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Book Expo '08: Manga Hopes to Hook Younger, Older Readers

By June 2, 2008

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Saturday's Graphic Novel Day at Book Expo America 2008 in Los Angeles included one panel that was specifically about manga. Entitled "Manga’s New Generational Trade-up: The Publishers’ Quest for New Readers," the panel was moderated by Publishers Weekly Sr. News Editor Calvin Reid, and it attracted representatives from VIZ Media, Del Rey Manga, TokyoPop, Yen Press and Go! Comi to talk about their plans to entice more younger and older readers into the manga fold. (Photo L-R back row: Leyla Aker, VIZ Media; Ali Kokmen, Del Rey Manga; Rich Johnson, Yen Press; Calvin Reid, Publishers Weekly; front row: Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl, TokyoPop and Audry Taylor, Go! Comi)

If there's one assumption that many readers, booksellers and librarians make about manga is that it's strictly for teens. It's true that a lot of the top-selling shonen and shojo manga that's out there today are squarely aimed at readers age 13 to 17. But if you've ever browsed at the manga section at a Japanese bookstore (or even a well-stocked American bookstore or comics shop) you'd find sophisticated, dark, thrilling, witty and mature manga for adults, and charming, exciting, funny and fanservice-free stories for younger readers. But is the American market ready to 'graduate' from the teen-centric shojo / shonen fare?

American publishers are eager to expand the manga audience -- to introduce younger readers to manga earlier, and to keep teen readers hooked on 'grown-up' manga well into their twenties, thirties and beyond. But that's easier said than done.

While publishers such as Dark Horse, VIZ Media and Del Rey Manga have published a few successful seinen (mens) titles, and Aurora Publishing and TokyoPop have made inroads toward getting more josei (ladies) manga on the shelves, the sex and violence in some of these titles warrant an "M-Mature" age rating and a barrier of shrink-wrapping. Many mainstream retailers shy away from stocking comics with adult content. And then there's the culture barrier that keeps older readers from appreciating comics that "read backwards."

As TokyoPop Senior Editor Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl put it, "I think the question is how to reach out to an older demographic who might be intimidated by the right to left format," she said. "For example, my parents can't wrap their brain around reading in that direction."

Yen Press Co-Editorial Director Rich Johnson had a similar anecdote about a reader who encountered With The Light, Yen Press' josei manga series about a young mother raising an autistic son. With the Light was presented in its original right to left format, but as Johnson put it, "an (older) reader picked up the book and asked me, 'Is this printed to make me feel autistic?'"

But there are arguments against flipping manga just to reach mainstream audiences. Ali Kokmen from Del Rey Manga maintained that "going from right to left, left to right isn't a marketing decision -- it should be based on the artists' intention." He continued, "We want to be true to an authentic experience as the creator envisioned it. I trust that our readers are competent enough to understand that. They will destroy us if we do something inauthentic."

All of the panelists were mindful of the fact that while they were all hoping to entice older readers into reading more manga, they can never lose sight of their core audience, teens.

"We'll continue to publish our shonen and shojo titles," said VIZ Media editor Leyla Aker, "but we'll also expand by going bolder with josei and seinen content, and going younger, by publishing more books for those readers. We're also expanding by publishing omnibus editions and collectors' sets. We're trying find new and creative ways to bring manga to American readerships."

A comics retailer in the audience complained of "a serious bleed from manga to Vertigo comics" from his twenty-something customers. "Put a push on the adult women stuff," he told the panel. "We can't get it fast enough."

TokyoPop's Diaz-Pyrzbyl replied, "That's frustrating to hear, because we all have that material, but it's a matter of putting them in front of readers."

Panelists then talked about shelving manga by age rating, to make it easier for kids and grown-ups to find content geared especially for their tastes.

"It's intimidating to walk into the (graphic novels) section and see a wall of titles and teenagers sitting on the floor," said Diaz-Pryzbyl. "It's not welcoming to older readers."

Audry Taylor, Editorial Director of Go! Comi also echoed the demand from her shojo manga readers for "something more interesting, something more sophisticated." But Taylor also thinks that the culture barrier keeps Japanese josei manga from really resonating with the American twenty-somethings who devour "chick-lit" and Sex and the City re-runs.

"In Japan, when (shojo manga) grows up, it turns into office lady manga, but I don't see that working in America," said Taylor.

TokyoPop's Diaz-Pyrzbyl agreed. "I handed a friend Tramps Like Us. She liked it, but there's things about office culture in Japan that just didn't click with her."

At BEA 2008, VIZ showcased several new titles for older readers from their VIZ Signature line including Kazuo Umezu's Cat-Eyed Boy, Takehiko Inoue's Vagabond and Tetsuya Kariya and Akira Hanasaki's long-running cooking manga Oishinbo, which will debut in early 2009.

"The problem is that even though these are titles that we are absolutely committed to, but the sales are not up there," said VIZ Media's Aker. "We're trying to build this body of titles for older readers, but we're just feeling our way through it."

Aker asked her fellow panelists, "Are these titles not selling enough because there's not enough demand, or not enough readers?"

"I think it will come down to the content of one book -- there will be a tipping point," said Johnson. "You can point to graphic novels that turned the market around and opened it up to new readers: Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. Alison Bechtel's Fun Home. Adult readers picking up books in the Young Adult section? What did that? Harry Potter," said Johnson. "I believe that it will happen (with manga), and god bless the publisher who puts that book out."

There was some speculation that the manga in America will evolve naturally toward that direction as its audience matures.

"Manga has only exploded in the last 7 years in America," said Johnson. "It's not like American comics, where there are men and women who grew up immersed in this world."

A theory was floated out that some manga readers would go from being teen consumers to adult creators who will write and draw manga that their peers would want to read.

"There are schools teaching this style, and its happening, but it's just happening. It will take a while," said Johnson.

Del Rey Manga's Kokmen added, "The next Frank Miller will come from manga -- and she'll be very successful."

Image credit: photo © Deb Aoki, BEA logo © Reed Exhibitions

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