Thursday, June 30, 2011
Scummy Manga Reviews #6: Naruman
Title: Naruman: What if a High School Girl Decided to Become a Manga-Ka Amidst the Publishing Slump? (なる☆まん：もし出版不況の中女子高生はマンガ家をめざしたら)
Published by:Tatsumi Mook, May 2011
Art and story by: Yamano Sharin (山野 車輪)
Genre: Academic Essay Manga
What it's about:
Naruman has lifesaving advice for all aspiring professional manga-ka:
The publishing industry is caught in a negative spiral and manga is no exception. Sales of serials have fallen to nearly half of the mid-90’s bubble with no sign of recovery. Wages are low and competition fierce. Market shares are being devoured by an ever-broadening field of alternate entertainment options. Modern manga has one foot in the grave.
But why? What insidious force dried up the one time wellspring of the country’s mojo, the often imitated but never replicated hype beast that made Japan Cool an international buzz-word?
In true manga fashion, we have a gaggle of schoolgirls to hold our hand as we trek through the dark economic reality and hack through otherwise impassable white papers. The protagonist is a returnee who, after growing up with a distorted perspective of manga through the cracked prism of America, is shocked to find that the streets of her motherland do not overflow with narutards and cosplayers.
This doesn’t dissuade her from enlisting her closet manga otaku classmates in a bid to live the dream and become a real professional manga-ka! Yet her plucky optimism soon gives way to detached disbelief as the true nature of the industry unfolds itself before her. There is no Santa Claus. God is dead. Greedo shot first.
And from this destructive revelation, the hope for a more mature tomorrow.
Why it's awesome:
Each topic covered in the manga is intriguing enough to expand into it’s own full-blown treatise. What factors led to the advent of the media mix? Why did anime in the 80’s polarize into private market OVAs and public market children’s shows, and how did this effect manga? How does digital publishing factor into the future of anime? Yamano paints a cohesive whole of the history, economics, and social trends that shaped the manga industry with broad though vivid strokes. It is not intended as the final word on the subject, but rather as a fire starter that lays out the ground rules for future discussion.
And boy, does he give the reader a lot to chew over.
The rise and fall of manga, Yamano explains, is inexorably linked to the baby boomers. This sudden crescendo of post-war births led to a tidal wave of children all waiting to be entertained. Manga piggy-backed on this need with spectacular results. The medium grew from Shonen, to Seinen, and beyond together with the boomers who formed its core market.
The baby boomers produced another sizable crop of potential consumers with the junior boomers (1970-1974), a sort of Japanese Generation-X defined by unprecedented levels of wealth and economic freedom. Anime tie-ins began to emerge as a viable market model, with TV adaptations drawing a new audience to the original manga in a positive feedback loop.
Business was booming, and it seemed like manga had hit upon a successful and sustainable formula of cross-media pollonization. But with every boom comes a bust.
In 1995, Dragonball finished its 10-year run of record-breaking popularity. When it left the pages of Shonen Jump, it took with it a loyal readership that had only stuck around to see how their favorite series would play out. This phenomenon became an epidemic as long-running serials began to wind down across the board. The baby boomers and their offspring had begun their mass exodus from manga magazines. Who would step in to fill the void?
As you can see from the data above, no one.
When readership plummeted, publishers attempted to stem the bleeding by extending long-running serials in a desperate attempt to hold onto the remaining regular readers. They became increasingly conservative and shortsighted, focusing solely on maintaining the status quo without considering the road to long-term recovery.
This strategy proved to be flawed in that it raised barriers of entry, both for consumers and artists. Readers can’t be expected to jump in the middle of a ten-year story. If you think it’s daunting to start reading a title like One Piece with a 60+ volume backlog, imagine what it’s like for elementary students buying comics with their milk money. Between Mixi, Niko-Niko Video, and video games, kids these days have enough alternative means to fulfill their need for instant gratification that don’t involve struggling through convoluted settings and a telephone book worth of characters.
Despite the “Shonen” moniker bandied by the three major publishers, the overwhelming economic voting power of the junior boomers made them the target audience du jour. This prevents children from developing the habit and literacy needed to enjoy manga, thus eliminating an entire generation of consumers. Of course, the current low birth rate society isn’t pumping out enough kids as it is, and in the age of the Internet and free entertainment, one can’t expect them to pay to play.
Children aren’t the only ones being cut out of the equation. Magazine page space is limited, and a large percentage of pulpy real estate is sectioned off to the old boys with long-running serializations. Problem number one is squeezing your way through the door with five people on the other side pushing it shut. Assuming a budding artist beats the odds and makes their professional debut, they can’t stand on even footing with the veterans, hence problem number two. Experience, technique, budget, and assistants—Normally an artist would build up these resources through on-the-job training. The current cutthroat model doesn’t allow that luxury. Manga has tied its own noose by raising quality and subsequent expectations above a level achievable by incoming artists.
Long-running serials have become rotting support beams holding up an exclusivist industry. The grand collusion between publishers and veteran artists has muscled out both aspiring manga-ka and potential readers. Rapidly declining sales suggest that manga as we know it is on the verge of collapse.
But is that really such a bad thing?
