Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Moebius: "Manga is a plague"

Legendary French artist Moebius (real name Jean Giraud) has been on my mind quite a lot recently. Aside from recently reading one of his older books, which I will hopefully review some time soon, he has also released a new semi-autobiographical (Inside Moebius) book which means that there's been a number of articles and interviews with him. A recent one had a somewhat controversial statement that didn't get quite a lot of press time in comic blogs because the interview was in Spanish. Luckily, I do speak Spanish, and I thought that somewhat controversial statement still had some validity, which I wanted to spotlight, and warranted a discussion. Hit the jump to see what I mean.

The Quote

Here's the link to the initial article, in which Moebius calls manga a plague. Obviously, most of our readers do not speak Spanish, so I will provide a translation of the relevant portions.

Interviewer: What looks certain is that at this rate, soon we will all be reading manga. The success of the japanese comics among the young people does not forebode anything good for European Authors.

Moebius: Manga is a plague. The invasion has been total, as shown by the portion of the market that they have achieved. It is an epidemic. It reminds me of something that happened with the Amazonian bees that travel up to North America and kills the indigenous species. In France, the shrimp have disappeared because they threw a foreign species into the water that killed them all. The new ones are good, but they are not the same... they have a horrendous accent [in relation to flavor]. The problem is that manga reaches Europe, but the European comic does not reach Japan. That is what's unfair.

The Context 

Once you look past the inherently negative connotations that the word "plague" and "epidemic" carry, I think Moebius does have a valid point in regards with the "invasion". Expanding the bees analogy further, you can't really blame the "plague" for doing what comes naturally, trying to expand as much as the environment will allow, nor can you exactly blame the indigenous species for being unprepared to this kind of competition, after all, they didn't have this kind of direct competition before. What you can blame them for is their refusal to evolve, but we'll get to that later.

This analogy is also applicable to the American market, although to a lesser degree. Characters like Spider-Man and Batman will always have staying powers in ALL kind of markets, including the international ones, but smaller franchises and creator owned projects have no opportunity against the kind of numbers manga moves. Go into any random bookstore and you will see that the number bookshelves dedicated to manga probably double or triple the amount of shelf space dedicated to regular ol' comics (and when you factor the average size of manga collection against that of a standard comic, the gap becomes even wider). The odds of finding a creator owned title among the cacophony of titles is infinitesimal, while the odds of zeroing in on a cheap manga collection are pretty good. I believe this is the kind of displacement that Moebius was talking about, and the chances of these smaller titles reaching overseas to Japan and achieving a sizable audience are probably next to nothing (although I could be very wrong, any reader from Japan, feel free to correct me).

Keeping with the bee analogy, the indigenous species has to evolve or die, as simple as that. I wouldn't be the first person to say that the comic industry, and specifically the direct market, is standing on its last legs, a shadow of its former self, and waiting for its inevitable end and/or metamorphosis. A dwindling readership that doesn't seem to be attracting any new readers, higher prices that have skyrocketed in the last couple of years, an increasing difficulty to come across the material due to the prevalence of the direct market (aka comic shops), and a noticeable lack of variety compared to other media are all dire signs for the industry. Manga, on the other hand, relies on doing the complete opposite: producing cheap material that can be easily carried by any bookstore and with a wide array of material that appeals to a larger audience.

Let's keep going with the bees scenario: if a species faces no direct competition or threat, the new species can grow in size and numbers unrestrained, and resources will be depleted faster. This is also happening, in a way, as manga studios post declining sales (which still dwarf American comics sales by a lot and the declines come during the recent recession) compared to years ago. Inaccessibility is becoming a factor too as it becomes harder to find all chapters of long running manga titles (quick: what volume is Naruto or Bleach up to now?). Obviously they are not the same problems that the American or European industries are facing right now, but it bears discussion.

Of course, it doesn't have to be as competitive as the bee analogy makes it sound, with one replacing and displacing the other. Both industries CAN and SHOULD coexist, offering different material to a bigger audience and working together if they wish to survive. Some books like Runaways, Ultimate Spider-Man, and I Kill Giants are already ahead of the curve in sporting a manga-ish style to the art and a more teenage drama approach that is so very common in manga titles while still drawing from the supernatural aspects that the western industries are known for, in the process attracting a different audience than your standard super hero comic.

