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Manga Before Flowers — Battling those Manga Blues

Those who follow the U.S. manga industry probably already know that May was a terrible month (big lay-offs, one manga imprint shut down, and one company pretty much gone).

If you want to see detailed and thoughtful coverage of what has actually been happening I suggest you all go check out Brigid Alverson’s coverage over at our sister-blog Robot 6.  Although the past few weeks have been just craptacular for English-language manga, Alverson always gives current events in the industry some much needed perspective.

Personally, I’ve been pretty silent on the blog out of sheer depression over the state of U.S manga.  I was already planning to scale back manga reviews because I was starting to feel like I had less to say in a reviewing capacity, but the first major piece of bad news (Viz Media laying off 40% of its workforce, or around 60 people) left me kind of stunned and ill.  In the world of North American manga, Viz is kind of like DC and Marvel combined in terms of its relative market / audience share and significance.  And I feel just terrible for the folks who lost their job (and it should be noted most people in the manga and anime industry aren’t there because the money is anything near great but because they love it so much).

I think the specific reason for my depression was clarified a bit through a short but illuminating back-and-forth over twitter with the talented manga critic and enthusiast David Welsh.  (I’m danielle_leigh1 over there if you want to see me ramble more about manga, anime and random pop culture thoughts in under 140 character-form).  It’s hard as a blogger to feel inspired when you see a cultural form that you love and have been such a vocal champion on behalf flounder a bit.  No matter how much we write about these works or how hard we cheerlead for them, it hurts when something so simple — you know, people buying them — is beyond our ability to encourage.  And that is a depressing realization.

I’m not going to go over in depth the various reasons why manga isn’t selling as well as it once did here (and the reasons are pretty obvious — terrible economy, over-saturation, poor licensing decisions, poor marketing, ageing of the youth market, piracy / scans) because this is less about how this can be “fixed” than the inevitable truth that the market is self-correcting itself, no matter how painful I find that process to be.

The direction that the self-correction process is taking became a lot clearer the week after the Viz layoffs when DC announced that in 6 weeks CMX manga would cease to exist.  Now, I’m well aware of CMX’s flaws as a manga line (seriously, I really do know, you don’t need to even bring them up).  However, that didn’t stop me from loving those books to a ridiculous degree.  Book-for-book I can bet you I own more CMX titles than most other fans combined.  I’m just going to list the series I remember collecting — Emma, Penguin Revolution, Two Flowers for the Dragon, Venus in Love, Astral Project, Versus, From Eroica with Love, SWAN, Apothecarius Argentum, The Name of the Flower, Moon Child, Cipher, Oyayubi-Hime, Venus Capriccio and god knows what else.  Notice that some of those titles are extraordinary among licensed manga in the U.S. for being part of shojo manga history (particularly SWAN and From Eroica With Love).  While I had kind of given up hope on those two series ever being completed in English, I’m extremely unhappy that charming little series that could sell well if anyone bothered to publicize them, like Two Flowers for the Dragon and Venus Capriccio, are going to be dropped one volume from completion because DC picked an arbitrary (to me) date and said “that’s all folks.”

Meanwhile, DC not only killed the line — they kind of pissed on the-yet-to-be-entirely-shoveled-grave by taking down the CMX portion of its website within a week of the closure announcement.  Even though a few books are being allowed to stagger out in June.  Classy as hell, right?  Perhaps they were trying to hide the burial, who knows.  (This is particularly annoying because the MINX graphic novel  website was allowed to stay up looooong after that line was defunct).   So now if you want to find out about those titles, you can go to Wikipedia or Amazon, but not from the company that actually published them.

So.  By this point I’m feeling wounded and depressed and not sure how to proceed.  I even stopped buying manga for a little while and felt less excited about reading it.   (If a week goes by and I haven’t bought a manga that is an unusual week for me).  Something funny happened though…I started to look through my Japanese editions of SWAN (these are re-releases of the original 1970′s manga in what looks to be two-volumes-in-one-oversized book, so I’m not sure if they would be considered bunkoban, wideban, or perhaps even aizoban).  Anyway, I took those volumes off the shelf and flipped through them to examine the heartbreakingly beautiful images, the creamy-soft-white paper and the rich, dark ink and the high quality binding and cover.  Let’s face it — Japan knows how to create a beautiful book.