Yamano argues that this is the perfect opportunity to introduce a new business model that puts the manga-ka at the head of a multi-media enterprise. Why stop at merely drawing manga? Character goods, light novels, theme songs, voice actors, animation—The potential for tie-ins is unlimited.
I’m sure that raised a few eyebrows. Are we talking about manga or anime here?
Consider this—In terms of marketing, manga has always played second fiddle to anime. Character goods aren’t produced for the manga, but for the anime based on the manga. Anime uses the name recognition of popular voice actors and directors to draw in an audience. Each of these areas is handled by a group of specialists, be they figure makers, animation studios, or talent agencies. Division of labor ensures a high quality product.
What does that leave the manga to compete with? Merely a story, and art, all handled by one person struggling to meet deadlines for a publisher who views them as nothing more than another cog in the stuttering economic machine.
To hell with the publishers! Cut out the middleman and become president of your own brand! Why outsource your intellectual property to third parties? Oversee everything yourself and reap the benefits of greater creative control and increased profits!
The manga-ka of the future will be more manager than artist, not because of a lack of artistic vision, but because our age of free entertainment and declining paper publications demands it.
His vision isn’t as far-fetched as it first sounds. Consider the success of Comiket, the gargantuan self-published flea market that boasts yearly attendance records of over one million. All sales return to the author as pure profit. Contrast this with the 10% royalties a professional receives for Tankobon (trade paperback), and suddenly the amateur is making scratch equivalent to the professional with 1/10th of the sales.
Granted this ignores page rates, but it’s an even tradeoff in terms of volume. Which requires more effort—200+ pages for a commercial Tankobon or 30 pages for a Dojinshi? You can understand why some pros continue to write Dojinshi even after their pro debut. They don’t even need to come up with original works!
Here is the crux of Yamano’s argument. Parody Dojinshi form lines around the building; Original Dojinshi line birdcages. Will entrepreneurial manga-ka be able to create an intellectual property worth a damn?
The When They Cry series, Toho Project, Voices of a Distant Star, and most recently Black Rock Shooter are all independent franchises born from a single seed that germinated across multiple medias. Black Rock Shooter is particularly impressive for starting as a single illustration on Pixiv (the Japanese deviantART) that inspired a Vocaloid song and accompanying music video followed by an OVA and PSP game.
Obviously it can be done. But not without help.
All developing talent needs an agent to help it reach its full potential, and manga-ka are no exception. This is why editors will always have work even if the current publishing model fails. If the manga-ka is to function as franchise chief, then the editor would need to evolve to take on greater responsibility and management duties in addition to providing artistic feedback and upholding deadlines. They’ll need not only impeccable aesthetic sense, but business sense as well.
And what of distribution? Digital publishing, which manga commands an 80% market share in Japan, will be fertile ground to till, in addition to established means such as Comiket and Dojinshi specialty stores. In theory, the current failing bookstore model could be saved by expanding to deal in Dojinshi and related character goods, making it more akin to a convenience store. Upstart musicians, voice actors, and artisans would create the product to stock the shelves. Given enough time, the network would legitimize itself.
According to Yamano and his research, in any case. But whether you accept this as a legitimate model or decry it as pie-in-the-sky idealism, it’s clear that something must be done to rejuvenate the industry. Naruman offers a clear road map and reasonable end game backed up by raw data and views that overlap with established creators. Personally, I’m more afraid of the implications of him being wrong than of him being spot on.
What it won't come out in English:
Tokyopop! No, seriously. Tokyopop compressed a 50 year boom-bust cycle into a mere 10. They duplicated two of the major factors that setup the Japanese industry to self-destruct, namely: Establishing an unsustainablly low price point and inundating the market with too many titles.
When serials first hit the market, publishers never counted on a demand for trade paperback collections, so they licensed the distribution rights to third parties. Imagine their embarrassment when Tankobon took off in a big way! Over time they wrestled back the rights and funneled the windfall directly into their own coffers, but the damage had already been done. Early Tankobon were aimed at children, with a rock-bottom price point to match. There was no looking back.
For the longest time Tankobon sales served merely to supplement sales of magazines, until as recently as 2006 when sales of Tankobon exceeded magazines for the first time in the history of the industry. The existing magazine model is proving to be unsustainable, with Tankobon rising to enslave its former master. But with the market as segmented as it is, can you really blame the consumer for focusing on titles they want to read, as opposed to the old model of throwing down cash for magazines filled with authors they couldn't care less about?
Tokyopop certainly went off the rails and began licensing every third-rate title they could get their hands on, but this was in part due to the inexhaustible source of said trite back in Japan. While manga’s market share has remained largely unaffected despite the fall of the Big Three shonen magazines, the number of titles in circulation has doubled over the past ten years.
Meaning, the same pie now has to feed twice as many mouths. And with an increasingly fractured market, it’s more difficult to produce major hits with cross-demographic appeal. One Piece alone can’t put food on the table for everyone.
So now publishers on both side of the Pacific have become conservative, and rightly so. How many people would be interested in reading about the history of manga economics in Japan, in comic book form or otherwise? Probably not enough to warrant a major release. And it’s not ero-guro or artsy enough for the connoisseurs to pick it up. A shame, considering how thought-provoking and relevant it is.
Why, you’d almost have to... Publish it independently, or use digital distribution.
But that’s just crazy talk.