Role-playing exercise

One theme that’s come up a lot in recent discussion of scanlations is that publishers need to do something to concoct a widespread alternative that provides similar access to the material but with the consent of creators and, one assumes, the potential to turn the portion of the scanlation audience that aren’t currently paying customers into buyers, at least to some degree. One potential obstacle to that that particularly interests me are the creators themselves. I’ve heard that there’s a fair amount of resistance to digital distribution among manga-ka, either because they conceived their comics to be read on paper or because they’re concerned about unlimited reproduction of digital versions of their work. (Who left this barn door open?)

Now, I’ve only heard about this reluctance from a few people, but they strike me as people who are in a position to know. Still, it’s anecdotal, and I recognize that. But, running with the premise that this resistance exists to varying degrees, I’d like to ask you to engage in a little role playing. What argument (preferably diplomatic) would you make to a manga-ka to convince them of the benefits of more timely, less immediately profitable, digital delivery of their work? The obvious one is that it’s already happening without their participation or consent, and they might as well control it to whatever degree possible, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Updated: Simon Jones of the possibly not-safe-for-work Icarus Publishing blog cuts to the chase and asks “Why should publishers pay for digital rights?”

Updated: Jake Forbes, manga author, adapter and aficionado, stops by MangaBlog and takes everybody to the woodshed.

Saturday speculation

I don’t really want to wade into the whole scanlation argument. It’s been ably covered by people on all sides of the issue, and if I started fixating on interesting or (in my opinion) arguable points, I probably wouldn’t be able to stop until Wednesday.

I would like to restate my position, which is that I choose not to read unlicensed translations. I prefer to consume comics in ways that directly benefit the creators or at least have the creators’ consent. It’s entirely possible that, had I come of age when download culture was first emerging instead of later much, much earlier or had more of an interest in the kinds of media that were a big part of the first wave of illegal content (like music), I might have a different opinion on the subject. There’s no way for me to know. Another factor is that I tend to prefer reading physical comics rather than reading them on a computer screen. And last, and probably not least, I don’t have the time to read all of the actual comics I want to read, so the prospect of adding a great volume of legally questionable content to the stack isn’t really alluring to me.

I would also like to restate that I find those aggregator sites that keep cropping up in online advertisements perfectly revolting, and if I never see one of those ads again, it will be too soon. If people discussing this issue can agree on nothing else, I would hope that we can all concur that those for-profit piracy sites are completely indefensible.

But I’m all in favor of people being able to sample series online, provided all of the elements of creator consent and participation are in place. I like sampling comics of varied provenance over at the Netcomics site, and I like plunking down my micropayments for series I enjoy. I also have high hopes for Viz’s various online initiatives, the simultaneous release of Rumiko Takahashi’s Rin-Ne and the magazine-specific SigIKKI and Shonen Sunday portals.

I would love it if Viz developed a similar infrastructure for its Shojo Beat imprint. Since the demise of the magazine, they’ve lost some exposure, and I think online serialization would be a good idea. Viz does have a large number of preview chapters available for online perusal, so that’s a start. But there is a huge catalog of Shojo Beat titles. Some of them do very well in terms of sales, but some really terrific books could probably benefit from online serialization, especially when full runs get squeezed off of bookstore shelves by longer, more popular titles.

I know there are complications to developing this kind of initiative. In one of the many contentious comment threads that have cropped up over the last week, Erica (Okazu) Friedman noted that many manga-ka aren’t keen on digital distribution of their work. Getting permission to digitally serialize any of the Shojo Beat titles would probably require complicated renegotiation with the creators and original publishers. (Viz was able to do this with the Shonen Sunday books, many of which have been in print for ages, and for a number of series at The Rumic World, some of which were virtually out of print, so it’s not impossible.)

Then there are potential publisher rivalries. Unlike the Shonen Jump magazine (all Shueisha titles) or the Shonen Sunday site (all Shogakukan), the Shojo Beat imprint is composed of a number of different publishers, including Hakusensha. The Sunday-Jump content divide indicates to me that even co-owning a stateside publishing outlet isn’t enough to negate publisher rivalries, but perhaps the shôjo scene is a little more cordial. The Shojo Beat magazine simultaneously serialized titles from Shueisha, Shogakukan and Hakusensha, so maybe they’d be a little more open to sharing web space. I have no idea. They might go at each other with broken bottles when not in the public eye for all I know.