SWAN

SWAN 3a

SWAN 4

While I take down my SWAN volumes every few months just to marvel at the pretty, this time around I thought, “I want to read this.”  And not only was the thought, “I want to read this,” but “I want to read this in this form.”  (However, note that the most striking images in this manga, two examples of which I’ve shared above, absolutely need not a single word to convey meaning).  So.  Dummy that I am, I decide it is time to get serious about learning Japanese.

After I made that decision I felt better.  I felt less bruised as a manga fan and I started to slowly get back into the habit of buying English-language manga.  But now I was also collecting Japanese language sources that would be useful for self-study.  It may be a year before I can pick up a SWAN volume and read it (and it could a shorter amount of time, or it could be longer) but I’m determined to give myself more options when it comes to reading manga.  It’s been about 10 days since I started studying, putting in a few hours a day, and while sometimes I’ve been frustrated with having to cram so much new information into my brain (really, Japan, three writing systems?  One wasn’t enough for you?) for the most part I’ve been excited about the journey.  I can now read very short sentences in Japanese (hiragana, no kanji yet…I’ll be starting with basic kanji within the next week) and I know a little about particles.  Within a lesson or two my self-study book will introduce me to verbs and I hope that this particular system of learning kanji will prove useful.  But mostly I feel like I’m putting my time and energy into something positive instead of sitting around feeling sad.  I hope to post more on this new adventure as it develops!

20 Comments

Book-for-book I can bet you I own more CMX titles than most other fans combined.

Same here. I’m not even sure how many there are, but there are lots and lots.

I really need to resume my attempts to learn Japanese, because there’s so much good stuff we’ll probably never get and I really need to know how Two Flowers for the Dragon ends.

Danielle Leigh

May 30, 2010 at 8:00 am

And you just named one of the major reasons I thought that I just had to do this. Who is going to pick up a title like that with ONE volume left?

Also, it really is hella time consuming to learn this language. If I were doing anything other than writing a dissertation I wouldn’t have the time (I know this sounds weird but I can’t just write my dissertation all day, I’d go nuts, so this is a nice, if frustrating, side project).

English has four writing systems, although none of them are of the “single character stands for an entire word” variety. Mind you, you only need two of them to be able to read almost everything – upper case print and lower case print. Anymore, upper case cursive and lower case cursive only get used for notes and for Batman: Year One. Wonder how long it will take for the schools to drop cursive from the curriculum.

Danielle Leigh

May 30, 2010 at 9:48 am

Patrick — yeah, I’m going to go with upper / lower case as a set of GRAMMAR rules. It is not an entire writing system as far as I’m concerned (and cursive is a script, not a writing system. Japanese kana can be written in many scripts as well). Therefore, English really only has ONE writing system (as I’m employing the concept).

Danielle: This was a great post. I’m so sorry to see this happening to you and Manga fans everywhere, it’s a real shame, and scares me in general, as a lover of comics and really, all print media. I’m sure there are more of these heartbreaks ahead of us, but I think it’s great that you found a proactive way to work through this for yourself. Good luck with the Japanese!

Hey! I use cursive all the time! It’s awesome!

Danielle: It sounds like manga is going through what comics have been going through for years, at least since the mid-1990s implosion. People have been dooming and glooming about comics ever since, but somehow they manage to survive. They have problems, and now, apparently, so does English-language manga. I doubt if it’s going away, as it’s gone well past “fad” stage, but it appears like they’re going to have to adapt to continue. It will be interesting going forward seeing how they deal with it.

Good luck with the Japanese. My wife has tried it in the past and I know how hard it can be, so it’s cool that you’re working on it.

[...] Manga Before Flowers — Battling those Manga Blues | Comics Should Be Good! @ Comic Book Resour… [...]

Danielle Leigh

May 30, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Thanks Kelly and Greg for the words of encouragement! I’m very motivated so I’m keeping at it and I suppose consistency will be the most important thing (taking at least some time every day to sit down and study).

If there’s one good thing about the dissolution of the CMX line, it’s certainly motivated me to collect up as many of their read-worthy titles as possible before they’re no longer available. Of course, that only applies to those titles that’ve already finished their runs. (The only exceptions being Eroica & Swan)

This is made doubly difficult that some volumes of some series were given higher or lower print runs. Did you know the 7th volume of Emma (where the main story ends) is out of print? Even though the last three volumes are side stories, where’s the motivation to pick those up if you don’t know how it ends? Ironically enough, the side-story Manga by the same author, Shirley has Plenty of volumes left in stock.

