Has Manga Become a Niche Category?

Ed Chavez, Marketing Director at manga publisher Vertical, has been answering a bunch of questions online recently, and his comments are quite informative.

One that particularly struck me was this answer to the question as to whether manga is becoming more niche.

Knowing that seinen still lacks, even though vocal fans ask for it, kinda tells me that readers either grow out of manga or only stick with a specific type of it… Essentially pigeonholing it (turning it into a niche).

Having talked to some comic/media critics I think it is becoming harder for them to get into manga also.

Will kids still consume the stuff? Sure. I mean, most manga pubs are seeing growth while stores are cutting manga shelves. But unlike the 00s, where a shojo boom introduced a whole new demographic to manga, there hasn’t been a culture-shifting movement recently to break manga out of this current position it has settled into.

I love manga. It kept me excited about comics at a time when I was ready to give up by giving me stories I was more interested in, particularly those starring young women.

However, I agree with what Ed is saying here. I find myself working harder to find series I want to follow. Many new releases seem to fall into pre-existing categories that have already demonstrated success: vampire romance, harem fantasy, adventure quests, and so on. It’s harder to find the kind of female-oriented story that so appealed to me (although Vertical is one of the few still releasing josei manga), or work aimed at adults.

There’s nothing wrong with being a niche — many products, such as superhero comics, have succeeded quite well for decades targeting a specific audience looking for more of the same they already follow. But with so much manga out there still untranslated, I’d like to see support for a wider age range of material. Why does the audience “grow out of it”? Is manga only selling now to customers who already like it?


Read Shonen Jump for Free for a Month

To celebrate the three-year anniversary of the launch of the English-language digital Weekly Shonen Jump, Viz Media is giving away four issues online.

Weekly Shonen Jump

Starting with the January 19 issue (today!) through February 9, you can read the magazine containing manga chapters for free at shonenjump.com or through these methods:

In addition to the U.S. and Canada, Weekly Shonen Jump and the special limited time promotion are available to readers in the U.K., Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand at ShonenJump.viz.com and through the Weekly Shonen Jump App for iOS and Android devices. Additionally in North America, the free Weekly Shonen Jump issues also will be available via the VIZ Manga App and Weekly Shonen Jump App for iOS and Android devices….

Each issue includes top titles One Piece, Naruto, Bleach; comedies One-Punch Man, Nisekoi, Toriko, and Food Wars; the supernatural action of Blue Exorcist and Seraph; sci-fi World Trigger; and the cardtastic action of Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal!

The English translation is available same-day as Japan, and a year’s subscription is only $19.99 US.


*What Did You Eat Yesterday? Book 6 — Recommended

It’s so entertaining reading more about Kenji and Shiro’s relationship as it continues, with key moments involving food. Meals are such important family moments, and I love the emphasis on preparation and sharing of home cooking as a carrier of deep feeling, as well as the conversations the two men have over dinner.

My favorite scene of the entire series so far occurs in this volume, as the two spend time with another gay couple at a pickup baseball game. Shiro doesn’t have other gay friends, since his career as a lawyer (and his restrained personality) has kept him mostly closeted. He’s beginning to get to know this other couple, and to be more comfortable with being himself in public, although one of the friends is terribly rude when it comes to his bento choices.

The other, overly emotional man thinks “gay bentos have to look good!” so he’s made a cute, decorative lunch. Although Shiro’s bento is all brown, it’s much tastier — with fewer unusable leftovers and less work, demonstrating his cooking philosophy.

But first, Shiro and Kenji have an important showdown. Some readers have asked for more emphasis on the relationship, and they’ll love this chapter, as Kenji blatantly presents his jealousy of Shiro spending time alone with another guy. The two work it out, good to see, but more importantly, this scene allows Fumi Yoshinaga to demonstrate how beautifully she draws emotional reactions.

That isn’t the only compromise the couple makes, as we get to see Shiro celebrate his birthday in a way that will also make Kenji happy. Shiro also spends time with his housewife friend, who makes a key observation about how the two men handle money. It’s practical and yet touching, which sums up the series.