But if they do decide to pursue something like this, I think the Shonen Sunday composition of titles would be ideal – one brand-new title with the allure of simultaneous release, a scattering of series that are new to an English-reading audience rolled out before print publication, and a healthy quotient of long-running or completed series to invite new readers to sample stuff that’s already available. And since Viz seems determined to fold some josei into this imprint, I think an online venue would be a great way to build an audience for that tricky demographic.

It goes without saying that I have no idea if this would be beneficial in terms of building audience or reducing piracy. You need only to look through my license requests to realize just how shaky by commercial sense can be. But a number of reasonable people seem to agree that the best way to minimize the reach of pirated content is to offer a legitimate alternative. This would build on an existing infrastructure and engage another demographic.

And I won’t lie, it would be cool for me personally, which is really the only reason I suggest anything in terms of business models or licensing decisions. There are lots of Shojo Beat series I’d like to be able to sample in this way.

Gift 'til it hurts

I’m glad The New York Times is devoting more coverage to comics and graphic novels, I really am. It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago that their reportage consisted of recycled, rah-rah press releases from Marvel and DC. Now we get a weekly graphic book best seller list (which, say what you will, is no more opaque or arcane in its methodology than most of the other ones) and a fair number of meaty pieces from George Gene Gustines.

What we don’t get, at least not yet, is much qualitative discussion of comics from Japan. When you walk into the average bookstore and see at least half of the graphic-novel shelf space devoted to these comics, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect at least some coverage of the category beyond sales figures supplemented by sometimes carelessly written plot summaries (which are better than no content descriptions at all, obviously, but only just). At the same time, I don’t really want to force anyone to write about something that doesn’t interest them, because the outcome from that sort of thing never serves anyone very well.

But I must admit to a certain degree of irritation when I saw this Gift Guide of 2009 Graphic Novels and didn’t see a single comic from Japan. After venting on Twitter, Erica Friedman (@Yuricon) sagely suggested that manga bloggers just do it themselves. I’ll be posting mine on Thanksgiving Day (just in time for Black Friday), and I would be happy to link to anyone else’s suggestions or host yours if you don’t have a blog of your own. Just drop me a line at davidpwelsh at yahoo dot com if you’d like to throw out some recommended manga for the nerds (or non-nerds) in all of our lives.

Affirmative action

Looking back through the license requests to date, I realize that I’ve neglected the shônen category almost entirely. I could defend myself on this front by noting that there’s no shortage of shônen readily available, and that would certainly be true. But let’s be honest: it’s just not where my primary interests reside. There are plenty of shônen titles that I really like, but given the choice between a young man with a dream and a young woman with a scheme, you know which I’ll end up plonking down at the checkout counter, don’t you?

But balance is a good thing, so please recommend some as-yet-unlicensed shônen titles for future installments of License Request Day. Please don’t restrict yourself based on the length, vintage, taste level, narrative coherence, or marketability of the title, because you know I try not to be hindered by such paltry concerns. Fire away!

And here’s the running tally with some links:

  • Sexy Commando Gaiden: Sugoiyo!! Masaru-san, written and illustrated by Kyosuke Usata, serialized by Shueisha in Weekly Shônen Jump (Wikipedia)
  • Pyu to Fuku! Jaguar, written and illustrated by Kyosuke Usata, serialized by Shueisha in Weekly Shônen Jump (Wikipedia)
  • Majin Tantei Nogami Neuro, written and illustrated by Yûsei Matsui, serialized by Shueisha in Weekly Shônen Jump (Wikipedia)
  • Locke the Superman, written and illustrated by Yuki Hijiri, serialized by Shônen Gahosha in Shônen King (Wikipedia)
  • Nurarihyon no Mago, written and illustrated by Hiroshi Shiibashi, serialized by Shueisha in Weekly Shônen Jump (Wikipedia)
  • 1/2 Prince, written by Yu Wo and illustrated by Choi Hong Chong, published by Tong Li (Wikipedia)
  • Shiki, based on a novel by Fuyumi Ono, illustrated by Ryu Fujisaki, serialized by Shueisha in Jump SQ
  • Fourteen Years, written and illustrated by Kazuo Umezu, serialized by Shogakukan in Big Comic Spirits
  • Left Hand of God, Right Hand of the Devil, written and illustrated by Kazuo Umezu, originally published by Shogakukan
  • History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi, written and illustrated by Syun Matsuena, serialized by Shogakukan in Shônen Sunday (Wikipedia)
  • They really do

    That’s more like it.


    Thanks to correspondent Jeff and his awe-inspiring image manipulation skills for this.

