The fate of Occidental comics

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naruto 1 The fate of Occidental comics
[This post was supposed to come up immediately after the rise of the manga one, but then all hell broke loose.]

Despite the huge huge market for manga and things manga right now, comics shops, by and large haven’t been able to sell them or capitalize on the boom. While Naruto sells in Watchmen-like numbers overall, it’s not even in the top 10 on Diamond’s graphic novel charts.

Retailer Steve Bennett of Super-Fly Comics and Games in Ohio talked about this in a widely-linked to piece at ICv2 in which he targets the direct markets failure to join on the manga bandwagon in clear, resigned terms:

By now I imagine a lot of you have filed this column into the category of “what does this have to do with us?” — and you’d have a point. We don’t sell manga and from the retailers I’ve spoken to over the last couple of months, it’s clear most of us can’t sell it — not in significant numbers to justify the floor space it’s taking up. But we used to; no one talks about it, but it was the American comic book industry that introduced manga to America.

We just haven’t profited from it. Back when they made the switch from floppies to paperbacks, we had a golden opportunity to step outside our comfort zone and use knowledgeable customer service and anime merchandise to compete with the huge selection of the Barnes & Borders for its predominately female readership. But we didn’t, and now there’s a generation of comic book fans in our stores who think manga and anime are icky and our industry has become just that much more insular and incestuous because of it.


Speaking of the anecdotal, I know for a fact that selling manga isn’t the same as stocking manga for comics shops. Jim Hanley’s here in NYC has been supporting manga for a long time, but they are a commuter store, full of grown men on their way to the train stopping off for their Wednesday fix. Girls just aren’t going to be comfortable in this store. Meanwhile Forbidden Planet, located in a busy shopping district opposite a movie theater, has a whole floor devoted to manga now (I believe it was once devoted to gaming.) To sell manga you need to work at it, and change the very nature of the store, and as Bennett says, that’s just not in a lot of people’s comfort zones.

Steven Grant’s column this week addresses the dilemma of the direct market in more general terms:

This is a potential quandary for comics shop owners. Their futures depend on increased, preferably exponentially increased, interest in comics material in the future. But the more successful comics become the closer we get to someone creating a national chain of comics/graphic novel stores. (Marvel and possibly Dark Horse considered something along these lines in the ’90s; the ill-fated Tekno actually tried it, but managed to hit the business on its downward arc and that was all she wrote.) The common wisdom is that no national chain would be able to provide the service local comics shops could, or successfully mold sales to the vagaries of specific regions. But that was the same thing regional promoters said about the WWF, and the same thing small independent bookstores said about Borders/B&N. That’s potentially the biggest booby-trap (for retailers) in a growing comics market; but a market that doesn’t grow will be equally as devastating.


Both Grant and Bennett’s efforts are must reading. In a more positive zone, there’s Brian Hibb’s report on last weekend’s ComicsPRO meeting. While it’s really a big recruitment ad for the organization, (not that there’s anything wrong with that; Hibbs is one of the founders of the org, and it is badly needed for the reasons he states) he also points out WHY:

And here’s the important thing to remember: even though ComicsPRO is focused on the Direct Market retailer, the retailer is very much tied to its suppliers, and so it is in our best interests in making sure that they are strong and profitable as well. While we have historical ties to particular suppliers (most notably Marvel and DC), I don’t think there’s any ComicsPRO member who is tied solely to those publishers, and who wouldn’t welcome more healthy profitable publishers into the mix. This is another way of saying that it is probably more important for the Graphitti, Top Cow, Slave Labor, Dynamite, Cartoon Books’ of the world to engage the retail community than it is for the “Big guys”, and that we’re flatly ecstatic to work with them to deliver better and larger sales. It is in our own vested interest, after all.


