Manga Circa 2005

It’s hard to believe a full year as a manga addict has passed. It was a bustling twelve months for manga watchers and an expensive one for manga readers, with lots of great new titles making their debut. Before we get too far into 2006, I thought I would take a look at some of the highlights.

Del Rey gets weird: Given the strength of Del Rey’s inaugural year and access to popular licenses, they could have been excused if they’d stayed the course (more CLAMP titles and Negima!-esque books). Happily, they went just a little off the rails with some appealingly odd new releases. Love Roma is an endearingly lo-fi overturning of the shôjo apple cart. Genshiken looks like a standard nerd comedy, and it is in a lot of ways, but there’s some surprisingly potent, quirky soap opera underneath. And Nodame Cantabile goes from strength to strength with each new volume, focusing as much on its relentlessly quirky cast’s musical ambitions as it does their interpersonal passions.

New kids on the block: As the year began, lots of people seemed to be waiting for the bust of the manga market. And while there were some corrections, there was also plenty of evidence of continued growth. Ice Kunion zeroed in on the manwha market (and will be followed into those fields by Netcomics in 2006). My heart belongs to Go! Comi, though, with their high production values and quality titles like Cantarella.

New kids on the block II: When you filter out the noise surrounding Tokyopop’s original English language manga initiative (there’s a lot of noise, and it can’t all be easily dismissed), what’s left is rather remarkable. It’s provided opportunities for a stunning number of new cartoonists, giving potential stalwarts the kind of exposure that was previously unheard of in comics publishing.

Girls like comics: For a lot of them, their drug of choice is manga. Viz went the farthest towards capitalizing on this trend with the launch of the Shojo Beat anthology and companion line of digests. The magazine’s aesthetic may run towards the garish, and the non-manga material isn’t my cup of tea, but it’s a canny, aggressive attempt to give a significant audience a place to call home. (And if this launch was part of the impetus for Viz to revamp its once dreadful web presence into an attractive, navigable site, all the better.)

Girls like comics II: The Comics Journal is one of those love-it-or-hate-it institutions, not unlike its periodical polar opposite, Wizard. I admit that sometimes I manage both several times in a single issue. (I just plain hate Wizard.) But one unqualified success was TCJ #269, The Shoujo Manga Issue. Packed with worth-the-price-of-admission pieces, it took an expansive look at a sector of the comics industry often written off as kiddy tosh, revealing the depth and breadth of shôjo with side trips into josei, shônen-ai, and yaoi. From Dirk Deppey’s blistering editorial to Matt Thorn’s fascinating interview with the legendary Moto Hagio, it left me surrounded by a swirl of hearts and flowers.

Nouvelle, rich: Okay, so it took me a while to delve into some of the edgier, more experimental manga that’s available. Maybe it’s just as well, because now I’m greedy for more titles like The Walking Man, Kinderbook, The Times of Botchan, and Sexy Voice and Robo. Towards the end of 2005, nouvelle manga specialist Fanfare/Ponent Mon announced that it was working to make its titles more available to North American readers, and that’s all to the good. Viz and Del Rey both announced lines of titles for more mature readers, and while none of the books announced so far seem to quite be at the level of F/PM’s catalog, there’s considerable reason for optimism. After all, Viz was the first to publish Iou Kuroda in English. More, please. Now.

Out of the closet and into the bookstores: In the beginning, there was Be Beautiful. Then there were Yaoi Press and Digital Manga’s Now there are Tokyopop’s Blu imprint and newcomer Drama Queen. If you like manga about boys who like boys, you’re sitting pretty. I admit I’m still more fascinated by the phenomenon than engrossed by the individual works, and I could go the rest of my life without reading another story where coercive sex leads to romance (regardless of the genders of the participants), but the growing market power of yaoi can’t be denied. (Bonus points go to ALC for getting in on the ground floor with its line of yuri titles.)

Love, exciting and new: It’s hard to believe there was ever a time when the comics blogosphere wasn’t graced by the presence of Love Manga, the brainchild of David Taylor and Immelda Alty. Informative, insightful, entertaining, and startlingly comprehensive, there’s simply no better source of manga news and views on the web.

A popularity contest with no losers: For a recovering Marvel/DC junkie, looking at Diamond’s monthly top 100 can be kind of dispiriting. BookScan figures don’t pose quite the same problem, because I find myself in the truly weird position of finding books that I love (Fullmetal Alchemist, Fruits Basket, Hot Gimmick, etc.) topping the charts. Wait a minute… popularity doesn’t have to equal dreck? I always dreamed of such a day, though I never thought I would live to see it.

Whistle a happy toon: Some of the year’s biggest hits (i.e., every single volume of Naruto) benefited greatly from exposure on Cartoon Network. It’s always nice to see evidence that people can be motivated to pick up comics because they encountered the story in another medium. At the same time, it’s a relief that anime isn’t the only driving factor in manga sales success. Fruits Basket doesn’t need a toon to top the charts. And while Yotsuba&! is more of a sleeper hit than an numbers smash, it not only doesn’t have an anime in release, its publisher doesn’t even mention it on its web site! Behold, the power of word of mouth.

It’s not all joy, though, and fairness demands that I bring up a few lowlights of the year that just ended.

All the news that’s print to fit: Is there anything more vapid than trend journalism? Having worked as a print journalist, I feel the pain of the reporter who gets shipped out cold to hang around a Borders until they’ve harassed enough consumers to fill an assigned number of column inches. That said the vast majority of ink spilled on the manga phenomenon has resulted in pieces that are mundane, minimalist, or just plain bizarre.

The campaign: Yes, that campaign. Tokyopop’s campaign for its OEL line is impressive in the same way a Komodo dragon is impressive, carnivorous and relentless. From downloadable dialogue readings to blithe accusations of racism, the pitch took multi-level marketing to ridiculous degrees. While I’m grateful that the spate of advertorials in Publishers Weekly Comics Week seems to have dried up, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they might opt for a more subdued approach in 2006.

Is it live, or is it manga-esque? Yes, that argument. My personal position is that I’ll judge any graphic novel on its merits, regardless of its nation or origin or how exhausting I find its publisher. But just when everyone seemed to have returned to neutral corners, Tania Del Rio launched another salvo over at Buzzscope.

Maybe if we drew in some bras: Yes, that incident. Months later, DC’s CMX line still hasn’t done anything as noteworthy as the mangling of Tenjho Tenge. Not only was it ham-fisted censorship, it wasn’t even effective ham-fisted censorship, leaving plenty of creepy fan service and sexual violence intact, superimposed undergarments or no.

One last, totally self-serving look into 2006: I’ve started a new Yahoo group called MangaTrade where people can… well… trade manga. It’s a simple set-up where you list what you have to trade and what you’d like in return and hopefully find someone whose list intersects with yours.