Monday, December 10, 2007

New York Anime Festival: This Is Youth Culture

How does mainstream comics crack the ever-more elusive "kiddie" market? Well, had they purchased booth space at last weekend's New York Anime Festival at the Jacob Javits Center, they might have started to have a clue.

The main thing that hits you when you enter this convention is that it is filled with YOUTH.

There were teens and tweens and little kids with their parents EVERYWHERE.

And it wasn't just about a specific type of comic -- in this case, manga -- or style or type of artist.

The vibe at the New York Anime Con was about a whole YOUTH MOVEMENT.

It's a movement in which males and females more or less equally participate. It's a movement that is racially inclusive. It's a movement in which consumer participation and customization is essential. It's a movement not about collecting but experiencing. It's a movement complete with a whimsical aesthetic that I am only beginning to understand.

And whether Peter Parker is married or not or Batman is Bruce Wayne or not makes not the single whit of difference to them.

If mainstream comics does not make a better effort to understand this youth culture, they might still have a bit of fair success with the older market. But they will both competely lose the youth market. And they will at the same time fail to plant the seeds for the next generation's interest in their products.

I am willing to bet that lot of this hesitation of the mainstream to embrace and study this emergent youth culture is because they personally don't "get" manga. Frankly, manga might not be something they would be interested in reading/editing.

The key here is that there has to be a willingness on the mainstream's part to look beyond the fact that they don't "get" it. They have to be willing to embrace the idea that what the "kids" want is not what they want. And that's hard, because rolled into that is the realization that they are getting physically older. It's the realization that there is a whole line of generations out there that are ready to assume their place on the queue of life.

I don't "get" great portions of manga. I don't "get" Naruto. I don't "get" large parts of this anime scene. But I accept the fact that this culture is a widely popular one and that it behooves me to learn about it and understand its appeal.

Which brings me to my final point. As I said before, the energy surrounding manga culture is not just an art style or a book format. You cannot hire an artist to draw manga-style art and give it a soap-opera theme with robots or whatever and write it with the energy of American comics. Neither can you package any damn thing you want in a manga-sized book and say "presto! we have Youth Culture product!"

They aren't looking for "Teen Titans." They are looking for "Teen Titans Go!"


  1. I came to the decision this past year that DC and Marvel comics no longer hold the claim to being Mainstream Comics.
    They just lack the mass market needed to claim that, when held in comparison to Manga. They don't have cartoon spin-offs, they can't get enough kids to think them into coolness, and they're seldom the hot toy, video game or movie out there.
    Mainstream needs to either be retired, or assigned to the Manga and Anime markets. Old School might be a better label for the current nostalgia-styled comics available in specialty shops.

  2. There is a reason mainstream comics have been around for however many decades they've been around. If DC or Marvel really want to tap into this market they will, if they don't want to, for whatever reason, they won't.

  3. Manga is sold a lot cheaper on the shelves than regular comics. Put some manga books out there at the same price as their US counterparts and then we'll see how many kids pick up the latest hardcover Naruto volume at 20 dollars a pop.

    I'd take issue with the low quality of editing and proofing of western editions (if most manga books are even subject to either process, which is debatable given the end product), but you can't deny that they don't exactly make manga difficult to obtain. If manga could only be obtained in overpriced volumes from glorified toyshops, I suspect it wouldn't fare quite so well.

  4. Hi, this is my first time posting, but I've been reading for a while.

    Issues like this are especially interesting to me, since I'm ostensibly *not* a comic reader- I'm a young minority woman, shock of shocks, and what the hell am I doing reading Captain America anyway? Not only that, I got into this relatively late (mid to late teens), only after I got tired of anime and manga.

    Part of what made getting into comics not completely weird for me was growing up watching X-Men and Batman/Batman Beyond on tv (I told you I was young). I already had experience with the characters in a non-traditional setting, so jumping into the adventures of Bruce Wayne or whoever wasn't totally out of the blue. But as you said, the kids want Teen Tians Go. I think that if there were shows somewhat connected to the main universes, there would be a growth in how many younger people want to read comics based in this universe.

    However, I really don't know how the industry works, so I don't know if it would be worth pursuing. Cartoons ain't cheap.

