Leading Questions: Manga in America

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on November 5, 2015.

Manga in America One Piece

Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

Naruto and One Piece are two of the most popular comics ever. What haven’t I read them? And why aren’t they at my LCS?

Tackling the place of manga in the American marketplace is a subject that requires a lot of research  and careful consideration. It would requires hours and hours of work along with detailed data analysis and interviews. There are lots of people who have become experts on the topic by spending years engaged with it. I’m not one of those experts and have no interest in trying to put in that kind of work over the course of a single week though. It’s pretty clear that you’re setting a trap and want me to address the big, broad issues at play here (and I’ll probably touch on some). However, this is “Leading Questions” and I’m going to answer the specific questions you’re posing to me, not provide a detailed analysis of this very big topic.

So let’s tackle that first question:

Why haven’t you, Mark Oliver Stack, read Naruto and One Piece?

I lack the power of telepathy, but I can wager a couple of guesses, ones that might help us answer the second question too. You’re a comics fan, not just a Comics fan (the former referring to the entire medium and the latter to the American industry). However, living in America our perception of comics is always filtered through the lens of Comics and you’ve already noted your store doesn’t carry much in the way of manga. Maybe they have some of the Dark Horse translations like Lone Wolf and Cub or Astro Boy, but VIZ books aren’t found on the shelves and they are the largest publisher of translated manga in America. There are already a lot of comics to be read in your typical comic book store, so leaving even as large of a selection as manga off the shelves doesn’t narrow your reading choices so much you’ll have to look elsewhere (especially when you haven’t even reached the legal drinking age).

That lack of focus on manga might extend to the community you hang out with too. It’s not just American comic book stores that don’t carry much manga. Very few American comics websites, podcasts, or social groups focus on manga or discuss it at all. It’s not a priority despite manga being a huge part of the overall comics market with many titles selling into the millions, something unheard of in American Comics.

My final guess is that you just enjoy missing out on great action comics. I have not read Naruto, but I can attest that many of the most popular shonen (manga targeted at young men) like One Piece and Dragon Ball contain some of the best action sequences I have ever encountered. I can go on and on about the exact moment I fell in love withOne Piece, centering on a moment when Luffy lays the smack down on an animal training villain who burnt down a pet store. It’s fast, kinetic, and filled with raw emotion. Feel free to write that recommendation down as we move onto your second question…

Why aren’t these comics at Mark Oliver Stack’s local comic store?

Lacking telepathy (that sure would be a nice ability to possess) and having never been to any of your local stores on either coast, I’ll have to make some educated guesses again. I come from Omaha, a big comics city with six notable shops (including the Eisner winning Legend Comics & Coffee) for a population of less than one million. Not a single one of these shops carries a significant selection of manga, although at least one has a shelf dedicated to it. Omaha also hosts a very successful anime and manga convention each year and having grown up in the city and its nerdy sub-cultures I can speculate with some surety that there is a big manga readership there. So why don’t either of our stores carry much manga?

For one thing, comic book stores are at a serious disadvantage to the biggest purveyor of manga: book stores. Waldenbooks was the first major chain to really pick up on the popularity of manga in America around the turn of millennium. They have since been absorbed by Border’s, which has since gone under, but Barnes & Noble (along with Kinokuniya and a few others in larger markets) has taken over the manga market amongst physical retailers. Just this summer Barnes & Noble doubled the size of its already large manga sections providing an even more diverse selection of titles. The nature of big box book sellers, specifically being able to return unsold goods, and diversifying risk and spreading discounts across hundreds of stores, allows them to host hundreds of titles and build an audience over time. Our local comic stores don’t have the kind of capital or tools of risk reduction to do that. Instead they are primarily forced to engage with the direct market system in which Diamond is the sole distributor of comics and related goods (a monopoly upheld when the Department of Justice found an antitrust suit to be without merit), meaning they cannot return goods (unless exceptions are made) and only receive discounts based on size of order.

Trying to break into the manga market when competing against Barnes & Noble in addition to online, big discount retailers like Amazon simply isn’t good business. It’s very much a matter of breaking in too. The second reason I’d wager your stores don’t stock One Piece or Naruto is that their customers aren’t asking for it.

This goes back to my point about their being a difference between comics fans and Comics fans. That isn’t meant to disparage either group, but different people read the comics they do for different reasons. Some people just like slasher flicks, but don’t have much of an affinity for cinema as a whole. So there are gorehounds and film fans. That doesn’t mean you can’t be bother either. I’m definitely a superhero buff, a Comics fan, but also a fan of comics. I think most comic book stores that either of us would visit are primarily geared towards Comics fans and the American market.

Some stores are sustained almost entirely on the sales of superhero books from Marvel and DC, others carry a decent variety from all of the big to middle-sized publishers including places like Dark Horse and IDW, and some run the gamut from the biggest of series to self-published, local indies. Yet not many in any of these categories carry a broad selection of manga. For some reason, one I’m not going to even attempt to address, many readers have come to distinguish comics and manga as two different things. Manga is comics, but that doesn’t change the perception of them being separate.

If a comic book store wants to develop a customer base to support a section of their shelves being dedicated to manga, the store will have to make the effort to learn about the product, pay to stock, and invest both effort and money to bring manga readers into the store. I think it’s pretty clear why most store owners would look at this challenge and decide their valuable resources would be better spent elsewhere. They’re not wrong.

While I have no doubt that most stores would be happy to order the first three-in-one volume of One Piece for you, it’s an entirely different matter for them to order it, read about it, and push it to current customers or reach out to find new buyers. Most comic stores are run as passion project. They don’t make a lot of money, and the best ones are the result of endless hours of work from management and employees who really love what they do. We can’t fault them for not wanting to take a financial risk or give up even more sleep in the hopes that one of us might discover the adventures of Luffy D. Money and his pirate crew.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t think there isn’t a place for manga in our local comic stores though. As comics fans, I imagine both of us would love to have stores that cater to entire breadth and width of the medium, encouraging readers of American comics to check out manga and vice versa. They’re both wonderful traditions and many readers who focus solely on one would be pleasantly surprised by what the other has to offer. Making that happen requires time and effort though. Starting with a few varied series like One Piece, Pluto, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Akirawith a strong critical and commercial presence is a good idea to start. Being able to share keystones of manga with existing customers can help encourage increased interest in other offerings. Featuring these books may also attract the interest of local manga readers, clubs, and festivals looking for a safe space and support. From there it’s possible to foresee a future where we can both wander into our local comic stores to pick up both the newest volume of One Piece and issue of Batman.

But like most things in comics, it’ll require the dedicated effort of some passionate fans.

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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