Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Let me make something in that last parenthetical remark perfectly clear: Manga are not comics. Both manga and comics are forms of graphic storytelling...but so are kids' picture books, but we wouldn't call those comics. (At least, I don't think most of us would--God knows what Deppey might think.) I think of the relationship between Euro-American comics and manga somewhat the way I think of the relationship between Euro-American drama and kabuki--both are forms of theater, but kabuki is not a form of drama in the traditional Euro-American sense.
But let's go directly to some of Deppey's specific comments, beginning with what I consider to be his "money quote":
With the emergence of manga as a dominant force in the American bookstore market, domestic comics producers are at long last questioning their previous publishing strategies.
To which I have to ask, "dominant over what?"
Certainly not over prose. Over American comics? OK--but so what? The bookstore market has never been where American comics make their money, and is unlikely to be anytime in the near future. American comics are based on a periodical format, not an album or collection format. Some might argue that's a failing, but unless they're interested in financing the shift to a different publishing model and revenue stream, the argument is a moot one, for now.
Deppey's explanations for that so-called dominance are equally bogus. He points out the success of manga among girls and attributes it to the form's "concentration on human interaction." First of all, the so-called success is pretty puny--most girls are still not reading any form of graphic storytelling, much preferring prose by a wide margin. The percentage of girls buying and reading manga is probably smaller than the percentage of boys buying and reading comics, and almost all of those girls are participating in a fad, not a movement.
At one level, Deppey even admits this, saying: "Scratch a modern-day manga fangirl, and you're likely to find someone who watched Sailor Moon when she was young." Might as well say, "Scratch a modern day male comics fan and you're likely to find someone who watched Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends when he was young." But the percentage of either group of viewers who moved on to reading graphic stories is in the single digits.
So what is the appeal of manga to this female crowd? Simply put--it's not American. It's foreign, it's exotic. To really get into it, it helps if you are willing to put in a lot of time learning at least rudimentary Japanese or learning about Japanese culture. The manga fangirls, to use Deppey's term, are the same group of girls who would have gotten into French cinema two decades ago.
I have two sons, one of whom is about to graduate from high schcol. (The other graduated two years ago.) I've watched their friends and what they're interested in. The manga fangirls fit the pattern I've just described--every one of them. And they're a tiny clique within the high school crowd of this typical suburban school district. The American comics industry has missed out on them? Small loss--in two years, virtually all of them will have given up on graphic storytelling in any form. And a prediction--there really won't be any big wave behind them...because nothing that's come from Japan in the past decade comes close to having the impact Sailor Moon had, and without something like that to stimulate interest, there's no market for the manga.
Further prediction: In five years, the currently burgeoning manga sections in bookstores will dwindle to two or three shelves...and the titles on the specialized anime racks in places like Suncoast Video will merge back in with the science-fiction or animated titles. The boomlet of interest in Japanese graphic culture will have died.
In the end, Deppey returns to the Journal's favorite whipping boy for the failure of American comics to succeed--the lack of a "single creative vision":
The vast majority of manga being reprinted in the United States reflect the vision of a single creator or set of creators. This isn't quite as inflexible a rule as that statement makes it sound -- many manga studios more closely resemble the "communal assembly line" employed by Will Eisner than they do a single artist sitting at a drawing table -- but even if the guiding force behind a given story (the manga-ka) is merely plotting and drawing the main characters' faces, there's still a single guiding force behind the story.
He contrasts this to a leading American title in this way:
If the X-Men films convinced you to pick up your first X-Men graphic novel, however, you'd be in for an entirely different experience. Your first exposure would depend upon which author's version of the series you pulled out of the stack, be it Stan Lee, Chris Claremont, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar or Chuck Austen, and the artwork would likely change from one artist to another within the book's pages. If you remained interested enough by what you read to buy a second one, that second volume would be as much of a crapshoot as the first, unless you very carefully observed which names were on the spine each time you invested your hard-earned dollars on a new book. The replaceable nature of the writers and artists, as dictated by the work-for-hire business practices upon which Marvel depends, actively discourages casual readers exactly to the extent that casual readers can never be sure what they get when they open an X-Men book.
The answer to this problem, it seems to me, is something that I know is antithetical to everything Deppey and the Journal believe: The return of a strong editorial hand in American comics, so that there is a consistent vision--the editor's. Of course, to the Journalistas, that's blasphemy...despite the fact that every successful periodical publication in history has benefited from such a strong hand--whether it was Harold Ross on The New Yorker, Henry Luce on Time, or even Gary Groth on The Comics Journal.
There's lots more I could get into about why manga and comics are two different forms of a larger medium (and maybe I will in a later posting), and about why the very different marketing and publishing models of American comics and manga imports make any comparison of their respective publishing success an "apples and oranges" thing.
For now, let me end this way: Manga is not, and never will be, the salvation of the comics form in America.