CoverStallion01 The fate of Occidental comicsNow that there is more money to go around (although for how long has everyone sweating) people are finally talking and doing things as opposed to just sitting around wishing indie cartoonists could get profiled in the Daily News. But the system is still fragile, as this post from Yamila Abraham of Yaoi Press shows. Abraham thinks that the potential sale of book chain Borders to book chain Barnes and Noble would be a disaster for manga.

Barnes and Nobles purchasing Borders is the absolute worst case resolution to this situation. It’s not just the fact that stores would close, but B&N is overly conservative and does not capitalize on the graphic novel boom. B&N stores treat graphic novels like any other small section, like travel books or cook books. At the New York Comic Con GN conference last year the buyer said they saw no reason to change their graphic novel acquisition strategy. B&N currently only buys 3% of the amount that Borders buys of our books (less than 100 copies per title). I’ve discussed promoting Yaoi Press books more aggressively to B&N with my distributor. My rep says it’s a lost cause. They don’t buy many graphic novels. They especially don’t buy the ‘mature readers’ ones. I’m sure there are single stores out there that are exceptions to this, because B&N does buy some copies of our books. I’m telling you what I see overall.


I haven’t heard this difference enunciated by other publishers so starkly, so don’t know if it would be considered conventional wisdom — except among manga publishers. It was almost certainly the former Borders buyer, Kurt Hassler who has been responsible for the manga boom as much as any other single person except TokyoPop’s Stuart Levy. . Hassler’s aggressive buying on manga made it one of the shooting star categories of the Borders chain, to the point where graphic novels are part of Borders’ new “concept stores” which spotlight categories including — ironically given Abraham’s post — travel and cooking.

No matter what the problems are here, graphic novels are still in an up cycle. There is still room to grow. With so many success stories, people are more hopeful about progress on many fronts and are willing to try to put some elbow grease in to get things done. The failing book chains — PW just yesterday reported that Books-A-Million is also showing softening sales — and weakening economy in general may be the biggest foes right now but we’ve got to stay the course.

Comments

  1. “Girls just aren’t going to be comfortable in this store.”
    That’s the problem in a nutshell, and not just at Forbidden Planet.

    “Kurt Hassler who has been responsible for the manga boom as much as any other single person except TokyoPop’s Stuart Levy.”

    You could stop right here:

    “Kurt Hassler who has been responsible for the manga boom as much as any other single person.”
    Hassler cleverly capitalized on an existing acceptance of paying $10. for untranslated volumes of manga and sold Stu Levy on the idea.
    Hassler’s idea to do $10. manga-sized manga (which I did in ’98 and ’99 KOFF KOFF) wouldn’t have gone anywhere if it hadn’t been for:

    Putting these $10. manga-sized books in a bookstore girls were comfortable in, and
    Anime being on Cartoon Network, at a time when the growing-up audience would actually see it.
    Cartoon Network indisputably changed the manga and anime market, and I could comfortably give it more credit than any one person. (Unless there’s someone at CN who fought single-handed for re-airing Sailor Moon and using the WB/Cartoon Network association to show Pokemon.)

    Let’s not forget Stu Levy’s ideas included putting little girl’s comics (Sailor Moon and Magic Knights Rayearth) with adult comics (Parasyte) in one fugly package called Mixxine. (I advised him, and he probably doesn’t remember, that titles with more than one X would be construed as porn.)
    Following that was Smile. Erm.
    At roughly the same time, Tpop/Levy was putting out sub-manga sized books for $16.95.
    I venture that if not for TPop listening to Hassler, a publisher who did listen to him would be getting all the credit for the manga revolution.
    (Let’s also not forget Hassler wrote for TP under a pseudonym.)

    I can’t give the American comic book industry credit for bringing manga to America if that includes the DM.
    I know from being in the manga end of the comics business since its inception that it was a fight every step of the way to get more than a few stores to stock the “big eyes and speedlines” (previously “ninjas and giant robots”) with any consistency. (And that we very much wanted the unflopped/subtitled SFX/language&cultural notes at the back format but the DM simply would not support it in the ’80’s to late ’90’s.)

