Takin’ Comics to the Streets: Glimpses of the Medium’s American Future

[30 October 2002]

By Brian Ruh

Let me begin by saying that I don’t like comic books. My biases have more to do with format and distribution than anything contained between the covers. Comic books — the 20-odd page things you buy at specialty stores for three bucks a pop — are a sad example of what the medium has become. Nobody but comic dorks (and I use that term with the utmost level of respect) really buys comics, anymore. Comics are simply not easily available or of interest to the average consumer muddling through his or her day-to-day tasks.

I remember when I was younger I used to be able to snag a comic or two when I tagged along with my mom to the grocery store. Now even that avenue of distribution has changed, as comics in America have become an increasingly self-contained and inbred form of communication. Comics should be for everyone; they need to break out of their isolation at the comic book store and burst onto the scene as the savior of popular culture.

So is there anything on the horizon that is going to change all this? Possibly. A number of different comic offerings are on the horizon, all of which more or less have their roots in manga, or Japanese comics. Manga is a perfect example of what the comic medium can become: it is as omnipresent as television in its home country and has been likened to air itself, in that it permeates every facet of contemporary cultural life. There exists commercial manga for nearly every interest, and if you cannot find what you’re looking for in the major outlets, you almost certainly can find it in doujinshi, or amateur, non-commercial manga (many of which are so well-done that the word “amateur” is a bit of a misnomer).

I was recently at AnimeFest 2002 in Dallas, where I picked up two examples of the direction in which the comics medium could go in America. The first was a sample issue of Raijin, an American version of a Japanese manga magazine. The second was a book of manga-inspired short stories called Juku: A Comics Album. It might seem at first as if the issue involved is simply a battle over format, but it is truly more than that: it is a fight for the future of the comics industry.

Raijin is essentially a Japanese manga magazine translated into English. Most comics in Japan come out weekly in phone book-sized magazines that retail for only a few hundred yen (or a couple of dollars). Each issue contains multiple serialized stories, printed very cheaply in black and white on low quality paper. The format of the manga magazine demonstrates its essential disposability — you read the magazine and then chuck it (or better, recycle it). More popular stories are later reissued in a tankobon format, similar to the idea of the graphic novel. The Japanese method of comics distribution can be seen as quite a bargain when compared to the American one, in which one might pay the same few dollars for a much smaller amount of reading material. Raijin keeps the spirit of the original Japanese comics alive, presenting the stories in as close to original format as possible: the comic reads right-to-left like the Japanese original, so the artwork does not have to be flipped and the original Japanese sound effects, an oft-overlooked but important component to manga, are maintained.

However, one of the most critical issues in the equation has been ignored: comics as easily accessible and cheap entertainment. At over six dollars an issue (for a weekly publication), I have my doubts of whether the magazine will catch on — a problem that may break Raijin after a couple of issues. There may be initial interest in the magazine for its novelty, but the price will almost assuredly be a turn-off in the long run.

Another entry into the field of Japanese comic magazines is the forthcoming Shonen Jump, a US version of the most popular magazine in Japan. While I have not seen a sample copy of this magazine, it seems like it will be geared for a younger audience, featuring such manga as “Dragon Ball Z” and “One Piece”. On the plus side, they are currently offering a 12 issue subscription for just under $20. At less than two dollars an issue (at least, you get that rate if you subscribe), Shonen Jump has the potential to take critical market share away from Raijin.

The most heartening example of the future of comics I saw at AnimeFest was that small book called Juku: A Comics Album. It looked interesting enough, so I decided to plunk down my five dollars for this nearly 250-page anthology. Consisting of eight different stories of varying length and quality, it was certainly an entertaining read. Juku is the first book by publisher Cheap Disposable Entertainment, and if that name doesn’t sum up my theory on comics I don’t know what does. Juku is what comics should be — not a few flimsy colored pages for collector geeks, but a big book of commercial-free entertainment. Of course, some of the stories were better than others, but how can you not like a book in which one of the stories is called “Fairy Princess Yukio Mishima”? Juku demonstrates the creative possibilities that are possible in such a format.

Whether any of these possibilities will survive is still very much up in the air. Comics in America still have a stigma attached to them. In order to combat this misperception, what is needed is increased visibility: meaning simply getting the comics out in public for people to see that the subject matter of comics does not have to be solely muscular superheroes in tights. Manga magazines with wide distribution could play an important role in the changing of popular consciousness, but only if they can supply enough bang for the buck. Juku gives me hope for the future of comics. If a team of artists can put out a book of this quality, certainly the larger publishers can get their acts together, and start producing bigger, better product.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/ruh021030/