Manga enters mainstream

As kids Japanime continues to dominate North American TV, a growing appreciation for manga, Japan's answer to comic books and the original platform of anime properties such as Cardcaptor, Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, is taking root State-side....
March 1, 2000

As kids Japanime continues to dominate North American TV, a growing appreciation for manga, Japan’s answer to comic books and the original platform of anime properties such as Cardcaptor, Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, is taking root State-side.

According to Diamond Comics, the largest specialty comics distributor in the U.S., manga sales currently account for 5% of the US$525-million comic book market. Though it’s not a huge amount, Oliver Chin, director of sales and marketing at San Francisco-based Viz Comics, which publishes Pokémon manga comics, estimates sales for manga in the U.S. to have risen from less than one percent of the comic book market to its current plateau in two years. What portion of that is derived from sales of kid-targeted manga, Chin says, is harder to extrapolate, since there are so many different manga genres available.

‘There’s no subject that manga can’t and doesn’t cover,’ says Bill Flanagan, an editor and translator at Viz. ‘You’ll have titles that deal with standard kids stories, to stories about working businessmen. There are even whole anthologies of comics based on the mahjong game.’

One of Viz’s most successful kids titles in Japan, Ranma 1/2, is described in the company’s promotional lit as ‘the magna cum laude of the sex-changing martial arts love comedy genre.’ The series stars a young boy who transforms into a girl to battle his foes.

Unlike U.S. comics, which stick faithfully to the exploits of muscle-bound superheroes and are read primarily by teen boys, manga are read as frequently by kids as they are by adults. Women, in fact, make up a large percentage of manga readers. A recent survey Viz conducted for Animerica, its monthly manga anthology, found that one-third of its readership is female. Japan’s publishers produce specific manga for girls-called shoujo-that feature romantic relationship-based stories. Manga for boys-shounen manga-contain stories with more action and adventure elements.

That said, the present interest in manga in the U.S. is being fueled by titles associated with mostly boy-centric TV shows like Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z, says Mark Herr, a purchasing manager at Baltimore-based Diamond. In one year, Viz has sold one million copies of its first edition Pokémon comic, and in two years, has moved 250,000 units of the first Dragon Ball Z comic.

L.A.-based manga publisher Mixx Entertainment, which puts out Sailor Moon comics, is hoping for Pokémon-like results with Gundam Wing, a sci-fi series about intergalactic civil war that has been popular with Japanese children for over 20 years. Coinciding with the TV debut of the anime show on Cartoon Network, Mixx will release its first GW comic this month, and will follow it up with monthly releases thereafter.

With a strong Gundam merchandising program, which encompasses video games, toys and home video, Mixx Entertainment marketing coordinator Jay Weinstein expects the comics to get wide retail distribution.

Generally however, the road to mass retail acceptance in the U.S. has not been an easy trek for manga, says Viz’s Oliver Chin. While you may be able to find Pokémon and DBZ comics at Wal-Mart, you won’t find much else.

‘Most mainstream retailers aren’t in the business of comics full time. For them, it’s not a core product,’ says Chin. There are some exceptions, though. Tower Records, for instance, introduced manga titles into its stores last summer as part of an effort to broaden the chain’s merchandising mix.

Tower currently carries 30 titles, including an exclusive manga title based on the video game Tomb Raider that’s sold 15,000 copies to date and was the top-selling title for the month of December, according to comics `zine Wizard.

‘We needed to bring more variety to our customers, and that included creating a new sideline boutique that specializes in current product trends. And one of the fastest growing ones, obviously, has been the Japanimation-manga category,’ says Kevin Winnik, director of trends and special projects at Tower.

The bulk of manga titles in the U.S., however, are still sold through comic book stores, a distribution channel whose numbers have been falling rapidly in recent years due to kids’ dwindling interest in conventional comics, says Chin.

To try and introduce kids to the world of manga beyond Pokémon, Viz is heavily marketing its other kids titles through insert ads it places in its Pokémon comics and in Animerica, which is sold on newsstands in Barnes & Noble and Virgin Music Stores. Chin says the company is also launching a kids Web site this spring ( that will spotlight stories and games related to its lesser known titles.

While Pokémania may not have translated into boffo sales for other kids manga just yet, those working in the industry say it is having a major impact on the look of North American comics. Over the last few years, many U.S. artists have started using the manga style, which is defined by putting more emphasis on a character’s facial expressions and less on illustrating the size of their muscles, says Diamond’s Mark Herr. Another trend has seen publishers producing manga versions of existing North American properties, such as Spider-Man and X-Men. More recently, Dark Horse Comics has had retail success distributing manga versions for Star Wars and The Phantom Menace.

‘The Phantom Menace manga really puts a different spin on the property,’ says Tower’s Kevin Winnik. ‘I think it appeals to kids because they’re watching all these anime shows all the time, and the books give them something else that they can relate to that looks very similar.’

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