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Manga is variously going to save or destroy the Western comics industry, depending on who you ask. People who like manga are convinced that if only they could get all those JSA and X-Men fans to read Tramps Like Us or City Hunter than they will fall in love with manga and Western comics publishing will start looking more like manga publishing and all the comic book stores and publishers will be saved! Hooray! People who dislike manga, on the other hand, are resentful of the fact that all these kids are reading Fake instead of Spider-Man or The Avengers like they "should" be.
Both sides are, of course, wrong. Manga's audience isn't anything like the Western comics audience and the rise and potential fall of manga has nothing whatsoever to do with the well-deserved (potential) death of the contemporary comics industry. (To borrow a phrase from Mike, since he seems in no hurry to use it, the comics industry we have today is the last, pathetic gasp of a fad that began seventy years ago.) We need to stop pretending that manga and western comics have anything to do with one another, other than occasionally brushing up against one another on book-store shelves.
Which is not, of course, to say that the manga readers don't have their faults. They can be just as tiresome as the super-hero fans and the indie scenesters in their own way. In fact, manga fans seem to largely embody some of the worst negative traits of both the super-hero reader and the art-comix crowd.
To start with, there is often quite a deal of pretension amongst manga fans. I'm not talking about manga fans looking down on those "sad, adolescent" people who haven't evolved past the point of reading super-hero comics, as they go to have their purchase of the latest volume of DragonBall Z rung up, although that element certainly exists amongst manga fans. No, what I'm thinking of most specifically are the people who pretend sophistication because of their deep knowledge and respect of manga, which is the most perfect artistic and literary form ever devised. It's a peculiar form of Japanaphilia, less creepy than the anglo-American men who obsess over J-Pop singers, but annoying nonetheless. It's the people who complained incessantly about manga not being presented in the "authentic" format when most publishers were still flipping and touching up artwork to present it in a left-to-right format. The fact that English is read left-to-right and presenting manga in that format might make it easier for people to read it was irrelevant. Now that most manga is presented in the original right-to-left format, their major concern is that the translations aren't sufficiently "faithful." "By changing the 'san' suffix to 'Mr.' they've completely changed the author's intent!" they cry, weeping into their first edition copies of Manga! Manga!.
This is, of course, when they're not too busy trying to impress you with the fact that they know a particular titles name in the original language, or it's "cute" fans only name. I've lost track of the number of times people have asked me for Furuba or Aa, Megami-sama instead of just asking me for the title that I might actually be able to find it under.
To flip to the other end of the scale, one aspect of manga readership that doesn't get mentioned very often is that many manga fans are actually very limited in their tastes. Despite the staggeringly large diversity of genres that exists in manga, and despite what a lot of manga-boosters would have you believe, most American readers stick very close to one genre. Their narrowness of taste will often put those of the most fanatical super-hero fetishist to shame. But unlike the spandex fetishist, many manga readers will insist that their purchases somehow actually do display an interest in a wide variety of genres and styles. The person who only buys X-Men comics in which Gambit appears at least has some basic honesty in their posistion; they don't try to pretend that they're more open-minded than they're purchasing habits would indicate. But many manga fans will argue that there are actually significant and important distinctions between titles like Chobits and Love Hina and Oh My Goddess and Ai Yori Aoshi and Negima and Urusei Yatsura and Real Bout High School and they're not just buying titles that feature under-age Japanese school girls topless and/or in panties, dammit!
Now, it is perhaps unfair to blame manga for the short-sightedness of it's detractors, but there are a couple of comments from the anti-manga peanut gallery that manga publishers have sort of brought upon themselves. First is the notion that manga is a fad. People making this complaint really haven't been looking up from their DC and Marvel comics long enough to realize what's been going on in the comics industry for the last twenty years, and now that they have they look around them and see all these (gasp)women! and (shock!) children buying these strange-looking black-and-white paperbacks instead of reverently placing the most recent issue of Jim Lee's Superman into an acid-free bag-and-board as all comics readers should be. For them, dismissing manga as a "fad" comforts them, and makes them forget that they're the graphic entertainment version of a dodo--getting eaten into extinction by Dutch sailors because they're too stupid to learn how to adapt to changing circumstances. Never mind that this "fad" began a good twenty or so years ago when Eclipse tentatively released some translations of Japanese comics into direct market stores to see if anyone would bite. No, what we're really seeing is more of a "bandwagon." Tokyopop decided to bite the bullet and throw a bunch of manga out in book-form to see if anyone would care...and they wisely decided to hell with the direct market and pushed to get the books into bookstores where the target audience for the kinds of material they were publishing would see it. And it worked. Very well. So every other manga publisher decided to follow suit. And it worked. Very well. And so other publisher have seen that it works very well to put book-form stories in book-stores and want a piece of that pie for themselves. To someone who was so engrossed in whether or not Peter Parker was a clone or the unflinching virgin purity of Gwen Stacy, all of these manga books suddenly appearing in Previews and where the Kingdom Come and other nostalgia-wanks used to be at Borders, it must look remarkably like, oh, say, the black-and-white comics boom, or the chromium comics boom, or the bad-girl comics boom, or the Crossgen comics boom (oh, wait, that one never actually happened). So, to a certain extent, manga publishers could have done more to differentiate their success from the other bubble-economies that the direct market has gone though over the years. On the other hand, screw the direct market and what it thinks seems to be a business strategy that's worked well for manga.
The other potentially valid, they've-brought-this-on-themselves, issue that manga publishers face and I unfairly blame them for, is the issue of the manga glut. Yes, there are a hell of a lot of manga titles coming out each month now. I think Tokyopop alone accounts for about three or four inches of previews each month. But at this point, manga publishers are still seeing what the market will bear. Not the direct market, Dear God no, but the book-store market, which is several orders-of-magnitude larger than the direct market and therefore potentially more able to handle a wide variety of back-stock and new releases. No, the real issue with the two million or so different manga titles that come out each month is that the overwhelming majority of them are absolutely terrible. Badly drawn, derivative, cliched, and the only reason I give the writing a pass is that all I have to go on are the English translations, which are generally artless in the extreme. It's not too much manga we have to fear, it's the tidal wave of crap swamping the worthy titles. As it gets harder and harder for readers to find the wheat amongst the chaff, we run the risk of manga readers losing interest, or worse yet, losing critical discernment. And again, manga publishers and there "throw everything out there and see what sells" approach is largely to blame. Well, no, Tokyopop is largely to blame, to be honest. With most of the other manga publishers I can be reasonably certain that even if something is not to my taste, it still has some merit to someone. With Tokyopop we're lucky if one of the 4,000 titles they release each month is worth reading.