    (Don’t even get me going on the whoring of cheaper/faster/underpaid manga production and iffy production values as “authentic manga.” Ptui.)

  2. HAving said all that, I am pretty damn tired of manga (which doesn”t mean I’m not going to dispute points of history). Tired of the fan service, tired of the peek-a-boo fanservice that every female character (excepting old apple-head doll ladies) must be subjected to (can’t threaten them fanboys too much, gotta reduce those women to parts so they keep their place!)*, tired of the lolicon, tired of harem manga.

    I’m just exhausted with the sameness and the hurr hurr fanservice and misogyny. (Funny, those are the same things that I dislike about most superhero comics.) The manga business is as locked in the above tropes as Big Comics are in a balls-to-face wrestling match with it’s shrinking market.

    BUT! there are a LOT of REALLY GOOD Western comics, and they’re fresh. They’re fun. They’re thoughtful. As when I first turned to manga for something new, I am now turning back to the West for something that makes me glad to be a comics reader.

  3. Maybe it’s time American graphic novelists upped the ante.

  4. Wow.

    Lots of stuff to go through here and not just about manga… We could write books (yes, plural) on this subject.

    However if we are to “cure the patient” that is, grow the idea of the direct market as THE source for printed comic book matter (no matter what the originating nationality/culture) for ALL ages, then there is one specific quirk of the LCS that must be addressed quickly and ruthlessly:

    The Direct Market is living in the past, barely dealing with today, and not even considering the implications of the future.

    (And when I say this I am speaking of not only retailers, but of creators and publishers as well)

    Even Hollywood has the same disease so you’re at least in the same sick ward as they are…but seriously, address this first or the rest of it matters not.

  5. Is there not a disconnect between the following statments (as I have boiled them down)?

    “The new packaging of manga titles got girls to buy comics again in significant numbers.”

    “Manga titles are too oriented on the horny boy audience.”

    Personally, I always thought the harem manga subgenre, at least, allowed the girl audience to be continually amused at the horny boy’s antics while taking some pleasure in the sexual competition angle.

    For that matter, wasn’t that always the appeal of ARCHIE for girls?

  6. I think what retailers need is a guide to selling manga that:

    1. Identifies the main creators, tying upcoming releases to past releases (and like books) and stating if it’s more or less popular as a ordering guide. This should be done on an ongoing basis.

    2. How to advertise them to the demographic that reads them. Some stores rack manga, but don’t advertise that they have it in their store. That is essential, teenage girls are psychic and won’t know you have it in your store unless you tell them.

    3. How to display them. Probably best to create a manga section that’s seperate from everything else as many manga readers are as anti-superhero as superhero readers are anti-manga. At this point, segregation is needed.

  7. I think the challenge is that the vast majority of comic shops identify themselves as providing serial entertainment. Yes, reality of the market may be different, but until there is a serial format that manga publishers can profitably publish and consumer will reliably purchase, I don’t think that the majority of comic shops can reimagine themselves as selling manga as anything but a sideline.

    It shouldn’t be that difficult, after all, all manga is originally released as serial entertainment. Perhaps something like MixxZine would work now, since it would be exploiting an already created body of readers rather than creating them. It can’t be something like the current 22 page floppy, simply because of the amount of content provided/cost/price ratio is way out of whack.

  8. Torsten Adair says:

    God bless Pokemon for saving the American comics industry. Lea raises many fine points, but Pokemon was the one product which introduced Japanese popular culture to the general public in America. (Viz was one of the few graphic novel publishers selling to the book trade when they launched their Pokemon titles in 1999, and one of the few publishers of manga.) (And I bought my first manga, LUM, at my favorite comicbook store.)

