Another SF/F Trend Missed by SF/F?
by Cynthia Ward
A few months ago, I went to the Westlake Center, a downtown Seattle mall. I found a new store between Suncoast Video, a chain outlet front-loaded with anime DVDs and manga graphic novels, and Hot Topic, a chain outlet crammed with T?shirts and aloha shirts of anime and manga characters. The new store had a name I'd never heard before: Tokyopop. What's this? A music-store chain based in Japan? I found a few anime soundtrack CDs and anime DVDs, but mostly I found books of translated manga, most of which I'd never heard of, though I've been reading manga and watching anime since the mid-1980s. All the volumes I opened at random were science fiction or fantasy. Many were aimed at a female readership. All were printed backwards. And all came from the same publisher. Tokyopop was a store devoted to selling Tokyopop manga.
Last week, I went to the local Barnes & Noble and browsed the SF section. Among the novelizations, the gaming manuals, and a few graphic novels from Marvel and DC, I discovered two full bookcases twelve shelves of manga graphic novels. There was so much manga, only the spines showed. Leaving the SF section, I passed two displays, an end-cap and a spinning rack, both packed with manga. Nearing the exit, I saw several art-instruction books on how to draw manga.
I went to Seattle to visit my friend, the SF writer Nisi Shawl. She proudly showed me her teenage nephew's drawings. "Wow," I said, "he's a good artist. And he reads manga." "Yes," Nisi said, handing me a mass market paperback, "I'm going to give him this." The book was a graphic novel, the first volume of the SF manga series Mobile Suit Gundam Seed, published by Random House's SF imprint, Del Rey Books.
Millennial Publishing Trends:
The Biggest are SF/F, But You Wouldn't Know It by SF/F Publishers
Since the 1990s, the biggest phenomenon in publishing has been Harry Potter. The series is fantasy, but is shelved in the young-adult section of bookstores. A few SF/F publishers are seeking to surf the tsunami of Harry's popularity. Tor Books, for example, has repackaged several of its SF/F titles for young adults. But it's not the SF/F imprints riding high on Harry's wave. The best-selling post-Potter YA fantasies (Artemis Fowl, the Bartimaeus trilogy, the Cirque du Freak series, Eragon, the Series of Unfortunate Events) all come from non-genre publishers (Knopf, HarperCollins, Little Brown, Miramax, Scholastic).
Another significant millennial trend is the "feminization" of the fiction readership. It's most obvious in mystery's dominance by women; in the five-to-seven-figure advances for "chick lit"; and in the romance genre's estimated 50% share of fiction purchases in America. The SF/F market gets an estimated 4%-10% slice of the fiction sales pie. The hottest subgenre in the romance field is paranormal/futuristic romance. There's a large potential female readership for SF/F. Yet SF/F publishing continues to behave as if a female readership is the same as a mixed-sex readership. The only professional SF/F publisher making a visible attempt to reach the untapped female audience is Tor Books (with its "Women in Fantasy" campaign). The only other pro publisher actively seeking to woo female readers to the SF/F shelves is Luna Books, the new fantasy imprint from... Harlequin.
In 2004, the biggest publishing trend is manga. According to comics trade publication ICv2, American publishers "are planning to issue over 1,000 English language manga volumes in 2004"; tiny Tokyopop alone will release 450 volumes. USA Today reports manga is "the fastest-growing segment of the [US] publishing industry."
Like Harry Potter and futuristic romance, manga attract a sizeable female readership. Unlike them, manga are shelved in the SF/F section of bookstores. Yet many SF/F readers have never heard of manga, which is published by SF/F outsiders.
Is this another major SF/F trend that will bypass SF/F?
Manga: Nane desu-ka? (What Is It?)
Manga (MAHN-gah) are Japanese comics. If you're not familiar with manga, the phrase "Japanese comics" may cause you to visualize colorful comic books or graphic novels with word balloons full of kanji pictographs. You may also imagine Japanese fanboys rushing to the specialty shops every week to buy the latest issues of their favorite Japanese superhero comics, perhaps sealing them unread in mylar bags.
These images have nothing to do with manga.
Like traditional American comics, manga are a sequential artform, published serially. But Japan doesn't have our 32-page, four-color comic books. Instead, a manga series is published, along with several other series, as chapters in successive issues of black-and-white anthology magazines, known as manga-zasshi. In a sense, these zasshi have more in common with Asimov's SF or Weird Tales than Superman or The Uncanny X?Men. However, manga-zasshi appear more often monthly, twice-monthly, even weekly and they're as thick as phone books.