The food in the next-to-last chapter will give US readers an interesting perspective, as Shiro is gifted some amazing-looking steaks, but he says he’s “never cooked any” before, so he has to look up how to handle it. What he comes up with, with side dishes of potatoes, string beans, pickled vegetables, and cabbage-bacon soup, is a fascinating Japanese twist on a classic American meal.

I continue to recommend that Vertical get a knowledgeable cook to polish the translation when it comes to the recipes, since it’s laughable to read about “balls of pepper” (which I assume means peppercorns) and “a laurel leaf”, which we call a bay leaf. It is very cute, though, when Shiro, thinking through instructions to himself, punctuates several of them with “yum”. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


*Monster: The Perfect Edition Books 1 and 2 — Recommended

Monster originally ran from 1994-2001 in Japan, and Viz serialized it in English from 2006-2008. Those volumes, out of print, have been in demand for two reasons. First, author Naoki Urasawa is now better known in the US, winning a couple of Eisner Awards for 20th Century Boys and gathering a great deal of critical praise for Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka. Plus, Monster may become an HBO TV series.

So Viz has done the smart thing. They’re reprinting Monster in an upscale edition. The books are larger, matching the size of his other works in English; they have remastered pages and a new translation; and the volumes include color pages. Each contains the equivalent of two of the previous books, making for bigger reading chunks. They’re lovely.

The story is as involving as ever. Dr. Tenma is a promising young surgeon in Germany with a career on the rise. He’s also engaged to the daughter of the hospital director, who encourages him to think of his soon-to-improve position, because she likes the status. As part of playing the game, he’s asked to give up his research, work that might save lives, so he can ghost-write papers to make the director look better.

An early scene sums up the couple’s relationship, as Tenma tries to rationalize away his guilt at participating, unknowingly, in hospital politics, leading to the death of a poor man so a famous one could be saved, by saying, “I was following the director’s orders”. His fiancee responds, bluntly, “Some lives are worth more than others,” a chilling statement that haunts him.

That’s one reason, when ordered to leave a challenging operation on a young boy to save the life of a mayor whose funding is important to the hospital, he refuses — which ends up ruining his life. His promotion is rescinded, and his fiancee leaves him because his career has ended. However, nine years later, things have turned around for him, after the unexpected death of the director who blocked him.

He soon finds out why. The boy he saved turns out to be a serial killer. Tenma’s choice, while appearing morally preferable, has resulted in a number of other deaths. He gives up his work to search for this anonymous killer, trying to prevent more murders. He travels across Germany, looking for the now-young man and his twin sister. He wants to stop him to make up for saving the monster years ago.

Urasawa’s work is cinematic in its pacing, with excellent linework establishing the strong characters. His expressions of his characters are particularly revealing. Monster isn’t my favorite of his work — that would be Pluto, which is more tightly developed and with themes that resonate more with me. Monster is more of a thriller, and it spins out long for my taste, with some exaggerated plot developments. It’s not as thoughtful, but it’s more adrenaline-paced. Still, it’s worth a read.

I also have qualms with the base premise. Tenma does the right thing, and his life is ruined for it. I suppose the message is that no one can predict who’s going to turn out to be a psychopath, but it’s a bit random for my taste, attesting to an uncaring universe. Going back to the fiancee’s statement, the reader can’t help but think that Tenma’s life, with his ability to save others, IS worth more than that of Johan’s, since all he’s done is murder the undeserved. I don’t think we’re supposed to agree with her, though, since that privileged attitude is also what allows murderers to kill others.

Then again, the entire premise of a high-level doctor is that he can save lives, playing God by holding other’s fates in his hands. It’s certainly thought-provoking. Let’s see how I feel once I re-read the remaining reprints.

By book 2, Tenma is on the run. His asking questions about the various murders has tagged him as a suspect, and his Japanese identity in Germany makes him stand out. Johan is toying with him while Tenma tries to piece together what happened and where he was going, including investigating his childhood in an East German orphanage.

It’s fascinating to see how quickly everything Tenma valued, everything that made up his self-identity, can be replaced when he becomes a lone vigilante. He wanders, meeting a child whose most desired wish is simply a soccer ball and a country doctor trying to do what he can for the village patients. He’s not the only one after Johan; a white-supremacist organization is also looking for him to be the next Hitler.

