Almost immediately after the news broke, comics bloggers and industry pundits were reacting to the end of DC Comics' manga imprint, CMX Manga.
While many were still digesting the apparent loss of Go Comi (which has, as of yet, not been confirmed by anyone at that company) and reeling from the big layoffs at VIZ Media, almost no one (myself included) expected that CMX Manga would be next on the chopping block.
Sure, it was generally known that CMX Manga titles weren't huge sellers (in fact, in the 62 week history of the New York Times Graphic Books Top 10 list, not a single CMX Manga title made an appearance on the charts). But as Gia Manry of Anime Briefs observed, even as recently as this week, CMX was adding new titles to their website, including the hotly anticipated 51 Ways to Save Her by Usamaru Furuya and Carved, a horror one-shot by Shizu Takamura, Naoyuki Yokota and Kouji Shiraishi. This was not the actions of a company that knew it was on its way out the door.
Milton Griepp of industry-centric website ICV2 asked DC about the possibility that the CMX catalog of past and upcoming releases might be sold or sub-licensed out to another company. The response? A flat "no comment."
But as a division of media conglomerate Warner Brothers, DC Comics is a publicly-held company, so they are also not the type to just let domain names expire, disconnect phones or fade away quietly into the night when they close an imprint. I'm grateful that they were straight-up about the situation. Even though the news was not good, they let fans know where things are at with their favorite series. This is not a given in manga land, so props to the DC Comics crew for that.
However, as the news got around, manga fans were left asking "why?"and "why now?" The general mood across the blogosphere was a sense of bitterness that DC Comics didn't give CMX Manga the promotional support it needed to succeed.
"We are of the opinion that DC never really gave CMX the love they deserved--they didn't give it much publicity, and the books were impossible to find in bookstores. But editor-in-chief Asako Suzuki and editor Jim Chadwick did an incredible job of picking great manga and bringing them over, including The Name of the Flower, Kiichi and the Magic Books, and Diamond Girl, which had my husband laughing out loud this weekend. We are going to miss them."
Heidi McDonald of The Comics Beat confirmed that for several years, review copies of CMX Manga titles were hard to come by, even though they released several titles that were worth a look.
"We can attest that a review copy of a CMX title was sited about as often as an ivory billed woodpecker in our neck of the woods. Yet there were a number of very readable CMX books, including our personal favorite, Crayon Shin Chan, by the late Yoshito Usui. And with that, an awkward though well-meaning experiment has come to an end."
The roundtable of reviewers at School Library Journal's Good Comics for Kids also pointed the finger at DC Comics for treating CMX Manga like an afterthought. Kate Dacey had this to say:
"DC also did a poor job of getting their product into venues where it would find an appreciative audience. Though their catalog ran the gamut from kid-friendly shonen to splatter horror, their best titles, by far, were their titles for tween and teen girls.... Yet these titles were nigh-impossible to find in chain bookstores, the very place where CMX's core audience shops."
Eva Volin provided a librarian's point of view:
"There have been librarians crying out for good manga for tweens for years now and those librarians have not just been me. CMX has been providing fantastic books for tweens, and they've been doing it for years now. And for years now, Random House and DC have been missing the boat. And now the boat has sailed."
Snow Wildsmith saw CMX's demise and the end of DC Comic's girl-targeted Minx line of graphic novels as a sign that DC is turning its back on a major comics-reading demographic: girls.
"I'm worried that the demise of CMX--which comes a year and a half after the end of DC's Minx imprint --means that DC is turning its back on girls. Or at least turning its back on girls who don't read superhero comics."
David Welsh of Manga Curmudgeon was more blunt in his assessment of DC Comics' culpability in the end of CMX Manga:
"I'm sure economic realities played a part, and possibly a significant part, but it's easy to interpret the imprint's history as DC just not giving a shit."
Daniella Orihuela-Gruber of All About Manga lashed out at DC from a fan/reader's point of view:
Anna of Tangonat also mourned the loss of some of CMX Manga's quirkier titles from the U.S. mangasphere, and acknowledged that perhaps its quirks was part of the problem.
"I probably used the phrase "under the radar" to describe CMX too much. Perhaps that was part of the problem. Many of the series were a little quirky and would probably tend to appeal more to a manga aficionado than a casual reader."
I'm as guilty as the next blogger for not reviewing CMX Manga titles as regularly as I could have, such that Christopher Butcher's (Comics 212) comment stung a little bit:
"'The Death of CMX is the most press that CMX has gotten since the Tenjho Tenge controversy,' brutally accurate, that."