  5. Wait a minute, dernjg! DC & Marvel don't have cartoons, toys, or popular movies, while Manga does? Really?

  6. I suppose I should annotate my thoughts instead of just making statements about key adjective uses.
    First, I did say that they were lacking in HOT Toy department, in a need-to-have way.
    From this year’s Toy Wishes’ Hot Dozen, the only thing comics-related is Transformers. The last time a Marvel or DC product hit this list was with the Hulk Hands. And it was also a year that Yu-Gi-Oh was dominating toy sales.
    On cartoons, I’m hard-pressed to find any Marvel or DC toons lately (Legion? And a weird alternate version of Batman), and none of are paralleling the core titles, which is a shame. Marvel should be putting out a Civil War cartoon for next year, and DC should be giving us 52 as a full season of shows.
    Gaming might be the one area that the old schools and mangas are sort of on equal footing. But both DC and Marvel seem to flail about as much as they succeed, with their recent MMO attempts generating very little buzz.
    And then there’s movies. Marvel is indeed doing OK with the silver screen action, and has three of the top 30 movies in domestic gross this season. They’re showing that they know what they’re doing in that field.
    But most telling in these comments? Bryan criticizing the end product of manga versus the hardcovers that American comic companies produce. We shouldn’t demand that manga be priced higher, we should demand that there be more cheap American comics. Go ahead, give us black and white art, cheap pulpy paper and a sweet price point. Then maybe those unemployed kids could afford to read more. (Also hoping that there’s still a good story inside those pulpy gems).

  7. Whereas I feel that they shouldn't have their shows follow their comics, they should have their comics follow their shows. 20 million people know Spider-Man from the movies, 100,000 people know him from the comics. Why demand that the 20 million fans change to fit the 100,000 obsessive fans? (Keep in mind, this isn't a comment about the minutiae of plot points and developments...I think any fan can pick up a Spider-Man book, say, "Oh, Spidey and MJ are married now," and move on from there. But in terms of tone and style, the Justice League should be like the JLU, not the other way around.)

    I do totally agree, though, that saying, "Well, if manga were horrifically expensive and marketed towards adults with tons of disposable income, it wouldn't do very well either!" is a mug's game. You don't find things your industry is doing badly and use them as excuses to justify your poor performance, you find things your competition is doing well and copy them.

  8. I don't think this problem can be solved. If DC/Marvel try to pander to youth by releasing manga-like material, the youth will reject it. Not to mention the fact that companies that publish manga/produce anime treat the US as a secondary market. They have the freedom of operating in a culture where they are truly mainstream entertainment (in a way that comic books can never be here, for a variety of reasons). This means that they can package and price the material in a variety of ways, a flexibility that DC/Marvel do not have.

  9. I completely agree with OS and Seavey and just wrote about a similar thing last week in the newspaper in a review of the Jeff Smith Shazam. The point was basically that most people experience superheroes through movies and television and reputation, not through comics, and that to survive, that genre would have to create for THAT audience and not the obsessive grown-ups who seem to populate the comics market. The key to that is creating something for kids - and then the next generation of kids and then the next, not just become stagnant towards one group.

    As far as I can tell, mainstream comics hasn't cared much about the kid market in more than 20 years - in fact, they actively insult the very notion they would want to be part of it. More power to Manga and JK Rowling for understanding the real deal.

  10. Delineate the values of this "Youth" "Culture," please, so that we may exploit it.

    ... ^_^

  11. Personally I'm starting to look at Teen Titans Go! over Teen Titans.

  12. I think a good signpost to whether the Corporate Comic Companies can reach the youth market is the upcoming X-men "manga" from Del Rey. Considering the creators involved it has a chance of not just being a cheesy knock-off. Making something look like what is unfortunately considered the manga style is wasted, making it read like manga could work. The price will also be a huge factor.

    Marvel and DC could create a synergy between the movies, cartoons, and comics for more than their traditional core audience if they take the time to understand it. As long as they can make money on their core audience they may not bother, and when that audience shrinks to the point where they aren't making money it will be too late.

  13. I think the most surprising part is how people continue to be amazed that cartoons aimed at the youth market are actually popular with the youth market. Japanese animation has been part of American popular culture since 1963; it's only recently that the companies behind it have begun to capitalize on its popularity.

    Marvel and DC, on the other hand, have spent the last 30 years aggressively pursuing a smaller and smaller audience of hard core triva-obsessives. People love Marvel and DC characters, but they wouldn't be caught dead reading any of the comics.

    Heck, I've had comic shop owners tell me to my face they don't want kids in their store. Can't have children reading those comic books!