Part of the pain my wallet is feeling is lessoned by finding some CMX Manga volumes for cheap in out-of-the-way locations. One of the things that helped motivate me to pick up a series was if I got a volume for less than the cover price. Even if I wind up spending $150 for a whole series, as long as I saved 5 bucks on a single volume, I feel like I’m somehow ahead.

I go into further length about my feelings about CMX at my blog. (Just click my domain name & search for the relevant subject) There’s a revised comic there that sums everything up perfectly.

Here’s hoping Fantagraphics picks up where CMX left off!

Though… I’m now worried that DC might feel so threatened by other companies cashing in on their “hard-earned” work (even though they’ve done nothing to advertise so), they might not even let them trade their licenses out of sheer pride. It wouldn’t be enough to kill the line – they would have to piss over it & rub salt over the lands to ensure it was THEIRS. I wouldn’t put it past them to do such a sneaky underhanded technique, given their recent business decisions.

I’m seriously hoping I’m wrong in this.

Danielle Leigh

May 31, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Daniel — hmmm…looking at amazon it seems as though there are multiple used copies of volume 7 available but volume 8 is over-priced (and one assumes scarce).

I think DC wants to pretend it never ever put out manga (i.e. a failed experiment they want to hide) so I’m not really concerned they would selfishly hoard those licenses (it’s more likely those books won’t be picked up because of lack of interest, sadly).

Nice post! I was kind of annoyed about the website myself … Best luck with the Japanese! I’m a big fan of From Eroica With Love. I collect stuff and I have the different editions in Japanese. It would be really neat to read them, one day. Though I do hope that there is some small chance that some other company might pick up this great series one day …

[...] Danielle Leigh is taking matters into her own hands by learning Japanese so she can read her favorite series without worrying they will come to an untimely [...]

I don’t think any manga fan learning Japanese could go wrong with the Mangajin books: Mangajin’s Basic Japanese Through Comics 1, Mangajin’s Basic Japanese Through Comics 2, and Japanese the Manga Way (ISBNs: 978-0834804524, 978-0834804531, 978-1880656907). There’s a flood of ‘Learn Japanese Through Manga!!!’ books. These books are different because 1) Unlike any of the others I’ve seen, these books uses examples from real manga, such as What’s Michael?, Oishinbo, OL Shinkaron, Shima Kosaku, and Urusei Yatsura, as well as unlicensed stuff such as Yawara!, and stuff that I think will never be licensed in English such as Kaisha-in no Merodii. 2) I find them much more insightful than the other Learn-Japanese-Through-Manga books. That said, I think these books are best used as a supplement.

For kanji, I recommend Basic Kanji Book 1 & 2 by Chieko Kano et al.

I don’t wish to discourage you, but unless you’re a phenom, you’re going to have to put in a ridiculous amount of effort into studying in order to read anything but the most juvenile texts with any sort of fluency in a year, much less comics targeted towards teens or adults. Not living in a total immersion environment will definitely work against you. (Also, don’t ignore studying speaking and listening, as well.) ??????but don’t get discouraged when the progress is slower than you’re imagining it will be – the payoff to learning a second language is *very* slow in the making.

Ah… I tried to use Japanese in my post, but it just came out as a bunch of question marks. I guess that’s ironic, or something. Anyway… ganbatte.

Danielle Leigh

June 1, 2010 at 8:43 am

Garrett Albright…well, I’ve talked to a few people who have been more encouraging than you are and think the point isn’t necessarily to be “fluent” at a high level but to be able to pick up a low level / intermediate text (for example, a shojo manga) and be able to glean some meaning from it. At some point. In the future. Whenever that may be. ;-)

As for speaking and listening, I’m still shopping around for CDs that will work for me but eventually I’ll find some and integrate them into my study regimen.

Sara K. — thanks for the recommendations! I’m probably going to switch over to Genki at some point (these Japanese from Zero books kind of give me a cushion so I can start a college level textbook without feeling overwhelmed). But once I reach a certain point I’ll be picking up books that explain grammar in greater depth and I’ll probably pick up those books as well (I think both my public and university library have copies of them).