The Other Quote

Going back to Moebius, like I said above, while his words do sound rather negative in the way he expressed them his point of Japanese comics displacing European comics is an accurate assessment. I don't think he holds any ill will against manga, as he stated in another interview his admiration for legendary Japanese creator Naoki Urasawa (Eric reviewed the first volume of Urasawa's Pluto and 20th Century Boys recently), among others.
Moebius: First of all, Urasawa is without a doubt one of Japan’s elite manga creators whom I absolutely love. [...] He is right there with the greats like Otomo [creator of Akira] and Jiro Taniguchi. I really like his light, flowing style of art. There is a comfort, and conscious simplicity in his pictures, don’t you think? [...] The feelings like flight and floating are superb, and there is elegance. It’s great.
So there you have it! Moebius may not like what manga is doing to European comics, but he can still be objective enough to recognize and give his proper dues to other talented creators.

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wirehead4ever said...

The only Manga I read are Berserk and One Piece. I'm a little irritated that Dark Horse prices all the Berserk manga at $13.99 though.

al said...

Bring on the invasion! I need my One Piece fix.

Ivan said...

"Manga is a plague"

Agreed. The crap far outweight the good stuff.

(Yes, I do realize with comics is often the same, but almost all manga are creator owned and you can't "fire" the writer as you can do in comics. And "manga crap" sells much more than "comics crap")

How do you know you've written a half-assed phrase? When your post-scriptum is larger than the actual message.

Also, we have my home town to thank for the "Amazonian killer bees".

mugiwara said...

I can see why Moebius is worrying. I'm french and read and buy a lot of mangas and comics. But I buyed no more than 2 french comics in the past 20 years. One of them was a softcover edition.
Here is the thing. Last month, I walked in a "buy and sell comic shop". And I was thinking, since used comics are not expensive, I'll buy something french, for once. So I ask for Morvan's "Sillage".
"We have it, it's 8 euros"
"Er, sorry, I meant the used version..."
"But it IS the used version!".
Well, I will read Sillage for free in some library or supermarket. For 8 euros, I buyed one manga and the french version of GL Corps: Recharge.
I actually want to put my money into the comics, not into the cover. And I'm obviously not the only one. The "bandes dessinees" need to get that more and more reader don't think that for a comics, higher price doesn't mean better art or story.

Nick Marino said...

the thing that's different about an "epidemic" or "plague" and the spread of manga is that manga has spread because people wanted it to spread - there's a strong demand for the material. unfortunately, the international demand hasn't been the same for European comics. while i see his point, i think it's a weird analogy because demand and public interest have far different causation and results than a plague.

Gaz said...

I'm not quite sure what you're trying to say with the idea that USM and Runaways are 'ahead of the game' because they're manga-like? Isn't that kind of disproving your own argument? If the only way, in your opinion, that Western comics can survive is by mimicking the art and content of manga, then the Western comic IS being displaced and made extinct, it's just happening from within, instead of without.

Of course there's a place for Japanese styled art and for teen-angst in comics, but to suggest that the only viable way to compete with manga is to become manga is absurd.

Flip The Page said...

I own anywhere upwards of 350 manga and have only slowed this past year (4 yearsish of collecting. maybe more now who knows). I can safely say it's a plague, but the nice kind.

Kelson said...

Suddenly I find myself wondering whether the description of the "British Invasion" in music was meant to be as alarmist as this.

Matt Ampersand said...

@Ivan: What do you mean with the Amazonian Killer Bees coming from your home town?

@mugiwara: Great to hear from international readers. And yes, European and American comics'price works against them most of the time. Long time readers will pay for them, but casual readers will probably go for the cheaper reading material.

@Nick Marino: Well, it wasn't a perfect analogy, haha.

@Gaz: I think I should have made it more clear, but what I meant to say with "ahead of the curve" I meant that they were actively working to survive by aiming the books to a different/larger audience. In this case, it was through imitation (in style, not in content) but in reality it could have been throught other means. One such example would be if DC releases the recently announce Earth One books as cheap paperbacks to appeal to the bookstore market.

Anonymous said...

I'm a first time reader and responder to this blog. I was just browsing around the internet looking for comic book reviews when I happened upon this.

I've lived in Japan for three years now and I'm not much of a manga fan. at all. I personally don't really have anything Against manga, but I just never got into them. I neither praise nor curse them.

Nearly everyone in Japan KNOWS who Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man are, but there's simply no opportunity for Japanese people to read the comics. There is, honest to god, maybe TWO genuine American comic book shops in Japan. Except for these two shops, all other places carry manga. There is only one instance where a person can buy a Japanese-translated comic book, and that's at the merchandise counter of a movie theater during a release of a comic book movie, and then it's usually in trade paperback form.

