Everything You Know Is Wrong

Right is left! Up is down! Good is evil! Everything you know is wrong!

Or at least that’s how it’s seemed lately, what with Marvel trying to break out of the Direct Market and manga trying to break in.

As you may have seen at Heidi MacDonald’s blog, THE BEAT, Marvel is making its way back into 7-11s and increasing the number of Barnes & Noble outlets that carry their trades. Given the constant lamenting over the withering of the audience for super-hero comics, this is only sensible. In fact, it’s probably the smartest thing Marvel has done in terms of reviving that near-extinct species, “the casual reader” (or “recreational user,” take your pick).

While the Barnes & Noble deal will no doubt include the full range of Marvel’s comics properties, Newsarama reported that the 7-11 selection will be centered around the more all-ages Marvel Adventures line (formerly known by the rather more moribund tag, Marvel Age). So this answers the question of precisely what Marvel might put out there that wouldn’t completely baffle a casual reader, aside from maybe their Essentials volumes.

Oh, and Marvel will be giving away millions of educationalFantastic Four comics to schools. It’s part of a campaign called “Do Your Thing,” which would have been fuel for a million dirty, only partially understood jokes at my middle school. (Man, those production stills of Michael Chiklis wearing his oatmeal exoskeleton must have tested through the floor.)

All of these announcements arrived at roughly the same time as all of comics fandom was preparing to celebrate “Manga Month” via the latest issue of Previews. You can tell it’s “Manga Month” at Previews, because Hal Jordan is on the cover, and a line of military action figures by Todd McFarlane is on the back. (If you need to go lie down for a while, I’ll understand.)

Rested? Good. Anyway, eigoMANGA has teamed with Diamond Distributors (who bring us Previews every month so we can gauge upcoming spells of overspending) to promote manga in comic shops in an apparent effort to keep customers from wandering off to chain bookstores. (I found this item via the invaluable blog, Love Manga, which you should all read in spite of the fact that it renders me largely superfluous.)

“Manga Month” has an oddly jingoistic quality to it. Take this quote from Austin Osueke, CEO and publisher of eigoMANGA:

“Large media chain stores are treating manga as a trend and they are inadvertently over saturating the manga market in the US by overstocking their stores with too much manga; not all of these books are selling. The media stores will return unsold books and stop buying new manga. Comic book retailers will not order the manga because of they assume that fans will head to media stores to purchase the books instead of them. As a result new manga releases in the US will become scarce and manga publishers will be dealt a big blow.”

There’s something to Osueke’s argument that’s uncomfortably reminiscent of a reader turning down his or her nose at manga and muttering, “I’d rather buy American comics.” It’s fatalistic and too general, and I always get nervous when someone tries to push two forces into opposition. I take less issue with another quote from Osueke:

“It’s important to support comic book retailers because comic books are their lives and they’re in it for the long haul; mainstream retailers are not. The people who run and operate comic book stores are loyal fans. They cultivate fans and they are willing to support them for the long term; we shouldn’t overlook the huge role comic book stores play for the comic book industry.”

That’s a nice enough sentiment, and I’m all in favor of supporting comic shops. But it seems to presume a level playing field, that all Direct Market outlets are incorporating manga into their inventory or would if it weren’t for those damned bookstores, and I simply don’t think that’s true.

Some don’t even carry independent or small-press comics, much less manga. While that’s disappointing for me as a customer who likes to be able to buy Paradise Kiss at the same time and place I pick up the latest She-Hulk or Street Angel, I’m perfectly well aware that comics retailers are running small businesses for the most part. They have to make choices based on what they can afford to invest, what they perceive the return to be, and what their customer base seems to want. If they can make a living sticking to Marvel, DC, and Image, I can understand a reluctance to delve into a medium that has at least as many titles in translation as all of those publishers combined.

It’s not particularly kind to say, but I think customers are much more likely to find a nicely organized, diverse selection of manga at a bookstore than they are at a comic shop. And as Marvel’s efforts to expand its outlets demonstrate, ready availability of the product is a big part of the battle when you’re trying to sell comics. Comics fans are used to working to find their fix; manga readers already have it fairly easy.

And it’s an undeniable fact that manga publishers are moving a hell of a lot of digests through their current means of distribution. In a recent column at The Pulse, retailer Brian Hibbs looked at the increase in manga sales and the trouncing Marvel and DC got in bookstores in 2004. If bookstores view manga as a fad, it’s at least an impressively lucrative one.

So what’s the benefit for manga publishers to push further into comics specialty shops? Direct Market customers are certainly loyal to their hobby, and if you can get them to try manga and they like it, you may well have a friend for life. The benefits to comic shops include the possibility of reaching out to a new audience, if you can get them in the door when they have a number of easily accessible shopping alternatives.

But ultimately it doesn’t seem life-or-death to either. Publishers don’t ultimately need too much more of a foothold, and the added investment of time and resources may not be met with worthwhile returns for retailers.