get another nail
in their coffin
May 15, 2003
By Franklin Harris
I'm beginning to think that in 10 years the monthly, 32-page comic book will have gone the way of Betamax and 8-tracks.
Viz, one of the most successful North American importers of Japanese comics (manga) announced last week that it will abandon the 32-page format in favor of graphic novels and anthology magazines. It's a move that makes perfect sense.
Manga sells poorly in comic book specialty stores, where customers prefer monthly comics, but does well in bookstores, where shoppers prefer graphic novels.
Stu Levy of Tokyopop, the other leading American manga publisher, says Japanese comics now are nearly a $300 million business in the United States, and he tells Publishers Weekly that manga could be a $1 billion industry within five years.
It's all heady stuff, especially when the traditional American form of comics, the 32-page pamphlet, looks ready to crash and burn.
Don't let the success of Marvel's comic-book movies fool you. The box-office take of "Spider-Man" and "X2" helps Marvel's bottom line but doesn't move many comics. That is why the comics industry resorts to stunts like Free Comic Book Day to get comics into the hands of anyone who will take them.
The big American publishers, Marvel and DC, have been slow to respond to the manga challenge.
DC has long maintained a healthy backlist of trade paperbacks for the bookstore market, but Tokyopop's and Viz's manga collections routinely outsell DC's titles. Marvel, meanwhile, only just revived its trade program.
It's not only the format of the comics that counts. It's the content.
Marvel tried to appeal to manga readers with its "Marvel Mangaverse" comics, which re-imagined the company's superheroes as magical girls, giant robots and other staples of Japanese fantasy comics. That Marvel has abandoned the "Mangaverse" tells you all you need to know about how successful it was.
If all you take away from manga is that your characters should have big eyes, wear sailor suits and pilot giant robots, you've learned nothing, which is why most "American manga" fails to find an audience either among readers of superhero comics or readers of manga.
Look at a Japanese comic, and you'll see the difference. Manga page layouts are more dynamic and fast paced. Action that would take place on one page of an American comic takes place over several pages of a Japanese one.
The art is different, too, more delicate and more fluid than that found in most American comics.
So, both Marvel and DC have reached the same conclusion: If you can't imitate them, hire them.
DC brought in Kia Asamiya ("Martian Successor Nadesico") to write and draw "Batman: Child of Dreams," a lush, 338-page graphic novel. And Marvel recruited Tsutomu Nihei ("Blame!") for a Wolverine miniseries, "Wolverine: Snikt!"
While DC now routinely publishes original graphic novels, Marvel holds on to a two-tier strategy. So, Marvel will publish "Wolverine: Snikt!" as monthly pamphlets before collecting the story as a graphic novel. The monthlies are designed to appeal to the crucial but shrinking collectors market.
But anyone who has read the first issue of "Wolverine: Snikt!" knows the story is meant to be read in one sitting. Not much happens in the first issue, because Nihei's loose storytelling doesn't fit inside a mere 32 pages.
Still, however halting, these are steps in the right direction. What remains to be seen is whether DC and Marvel are willing to go the rest the way, which means turning more collectors into readers.