Your post kind of illustrates just how shoddy marketing has been for manga. I’d heard of Swan before, but never really cared or bothered to learn more about it. All it took was seeing the images you posted for me to go “What! What is this? I need to read this!…It’s canceled aaaaarrrgghh!!” It took TWO(!) images in a blog post to sell me on the product, and CMX couldn’t manage to spark my interest in any way at all after however many years it was being released. If you’re going to concentrate on retro shojo, that’s fine, but make an effort to show someone like me (who doesn’t really read shojo) why it’s special.

I’ve tried learning Japanese, but I’m not as diligent as I should be. I do it as more of a hobby and don’t really set a goal to be fluent by a certain point or anything, but I would like to be at a level where I can at least read shonen manga (which uses furigana, while seinen usually doesn’t). I use Rosetta Stone, which is pretty good when it comes to vocabulary, but as far as grammar is concerned, it’s good to have a secondary source.

Some interesting comments I found while browsing the AnimeNewsNetwork forum, talking about the demise of the CMX & Go! Comi line:
http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/bbs/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=130600&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=30

DC took CMX’s site down yesterday evening. I kind of (very much) hate them for that, but if you search “CMX” in the search bar on the main DC page it redirects you to, you’ll get a 48-page list of all the volumes CMX published (477 volumes! i had no idea they published so many books!). Or for recommendations/more accessible info, look up some of the manga blogs around—Manga Curmudgeon, Slightly Biased Manga, MangaBlog and many others. Lots of folks are discussing the series they loved and will miss.

and

Thanks for those recommendations. Reading these lists just upsets me that DC did nothing to promote these series. Some of these sound really interesting, and obviously loved by their readers. I now wish I could’ve found these titles earlier to support them. There’s about a half dozen I want to try, but there’s no point if they never will be completed. Sad

and

I understand how you feel completely. Like Lissa, I had read almost no CMX until about two weeks prior to the announced shuttering. I was going to go through all of their titles, and find the best of the best for a project. I received several volumes of CMX titles I’d ordered in the mail on the Tuesday the closure was announced.

People’s reactions are a) “CMX, aren’t they the people who tried to take the panty shots out of Tenjho Tenge?” b) “Was CMX still around?” and c) “They never put out anything I heard of or cared about.” But now the buzz and the recommendations are going around. There’s going to be a time delay, but it’s only after we take our fifth step or so that we’ll understand what a grievous loss this was, when we suddenly keel over.

CMX put out over 70 titles, and only around 33 titles are unfinished or unreleased, so there’s still quite a lot to appreciate. I would recommend looking up Shaenon Garrity’s Overlooked Manga Festival entries for Swan, From Eroica With Love, and Moon Child to see the kind of stuff we (mostly) all missed.
http://shaenon.livejournal.com/60625.html

I learned not to underestimate a lot of CMX’s catalog. Emma and Astral Project are widely regarded as classics, as is Gon. I love Fire Investigator Nanase, a shonen series that’s taught me several tell-tale signs of arson, and Monster Collection, a TCG tie-in that is actually good. And who knew that a shoujo Yu-Gi-Oh would work? Someone at CMX did, and they brought it to us. It’s just a shame DC gave them no bookstore access and almost no marketing.

I just heard a comedienne talk about trying to learn Japanese, pataphrasing: “So, Japanese has three writing systems, THREE! and one of them, Kanji, is basically Chinese characters pronounced in Japanese. That’s when I gave up; no way was I gonna learn a language that’s like ‘learn Chinese, then turn to page 2′”! :P

Good luck! Don’t give up! Those scans of Swan look stunning!
I’m still in the “rage” stage of my mourning of CMX, and I hate those DC bastards that took Apothecarius Argentum away from me!!! Grrr!

heathersparrows

June 5, 2010 at 5:10 am

For a year, I tried to learn Japanese, and I gave up for a lack of time to immerse myself into the subject.

The Swan books look so awesome. Oh yes, and I know, there are beautiful books about From Eroica with Love as well. The Japanese know how to do it.

Nevertheless, I , too, won’t give up hope that maybe some other publisher will take over the titles CMX published. I would be especially glad about Eroica.

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