Meanwhile, a police inspector who has sacrificed everything else in his life to solving murderers is on his trail, egged on by Tenma’s now-dissolute ex-fiancee. It’s rather like a 70s action show, with the big premise — Tenma hunts a murderer — allowing for smaller stories within the larger plot. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


*Prophecy Book 1 — Recommended

Sometimes reviews work! I hadn’t taken notice of Prophecy until I saw Ash Brown’s review, which made it clear I would find the topic fascinating.

The figure on the cover of Prophecy is “Paperboy”, a vigilante who covers his head in newspaper when he goes online to promise revenge through underground video postings from internet cafes. All his victims were previously brought to public attention online, whether a company that caused a number of food poisoning cases or a guy who stupidly blamed a rape victim for being “easy”. Although the internet punished them with boycotts or personal attacks, Paperboy takes payback into the real world. Some of his revenge schemes are clever or ironic; others simply violent.

He’s being chased by a Tokyo police unit formed to specialize in internet crime. As the book opens, they’re arresting a junior high kid who’s been accused of uploading pirated video games. He thinks of himself as some kind of fighter for freedoms, but he’s quickly shown how misguided his self-justification is, as those who took advantage of his offerings quickly turn on him once he gets in trouble, laughing at his rationalizations. The attention and affection of an online group are fickle things.

The leader of this cyber investigation unit is a young, pretty detective who’s most noted for being hard as nails and remarkably outspoken. I’m not sure she’s going to be able to achieve her aim, that of preventing Paperboy’s online fans from continuing to grow. She’s concerned they’re going to get out of control — and unspokenly, challenge the social order by supporting individual violence outside the established structure to bring justice, no matter how damaging.

Tetsuya Tsutsui tackles remarkably modern themes within this structure, including social network information sharing, online mobs, mass peer pressure, how online anonymity affects behavior, the desire to have one’s non-mainstream voice heard, and the underemployment of a technologically educated age group. For a story based on computers, he also makes it visually interesting. Similar to a procedural TV show, there are lots of close-ups of emotional people making dramatic statements. Everyone’s attitude is exaggerated, although they’re all also based in authentic beliefs and motivations.

I found it particularly affecting how one character’s background, as a temp programmer who was made promises about permanent employment his boss never intends to keep, reflects so many of the problems in today’s economy. Although one wouldn’t go to Paperboy’s extremes, the motivation is understandable.

Prophecy is only three volumes, as you can see from these Japanese covers at the Vertical Tumblr. I kind of like the all-yellow version of the original cover to volume 1.


The Garden of Words

A boy in his first year of high school takes shelter on days when it rains in a park gazebo. He sketches shoes and dreams of being a designer of ladies’ footwear. His family is moving apart without him, with his mother spending her time with a younger boyfriend and his big brother moving in with his girlfriend.

On those mornings when he goes to the park, he has company — an older woman playing hooky from work who drinks beer and eats chocolate in the shelter. They strike up a conversation, and he finds himself able to share things with her no one else in his life wants to hear. She seems intrigued by someone who’s still got future choices ahead of him, as a way of escaping her own worries.

Either that description intrigues you, or you’re thinking, “and? what do they DO?” If the latter better fits you, I don’t think this is the story for you, because I found the appeal of The Garden of Words to be in its creation of mood. It’s a comfortable thing to read curled up indoors, safe from the weather.

The events it portrays are necessarily transitory, with its pages capturing life-changing moments bound to end. The two, mismatched as they are, find inspiration in each other temporarily. I found myself thinking about people I’d barely known who still had an influence on my life, about being open to interactions with other people, about how memories become connected to places and moments and elements like the weather.

The one thing that occasionally marred my entering into the poetic dream was the lettering. It’s computerized, and there are times when the words don’t fit the original balloons, bumping up against the edges or parsed into breaks that don’t match English phrasing. It doesn’t aim for elegance the same way the other elements of the book do.

Also typical of Vertical manga, there are no translation notes, so I had to look up what a tanka (similar to a haiku) was. One of these classical poems plays a substantial role in the underlying theme and provides a hint as to why she’s not going to work. Her past dovetails surprisingly with his motivations.

The Garden of Words is a lovely stand-alone story that I suspect one can come to at different times in one’s life and find different sympathies and resonances.