What Happens When Otaku Grow Up?

Illustration for article titled What Happens When Otaku Grow Up?

We've previously told you about Japanese publisher Kodansha opening a New York office and courting American comic creators, but have they arrived in America too late? What happens when the teenage audience who created the manga publishing boom in the US grows up? Journalist Kai-Ming Cha, writing about this weekend's Anime Expo, worries that maturity will mean putting away childish things.

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She writes:

I'm not sure that manga readers here are really manga readers and I would even go so far as to say that they're not even comics readers. There's a love for the medium, but only within the shojo or shonen genre... [T]he audience for manga is the anime audience, and they love the anime, but they're young. And they're not going to be loving this when they're older. It really looks like this market is going to outgrow manga. That doesn't mean that manga is some trend that will die, but that it's going to take a lot longer for the market to mature than we're anticipating. It's not going to be within this generation. This generation is going to outgrow it and it's the next generation going in that's going to keep the current market as we know it alive.

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The flipside of this fear - that the manga audience is not going to outgrow the material its currently reading - is what worries retailer Chris Butcher:

If you were the recommended age of 13 years old when Naruto Volume 1 dropped in August of 2003, you're going to be coming up on your 19th birthday any day now. In Canada at least, that means booze, and College or University, and sex. Does it also mean Naruto Volume 30? Are childhood readers and watchers of the spunky young ninja going to become adult fans, emulating Japanese otaku in more than name? Is Naruto going to be one of those properties–entertainments–that cross age boundaries like South Park does, able to enjoyed all the way through your drunken frat/sorority years? Or is it a childish thing, and it's time for you to put childish things away (except for getting drunk and joining a frat or sorority)? No one I've spoken to in the industry has been able to definitively answer that question ...I am outright terrified that the North American manga publishing industry is going to turn into a mirror of the superhero publishing industry; comprised of adult fans clamouring for vaguely more mature versions of children's material, operating in a two-company system, growing steadily more insular and inaccessible to the world at large.

Both agree, however, that the successful manga titles in the US have been predominately based at a teenage audience, and that there hasn't been any sign that that audience is crossing over into more mature titles. A potentially greater worry is that any potential new audience for non-teen books seems to be staying away from the books because of the success of teen manga. Butcher again:

It's a little bit like why I think the pleas for more josei and more seinen are misguided; there's no market for these books. There isn't even an effective delivery system for them, they aren't even designed for their target audience. The [intended] audience for the books isn't going to find them in the manga section, and the books don't look like something that they'd like in the first place because they adhere so strongly to manga packaging conventions (likely in a bid to capture the existing market) that even if you put a josei title next to the women's fiction (read: chick lit) most women would look at it like some child/freak/pervert dropped it on the wrong table.

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While it's tempting to put this commentary next to news of manga publisher Tokyopop's dramatic downsizing (around 45% of the company was let go in June, and publishing plans were slashed) and run a "Manga is dying!" headline, the reality is less neat. Yes, manga sales are falling even in Japan and there may be widespread confusion over what will happen to the current audience when they discover girls/boys/drugs, but in addition to Kodansha's NY arrival, San Francisco's Viz Media are also an all-new line of original content in the near future. If these are the death-throes of the manga boom, it's clearly not the death of manga-based publishing in the US.

Manga: A Long And Winding Road [Genuine Article]

The Shape of The Manga Industry Part 1, Part 2 [Comics 212] (via The Beat)

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DISCUSSION

Speaking as someone who's staring down the business end of 40, I think I can speak with a little history. I got into Anime in 1978, with subtitled Captain Harlock and Cyborg 009. Kids of my generation grew up with Speed Racer, Marine Boy and Astro Boy for anime. Star Blazers was a revelation for it's time. Robotech was the next gateway drug to follow.

I now watch Naruto with my kids (my oldest being the age I was when I got into Anime). My tastes are more diverse, now. I skip a lot of manga/anime when there was a time when I devoured everything we could get our hands on (which admittedly was much less than what's available now). But the contention that there isn't variety or that the audience will just disappear after a certain age? I'm not buying it, per se.

The average reader of comic-books and video games has rode steadily upwards in the last 20 years. In the 70s, comics would be written for all ages with a sly nod towards adult-readers. In the early 1980s, the independent revolution (and subsequent crash) changed that forever. Some American and British artists looked to anime/manga as an influence (Frank Miller being the most obvious example), but the move to more mature comics can rest solidly at the feet of folks like Alan Moore, Chris Claremont and Marv Wolfman, not manga. Sorry guys, but claiming manga has changed American comics is somewhat revisionist. The US publication of "Mai, the Psychic Girl" didn't suddenly bring about more mature content...it was already there. The difference is that it became more mainstream as the audience aged with a new distribution system, cheaper printing processes and a strong economy.

And manga/anime supports a fairly broad set of choices out there. One merely needs to contrast shows like "Legend of Gambler Tetsuya", "Berserk", "FlCl", "Claymore", "Kiseiju", "Blame" or "Monster" with fare like "Bleach", or "Naruto". The same industry that brings you "The Twin Princesses of the Mysterious Star" also brings you "MD Psycho".

American comics have a similar, but different dillema. They are hemorrhaging audiences due to high prices (and a poor bang for buck ratio), competition from manga and the 'grow out of it' idea. This didn't used to be an issue, since new audiences moved in to take over...but with the move away from young audiences, no one steps in to take over the space. No one expects the million issue sellers of the 30s-50s...but now a title that clears 100,000 copies is a blockbuster hit. In the 80s, this would be considered a moderate success. Most comics sell in the 15-35,000 copy range, now. Comics have being selling to a dwindling, insular audience for years, now...and raising the price to survive.

With a new issue of a comic starting at $3, it's expensive and young readers have a limited income. With so little content being suitable for young audiences, its hard to sell into that space. Manga is a better entertainment value and scales with it's audience. That doesn't mean it's an automatic grand-slam...just that it has a decent chance of retaining it's audience.