New Year. Back at work. Doesn't feel vastly different to the old year, to be honest. Sometimes I can detect an audible shifting of tracks at New Year. This year: no. The last year has been one of trouble and imperceptible change, and this year feels no different.
Those of you who pick up graphic novels in bookstores may have noticed the biggest change of the year more than the people who shop at specialty comics stores. Translated manga was the biggest growth sector in graphic novels this past year. The major American comics companies and their hobbyist adherents have complained for a long time that not only do they not produce comics for kids in any volume, but that they're not supported in the market. This is largely a failure of perception -- one company recently sent selected comics stores more kid's books than they ordered, to see what happened. The sales went up. But ordering hasn't changed. Go exploring, and you'll find a lot of comics stores don't maintain a children's book section. Children's graphic novels are being produced, however. By the translated-manga companies. For small children through to teenagers. And they're selling in bookstores. According to book industry figures, they are in fact being ordered with some greed.
Interestingly, many of these books are what the trade call "unflopped". Traditionally, manga pages are horizontally flopped over on a computer, or cut apart and reassembled, to create the Western left-to-right reading experience. But manga are done the other way. And it seems to be the unflopped books that are doing the business, to kids who can more easily handle the cognitive transition. I can't handle unflopped books -- as a comics writer, I'm hardwired for Western narrative, and can't easily parse the original-style Japanese pages. I'm damn sure my seven-year-old daughter will be able to, though (once she's finished reading Mike Brennan's ELECTRIC GIRL, from AiT/PlanetLar). She'll end up reading SHONEN JUMP magazine to me.
JUMP, by the way, seems to be doing storming business in the newsagent's over in the US. A lot of naysayers are ascribing that to the free Yu-Gi-Oh card bound into it. What the fuck, I say. It means that many hundreds of thousands of kids are being exposed to the serial graphic novel form. And it's an old tradition in Britain to include kid's stuff with kid's comics. The famous 2000AD, where so many British creators of graphic novels got started, had free stuff pasted to the covers of the first three issues. I don't remember anyone calling that cheating, or dismissing it because of the gifts. Yeah, screw JUDGE DREDD, people only bought 2000AD and kept it alive for 25 years because of the Biotronic Man stickers that came with #2...
My end of the business? No change, really, this year. But the manga companies, Viz and Tokyopop and the rest, are doing what everyone in the business has wanted for the last ten years -- colonising the bookstores, and re-establishing a strong foothold on the newsstand.
What I will look for, in '03 and beyond, is signs that the manga attack might have a galvanising effect on the American medium. After all, this is the cream of the crop we're getting. The translation companies aren't just publishing any old crap they can lay their hands on. They can cherry-pick from an absolutely vast library generated by a mature high-productivity medium that's been in place for many decades. We only get to see the best. That raises the bar for any comics company intending to be in competition with them. The days of banging out a book to maintain the trademark, or because ten blokes with no girlfriend in West Bumcheek, Idaho demanded it are long gone. I wonder if they'll notice.