Spring Forward

This may come as something of a shock to you, but not all of my hobbies are sedentary. (Just most of them.) I also like to garden, partly for the pleasure of seeing things in transition. This is the time of year for assessment, seeing what survived the winter and what didn’t. I see some perennials come reliably back into form and clear out the corpses of some that didn’t. I’m pleasantly surprised by the appearance of volunteers, flowers that managed to germinate on their own from seeds dropped during last year’s cleanup. And I look at certain plants with exasperated wonder as they exceed all of my previous expectations and thrive without any apparent intervention by a human agent. We’re currently in the midst of what feels like a similar transitional period in manga’s evolution, and my inclination to assess has kicked in. You can blame ICv2 for putting me on this train of thought. It recently announced its estimate of the size of the 2005 manga market, placing it somewhere between $155 and $180 million in comparison to 2004’s $110 to $140 million figure. Shôjo has gained traction, with more titles from that category making ICv2’s list of top 50 properties. Josei and yaoi made the list too, with one book representing each niche. (There’s also additional confirmation that nobody ever went broke publishing manga with an anime tie-in, but we didn’t really need that particular I dotted, did we?) News of the yaoi breakthrough comes not long after the announcement that Isaac Lew has left his post as Director of Operations and New Business Development for Digital Manga Publishing. In his five years with the company, Lew oversaw not only the launch of DMP’s successful yaoi line but a steady movement towards edgier, more innovative titles. Risky but intriguing books like Robot, the Project X series of business biographies, and How to “Read” Manga: Gloom Party are hitting the shelves, and it will be interesting to see how DMP moves forward without Lew at the helm to shake things up. There’s been a slight shift at the top of Random House’s Del Rey line as well. Del Rey Director of Manga Dallas Middaugh has been promoted to the position of Associate Publisher. It’s indicative to me of Del Rey entrenching its manga line, as is the appointment of Mitsumi Miyazaki to the position of Director of Licensing and Acquisitions. Middaugh has carefully filled Del Rey’s line with solid performers, so it isn’t surprising that Random House would reward him. Del Rey announced its upcoming line of mature titles under Middaugh’s watch, and Viz has already rolled out new offerings in its Signature line. Neither Naoki Urasawa’s Monster nor Golgo 13 has hit the top of the charts, but the line itself has been greeted with enthusiasm from readers eager for more challenging material. As it stands, these mature lines are noteworthy largely for the promise of things to come and the indication that “manga creep” is truly underway. Supplementing that notion are Central Park Media’s vigorous efforts to make sure its josei offering, Kiriko Nananan’s Sweet Cream and Red Strawberries, doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. As CPM Director of Marketing Ali Kokmen said to Publishers Weekly Comics Week, “It’s nice to do something that will challenge Western perceptions of Japan as being just Pokemon, schoolgirls, samurai and geishas.” I certainly won’t argue with that sentiment, though CPM might want to post information about the book on its web site if it means that much to them. As with the mature lines, CPM’s dedication to marketing josei is most rewarding in terms of promise. Publishers have already committed to special imprints for yaoi and shôjo, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that, next year at this point, we’ll have a serious effort at a josei line from some quarter. Up until now, josei has danced around the fringes, and it seems like time for it to move more squarely into the spotlight. Until that comes to pass, we can spend our time seeing if manhwa succeeds in become the next “it” category. Leading the charge are ICE Kunyon, a consortium of Korean manhwa publishers, and Netcomics, an affiliate of Korean web-comics giant Ecomix. Manhwa has yet to inspire the kind of passionate audience that Japanese comics in translation enjoy, but its higher profile might change that. I’m a bit concerned at the daunting volume of new releases coming from Netcomics, though I think they’re really smart to combine print volumes with online availability. The web has always been the domain of early adopters, and importation of the Korean webcomics model might do what a flood of digests can’t. Tokyopop has been publishing manhwa for a while now but without a concentrated branding effort. (At comics.212.net, Christopher Butcher made imaginative note of that by playing a game of “guess the nation of origin” with Tokyopop’s solicitations. He did really well.) According to a piece at Anime News Network, the publisher would apparently prefer if you didn’t distinguish a graphic novel’s nation of origin at all. Their current term of choice seems to be “global manga,” which doesn’t exactly set the heart racing but doesn’t carry the apparently inherent pejorative quality of “original English language manga.” (According to Adam Arnold of Seven Seas, “global manga” already has some miles on it anyways.) I would state the obvious, that a book’s origins don’t matter so much as its quality, whether Japanese, Korean, Chinese, American, Canadian, French, Belgian, and so on. And that, with the increasing cultural cross-pollination in graphic novels overall, I think the distinctions will matter less and less. And that, really, someone will always get flinty and defensive about what you call their work, even if there’s no intended qualitative component in the label you use. Things change, and quickly. New categories emerge, old categories get repositioned, new players enter the field, and readers are left with more choices. The manga garden is doing pretty well, all things considered.