 1950, when Tezuka made the move from the less-than-respectable akahon to the respectable Tokyo-based children’s magazines, Tagawa and his character were far better known in Japan than Tezuka and anything he had made until that date.

“Expertly done”? Well, that’s a subjective matter, but Tezuka never allowed the original version of New Treasure Island to be reprinted. The version included in the Complete Works series is one he drastically redrew many years later. If you want a better idea of Tezuka’s technical skill at the time, find the reproductions of such works as Chiteikoku no kaijin (”The Mystery Men from Beneath the Earth”). His work was crude, and didn’t hold a candle to that of such prewar artists as Tagawa and two of my own favorites, OHSHIRO Noboru and MATSUMOTO Katsuji.

Jungle Taitei (”Kimba the White Lion”) was not the first extended serial. Even before Norakuro, mentioned above, there were plenty of hugely popular serials, such as MIYAO Shigeo’s Manga Taroh (1912) and KABASHIMA Shoh-ichi & ODA Shohsei’s Shoh-chan no bouken (”The Adventures of Shoh-chan,” 1923). Even if you limit your definition to long manga with a clear beginning, middle and end (as opposed to episodes that go on and on with no clear end in sight), Ohshiro had the jump on Tezuka by at least ten years, with such works as Kasei Tanken (”Mars Exploration”) and Kisha Ryokou (”A Train Journey”).

First shoujo manga? Nope. Shoujo manga had been around since the late 1920s. In 1934 Matsumoto had done a wonderful “graphic novella” (Nazo no Clover, “The Mysterious Clover”) that was a variation on the Scarlet Pimpernel scenario, in which the protagonist was a young girl. I strongly suspect that Clover was the model for Tezuka’s Sapphire, though I have no evidence beyond superficial resemblance. Matsumoto had another popular shoujo manga serial, the adorable and still-funny-today Kurukuru Kurumi-chan (1938)

The Wikipedia English-language articles about any aspect of manga history, particularly shoujo manga, are wildly wrong, and should be taken with a hefty grain of salt.

My own explanation for Tezuka’s “god” status is that he was the first manga artist to infuse his stories with serious themes that left a lasting impression on readers. What old-school manga artists and editors found shocking about his work was precisely that they were moving and dramatic, were reluctant to draw simplistic distiinctions between good and evil, and did not always have happy endings in which good triumphed over evil. When a very young Tezuka showed New Treasure Island to the famous elder cartoonist SHIMADA Keizoh, Shimada was horrified. “It’s your right to make this sort of thing,” he said, “but I hope it doesn’t catch on.” Of course, it caught on big time, and kids who grew up reading Tezuka, unlike children before them, became hooked on manga and continued to read them well beyond the age when they were expected to “put away childish things.” It was the themes–serious themes about the human condition–that made him a god, not his technical skill or innovation.

Finally, I’m pretty sure I was the one to originally identify the first “manga generation” as being born after 1950, my rationale being that they were the first to grow up reading weekly, rather than monthly, children’s magazines. (To my knowledge, no Japanese manga historian had ever made that clear connection between the first manga generation and the rise of the weekly format.) You can read the original and widely-plagiarized article in which I first made that assertion (publicly, in English) here:

http://matt-thorn.com/mangagaku/history.html

Comment from Matt Blind
March 29, 2007, 2:47 pm

Mr. Thorn:

You are, in fact, my source for the phrase “manga generation” and I had planned to cite and or quote your article when referencing those individuals in later columns. (If I get back to Japan– My thought is to focus more on North Amercian fandom, but the series needed to start somewhere.)

Being a lazy blogger, my primary source for quite a few of Tezuka’s “landmarks” was wikipedia; of course I did other reading (as much as one can, on the internet) but fell back on their dates and conclusions.

Obviously, trusting wiki has many problems, and I appreciate the corrections.

I’d refer all our readers to Matt Thorn’s article & site: while I was merely trying to fill a thousand-word opinion column, he has experience in the field and tackles the issue at hand with more academic rigor (as is evidenced in his comments here). That, and he was one of the sources I’ve read, if not this week for the column, than certainly within the past year. I should have included a link –yet another oversight I’m glad he corrected.

Comment from Matt Thorn
March 29, 2007, 7:24 pm

Thanks, Matt. And please call me Matt. (_;) Looking forward to your next column.



5by8, #14: Acceleration

filed under , 21 March 2007, 22:50 by

Japanese comics and cartoons have been around for decades. The occasional anime even found its way to American TV, more than once and at least once a decade, going back to Astro Boy and Kimba in the 60s.

Japanese comics, in recent years, have become just as much an American phenomenon and are slowly transforming the business, not by being revolutionary (in my opinion; they’re still just comics) but by making the most of existing trends in the print industry, and riding a wave of popularity generated by other aspects of consumer culture.

