What American Comics Can Learn From Manga

Lessons from Japan could revitalize Marvel and DC

Superhero movies are huge: they shatter box office records, they sell tons of merchandise and they’ve made Disney even bigger and richer than they already were. And yet, the comics they’re based on have been in decline for years. Marvel has had trouble boosting sales, attempting to do so with issue #1 relaunches almost every year and a ridiculous amount of variant covers, and DC, with its own share of reboots, has begun relying heavily on fan service to boost readership.

Meanwhile, Japan’s equivalent to superhero comics, shonen manga, has been outselling Marvel and DC for quite some time. In fact, One Piece is close to surpassing Batman as the world’s second-best selling comic book (behind Superman), a feat made more impressive by the fact that One Piece has only been around for 22 years and its sales numbers reflect its manga volumes, while Batman’s sales numbers include all comics with the character’s name on it that have been released since 1939.

Simply put, manga has overtaken American comics, and while independent comics have taken a few notes from the manga industry, the entire American comics industry could benefit from stepping back and taking a look at how its Japanese counterpart does things.

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The Shonen Jump Model

Manga and American comics, by virtue of both being comics, have pretty similar origins. Both started as cheap entertainment in terms of production and accessibility. Both were also printed in collections in the early days (though much less so in America), offering multiple stories in one book. Finally, both mediums were eventually elevated into more meaningful, well-regarded artforms by the storytellers that revolutionized and believed in them — figures like Osamu Tezuka and Jack Kirby. However, there was a point where the two split off, a point where comics became more highly coveted, more expensive, and more valued. 

This isn’t to say that comics aren’t a wonderful medium, but in the modern media landscape, comics are just too expensive for the average reader, compared to their other options. By comparison, manga is still just as accessible as ever, with some adjustments for inflation and modern audiences. Whereas comics are sold issue-by-issue across countless series, single chapters of multiple manga series are released as part of a weekly magazine, these issues going for around the same price as those single comic issues. 

So, for the price of around four monthly issues of Spider-Man, a manga consumer gets four issues of Shonen Jump, which contains around 20 different serialized manga and comes out weekly rather than just monthly. Unlike American comics, manga hasn’t lost sight of its main audience — young people with a taste for entertainment and not much money to spend on it. 

Trades and Tankōbon

While manga and comics differ greatly in how their single chapters are distributed, collections of these chapters are more or less comparable. American comics are collected as trade paperbacks and manga are collected in tankōbon. So, why are tankōbon outselling trades? If I had to wager a guess, I’d say it’s because manga volumes are much more clear cut: to catch up on a series, you start with Vol. 1 and move on from there. In the case of Marvel and DC trades on the other hand, starting from Vol. 1 is far more difficult.

Catching up on just the last few years of Marvel and DC is something of a chore since constant reboots and relaunches make it hard to follow continuity and start from the beginning. Additionally, these constant reboots (seven in the last six years for Marvel), which aim to bring in more readers, introduce diversity and shake up stale storylines, only serve to alienate longtime readers and struggle to keep up sales.

Fans of superhero movies looking to break into the source material are bombarded by the baffling number of first volumes and won’t find stories similar to the films in any recent trade. Marvel attempted to combat these issues by homogenizing their comics with the films, but this project was quickly abandoned. Simply put, it’s increasingly hard to catch up on superhero trades, and there’s not much incentive to do so with much more accessible, more wide-audience-friendly versions of these heroes on screen. It doesn’t help matters that these widely-accessible films cost ten to twenty dollars for two hours of entertainment versus three or four dollars an issue which is likely to be about a ten minute read.

Granted, this is the nature of American franchise comics — they are meant to go on forever. This is where more independent titles like those under Image and Boom are successfully adopting aspects of the manga industry. Like manga, there is a clear end to most independent titles, and catching up is just a matter of starting with the first trade, hardcover or omnibus. Yet, both indie comics and Marvel and DC still suffer from poor individual issue sales; most readers of Image and Boom books wait for the trade to come out and if a Marvel or DC book manages to capture someone in this age of superhero and franchise fatigue, the more frugal option is still to wait for the trades, especially if there’s going to be another reboot soon.

Manga-fied Comics

Manga and comics have crossed over more than a few times, in some cases when the Big Two have made attempts to copy Japanese styles in their content. But, while this might result in some interesting alternate takes on your favorite superheroes, it misses the point entirely. It’s not the content that’s so important — it’s the form.

Of course, if American comics were to copy manga outright, comic stores would likely go extinct. Comic companies and publishers can’t simply switch over to weekly or monthly anthologies containing the latest issue of all their books; there are far too many titles for this, big American franchise comics may not adapt well to the weekly magazine format due to their “go on forever” nature, and there would be no need to fill up shelves of a comics store when one bookcase in a larger bookstore would suffice. 

All that said, trying out anthology models or finding other ways to bring big superhero books back to the average pop culture fan could do wonders for the industry. Maybe when you buy an issue of The Avengers, you also get three other titles featuring characters in the lineup. The option to pick and choose which titles you want to pick up could still be there too, but having bargain bundles of current series could bring in a lot more readers. 

This could also help comic stores. Currently, it is up shop owners to predict what series will sell well. If they bet wrong and order too many copies of a title, the distributor still makes the sale and the shop is left with lots of overstock. It’s a system that places all of the risk on the stores, and it’s not likely to change any time soon (thanks in no small part to Diamond Comic Distributors’ vice grip on the market). But if stores are ordering bundles instead of individual series, at least one of the titles in those bundles is likely to result in a sale, effectively selling the rest of the titles in the same purchase. This is how Shonen Jump sells entire magazines to readers who might only read one of its series. 

Digital Distribution & The Future of Comics

When it comes to digital distribution, American comics are a lot closer to manga. Both manga an American comics have some form of worth-the-price service that makes their stories highly accessible. Manga has Shonen Jump’s online service, which releases the first and last three chapters of all their series for free and access to their entire library for $2 a month, and American comics have Comixology Unlimited (which offers some manga titles), Marvel Unlimited, and DC Universe (which comes with a streaming service as well). 

Each of America’s digital comics services do a fantastic job of making a large number of comics available at around the price that Weekly Shonen Jump’s print and digital versions do. Thus, there’s not much more that these services can learn from manga. In fact, Shonen Jump’s $2 digital service was likely inspired by the likes of Comixology Unlimited. However, whereas Japan doesn’t have a lot of shops that rely on comic sales to stay afloat — manga magazines are available everywhere from bookstores to convenience stores — America does, and these digital services, while great for the reader, hurt comic shops in the long run. Perhaps offering a print version of the pay-less-for-more model could remedy this. 

In the creative department, comics have been borrowing from manga for years. Countless independent comics are the creators’ responses to manga and anime they grew up with, from magical girl deconstructions to modern mecha stories. There are even small pieces of manga influence in Marvel and DC comics, be it tiny references or writers and artists working off their love of the medium to bring something new to long-running superhero stories. Heck, a lot of Frank Miller’s work heavily incorporated elements from Lone Wolf and Cub. So, with creatives embracing some of the world’s most popular comics, why hasn’t the business end done the same? If American comics want to keep up, they better start learning from manga.

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Sean Aitchison

Sean Aitchison is a big fan of cartoons, anime and video games and is therefore a huge nerd who you should all make fun of. He also loves digging up the lost, and often cursed, treasures of pop culture's forgotten media. For more of his work, follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcasts, Pop Cultured and Influenca.

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