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Making a Living in Manga: 9 Reasons Why The U.S. Manga-Making Biz is Broken

By May 13, 2012

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In Bakuman, the manga about making manga created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, two teenage boys pursue their dreams to become professional manga creators. Over the course of 20 volumes, the teens become young men who toil over their drawing boards to reach their goal: to get a popular series featured in Weekly Shonen Jump magazine.

Compare and contrast this dream with the reality that many North American comics creators face today, especially if they create work that is heavily influenced by manga. In today's tough economic climate, risk-adverse publishers are shying away from publishing original comics content. North American readers who love reading Japanese comics in English have been reluctant to show the same support for homegrown comics drawn in a manga-influenced style. And while there are scads of aspiring creators being churned out by art schools throughout the nation, many graduates face daunting prospects for turning their skills into a job that'll pay the bills.

Last weekend, I attended the 2012 Toronto Comic Arts Festival, a show that features comics and comics artists/authors from all over the world, with a focus on original, creator-owned works. While I was there, I was talking with Svetlana Chmakova, the creator of Dramacon, Nightschool, and illustrator for the graphic novel adaptation of James Patterson's Witch and Wizard. She asked me, and several other creators and publishing pros a simple question: What would it take, what needs to change in order to create real career opportunities for North American 'manga' creators?

I asked this question to several pros attending TCAF, including Bryan Lee O'Malley (Scott Pilgrim), Becky Cloonan (Demo and East Coast Rising), and Adam Warren (Empowered), and later threw this question out to the Twitterverse. I got a LOT of responses in a very short time; so many that I felt that it was important to collect as many as I could to put this conversation in front of readers who may not have been on Twitter during that tweetstorm.

Bakuman Volume 3The result is this -- the first part of a five-part series of articles about Making a Living in Manga. To kick things off, I explain how this conversation got started, and my take on 9 reasons why the manga-makin' economy in North America is broken.

Look for the other four parts in this series, which will cover these topics:

Anyhow, take a look at Making a Living in Manga Part 1, then if you've got comments, suggestions, or just want to add your two cents on the topic, add 'em below, and join the conversation! More to come soon.

Image credits: Witch & Wizard James Patterson, Illustrations Hachette Book Group; BAKUMAN. 2008 by Tsugumi Ohba, Takeshi Obata / SHUEISHA Inc.


May 13, 2012 at 7:57 pm
(1) Laur says:

Thanks so much for taking the time to write all this up, Deb! As an aspiring creator working in the manga-influenced style, it’s an honest evaluation of the industry I want to be a part of and I appreciate that. I’m sure this series will be a valuable resource for many artists.

I look forward to the next installments!

May 14, 2012 at 3:26 am
(2) Bernie Crowsheet says:

words are funny things. they don’t stay the same, they change how they sound, what they mean, even how they’re spelled! Manga is just the word in Japan for comics, yeah, but it’s also something else. For me, manga is the energy that pours out of Dragonball Z, it’s 300 pages of Shonen Jump jammed in your face every month, it’s Tetsuo screaming in psychic pain and speed lines dribbling into your eyes! Comics is guys in tights. Comics is a dirty word in America.

May 17, 2012 at 1:25 pm
(3) Seifuu says:

Yessssss, this is the sort of thing that needs to be discussed more often. Thanks for putting in the research time.

May 20, 2012 at 2:45 am
(4) LEE CHILDS says:

I have no interest in buying American Manga. There are scores of Japanese Manga titles that I have yet to discover. That said, I would gladly buy American Graphic novels in a Manga style that had a well told story in a three act structure with a genre and type that interested me.

If I buy an American Graphic novel, I want a solid three act structure. Unlike Japanese Mangas that go on and on, I want every page – every panel – to count. I want an ending at the end of the book.

I have genres that I prefer, such as historical fiction, suspense/thriller (think Alfred Hitchcock), fantasy or science fiction.

I like an IDEA type of a story: a problem is posed and we wait to see if the problem is resolved. I have little interest in Character, Event (the world is in terrible disorder and we watch to see if it can be fixed) or Slice of Life stories.

I want characters that I care about. Anyone who has read Orson Scott Card’s CHARACTERS AND VIEWPOINT knows what I am asking for.

I enjoy a bit of humor throughout the story.

I want panels that are neatly laid out and easy to follow. Will Eisner pointed out that “the panel (is) a medium of control.” And “the most important obstacle to surmount is the tendency of the reader’s eye to wander.” (COMICS AND SEQUENTIAL ART pgs 40, 41). Japanese Manga has empowered American artists with new story techniques. However, irregular sized panels, fourth wall breaks and the like can hinder a story. I might buy Rumiko Takahashi’s RANMA 1/2 and still reject an American Manga that looked similar.

Simply put, I expect MORE from an American Graphic novel in a Manga style than I do from a Japanese Manga. The bar is higher. There are master works already on the selves of great graphic novels. Creators who imitate Japanese Manga and complain about their inability to sell their knocks-offs are just kidding themselves. I expect BETTER.

August 20, 2012 at 2:33 am
(5) Allison Sanders says:

it’s too true… heartbreakingly so. I make it my plan to move to japan ASAP, because my life…. my dreams depend on it,. I know i sound like the typical starry eyed teen that wants to write a manga, but I’m serious about it. I’ve been writing manga since i was 7, and if i have to move to japan and call myself Haruno Karusaka, then so be it! i’ve always wanted to go there anyways…. it’s just heartbreaking to know the reason i even breathe cannot be fulfilled until i leave here. my dream of becoming a manga artist is EVERYTHING to me, without that i’d have nothing. my family already disowned me for it, so manga is all i have left…. if you have ANY tips… i mean anything at all…. PLEASE tell me. this is my life… i’d rather die a horrible death than to loose my dream of becoming a mangaka. i’ve already been working on a series… but if you can offer… the slightest help,,,, tell me!!!!!!!!! you have my email address now, use it!!

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