Comics can - and should - be popular literature Manga: In Japan, comics for all ages are 40 percent of the publishing sales. Why not here?

THE ARGUMENT

September 29, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,sun staff

Contrary to what the slogan says, comics are not for everyone. Nowadays in the United States, comic books hardly seem to be for anyone. Thanks to an industry that has come to emphasize "collectible" packaging and crossover gimmickry instead of such simple strengths as meaningful characters and memorable stories, comic book sales are in a deep slump, as fewer and fewer readers seem interested in the exploits of superheroes and mutants.

Nor are things much better over in newspapers' funny pages. There, the problem isn't marketing and sales figures so much as demographics and space, as newspapers, faced with both smaller sections and fewer competitors, rely on surveys rather than taste or discretion to choose which comics will be carried.

Innovative or daring comic strips don't stand a chance in this system, because when asked what they like, readers generally respond by telling what they know. So the Blondies and Beetle Baileys trudge ever onward, guaranteed a place on the comics )) pages merely by virtue of their longevity, as the number of new strips dwindles with each passing year. No wonder kids these days seem less interested in the comics than previous generations; what relevance is there for an 11-year-old in the '50s sitcom situations of "Hi & Lois" or "Dennis the Menace"?

Many who think themselves serious readers barely bat an eye at the decline of comics, considering them as much literature as bathroom graffiti are art. But that in itself is indicative of how serious the problem is. In France, comics - les bandes dessinees - are not only widely read, but quite respected in intellectual circles, and bookstores throughout Europe stock titles by Herge, Moebius, Alan Moore and Miguelanxo Prado. In this country, though, the only comic most well read people would admit to owning is Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Maus."

It doesn't have to be this way. Comics really could be for everyone, attracting readers regardless of age, gender, class or interests. In fact, comics in Japan do precisely that. As Frederik L. Schodt reports in "Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga" (Berkeley, Stone Bridge Press. 360 pages. $16.95), the market for manga (the Japanese word for comics) is astonishingly huge. Last year saw sales of some 1.9 billion manga, "or over 15 for every man, woman, and child in Japan." Between magazines and paperback collections, manga titles were responsible for 39.3 percent of the Japanese publishing industry's total sales for 1995, a figure that cashes out at $6 billion to $7 billion.

That, says Schodt, works out to about $50 per Japanese citizen, and actual buying habits are almost as universal. Take, for example, Shukan Shonen Jump. A square-backed boys' manga weekly, the average issue is roughly the size of the Baltimore phone book, and contains about 18 comic book-length manga serials. With a circulation that runs as high as 6 million, Jump sells 20 times as many copies in a week as the average Spiderman comic sells in a month - and this in a country with half the population of the United States.

But it isn't just Japanese boys who do the buying. As Schodt reports, "On crowded commuter trains, it's not unusual to see a 12-year-old elementary school student standing next to a 30-year old salaryman - both reading their own copies."

Even more significant is the number of women who are manga fans and creators. Entering the average American comic book store is like walking into a branch of the He-Man Woman-Haters Club, as rack upon rack of superhero comics, with their many men and improbably pulchritudinous girls, seem directed solely at undersocialized males. Granted, there are comics written by women - "Action Girl," Roberta Gregory's "Naughty Bits" and Julie Doucet's "Dirty Plotte" are standouts - but in the Marvel/D.C. mindset most comic books stores foster, such titles are marginalized in the extreme.

Compare this with Japan, where there are comics for girls (almost twice as many titles as for boys), but also comics aimed at "office ladies," young mothers and housewives. These manga are hardly marginal; Naoko Takeuichi's "Bishojo Senshi Sara Moon" - that is, "Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon" - is one of the most successful titles Japan has ever seen. Thanks to a

well-coordinated marketing campaign that ties the manga in with an animated TV series, sales of "Sailor Moon" merchandise last year surpassed that of the Power Rangers. Overall, girls and ladies comics had a combined circulation of 248,640,000 last year.

Quality inside, not out

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