Meanwhile, Kai Ming Cha reminded fans that holding a grudge about the Tenjho Tenge censorship kerfuffle back in the day is a poor excuse for not seeing the merits of CMX Manga's other noteworthy offerings.
"Don't get me wrong - f**k DC for not giving CMX its due, but f**k you fans for letting Tenjho Tenge continue as a barrier to all the greatness that CMX did license and put on the market."
I've attended a few CMX Manga industry panels at comic and anime conventions over the years, and during the Q&A section of the panel, it would be a given that some fan would bring up Tenjho Tenge, every. Single. Time. Seriously. And each one would act as if bringing the topic up, even years after the fact, was somehow something noble and newsworthy. At a certain point, you're just beating a dead horse -- and possibly ignoring some of the really good books that the CMX crew was trying to bring to you.
But other bloggers pointed out that DC's decision was probably borne out of some tough economic realities; that sometimes it really does come down to sales, or the lack thereof.
Jeff Ayers, of New York City's Forbidden Planet comic shop offered this, from a retailer's perspective:
"I always thought DC was a little late to the Manga party, and that high-quality titles such as Swan and Tenjho Tenge would be better served by a different, Manga-dedicated publisher. As one of the largest retailers of such material in the United States I must admit that our CMX numbers were underwhelming to say the least -- for various reasons -- with little growth throughout its run."
I hate to admit it, but Ayers has a point. I recall seeing the boxes and boxes of manga at Los Angeles comics shop Meltdown Comics that they were aching to sell at a $1 a book just to get them moving. A good chunk of those non-returnable books were older CMX Manga titles. Even if CMX was planning on putting out some promising titles in 2010, I'd imagine a lot of comic shop retailers were like Meltdown: a little burnt by their past experiences and a little less inclined to take a chance on titles they weren't sure they could sell.
Kate Dacey of The Manga Critic pulled the numbers and it didn't look good.
"Perhaps most telling is that CMX did not have a single title in the Bookscan's 2009 Top 750 Graphic Novel list.... no CMX title sold more than 3,887 copies through Bookscan outlets. However imperfect a barometer Bookscan may be -- ... the fact that not one CMX series appears on the Bookscan list suggests that their manga imprint was barely making a ripple in the market, even after six years of operation."
It would be nice to imagine that DC Comics would continue to fund CMX Manga for years just because a group of devoted fans loved a particular series or three, and just because they put out some awesome, if under-appreciated books like Swan, Chikyu Misaki, Emma, Moonchild and Astral Project, and were trying their best to push out more new titles in 2010. But if they were presumably losing money on this imprint, how long could anyone expect to keep it going, hoping that things would turn around? As a few bloggers have pointed out, even DC pulled the plug on Minx after two years -- CMX Manga had six years, possibly the last few on borrowed time.
Sadly, the lessons that many publishers learned from CMX Manga were mostly from their missteps. Critically acclaimed though Swan and From Eroica With Love, and even Moonchild are, their less than block-busting sales sent a message that manga that looks "dated" (e.g. created before 2000) has a strike against it.
The other infamous misstep? The uproar over Tenjho Tenge proved that censoring content to make it more palatable for a broader, younger audience is a decision that must be carefully considered. Like it or not, fans pay attention to this stuff, and their ire is not to be taken lightly.
The sad thing is that the folks at CMX Manga knew all this. They learned their lessons from their past experiences and were doing their level best to make smart choices of new books to publish and communicate with fans and press more frequently. That's just one of many reasons why the end of this imprint is terribly depressing.
So now that what's done is done, what does this mean for the manga publishing business in North America, and what does it mean for manga fans?
In the short term, if you've been meaning to check out any CMX Manga series, I'd suggest that you stock up on these titles now before they get harder to find. If you haven't already picked up Astral Project, Emma, Moonchild, Gon, Swan, Crayon Shin-chan or any of the Nari Kusakawa titles, get thee to a comics or bookshop and get 'em soon.
If you were looking forward to any of the previously scheduled July - September 2010 titles, well, don't hold your breath waiting for them to be published anytime soon. They may get picked up by another publisher (after all, Yen Press picked up Yotsuba after ADV left it in limbo, Del Rey Manga got the rights to the last volumes of Samurai Deeper Kyo and Rave Master when TokyoPop lost the rights, and Dark Horse snapped up the rights to reprint Magic Knight Rayearth, Clover and Chobits after the license lapsed at TokyoPop). But for now, don't sit waiting at the store for them to appear on the shelves this Fall, because you may be in for a long wait.
