The Manga Bust of the Late 00’s May Be Ending, but is that a Good Thing?

The manga market seems to have recovered from the big Manga Crash that occurred along with the rest of the financial crises of 2007, but were the right lessons learned, and how will this affect mainstream comics, both eastern and western, that are released in the US?

The early through mid oughts were a golden age for people reading manga.  Titles were plentiful, relatively cheap, and highly varied.  No longer published as niche titles, released only in comic stores, or in ‘alien’ formats, such as the Darkhorse publications that would reformat a title to fit their standard western style comic issue-by-issue release, Manga had found its place in the mainstream on bookshelves of American Bookstores everywhere.  Around 2007, however, the manga business found itself hit hard by the financial crisis that led to the closure of publishers, cancellations of several titles, and an overall restructuring within the industry as survivors scrambled for licenses and shelf-space.

A number of things led up the crash.  The 00s were, despite what you may have been told, a time of extreme prosperity, freewheelin’, and luxury goods.  One of those luxury goods was manga, which publishers found to be quite the hot commodity.  Flagship Action and Shojo titles proved to be big money-makers, and with anime being shown regularly for the first time on US TV as anything other than an odd novelty, interest and demand for titles were growing faster than publishers could keep up with.  Scanlations and fansubs, despite their critics within the industry on both sides of the ocean, provided publishers with something that any media business would kill for: insight into proven hits with large pre-existing fanbases who were just waiting for the product to spend their money on.  Titles would have buzz long before their US release that publishers could capitalize on if they were quick enough and made the right marketing and merchandizing moves.  The problem began when the publishers started stretching themselves thin, however.  While early in the days of the boom, a new title would likely be a smash hit simply because there were only a handful of other competing titles, the mid 00s saw a glut of new titles, primarily shojo, slice of life, and cheesecake.  While the shelves in bookstores were becoming oversaturated with new titles, America was starting to slow its spending as the overall crash began.  Publishers found themselves out of a lot of money spent on 2nd and 3rd tier titles that weren’t selling.  While they might not have been out as much as if an expensive to license flagship title went bust, the quantity of titles that had been more or less tossed out into the market to meet what publishers thought was unquenchable demand were producing red ink that they simply couldn’t cope with.

In an attempt to stop the bleeding, some publishers cancelled titles that weren’t selling as well.  Unfortunately, this exacerbated the problem: readers were upset at having titles cancelled that they’d invested lots of money in only to find that they’d never be continued.  If there was a chance that a title might be cancelled before it finished its run, why spend the money in the first place?  And as readers were less willing to invest in physical titles, some turned to the internet to read their favorites or they quit altogether.  Neither of these were good for US manga publishing industry.  Sales slumped, several publishers closed their doors forever, and the manga sections in stores were drastically reduced to carrying only the ongoing flagship titles that had proved to be consistent sellers.  The tanking of the US economy and its failure to recover caused the market to drastically shift.  The demographic of who has disposable money is vastly different from what it was 10 years ago.  Publishers had to come up with a new strategy to pick up sales. The choice that they made is a fascinating one, especially considering what US comics have done in the struggling market.

The solution that the US manga publishing industry chose was pornography.  And that choice, one could argue, validates the strategy which Dan DiDio chose for DC comics with the New 52.

Sexually explicit material has always existed in comics and art to the point that one can say that it has always been endemic.  But the ratio of titles pushed in the mainstream and on the shelves of bookstores paints a different picture of manga as a hobby and as a medium from what was around 10 years ago.  During the height of the manga boom, the most sexually explicit titles one found were those by Ken Akamatsu (Love Hina) or Masamune Shiro (Ghost in the Shell).  I know there were several other titles with sexual themes or overtones, or titles that were not overtly sexual or written for the sole purpose of titillation that contained nudity or sexual content, but by and large, the titles tended towards your typical flagship action story, shojo romance, love comedy or slice of life titles where, if there was anything sexual, it was not focused on as a primary selling point.