Manga-zasshi are somewhat shorter and narrower than our 6" X 9.5" comic books, so word balloons and sound effects can crowd the panels. As a result, manga are less "talky," and the art usually isn't emphasized to the detriment of the story. This contrasts sharply with American comics, whose fans sometimes don't care (or need to care) how good the writer is. Many manga have excellent art, but you can also find manga good, popular manga that are little more than talking heads.
As in America, popular series are reprinted in graphic novels. However, manga graphic novels tankouban or tankobon are usually black and white. In contrast to zasshi and many American graphic novels, tankouban are slim. They're also smaller; they're the size of mass-market and trade paperbacks.
Most significantly for Western readers, manga, like other Japanese books and magazines, are printed "backwards." You read them right-to-left instead of left-to-right, and you start reading at what is, for us, the back cover.
Superhero comics comprise only a fraction of manga. Yes, there are manga about ninja, samurai, pocket monsters, and giant robots. There are also manga about baseball, cooking, child-rearing, salarymen, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and mahjongg. There are explicit sex manga. There are fiction and nonfiction manga about every subject.
In America, however, manga is almost exclusively SF/F.
Lost in Translation? A History of Manga in America
The first English-language manga published in the US was the contemporary fantasy Mai, the Psychic Girl, released in May 1987 by independent publisher Eclipse Comics, in association with Viz (the American subsidiary of Japanese publishing giant Shogakukan). Mai appeared in biweekly rotation with the technothriller Area 88 and the ninja adventure Legend of Kamui. Eclipse/Viz followed these titles with several SF manga (Appleseed, Cyber 7, Cosmo Police Justy, Dominion, and Xenon: Heavy Metal Warrior).
May 1987 also brought manga from a second American "indie," First Comics, which published the samurai classic Lone Wolf and Cub. In September 1988, one of comics' two big boys entered the game. Marvel Comics' Epic imprint released the first American issue of the classic SF manga Akira. Also in 1988, American translator Toren Smith left Viz to launch packaging company Studio Proteus, which has translated numerous manga (most notably the SF titles Appleseed, Outlanders, and Ghost in the Shell) for a variety of independent American comics companies, including Eclipse, Dark Horse, Innovation, and Fantagraphics Books' adult imprint, Eros.
Reprinting manga in English did not involve merely replacing the kanji with romaji. To accommodate the English text, the word balloons and surrounding art sometimes needed to be redrawn (by hand this was the pre-digital era). Sound effects were translated or eliminated, necessitating more redrawing. Additionally, some manga (most notoriously, Akira) were colorized for the American comics market. But before all this could happen, the pages were reversed so they could be read in the Western manner, left to right. This practice known as flipping, flopping, or mirroring sounds simple, but isn't. Some individual panels had to be returned to the original right-to-left orientation, or they didn't make sense. The entire process took months.
The artists' intentions inevitably suffered. Some Japanese creators were displeased. So were many American fans familiar with the original, Japanese-language manga.
Manga didn't threaten superhero sales or guarantee a healthy bottom line (Eclipse and First are long gone). But slowly, in the comic-book specialty shops, manga built a small, mostly teenage and twentysomething, mostly male audience.
Pikachu changed that.
Turning Japanese: Manga Enters the Mainstream
In the 1990s, the Internet exposed Americans who'd never been in a comics shop to manga and anime (Japanese animation). So did video and computer games from Japan. A few full-length SF/F anime features (Akira, Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, Final Fantasy, Princess Mononoke, Academy Award winner Spirited Away) received US theatrical distribution. Anime was also supplying an ever-increasing number of movies and series (mostly SF/F) to the American direct-to-video market. Hollywood's Matrix trilogy emulated anime and spun off The Animatrix, a DVD of original SF anime shorts by American and Japanese creators. But, as important as all these developments were for manga in America, they didn't spark the boom.
A disdained children's cartoon on good old-fashioned television ignited the new millennium's manga explosion. Producers scrambled to duplicate the mega-success of Pokemon ($5 billion in merchandising sales by 1999), and American TV began broadcasting overdubbed anime (all SF/F) in unprecedented quantity. Cardcaptors (Cardcaptor Sakura), Digimon, Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, and Yu-Gi-Oh! built huge audiences of children who had no idea their favorite cartoons were from Japan. New Western cartoons like Batman Beyond, The Powerpuff Girls, and Samurai Jack incorporated anime influences. Some of these cartoons, like The Powerpuff Girls and Sailor Moon, attracted adult viewers of both sexes. The Cartoon Network's late-night Adult Swim began showing grown-up SF/F anime shows like Cowboy Bebop and FLCL. They too found an avid adult audience.