And the supply is merely rising to meet demand: We want more manga, we’re buying it, so more and more shows up on the shelves.

But where did the demand come from? And why now?

(cue another rambling, random walk down pop culture history with a few attributions but also a fair amount of opinion; I do try to be consistent, if nothing else)

Where and why? Cable TV, the Internet, and DVDs.

(There are other factors to consider, like the popularity of a certain plumber in an ongoing series of his own video games, but I don’t know that Mario is generating a lot of manga …maybe some dojinshi, but I really don’t want to know if there is such a beast.)

Manga rides piggy-back on popular anime. A TV show gets the folks interested in the manga (usually because someone like me is out there telling folks that yeah, the show is good but the original manga is way better) and while sooner or later we’ll have converted the guy or gal over to a being a manga fan, and dare I say manga snob, it was the TV show coming on five days a week that got them hooked.

The success of anime properties like Pokemon is the obvious first place to start looking; in fact, Pokemon has been gracing kids’ TV sets since 1998, so it may in fact be the first exposure to the so-called Japanese Visual Aesthetic that many of us had. Pokemon aired on ‘regular’ TV, though (via WB affiliates from 1999-2006) and it’s been marketed to hell and back and is as “American” as pizza by this point.

Just a few years further down the time-line is the broadcast in 2001 (on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block) of Cowboy Bebop. Here’s a neat trick that some of you might not have been aware of:

Bandai first released the Cowboy Bebop DVDs back in 2000.

Immediately after seeing something cool on TV, the kids could watch it again (or catch up on missed episodes) right away. The availability of anime on DVD (…and the website of that name has been posting updates since 1998) combined with the healthy “mainstream” (read: Basic Cable) exposure of really good anime titles have done a lot to kick the industry into high gear. Manga benefits because long-running favourites like Dragonball and InuYasha also have long print runs, and once the kid gets a taste, she’ll likely want more.

##

We all know I love to reference Bebop in these columns, but other anime on CN pre-dates Adult Swim by about three years, starting with DBZ in the Toonami block, like Pokemon débuting back in ’98. Following the success of that craptastic action schlocktacular (why no, I’m not a fan, though I can see the pre-adolescent appeal) they also broadcast G-force, Gundam Wing, Tenchi in at least three flavours, Blue Submarine no. 6, and Outlaw Star, and I know I saw at least a few of these because I was (and am) a big fan of Batman: The Animated Series and it was airing right alongside for many of those years

…But Bebop always sticks in my memory as the title where anime came of age. (DBZ probably had a bigger impact)

##

Anyone who has bought anime on VHS knows deep to their marrow just how much better the DVD versions are. I tip my hat to the brave and hardy fans who were making do with tapes, but man, I don’t see how anyone managed in the days before the dual-language options. (And dubs — for all their current faults — are so much better as well)

The DVD experience has done a lot for movie collectors in general, and anime in particular, but for the poor kid stuck in Peoria in 2000 without access to a specialty shop, how did he get his anime fix?

Internet.

Well, maybe not a kid; but a smart young man in his late 20s with no girlfriend, a decent tech job, a correspondingly large disposable income, and fond memories of Robotech? Behold the birth of the North American Otaku. The same web sites that carry anime DVDs also began stocking manga, so there you go. Anyone looking for info on his favourite titles would turn to Fan sites and semi-professional review sites, and all the DVD sites I’ve visit carry news and reviews on both. And if a story is really compelling, I know that I look for as many versions of the story as I can get my hands on.

Anime is merely the thing that opened the door for manga, since once the format took hold (and gained a foothold in the chain bookstores) it has taken off in leaps and bounds and is not only generated more and more licensed and translated Japanese titles being released each year, but also Korean manhwa and OEL titles. But I think that the existence of anime on cable and DVDs, along with the influence of both on-line shopping and on-line fan communities are the reason we see the revolution now, as opposed to 10 or 20 years ago.



5by8, #13: ...but is it art?

filed under , 5 March 2007, 22:13 by

originally written for and posted on Comicsnob.com [Dec ’06 – May ’08]

So I was reading the first of Bob’s most excellent field reports from Cool Japan 2007, and latched onto a point from Dr. Kern’s presentation, comparing manga to earlier Japanese kibyōshi (Edo era woodblock prints). I can see parallels, certainly, but I wouldn’t draw a direct line from one to the other. Well, neither did Kern: it would be unfair of me to say so, even for the sake of the rest of my argument.

But… are comics and manga just the latest iteration in a long line of previously existing graphic art, worthy of note in fancy wine-sippin’, hors d’oeuvre-munchin’ gallery shows, or is it just another crude, crass, mass entertainment medium that is fittingly ignored by anyone but fanboys and otakus and other losers (like the guys who write reviews for pretentious, high-falutin’ comicky web sites)?