I don't know how or why manga companies decided to sell their manga at American book stores, but I can honestly say that American comics are just about impossible to find in Japan. Why haven't Marvel or DC tried exporting their comics to Japan? Have they tried in the past and failed? I have no idea. Like I said, all Japanese people know who Batman and Spider-Man are, but there's absolutely no opportunity for them to even get their hands on a translated copy. Would the Japanese read it if it became available? I couldn't hurt to try. But at the moment it seems like DC and Marvel aren't making any effort.

LuchoMon said...

What about Lone Wolf and Cub?

Isn´t it good?

Moebius tiene razón. El manga ha invadido demasiado.

De todos modos gracias al manga Frank Miller nos díó RONIN.

Anonymous said...

I also live in Japan and am not a fan of Manga.

I don't know where the poster above lives but I don't even have a single shop around me (which is why I pirate all my comics I have no choice).

I have seen 2 American comics for sale (at "village vanguard") one was V for Vendetta and the other was Batman in the 70s (both in Japanese). I have been back there since and they are gone and not a single comic has replaced them.

Overall, American comics do not exsist in Japan.

Daryll B. said...

Yeah as a American Soldier in Japan 9 years ago, I remember being stationed there during a tech convention and getting into a discussion with one of the techs behind the tech which eventually became the Marvel vs Capcom engine. I asked him about American Comics selling in Japan and he told me flat out that no place sells them with any regularity.

So as the 2 Anonymous posters listed here, I am not surprised that our comics are rare over there. However to see the rate of decrease of American comics combined with the rate of increase of Manga is surprising to me.

But then again I can't be so shocked because most of the "good" animated programs that kids are exposed to going into their teens are Anime in nature. Hell, as a teen I used to buy bootlegged Japanese episodes of Dragonball Z and various Gundams. So it incumbent on the Amer. comic companies to work with stores to get their stuff out there.

Ivan said...

@Matt: exactly what I meant. They come from my hometown.

They are genetically modified bees. They're called "africanized bees", because they're essentially the european bees with some african bees gene spliced onto their genetic code.

That makes them a lot more agressive then the regular european bee.

They escaped from the lab they were contained in my town's university, reproduced and migrated north. That's what Moebius was making reference to.

My hometown Rio Claro, in the state of São Paulo, Brazil.

Matt Ampersand said...

It's very interesting to hear from people from Japan. I figured American comics were rare, but I had no idea they were completely scarce!

Oscar said...

There are some shops that carry American comics in Tokyo, bookstores like Kinokuniya and Tower records have their own (be it small) section for American trades. However while they may be small, Tower Records in Shibuya especially has a range of choice in comics. I bought my first trades for Love and Rockets there.

If you want the actual monthly isues, Blister which apparently now moved to Harajuku (the store was in Shibuya in 2007) gets a big number of monthly titles plus lets you order from Previews.

Considering the language barrier, that they have their own succesfull comic industry with a wide range of choice in genres, and maybe even the price and format of American comics vs Japanese comics...I don't think it's that surprising you don't see more shops selling American comics over there.

Anonymous said...

The problem comes in breaking into the market.
Starting up a new company in Japan is ridiculouly expensive, especially with the economy the way it is now.

Another problem is publishing costs. Japanese weekly manga magazines, even the tankobans, are printed on really cheap paper. Plus, they are non-colored. Compare an issue of Shonen Jump to one American comic book. The price would be about the same, but in Shonen Jump, you get 20 different mangas in about 300 pages.

Mangas are also released on a more regular basis. (Weekly, as compared to monthly.)

One more issue is advertising. Most of the main stream mangas also have anime versions, toys, video games, and a whole bunch of other merchandise. Which also means that they are all in the public eye.

You'd have to overcome all this, while remaining profitable in a market that has a overly strong sense of national "pride".

Mangas are doing well in the foreign market for a few reasons.

They're relasing tankobans at 7-12 dollars a pop. In buying one, you'll get many more pages of entertainment than buying 3 or 4 US comics at the same value. They've got tons of different manga stories from many different publishers, and all they have to do is translate and print. Not to mention, they've got the "Oooh. It's from Japan!" factor.

Anime has already infiltrated public TV, video games, and they even have many conventions. I have yet to see even a decent sized grouping of people in Japan who come together about foreign comics.

Looking at bookstores, mangas have their own shelves. Comics are always hidden some where among the other magazines.

For me, mangas will NEVER replace good old-fashione comics.
However, I feel that publishers need to do something to revive the market. Movies based on mainstream comic book heroes is not enough.

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