The May '04 issue of Animerica Magazine lists thirteen American networks and one Canadian network now broadcasting adult or children's anime. The list doesn't include the Sci-Fi Network. It does include the new Anime Channel.
When manga finally appeared outside the comics specialty shops, in the places the new anime audience actually shopped, sales exploded.
Manga in the New World: Not Just Another Boys' Club
The biggest story of the manga boom is the female readership. It's a surprise that shouldn't be. As David Seigler, owner of the Texas-based Ground Zero Comics Store, observes, "There is nothing in American books that appeals to the younger girls that might have outgrown Archie." For decades, American girls have been thirsting for comics and cartoons that address female concerns. Manga and anime are quenching that thirst, with SF/F titles.
It's hard to explain just how flabbergasted I felt watching Cardcaptor Sakura: The Movie 2: The Sealed Card. The anime's concept is a blatant cross of Pokemon with the collectible Magic: The Gathering card game, and it has a fast-paced action/adventure plot and sympathetic male characters. Yet this movie demonstrates not the slightest interest in male viewers. That's radical feminism, and in the least expected place! No wonder Cardcaptors/Cardcaptor Sakura and Sailor Moon (which outsold the Ultimate X?Men graphic novel in 2001) are the most popular girls' anime and manga in America. No wonder ICv2 reports "burgeoning sales of shojo [girls'] manga in the bookstore market." No wonder three new shojo manga translations (Fruits Basket, Saiyuki, and Hana-Kimi) have dominated bookstore graphic-novel sales in 2004. No wonder female consumers are the fastest-growing and most influential American manga demographic.
Some believe American manga customers have achieved not only sexual parity, but a multi-generational fandom. "The core audience is between thirteen and thirty-four," says Saabrina Mosher, Assistant Manager of a bookstore at the Bangor (Maine) Mall, but "we're always having to drive the little ones away from the grown-up manga." Teen manga is shelved in the YA section; manga for older readers is on the graphic novel shelves of the SF section. The manga shoppers are evenly split between male and female. I asked if the store's prose-SF consumers have achieved manga's male-female balance, or an age range as wide as 13-34. Mosher said, "No."
For decades, manga has been read by Japanese of both sexes, all classes, and nearly every age. In the new millennium, SF/F manga may achieve a similarly broad appeal in America.
Figuring Manga: "An American publisher...would die writhing in ecstasy for a fraction of the market share of Japanese comics" Richard von Busack, Metro, 1996
In 1994, you could buy English-language manga in comics shops. In 2004, you can buy it in comics shops, Amazon.com, AnimeCornerStore.com, Barnes and Noble, Best Buy, Books-A-Million, B. Dalton, Borders, Fred Meyer, Fry's Electronics, F.Y.E., Kroger's, Media Play, RightStuf.com, Sam Goody, Stop and Shop, Suncoast Video, Target, Tower Records, Virgin Megastores, Waldenbooks, and Wal-Mart.
Manga's broad availability is translating into sales. The first English-language tankouban volume of Dark Horse Comics' Lone Wolf and Cub sold 75,000 copies by June 2002. A manga I'd never heard of, Berserk an obscure fantasy title that Dark Horse prints backwards, in the Japanese right-to-left format sold out its 17,500-copy first US printing "quickly, necessitating a second printing of 10,000 copies." The SF/F-dominated American edition of Japan's Shonen Jump manga anthology magazine, which Viz launched in January 2003, is already selling more than 300,000 copies per issue, with a 60+% increase (from 190,000 to 305,000) in the second half of 2003; ICv2 also reports "[t]he August issue (#9)...sold a whopping 540,000 copies." This May, USA Today reported manga's "2004 sales...at more than $120 million, up 20% from 2003."
In April, Christine Begley, Associate Publisher of Dell Magazines, listed the "number of readers" for Asimov's SF Magazine as 107,184 and Analog as 139,053. However, the February '04 issue of Locus Magazine gives the paid 2003 circulation for Asimov's as 30,601 (a 3.9% drop from 2002); for Analog as 40,598 (?3.6%); and for F&SF as 23,820 (?10%). As Locus observes annually, SF magazine circulation has been declining for years. On the book side of SF/F, the only "clearcut genre title" in the top 15 of Publishers Weekly's 2003 bestseller list was Stephen King's The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla; it sold 767,000 copies.