    Final thought for Friday

    Dear cartoonists: Please draw an Archie cover where Betty accepts Veronica’s marriage proposal and Archie sobs in the background. Thank you in advance.

    Update: An email correspondent points me to this cover:


    And I appreciate it, but it’s sort of a “close, but no cigar” kind of thing. This reads more to me like Archie is horrified that both of the girls he’s inexplicably able to string along might have the notion of long-term commitment somewhere on their minds. Or, judging simply by his line of sight, Betty has carelessly neglected to button up the back of her gown, revealing otherwise concealed reptilian skin, or something like that.

    Working for a living

    analAmong my various comics partialities, I really like stories that rely heavily on specific workplaces or careers. From advertising agencies to cafés to bakeries to afterlife bureaucracies to manor houses to airlines to quasi-legal think tanks to voice-over studios off-the-books medical clinics, I find it hard to resist comics characters who are on the job. Since there are so many comics about them, I tend not to count teachers or officers of law enforcement in this category; they virtually have categories of their own.

    So in honor of Labor Day and in hopes of finding more careerist manga, here are some jobs that I feel are underrepresented in comics:

    fakeRealtors: Thanks to HGTV, there aren’t many untold aspects of the real-estate profession, so I’m thinking of a weirder take on the topic. It occurs to me that fictional vampires and demons and sorcerers always have great old money pits in which to reside, but how do they acquire them? It then occurs to me that there must be specialists in finding just the right dilapidated pile of stone for just the right supernatural or other-dimensional buyers. They might even have interior designers on staff to make sure the cobwebs are just so and the wallpaper is suitably stained and peeling. And they certainly track the crime reports to find properties with the kind of history that might make them unattractive to the average mortal. (Stubborn bloodstains lower resale value!)

    Park Rangers: I just love national parks. They’re beautiful and varied settings, and all kinds of things happen there, from sentimental moments to dangerous moments to teachable moments. Take your pick.

    shoutoutloudTravel writers: This is basically the urban version of the previous entry, but with a focus on cityscapes rather than canyons or forests. If I were forced to pick, I’d probably go with a murder mystery angle since the setting would change frequently. Then you could avoid the whole question of why everyone didn’t move away from Cabot Cove since it had such an astonishingly high homicide rate for a small town in Maine.

    Wedding planners: This actually triggered this train of thought. I went to a wedding over the weekend, and I have to say that I always find them weird, whether high-end or on the cheap. The subject seems like an endless source of episodic story fodder, what with all the bridezillas and groomalons, and the flowers, gowns, food and décor seem like a veritable buffet of illustrative possibilities. In my dream version, it’s a smutty, subversive take on the subject with a decided yaoi bent, starring gay wedding planners to agitate for marriage equality in their spare time. As for the smut, few settings inspire ill-advised trysting like celebrations of undying fidelity.

    That should do for a start. I promise not to sue if you decide to make a comic about any of the above.

    Manga 101

    One of those random bits of curiosity has taken root, and I might try and get a column out of it if I can find sources. So, does anyone know of any folks who are teaching or have taught introductory manga courses at the college or university level? I’m thinking primarily of survey courses rather than ones that focus on creating comics. If you know of anyone, or if you’ve taught such a course yourself, drop me a line.

    manga_60yearsI think if I were constructing a course like that, I would probably use Paul Gravett’s Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics as the primary text. I like the book’s structure, and I think it provides a great overview of the history and various demographic categories. It’s also packed with illustrations from all kinds of titles (including a rather energetic hamster-like creature that got the book banned in Victorville, California).

    The reading list would be tricky. I would want to include examples from the major demographic categories (shônen, shôjo, seinen, josei), but I think I’d have to be careful to find stuff that’s representative but doesn’t end up in a cripplingly expensive trip to the bookstore. That would mean picking titles that give a reasonable amount of story in a single volume but still do a good job embodying certain common traits about the category. I’d probably just plan on taking whatever lumps come in the form of complaints about not getting the full story. (I could always include a paragraph on the syllabus that gives the total price tag for complete series included on the reading list; some of the best examples are really long, and even if the price of individual volumes isn’t that high, when you ask someone to buy twenty of them…)

    I’d also want to include works by the greats, particularly Osamu Tezuka. That gets a little tricky too, as I’d want something relatively accessible. Astro Boy seems like a reasonable enough choice in terms of accessibility (and Dark Horse offers this two-volume paperback), though I’d much rather have them read something like Ode to Kirihito. Since there’s so little of the work from the Year 24 Group available in print and in English, I’d turn to Vertical for To Terra… (I know it isn’t shôjo, but it’s a great book, and it provides an early example of a woman creating comics targeted at boys, which seems like an interesting teachable moment.)