    As for the situation at Barnes & Noble, here’s a few things to consider:
    1) Outside of Shonen and Shojo manga, nothing else sells very well. Kids aren’t interested in “the good stuff” like Barefoot Gen or Lone Wolf and Cub. Yaoi, and the lesser known Yuri and Hentai… well, as a retailer, you want to be careful of stocking such items in a medium that many consider to be teen-centric.
    2) If a publisher is lucky, a store will sell ONE COPY a MONTH. Even so, store sales reports only list the top 50 titles on the category sales reports. That single copy that sold will most likely not appear on the list, and if it’s a new title, it will not be automatically reordered. Only by eyeballing the shelves and seeing which volumes are missing can one determine what sold (or was stolen).
    3) There are a lot of titles out there. Remember those 3300 titles which were published last year? Picture the shelf space required for ONE copy of each title. Then consider the backlist for all of the series like Naruto, Ranma, YuGiOh. As a proactive Seductor of the Innocent, I always ordered in the first volume of a series, and guaged sales. (This is why the Lincoln Center B&N now stocks the full line of Asterix and Tintin.)
    4) It costs money to order titles, to shelve titles, to sell titles, to return titles. Even a behemoth like Wal*Mart does not stock everything. The Library of Congress, which gets books for free (via copyright registration), does not keep every book ever published. Space is finite, whether on a comicstrip page or in a bookstore. If a section is expanded, something has to shrink.
    5) Local stores are encouraged (via sales reports) to adapt to the community. Amish romances might sell well in Pennsylvania, but not in San Francisco. Every store can and does order and reorder titles which they think will sell.
    6) I would wager that at any B&N, one can find at least one graphic novel mole. B&N has a store directory on their website. Send a sampler or catalog to stores. Visit the stores near you (or wherever you travel) and talk to the “graphic novel guy/girl” at the store. (The employees will point them out. We all know each other’s passions.) Give them a free copy to read. Get their name for future mailings. Ask them what does (and does not) sell in their store. If the store is near your office, talk to the Community Relations Manager about hosting an event like a signing or a book club.
    7) Eventually, if a title sells on a regular basis, the system will notice, and model it for automatic reordering. I suspect a publisher’s distributor can offer detailed analysis of what sells where, and this information will help you the next time you talk to a buyer. You can even use that information when talking to a DIFFERENT buyer! (“We sold X copies via Suncoast, so we think we can sell them through your company, and make you money, and maybe grab some of their business.”)
    8) Jim Killen, the Barnes & Noble GN buyer, has been doing this for a long time. I don’t work with him, but he’s knowledgeable, professional, and does a great job selecting titles.
    9) Yes, Yaoi is not found in many bookstores. The same could be said of manga ten years ago. Of graphic novels twenty years ago. (Remember when they were shelved in Humor or Science Fiction?) Acceptance of anything takes about twenty years. Manga/anime was pioneered by science fiction fans about the same time as the independent comics community was (1980s). Stuff gets discovered by the enthusiasts (Akira/TMNT) and reported by hipsters. Ten years later, there’s enough of a decent backlist that popculturalists notice and begin to exploit it. A title goes mainstream (Pokemon/Sin City) which fuels creativity (and copycatting), and about ten years after that, it’s an everyday thing.
    10) Bookstores not selling your stuff? Promote it elsewhere and everywhere, and the customers will either buy it from a specialist, or they’ll buy it at a bookstore. Either way you make a sale. Do this long enough, and eventually you’ll have a nice backlist, and maybe volume ten will hit Bookscan.
    [I no longer work B&N retail, and they do not pay me to talk about them. I do this to help us all Seduce the Innocent.]

  9. “2. How to advertise them to the demographic that reads them. Some stores rack manga, but don’t advertise that they have it in their store. That is essential, teenage girls are psychic and won’t know you have it in your store unless you tell them.”

    Amen.

    How many stores have a Myspace/Facebook page? An email reminder list? A Twitter feed?

  10. I happen to think if comic shops featured huge pictures of Naruto and Sailor Moon in their windows instead of Wolverine maybe the audience would follow.