Most of the translated manga (including all tankouban released by Tokyopop, the top American manga publisher) are now published backwards. Yet manga sales are not only healthier than prose SF/F's, they're skyrocketing.
However remarkable, America's manga sales are a fraction of Japan's. According to The Hollywood Reporter, manga is "a $5 billion a year business that accounts for more than 40% of all books and magazines sold in Japan (or 15 titles per person each year)."
The American manga industry didn't originate in SF/F, YA, or mainstream-comics publishing. With the notable exception of the Akira comic book, virtually all manga have appeared from independent, privately-held comics publishers and the small US subsidiaries of big Japanese publishers. So far, they're the only companies reaping American manga profits. But when there's $5 billion lying on the table, new players enter the game.
Or, as Paul O'Brien notes on Ninth Art, "When even Archie is looking at manga for the way forward hiring the manga-inspired artist Tania del Rio for Sabrina the Teenage Witch you know there's a sea-change happening."
American Manga Publishing: The New Players
Marvel Comics was the first big American publisher to release manga. However, its lone title, Akira, ended a while ago, and the Akira graphic-novel reprints are coming from an unrelated company, Dark Horse Comics. Marvel hired Kia Asamiya (creator of the Silent Mobius, Nadesico, and Dark Angel manga, and a fan favorite in both Japan and America) to draw The Uncanny X?Men; established Marvel fans complained the art was "too manga." Marvel created "Mangaverse" versions of its superheroes; the Mangaverse came and went in 2002. In April 2003, Marvel launched the manga-style Tsunami superhero line; it's so anemic, several avid comics fans have erroneously assured me Tsunami has been cancelled.
DC Comics has fared somewhat better. DC hired Kia Asamiya to create a manga for Japan's Magazine Z (Kodansha) about its most popular character, then reprinted the story here as the black-and-white graphic novel Batman: Child of Dreams. Artist Jill Thompson created a successful manga-style DC graphic novel, Death: At Death's Door. DC recently hired a manga editor, and is planning the launch of a manga imprint, CMX.
Traditional book publishers are also entering the game.
Simon & Schuster has just announced a deal to distribute Viz titles, in "the first marriage of a large-scale [US] manga publisher and a major New York publishing house."
SF/F-heavy publisher/packager iBooks has announced a manga line, and apparently released some titles. I can't find them in the manga-stuffed local B&N. The only "manga" I can find on their website is SUNN, by Steve Roman, Kevin Lau, and Alex Nino. Assiduous Googling turned up three other iBooks manga: Icaro, a Harvey Award-nominated collaboration between Jiro Tanaguchi and French comics legend Moebius; Blacksad, by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido; and Isaac Asimov's Derec: The Robot City Manga, written by Doug Murray and illustrated by Paul Rivoche. These may all be excellent graphic novels, but only one (one-half?) truly qualifies as manga. Add the near-impossibility of finding iBooks manga titles even on www.iBooks.net, and it's tough to imagine much manga money is going their way.
Random House was the first traditional book publisher to get in the game. Last July, their Del Rey SF imprint cut a distribution deal with Japanese publishing giant Kodansha. This May, Del Rey Books released the debut issues of their first four manga titles.
Mini-Reviews of the Del Rey "Core Four"
Del Rey's manga graphic novels are published in the Japanese manner. They're black-and-white tankouban the size of mass-market paperbacks, printed right-to-left.
Negima! Magister Negi Magi #1 by Ken Akamatsu, translated by Hajime Honda, adapted by Peter David and Kathleen O'Shea David, lettered by Studio Cutie. Rating: For older teens (16+). Genre: Fantasy (in both senses of the word).
The manga/anime slang term "fan service" refers to gratuitous shower scenes, panty shots, mammoth mammaries, etc. The phrase could've been invented for Negima.
The series premise: What if a ten-(really)-year-old British magic student (bearing a remarkable resemblance to Harry Potter) were sent to teach English at a Japanese all-girls junior high, and he had to live with two girls in their dorm room? I've seen less women's underwear in the Victoria's Secret catalog. No wonder writer/artist Ken (Love Hina) Akamatsu is a fan favorite. He's a skilled artist and funny writer; it's too bad so much talent is devoted to something so tirelessly trivial.
I thought this series a smart-money choice for Del Rey, and my opinion was validated by the Nielsen BookScan graphic-novel bestseller list: Negima #1 debuted at #2.
Mobile Suit Gundam Seed #1, art by Masatsugu Iwase, story by Hajime Yatate and Yoshiyuki Tomino, translated and adapted by Jason DeAngelis, lettered by Studio Cutie. Rating: For teens (13+). Genre: SF.