    I’d probably leave anime to the film studies program, or whatever those units are called these days.

    So what would you include on your reading list?

    Update: Speaking of manga scholarship, Simon (NSFW) Jones finds an interesting piece on international demand for a National Center for Media Arts.

    At long last love


    Chad looks sad, doesn’t he? You can’t really blame him. You see, Chad is pretty much the only protagonist from Tite Kubo’s Bleach not to be featured in John Jakala’s list of great manga romances. This wasn’t a result of neglect or a lack of affection on John’s part, I assure you. You see, in spite of his redeemed-thug hotness, protective streak, and all-around lovableness, Chad can’t even seem to score a subtext romance. Who, we are left to wonder, is a worthy match for this still-waters-run-deep stalwart?

    After an exhaustive search, I believe I’ve found the right person for Chad.


    While opposites often attract, I think similarity would work better in Chad’s favor. Hence, the bewitching Sakaki from Kiyohiko Azuma’s Azumanga Daioh. Sakaki’s waters are equally still and run equally deep. Beneath her slightly intimidating exterior beats a loving and loyal heart. I don’t even care to think what would happen if Chad put on a pair of cat ears.

    Alas, like so many great romances, this one would be star-crossed. For how can a boy from shonen adventure and a girl from seinen four-koma ever truly be together? Only in fan fiction, my friends.

    The new real

    I’ve been using some various social networking platforms for my day job. I haven’t been using them very aggressively, because the platforms are free, and I’m enjoying the opportunity to see how these things evolve. How many people find them naturally, and how do they use them to meet their own needs?

    (For me, there’s also a certain amount of diffidence in play. A lot of these platforms are big with people a generation younger than me. While that certainly doesn’t preclude people from other age groups from using them, I don’t want to seem like the old man showing up on the playground trying to start a kickball game, because that’s creepy. I can form theories on what people younger than me is cool, and I may well be right, but I think the chance that an incorrect surmise would backfire is a lot worse than the peril of appearing stodgy.)

    This does relate to comics, I promise, specifically to the discussion of the Eisners and the possibility of a manga-centric awards program. At the Hooded Utilitarian, Noah Berlatsky expands on what Simon Jones was suggesting the other day. More accurately, he was flipping the argument and wondering if the Eisners need manga more than manga needs the Eisners:

    “So you would think, maybe, that the industry might want to celebrate that. Maybe comics might want to use their awards show as a chance to point out to the world how things have changed, to embrace new readers, to paint itself as dynamic and exciting and forward looking and inclusive.”

    Berlatsky’s piece is really interesting to me, and think what he says is applicable to any of what I might call the brick-and-mortar awards programs, whether they’re focused on movies or plays or books or television. They don’t evolve quickly or consistently, you know? Some years, they cast a wide net from mainstream to obscure, predictable to unexpected, and some years, they’re utterly central-casting. The Eisners seem a little more fluid, because the nominating committee changes every year. I think that’s a good thing, and I rather like that the categories can shift a bit based on what happened during the nomination period. But it doesn’t always guarantee results that are forward looking and inclusive, or at least not forward looking and inclusive in the same sense that I use those terms.

    And this takes me back to those social networking platforms, which emerged very much as a way to bypass brick-and-mortar ways to find information and communicate. The brick-and-mortar outlets weren’t fluid enough and didn’t evolve fast enough to meet needs, so the audience took things into their own hands. And that’s a really good thing, in my opinion. At their best, venues like blogs and Facebook and Twitter let people cherry-pick what works for them, what’s fun and useful and informative. And if more old people are showing up with kickballs, that doesn’t mean the core audience has to listen to them.

    So I think when I said that Deb Aoki’s great new best-of ballots at About.Com might need “tweaking,” it came from a misguided notion of making them more brick and mortar. Thinking more carefully about that prospect, of trying to put some kind of “official” spin on things, I’ve decided that would be counter-productive. The polls are wide-ranging and inclusive right out of the box, and I don’t think there’s any benefit to be gained from putting them behind a podium. And they will evolve with each passing year as more people hear about them and vote, because I think that’s just what happens when someone puts something good and useful on the internet.

    And since everyone’s voting from home, we can all drink as much as we like with no risk of embarrassing pictures from the ceremony showing up on Flickr.