Grotesque Anatomy
Monday, November 17, 2003
  Manga, Sequential Art's Messiah
Over on ICv2's "Talk Back" forum, retailer John Robinson of Graham Crackers Comics wrote a piece entitled "Long Live the Pamphlet."  Part of Robinson's argument is that pundits shouldn't draw hasty conclusions based on the spectacular sales of Shonen Jump.  And he's right:  Shonen Jump is only one example, so it would be premature to decide that from now on all sequential art must be packaged in thick anthology formats.  After all, there are other manga anthologies out there, one which supposedly has newsstand distribution like Shonen Jump, but I doubt Super Manga Blast and Raijin Comics are seeing the sales that Shonen Jump is.

So why do I (and others) get so excited about Shonen Jump?  Well, I've laid out some of my reasons before, but--at the risk of branding myself a manga apologist--I'll try to explain in a little more detail why I think big anthologies provide a promising possibility (not a definite answer) for comics.

Reason Number OneValue.  Robinson complains that "over the last 21 years in business, the one constant I can always count on is that anthologies will suck wind in sales figures over a very short time." As he argues, "People don't want 64 pages or 100 page of comic material that only contains about 22 pages that they care about."  The problem, however, is that Robinson is still thinking too small:  64- or 100-page comics are nothing.  The twelfth issue of Shonen Jump had 350 pages of material for only $4.95.  That's value.

Reason Number TwoNewsstands.  Because of the higher page count and price-point, big comic anthologies could be sold on magazine racks.  Robinson only seems to be concerned with how anthologies have typically sold in the Direct Market in the past, but I think we need to look at other markets as well.  After all, I doubt Shonen Jump is seeing much of its sales inside the Direct Market (a suspicion confirmed each month by ICv2's numbers), yet it seems to be doing all right.

Reason Number ThreeDurability.  Somewhat related to the newsstand point.  I've seen comics (individual floppies) in bookstores and drugstores, but they're always horribly beat up.  Often times, I don't even think anyone's read the pamphlets; I think the floppies are just so flimsy that they slide down or flop over in the rack.  Thicker anthologies like Shonen Jump stand up well on their own and fare better with everyday wear-and-tear.  Heck, my floppies seem to crease if I look at them wrong; but I can toss around an issue of Shonen Jump and it still looks like it's in pristine condition.

Reason Number FourSubscriptions.  With durable product, it can be shipped through the mail with the expectation that it will arrive in reasonable shape.  Viz's subscription service for Shonen Jump was top-notch, and the magazines always arrived (1) shrink-wrapped (2) before they hit the newsstands.  Plus, the subscription rates were incredible bargains on an already great deal:  The regular subscription rate is half the newsstand price, and the "special charter rate" was even cheaper than that (67% off cover).  Make it cheap and easy to sign up for subscriptions, and I'd be sending my nieces and nephews Marvel and DC anthologies along with their Shonen Jump subscriptions.

Reason Number FiveExtras.  You say it's not fair that Shonen Jump boosts circulation with extras like CD-ROM games and free gaming cards?  Well, why play fair?  Especially for books aimed at younger readers, put in plenty of free extras so they feel like they're getting something special.

Reason Number SixContent.  But aside from the bonuses, you've got to make sure that the core content is strong.  I don't know if this necessarily means it has to be new content, although I think that would definitely help, but it should be related thematically.  I think this is one reason why Shonen Jump succeeds where other anthologies fail:  It focuses on series appealing to (and about) young boys.  Raijin Comics, on the other hand, has series that are too disparate in tone.  The cutesy romance and animal stories of Bow Wow Wata are probably not going to appeal to the same audience that enjoys a more mature political manga like First President of Japan.  I think DC and Marvel could easily put together anthologies that would appeal to well-defined audiences.  Simply collapse the various Bat-books and Superman titles into their own anthologies; the same thing could be done over at Marvel with the growing number of Spider-Man and X-Men titles.  Or put "pockets" of a publishing line together--like the Vertigo or ABC lines.  Or organize anthologies by creator.  Heaven knows some creators generate enough material to put out their own anthologies every month:  Brian Michael Bendis; Geoff Johns; Chuck Austen.  (This would also have the added benefit of quarantining certain authors from the rest of a company's titles.)

I'm not saying that everything should be moved over to a big anthology format.  I think that would be just as short-sighted as leaving everything in the same old 32-page pamphlet form that's been around forever.  But I do think Shonen Jump's impressive sales via bookstores, newsstands, and subscriptions should give American comic publishers something to think about.
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by John Jakala

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