What's the big picture? Well, a few other bloggers chimed in on what this change might mean for the industry in general.
Julie Opipari of Manga Maniac Cafe expressed her concerns:
"I am terribly worried about the future of manga. So many companies have closed up shop, and each is a loss to the industry that I love. With fewer companies publishing manga, there are fewer choices on bookstore shelves, and publishers will be very, very hesitant to license anything remotely chancy. All of the little gems that don't get much buzz will remain buried, like undiscovered treasure."
Lorena Nava Ruggero of I (Heart) Manga also echoed this thought:
"I'm disappointed that the market is contracting and consolidating. It means less choice, variety and competition overall, and there's nothing good about that."
But perhaps one of the more sobering observations was from Simon Jones, Icarus Comics publisher, as he reminds us that manga is still very popular, but that popularity doesn't always equal sales:
"The biggest absurdity of all is that amid all the troubles for the industry, there are more manga readers than ever."
Is it, as some readers have stated when VIZ Media announced their layoffs last week, that the manga industry has no one to blame but themselves for not adapting their business models to a digital distribution model soon enough? Possibly. But if CMX was already struggling to make it as a publisher of printed comics, what would motivate its parent company to sink even more money into delving into the not-yet profitable, ever-shifting landscape of digital publishing and distribution?
At one point, when CMX announced their partnership with Japanese cell phone manga publisher FLEX Comix at San Diego Comic-Con in 2007, it seemed possible that they might blaze trails into this new digital marketplace. Alas, nothing of the sort came out of that deal -- just print editions of titles like Rampage, World That I Create and the now in limbo Nyankoi! -- which wasn't bad, but it wasn't exactly a game-changer for CMX either.
Speaking of game-changing moves, I still have hope for the manga publishing business in North America. There are definitely challenges that must be faced sooner than later (like how to handle digital distribution and make it profitable and easily purchasable) but I'm hoping that there are more people trying to solve the problem than are ready to throw in the towel.
There was definitely a manga bubble in the middle of this decade -- there were almost too many titles published for any reader to absorb, too many pushed out there for any reviewer to write about them all, too many for any bookstore or comic shop to stock and shelve them all. So now, given the sad state of the world economy, things are "decompressing" to more realistic levels -- but I don't think it's dying.
As Ryan Sands from Same Hat! reminds us, this 1987 essay by Frederik Schodt should be a sobering reminder that once upon a time, there was only a handful of manga titles available in English. We've come a long way, and I don't think we'll ever go back to those days.
I believe that we are returning to a place where publishers are being more selective about what they decide to bring to the U.S. market. With fewer titles to produce, they can perhaps give each one the kind of care, attention and love that publishers like Drawn and Quarterly, Vertical and Fanfare Ponent-Mon give to each of their carefully-selected releases.
Perhaps these difficult times will inspire some forward-thinking publishers to seek out new ways to get their books into readers' hands. Digital Manga Publishing is actively exploring digital frontiers by making their books available as Kindle eBooks and as digital "rent-to-own" manga on their eManga rental site. VIZ Media and Yen Press are exploring the online format for magazine publishing. TokyoPop has frequently mentioned that they're exploring print-on-demand for some of their niche titles. And cell phone and iPad manga? That's definitely in the works.
When the manga publishing biz was enjoying double-digit year-over-year growth, it was perhaps too busy or too comfortable to really take a chance on something new. Now, with necessity as the mother of invention, maybe new ideas, new ways to publish manga will come out of this time of crisis.
So while I'm sad to see CMX Manga go, but I'm not ready to write manga's obituary. So, now that I've ranted, what do you think? Add your comments below!
Image credits: © Usamaru Furuya, SHIRATAMA SHOUJO © Takanori Yamazaki / FLEX COMIX INC., RYU WA HANAWAZURAI © 2005 Nari Kusakawa / HAKUSENSHA, EROICA YORI AI WO KOMETE © Yasuko Aoike / AKITA SHOTEN, © 1976 Kyoko Ariyoshi / AKITA SHOTEN, TSUKI NO HIKARI © marginal, Syuji Takeya / Published by ENTERBRAIN, © Yoshito Usui / FUTABASHA