Mobile Suit Gundam is a space opera about war between Earth's "naturals" and genetically-modified space colonists. MSG isn't manga/anime's oldest giant-robot series, but it's been producing comics, shows, and movies steadily since its 1979 debut. Whenever the MSG series becomes too complex for newcomers, a new alternate history is introduced. MSG's latest alternate history is Gundam Seed. To enjoy it, you don't need to read previous MSG installments (or the Gundam Seed titles appearing from other American publishers).
Not surprisingly, the decades-long success of this giant-robot franchise arises from the writing and characterization, not the mecha. Gundam Seed has a good story and art, and, of Del Rey's four manga, has the greatest appeal for American SF readers. It should attract both men and women, since, like Negima (really) and xxxHoLIC, it has strong characters of both sexes. The problem is that too many characters look alike, and they're all introduced too close together. Confused readers should refer to the appendix (all four Del Rey tankouban include bonus background information).
I was surprised that Gundam Seed #1 debuted so low, at #12. That's not low by any reasonable standard, but it marks the lowest debut among Del Rey's four manga, and indicates that, so far, the SF prose audience isn't contributing to Del Rey's bookstore manga sales.
Tsubasa: RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE #1 by CLAMP, translated and adapted by Anthony Gerard, lettered by Dana Hayward. Rating: For teens (13+). Genre: Fantasy.
Tsubasa has good writing and strong art, and it doesn't introduce the characters too quickly or in overwhelming numbers, even though it has the same characters as CLAMP's bestselling Cardcaptors/Cardcaptor Sakura series, and has characters from xxxHOLiC, Chobits, and other series produced by the CLAMP artists' collective. In Tsubasa, however, the characters are in different roles, in a different story and different universe.
Oddly, given CLAMP's all-female composition, Tsubasa has few female characters, and the female lead, Sakura, spends all but the first few pages in a magical coma (it's as if Del Rey is trying to disguise a shojo comic as a shonen [boys'] comic). Cardcaptor Sakura is hugely popular with American girls, and CLAMP is Japan's preeminent creator of shojo manga. Even if the issue had not a single male buyer (unlikely), it's no surprise Tsubasa #1 debuted on the chart at #1.
xxxHOLiC #1 by CLAMP, translated and adapted by Anthony Gerard, lettered by Dana Hayward. Rating: For teens (13+). Genre: Fantasy.
xxxHOLiC isn't an adult title about sex and alcoholics. It's the story of a spirit-haunted young man who ends up serving an opium-smoking, wish-granting, modern-day witch. xxxHOLiC crosses over with Tsubasa and other CLAMP titles, but, like Tsubasa, can be read on its own. Also like Tsubasa (but not Gundam Seed or Negima), xxxHOLiC opens with four full-color pages. xxxHOLiC's gorgeous opening pages and cover remind me greatly of American graphic artist P. Craig Russell's later work; it's a shame the pages are so small. The kinky artistic touches aren't carried out in the story (at least, not in #1). But decadent or not, this is Del Rey's most sophisticated manga, and its strongest. xxxHOLiC is the one most likely to please the post-teen. (Chart debut: #6.)
Manga: What Is It Good For?
Well, it's fun to read, and it's a fine source of fresh SF/F. So let's imagine we've already had the conversation you've had with mundane family and friends about how SF is actually a serious literature, and isn't like those crappy TV shows. Just replace the term "SF" with "manga."
Some manga are high art; most fulfill the wrong part of Sturgeon's Law. Good or bad, manga can be difficult to read in tankouban. If you're not familiar with the artform, you may want to start reading manga with larger-format volumes and/or mirrored printings. If you're familiar only with the so-called "manga style," and don't like it, you may not enjoy the Del Rey titles. However, many manga aren't drawn in the cartoony "manga style." Some notable examples of "non-manga-style" manga art are Akira, Batman: Child of Dreams, Blade of the Immortal, Crying Freeman (non-SF/F), Ghost in the Shell, Lone Wolf and Cub (non-SF/F), Mai the Psychic Girl, and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
What is manga good for, commercially? SF/F publishers who choose as wisely as Del Rey will make loads of money. SF/F publishers who mistake manga for tech stocks in 1999 will end up like American manga publisher Raijin Comics, which recently placed all its comics, zasshi, and graphic novels on hiatus.
Can manga bring a large new readership to prose SF/F? Yes. Will it? Not if SF/F publishers continue to ignore the feminization of the fiction readership. The biggest driver of manga sales in bookstores is women and girls.