Today, however, with the exception of those old flagship titles, which have been ongoing since the beginning of the boom, throughout the bust, and on into this new era, titles that focus on sex, sexualization, and titillation seem to have blossomed and overtaken the manga section.  One cannot pass by a manga section today without seeing a multitude of covers featuring partial to near-total female nudity.  Titles that would’ve been shrink wrapped just a few years ago, featuring not only nudity, but graphic, sometimes violent, sex, often depicting minors, are prominently displayed on endcaps or on shelves, covers facing out, baring the laughable “Older Teen” rating.  In efforts to win the “not just for kids!” argument, manga publishers in collusion with retailers have made the manga section of their stores (usually an adjunct to the Young Adults section) not only inappropriate for children but possibly very dangerous.  Now, I know that there’s the argument of parental responsibility “hurr hurr, y r ur kids unsuprvized?”, but there’s a difference between standing behind your kid while they pick out the newest volume of the manga that their saturday morning cartoon is based on in a section where the worst one might see is the occasional cover with someone with overly large breasts that can be pointed to and laughed at as absurd to having your child in a section where you are surround by multiple and varied images of screaming and/or crying half-naked women, sometimes being groped on.

And now, I will dig into western comics for a bit.  Western Comics faced some harsh competition during the manga boom when potential comic readers were buying manga instead of western comics, and multiple foreign titles were suddenly getting shelf-space in bookstores that had been long lost to American comics.  The format was a big part of this; retailers like trades, and a lot of consumers do too.  Another thing that hurt western comics was the perceived (and real) impenetrability of their titles.  With manga, readers knew that if they picked up volume 1 of a title, chances were, they were at the beginning and could read a single unified story from beginning to end.  How often is that the case with western comics?  Another thing that western comics had to compete with from Manga was image; despite the steps taken in the 80s and 90s, western comics did not seem as grown up in a market where manga titles existed.  Part of ‘growing up’ for comics had been including more adult themes and topics, implied sex, scantily clad women, etc., all things that had been unacceptable under the old Code.  In some places, the pencilers take this to stupid extremes: particularly of note, 90s Catwoman is penciled as though she were butt naked and then inked purple from neck to toe, rendering her design rather absurd and unflattering.  So, when up against manga, western comics were jealous that their end of the medium had to compete against titles that could sell sex and sexuality up front and could contain graphic nudity and sex.  Whether it was well handled or simple exploitative pandering, they didn’t care.  They just wanted a piece of it.  So now, we have a western comics market that tried to catch up with the old boom era manga by pushing the titillation and pandering up to 11, though still unable to take that last step into full on graphic sex and nudity.  Meanwhile, the manga industry took the next step and just went for more porn.

Only time will tell if these industries made the correct choices businesswise.  The lessons learned from the bust seem odd indeed, especially since many of the titles that contributed to the glut prior to the bust were cheap-to-license cheesecake titles, though I’d imagine that hurt the anime industry more than the manga industry due to the increased overhead (which partially explains why there was a huge post-recession boom in super-saver packs containing entire series for less than the cost of 1 pre-bust dvd).  I don’t know how much criticism there has been of the manga publishing industry post-bust, but the overall response to New 52 has ranged from “Why?” to “Gross…”.  The loudest complaints are from those who loved the DCAU and/or who have kids that they wish they could introduce to the heroes they love, but are incredibly wary of taking them into a comic store based on their knowledge of what’s been going on in the industry at large.  Things must be working for the manga industry, though, since they’ve reclaimed much of the shelf-space that was lost between 2007-2009, but you’ll never see the throngs of young teens sitting in the aisles, reading their favorite titles.

Important note: I’m also not suggesting that the older manga titles were appropriate either.  A lot of them really are/were not.  Some of those Flagship titles I referred to ALSO put sex at the forefront and are still ongoing today, so I’m not making a case that those titles that carried the industry through its rough period were non-sexual or kids-appropriate.  I’m merely pointing out that the overall trend in titles carried seems to have shifted from titles that may (or may not) have included sex to titles where sex is at the forefront, front and center and in the face of anyone walking by.  I had initially considered working this into a much lengthier post about why I no longer read manga or watch anime period, but that’s a vastly different and deeply personal topic that would be better explored on its own.


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