Lost in the storms of outrage over every boob shot and inker change at various superheroes comics is the real underreported story of the last six months; the decline in graphic novel sales and the concurrent decline of manga. While the former is definitely partly caused by the latter and both are undoubtedly influenced by the bankruptcy of Borders, the full causes behind both have yet to be fully analyzed.
The manga side of the equation is covered in depth, however, in a lengthy column by Jason Thompson at io9 called Why Manga Publishing Is Dying (And How It Could Get Better). Thompson is no stranger to the manga field, having authored the essential reference Manga: The Complete Guide and the manga King of RPGs for TokyoPop. So his analysis is well worth following: If in 2007, manga was like a foreign movie star who had arrived on American shores to make it big, the last four years have been like watching that star run out of roles, run out of money, sell their house, go into rehab, and end up barely limping along in infomercials.
Thompson goes over all the recents crackups in the US market, from the fall of Tokyopop to the closure at Bandai. It’s a landscape littered with broken toys. While the reasons for the America downfall aren’t too hard to see — the aging of the original demographic and the rise of scanlations — Thompson points out that the situation is also crumbling in Japan:
If in 2007, manga was like a foreign movie star who had arrived on American shores to make it big, the last four years have been like watching that star run out of roles, run out of money, sell their house, go into rehab, and end up barely limping along in infomercials.
But the problem isn’t just about fickle Americans — the Japanese manga market is hurting too. Sales of manga magazines, the traditional delivery medium for manga in Japan, peaked in 1995, and have been falling ever since. Graphic novel sales remained steady longer, but have also declined.
Manga is hurting the way that all print media is hurting — but in some ways it’s worse, because manga is ill-equipped to adapt to New Media. Like American comic books, manga started out as cheap entertainment for kids, but while American comics faced their dwindling readership by turning into an adult collector’s item with color, thicker paper and higher production values, manga magazines (and to a lesser extent, graphic novel collections) still use cheap ink and cheap paper to cram in as much pages-per-yen value possible.
Piracy is definitely the backhoe clearing out the grave, however: as Thompson points out, when you google manga you get seven pirate sites and NO legitimate publishers.
Other problems: hidebound publishers who insist on sticking with the magazine model when it’s as outdated in Japan as it is here, the mixed results of initiatives like jmanga and the Digital Manga Guild — a banding together of all the top publishers to present an e-manga site, and a crowdsourced translation site, respectively — as tepid failures lacking blockbuster properties.
And of course, there’s the reason baldly stated by a commenter: “Manga is expensive and we’re all broke.”
Thompson also sees some patches of bright sky ahead — doujinshi is now an area of huge innovation where new hits are emerging. The rise of gag panel strips and multimedia hybrids is also encouraging. Of course manga isn’t going to go away — it’s just that the ways we get it are going to change. And once again, a huge dinosaur of an industry that was at the top of the pack didn’t see the newer, faster predators coming up right behind them.