Manga in America: Transnational Book Publishing and the Domestication of Japanese Comics
US: Jan 2016
For everyone who recognizes the name Sailor Moon or who learned the term “manga” from a sign at Borders, Casey Brienza has put together a behind the scenes glimpse of the creation of the manga market in the US. Readers in their 20s may have had manga as part of their life from the start, but Brienza shows the formation of the US manga market had a much more complex path than a casual reader might imagine.
She outlines how, out of a personal desire of a few people, manga grew from sporadic and poor-selling comics to be a functioning part of the Amercian book industry by the mid-‘00s. Our shelves are stocked by transnational cultural production located in the chasm between Japan’s developed manga market and America’s trade publication industry.
Brienza begins by describing the founders of manga in America whom she labels “evangelists” because they wanted to bring over manga for personal reasons before there was a market or publishing network. She credits the birth of the field when Tokyopop founder Stu Levy standardized the trim of the book, creating a symbol recognized by the public as “manga” when seen on bookstore shelves.
Brienza chooses to use the term “domestication of manga” to evoke the multiplicity of meanings “domestic” holds, specifically the feminization of the product and the industry. She notes that manga, like popular books, appeared in mall bookstores where a female readership had been cultivated by the chains that reached out to broader demographics of suburban and rural readers. She notes that Sailor Moon became a bestseller because of the arrangement, and that title was followed by a plethora of manga that appealed to female readers.
The next wave of manga publishers saw the new market and specifically targeted female readers with materials like homoerotic “boys love” manga and other romance genres. These publishers she labels “opportunists”, because they didn’t care what they sold because their focus was bringing products to market. Opportunists grew the field by finding materials to reach niche markets.
Probably the most insightful element of the study looks at the struggles between Japanese and American publishers. Japanese companies did not set out to sell their product to the American market, but when US publishing began to tempt their artists directly, the Japanese moved begrudgingly toward US domestication. Due to manga artists owning the copyright of their characters, an international market seemed to be a threat to undercut manga publishers’ hold on their artists. Brienza explains how this forced the large companies to begin looking at the American market not so much with ambitions of profit, but with annoyance and concern.
From the beginning, there were conflicts of interests and communication problems caused by the corporate structure where intermediaries always act in the best interest of the artist. Multiple levels of required approval may prevent US publishers from acting in their best interests. For example, production can be halted by an artist or publisher who refuses to allow an American company to shrink wrap a title with adult scenes. Printing can even be held up by the choice of a particular word used in translation. The personality types of the American publishers, expectations of creators, and concern of Japanese publishers all created lasting internalized problems in the transnational industry.
Brienza focuses attention on the lower-level laborers who carry much of the burden for manga’s domestication. She generalizes translators, letterers, and designers as mostly educated, female, and working from home. These domestic laborers don’t have insurance or job security, but they share responsibility for their low wages because they take on jobs for personal gratification and other young people will take over if they leave. The strength of Manga in America relates to interviews with those people, and further information of their pay, health, and struggles to remain in the field.
One might feel compassion for people who understand that to do their job well makes them invisible both to the public and to their employers. To remain in the field requires the willingness to be mobile, poor, and understand there is little to no chance of advancement. One such worker was hired on as a secretary for a company for three years. Her position remained “temporary labor” to avoid paying into her retirement fund. Stories like these paint a picture of a much more dire condition in the field because there has not been any means of creating permanence for these temps who work job to job, often handling multiple duties.
While the book does describe some moves toward new models of publishing, it really ends aroune 2012, despite being published in 2016. We learn some publishers outsource production jobs at fractions of what they would have to pay in the US. One company recruits scanlators, fans who translate and illegally publish manga online, to do the work without pay until a book sells. Those fans might not make any money, but they have their names attached to the product.
This seems to be Brienza’s main thesis: the domestication of manga means imposing one’s own identity on the product.
In some of the weaker areas of the book, Brienza imposes her identity. She is a sociologist and Lecturer at City University London, and at times, I feel claims go well beyond what is evidenced in her ethnography. Brienza writes: “Most telling of all, one woman in the industry, after much urging, admitted to me that she felt like a ‘white knight’ saving manga from those others who would, in her view, mistreat it. This comment, when unpacked, strikes right to the heart of matters” (133). From that simple statement about one industry person’s view of American translators, Brienza jumps outside of the context of the response and issues a fallacy.
Brienza imposes her own rhetorical understanding of knights as servants of the powerful, and extends the interpretation to state that a white woman in the industry who uses the word “white” when talking about an Asian medium means that she really wants to control the text as a response to being a member of both a dominant race and a dominant nation. Brienza admits the woman was pressured to respond, so it raises a red flag that the sociologist would jump to so many conclusions from what was not a natural moment of communication. Speculation and other red herrings like this seem to pop out occasionally, but the rough spots don’t hurt the general description of how manga production developed in the US or of its workers’ hardships.
Despite its flaws, Manga in America offers detailed mappings of how US manga publishers have developed their own area of cultural production.
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