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.
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!