'Anime' translates into big market Manga: Japanese comics are enormously popular there, and the potential for them here could also be huge.

April 15, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

We like to think of comic books as something quintessentially American, like basketball or jazz. This is, after all, the home of Batman and Superman, the land that produced Spider-man and spawned the X-Men. What other country could possibly care about comic books as much as the good old U.S.A.?

Japan could.

That may seem hard to believe at first. In fact, Japanese readers probably care more about comics -- or "manga," as they're known there -- than their American counterparts.

"In 1995, there were about 2.3 billion manga books and magazines produced, and nearly 2 billion actually sold," says Frederik L. Schodt, author of "Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics" and the forthcoming manga study, "Dreamland Japan."

By Schodt's estimate, total sales of manga approached $6 billion; American comic sales for the same year are estimated at between $600 million and $750 million.

Granted, popular Japanese titles like "Dragonball," "Doraemon" and "Otoko wa Tsurai Yo" ("It's Tough Being a Man") don't quite have the recognition factor of "Spider-man" or "Batman." Even the manga titles currently being translated and sold in America, like "Ranma 1/2 ," "Gunsmith Cats" and "New Dominion Tank Police" can't match the muscular sales of their superpowered competition.

Even so, manga in translation is clearly the hottest new market in the comics field. "There are very few publishers that have not put out Japanese manga in translation, or at least had very serious plans to do so," says Schodt. "The sales of anime [Japanese animation] are making it possible for a lot of translated manga to be much more commercial than it would have been two years ago. All the publishers in America are aware of that and are looking at it very closely."

Part of that interest has to do with the kind of readers translated manga attracts. According to Wayne Markley, director of product development for the comics distributing company Capital City, manga "has a very devout audience that will come back month after month and buy their favorite books. That's what the stores look for, repeat business. Superhero fans, for a variety of reasons, got burned out on it [comics]. So now we're finding this new audience of manga fans who are very loyal."

Internet factor

Then there's the Internet factor. In addition to Usenet groups devoted to anime and manga, there are also home pages for popular manga characters, and file transfer protocol sites that allow interested fans to download translations of popular manga.

"They're extremely devout," says Markley of the 'net-based manga fans. "They communicate back and forth with fans in Japan to get the latest information. Also they tend to be very much on top of the newest video game releases in Japan." Not surprisingly, there has been a corresponding increase in the demand for manga in Japanese at comic book stores; some titles, like "Video Girl Ai," are even marketed with the assurance that "a complete translation is available on the Internet."

Translating manga isn't simply a matter of swapping English for Japanese in the word balloons, however. Japanese is written from right to left, not left to right like English. Consequently, each page of a manga must be "flopped" -- that is, rendered in a mirror-image -- in order for its visual logic to make sense to American readers.

"It's just one of those things you look at it and you go, 'Nothing can be done,' " says Matt Thorn, an artist and translator whose Studio Proteus has produced numerous manga translations, including "The Legend of Mother Sarah," "Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind" and the original graphic novel "Ghost In the Shell." "You just simply have to flop it and go, 'Well, there it is, they're all left-handed.' "


The issue of translation itself is not always as simple as finding English equivalents for Japanese words. "There are certain Japanese comics that work very well in translation, and then there are other Japanese comics that don't work in translation," says Schodt. Nor is it always easy to guess which titles will work, and which won't.

Take the work of Rumiko Takahashi, whose "Ranma 1/2 " is among the best-selling translated manga. Although Takahashi is staggeringly popular in Japan -- last July, sales for her comics passed the 100 million mark -- the artist herself has said that she never expected that her work would find an audience outside of Japan.

"I must confess I was surprised that her work was so popular here, too," says Schodt. "I thought the humor would be too difficult to convey, [with so many] puns and cultural references. A lot of those are rewritten, and they're very well rewritten, so the humor comes through."

Sometimes it's not the humor that changes, but the audience.

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