Part of the appeal of comics (and manga is just another word for comics) is that it is a new artform— though yes, comics do draw inspiration from the past, and in fact we’ve been scrawling things down on every available surface ever since some prehistoric Frenchman just had to brag to everyone about how badass a mammoth hunter he was, so there’s a lot of past to draw on.

But the comic book and it’s Japanese cousin are recent innovations (the dates I’m picking are 1933 and 1947, respectively, you can go to wikipedia or the reference of your choice and decide on your own) and while they’ve drawn from many artistic and literary sources, I’d say they’re related most closely to the other new visual media of the 20th century, the twin visual arts of cinema and television.

One twist to the debate that should also be considered is that comics are a consumer product, mass produced and marketed just like pea soup and laundry detergent. If you don’t think this has had a large influence on comics as art, then you need to go find a few internet forums where folks are (even as you read this) vehemently arguing the relative merits of fan service.

##

Let me cover that second point first.

I deeply respect Scott McCloud, and have often resorted to his definition of comics [wiki] when trying to relate my own paltry opinions on the medium, but I don’t recall McCloud ever bringing the aspect of reproduction into his discussions. It is true that a single, hand-drawn book would still be a comic (and maybe even a fine work of art) but the comics we consider when we start to argue about the relevance of the medium are all copies.

Cheap paper combined with advances in printing technology, and riding piggyback on the success of newspaper comic strips, led to the birth of the comic book. It’s disposable entertainment — like the pulp novels that came out during the same period, not intended as an archival medium for hand-drawn artwork, but rather as a way to separate nickels and dimes from the customer base.

People will still save and re-read their favourites, but the secondary market relies on the fact that most of us (or more likely, our mothers) will throw out comics when we’ve outgrown them. …if we outgrow them, but that’s a different column.

The need to make a buck (or franc, or yen, or won) drives the industry. The industry gets the comics into my greedy little mitt, for which I am thankful, and I happily fork over the $3 or $5 or $12.95. It’s the economics that has kept the floppy flopping for 75 years, has run up Action & Detective into the 800s, and propelled the ever-mutating X-men brand and its variants and offspring into the 1000s.

Economic success and artistic merit: there is a sliding scale, and any given artist or publisher may place greater weight on one but it is seldom at the expense of the other. No one (that I know of) is in the business to give away comics, except on May 5th. Small publishing houses are still businesses, and they are all striving for viability, and hopefully profitability: The ability to make copies and get them distributed is as much a part of comics as ink on paper. Even artists who claim to work only for themselves want to share the fruits of their effort, so at some point a comic will be reproduced and sold.

Web comics are an interesting variation, and at first blush might be seen as violating the economic model, but it’s just a artefact of the incredibly low reproduction costs (what’s the fraction of a cent cost of a page load?) and not anything new. The trick is not to get the image to the customer, but to convince the customer that they still want to pay you for it. Ads also count in that equation: an ad is still a cost to your customer (ref. Goldhaber, the Attention Economy).

##

Can a mass produced object also be art? Let’s ask Warhol and Lichtenstein. [wiki: Andy, Roy, Pop Art]. Not that calling something “Pop Art” immediately gives it artistic merit, and this is ground that has been covered before by people with more degrees and pretention than I can muster. Most examples of Art (hanging-on-a-wall-in-a-museum art) are single entities, or one of a numbered series of prints. 100,000 copies may be just a few too many to qualify as a limited ‘art’ run, though that is what most in the industry consider a success. (here’s a run-down from 20 Feb 07, source ICv2 News)

The comic is new as an artform. Yes, it’s at least 75 years old in it’s current form and folks like to try and find roots that are even older [wiki: Woodcuts, Ukiyo-e] and if pressed I might even go so far as to call the Book of Kells [wiki, with pictures!] and other illuminated manuscripts as being the earliest protocomics. But words plus pictures, even when combined, do not always a comic make.

I think folks who try to find the historic roots of comics miss the point that it is a product of technology as much as the output of an artist. Not just the advances in printing, but also in the new visual vocabulary that comics share with photography and film. When I review a manga and pull in terms like shifting camera angles and blocking, I intentionally reference cinema in an attempt to describe (via words only) the more complex relationship that the images have to each other and the story. [ref. wiki: mise en scène] The aspects of sequence, story, and visual dynamics are what make comics unique, not the static images of centuries past that have the occasional speech balloon or scroll.

Comics don’t need a historical precedent. I think there was a definite breakthrough in the artform when it moved from single panels with captions (even if they are pretty, or inspired) to something that moves across the page. At least, that’s my take on it.

##

to answer the question posed by the title: Hell yes, it’s the best damn art you can buy for the cost of a Big Mac (or two White Castle slyders, for a price comparison that goes all the way back to the 30s). A comic can be great even if it isn’t high art, just as fast food is awfully tasty but by no means haute cuisine — I don’t think comics need to be held to any artistic standards but their own.



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