  14. I must confess I'm always a little stymied by people who say they don't "get" Naruto (or manga in general for that matter). What's to get? It's Harry Potter with ninjas. It doesn't strike me as too hard to see what's so appealing about it for most kids today. Naruto and other books are hitting the same sweet spot that superhero books used to back in the dinosaur days.

    And I think it's kinda too late for DC/Marvel. They missed the boat already.

  15. Val, based on sales figures at least, Manga is the mainstream. Thats why i really dont understand feminist comlaints. DC/Marvel are not mainstream, they are a botique market. The only reason people seems to think differently is tradition.

  16. "Bryan criticizing the end product of manga versus the hardcovers that American comic companies produce. We shouldn’t demand that manga be priced higher"

    And if you read my comment, you'll see I wasn't suggesting anything of the sort. If I was suggesting anything, it was that manga could be of higher quality.

    Manga is cheap, and that makes it affordable for younger readers with limited income - but it's also accessible, and this latter element makes it separate from the Diamond Distribution monopoly that's crippled the American industry (and the antitrust investigation into Diamond's business practices ruled that it WAS a monopoly, but since it was only comic books - and not 'real' books - that was being monopolised, it didn't really matter).

  17. Which is a very good point, Brian: it's not just the content that's a problem for Marvel and DC, it's the distribution and marketing. They have gotten seriously locked into a small number of distribution channels that ship their product to a tiny number of specialty stores, and unsurprisingly, the average person on the street doesn't even know they still publish these things. (I recall hearing about a local news broadcast in San Diego, on the eve of the Comic Con, that assumed that nobody made comics anymore. Which says as much about the quality of local news in San Diego as it does about the public profile of comics, but...)

    Comics companies need to do more than publish kid-friendly content, they need to find ways to get it to kids. Marvel and DC's basic marketing and distribution philosophy remains, "Wait until people walk into stores demanding our product, then sell it to them."


    Wow...I'm a 37 year old father of two who, quite unintentionally, got sucked into the Naruto thing when Cartoon Network had that 100 episode marathon. I dont think there is a western comic today that could compare with Naruto. Maybe Cerebus? But then Sim went bonkers.

    Naruto is the personal fanciful mythology of one fricken genius named Kishmoto, and it is as subtle as it is bombastic.

    Naruto is a character on the level of Jon Snow, Rand al'Thor or Frodo-and personally I think Snow's the only one of that group who is more multidimensional and complex. I am a Narutard, I know-but if you can read part one (20 volumes?) You'll se what I mean. Jeez just get through the Chunin exam arc and you'll see what I mean!

    Maybe I've gone round the bend, but I don't think so.

    Don't be fooled by all the hype and Ani-mania, read the story, its creating a sub-genre all to itself-and there is a lot to learn in them backwards pages. 17 pages every week! One million plus weekly circulation, and its kicking the crap out of anything sequential sold in a bookstore here in the US. Get on the Jutsu!

    Ja na, :)


  19. I stumbled onto this by accident.

    The article is interesting. I am much older. I am 31, I got into black and white comics first and THEN manga. I was an avid reader of Cerebu the Aardvark even when I was too young to fully comprehend all the political and religious and social themes covered in that series.

    Later on I got into Anime and manga for the same reason I got into comics in the first place. It was an "adult" version of something that I enjoyed as a kid but felt i could no longer enjoy because of my age.

    Eventually...I outgrew both comics and manga. In the sense that I felt the need to move on to books and things that didn't have illustrations...but now that I have a nephew that is 11 I find that i can still easily enjoy manga and anime as much as I did when I was younger.

    So what is the appeal? Have you ever been to the manga section of a book store and see the sort of people who read anime and manga? It's not the typical only male demographic that reads the American superhero comics. A large chunk of the manga industry employs female talents that make comic books specifically for female readers.

    Far from sweet valley high the female manga (known as shoujo) is full of controversial topics such as homosexuality, pregnancy...cross dressing. Thats just to name a few.

    As mainstream as manga may be today...there is nothing mainstream about the subject matter it tackles.

    Even a silly on the surface anime like Naruto about a ninja school deals with some incredibly heavy and complex themes about social isolation, feminism, childhood truama, abuse...even with its simplistic guise of ninjas with really cool moves beating each other up.

    There is a lot of manga drivel out there. But I've never been impressed by superhero comics. I guess that's just personal taste.