    I hereby predict (well, it’s not really a prediction since I think it’s already happening, but has anyone else noticed?) the next trend to be the merging of the 2 markets as more western publishers adopt the manga/digest size format while more Japanese comics get released in larger formats (I notice the Tezuka books I’ve seen tend to be larger size- this is one way to get the stuff that’s for adults to stand out and perhaps sell in direct market stores that don’t tend to stock regular manga.

    I think the days of a chain comic store have passed. Heck, the once mighty Blockbuster can only survive by imitating Netflix, while many other media chain stores have long since passed.

  11. Joe Williams:”I happen to think if comic shops featured huge pictures of Naruto and Sailor Moon in their windows instead of Wolverine maybe the audience would follow.”

    Yes, absolutely.
    And if most comic shops were even remotely female-friendly, they’d keep those new customers, too.

  12. During the Naruto Nation thayng late last year, the Hipster Son and I went to this dinky shop in Atlanta on the second floor of a strip mall looking for cheap Heroclix singles and he asked the clerk what Naruto geegaws he had for sale. The clerk mispronounced Naruto and my son corrected him.

    “Yeah, whatever, I don’t know what all that stuff is,” the guy said.

    “Thought you might know more about Naruto, what with it being the best-selling comic on the planet these days.”

    And the guy said, “It’s not a comic, it’s a manga.”

    I mean, I *say* I’d hate to see a direct market store close, but on the other hand, when they’ve got it coming like that…

  13. Simon Jones who is blogless says:

    I always put down the success of manga being due to it’s utterly mercenary nature. That’s not to say there’s a lack of art or anything to it, but it knows what it’s audience wants.

    Adolescent boys! Here is some violence or possibly some sports or perhaps both! Here is an audience identificaiton character! Here is a girl! The girl will not be terribly complex but you will be 15 and will not care that much!

    Adolescent girls! Here is some romance! Here is an audience identification character! Here is some soap opera! Here is a boy! The boy will likewise be able to be broken down into a few simple character traits but, again, you are 15 and will not care that much!

    And so on for Porn and Yaoi and whatever. They know what the broader audience wants in a way that american comics don’t seem to.

  14. Well said, Simon. You should get a blog.

    Lea, I’m sorry you’re getting burned out on manga. It’s certainly easy to cast your gaze across the display racks at any chain store and see nothing but big eyes and big boobs. If you were to look at the stacks in my house, though, you would see a lot more variety: Right now, my review copies include After School Nightmare, Mushishi, the second volume of Kie Young Chon’s oddball manhwa Audition, volume 2 of Suppli, the last four volumes of Emma, and two more manhwa by Hee Jung Park, Fever and Hotel Africa, which feature gorgeous art if somewhat befuddled storytelling. Yes, there’s some fanservice in the stack (My Dearest Devil Princess is gazing up at me), but there’s much more, including plenty of fresh storytelling. So don’t give up on manga yet—just ignore the stuff you don’t like and keep on digging. Because if we don’t support the good stuff, your complaint will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  15. Brigid, I have been a tireless supporter of manga for better than twenty years, starting when many current editors (and product-massagers) have been in grade and middle school.
    I do not believe my current distaste will sink the market. If that were true, the only companies left would be ones that treated creators well.

    Remember, I make comics. That usually means I can’t afford them. Your very small sample of review copies is about $110.00 worth of books. These are book this mere mortal has to buy, and she’d rather keep her house.

  16. Pedro Bouça says:

    For those burned out on manga, there is a small trickle of european comics making its way to United States nowadays. With enough interest, it could become a flood…

    I read comics from all procedences and the euros are my favorites! I’ve long hoped those could get popular on the US.

    Best,
    Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

  17. Unpopular says:

    America is run by prejudice. People look at you weird if you say you want to stay at home and read (whether book, comic, manga, etc.) on a friday night instead of going out. The typical comic fanboy is still intimidated by that prejudice or secretly takes comfort in that prejudice. As soon as readers of comics take pride in their fandom, the sooner that looming prejudice can be challenged and/or changed.

    That’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.

  18. j’aime tout ca

  19. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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