Here's a pop quiz about why 2004 was a very good year for visual storytelling: What or who is Rurouni Kenshin? Ever heard of Fruits Basket? Who is Ken Akamatsu? What exactly is a Ghost in the Shell, and why should booksellers care?
Time's up. Every question is about manga, or Japanese comics, and the first three questions are about books that are among the top five bestselling manga titles in the U.S.
Manga is the biggest comics publishing story of the year—and also last year. But if you're completely stumped, don't feel bad. You're going to get many more chances to learn more about manga and other kinds of comics in the year ahead. While the sales of all kinds of graphic novels are growing, during 2004 manga titles remained the hottest selling graphic novels in the book market. In 2003, manga publishers—houses like Viz, Tokyopop, Dark Horse, CPM, Antarctic Press and now Del Rey—released about 500 to 600 titles combined. In 2004, it's estimated that publishers have released about 1,000 manga titles. According to ICV2.com, a pop culture merchandise trade news Web site, sales of graphic novels in 2004 will likely top $170 million—another rise despite fears of a product glut. Milton Griepp, founder of ICV2.com, told PW earlier this year, "The underlying trend seems very strong, and it's continuing."
No one is calling manga a fad anymore. "If it's a fad," says Dallas Middaugh, director of Del Rey Manga as well his own recently launched manga house, Seven Seas, "it's a five-year-old fad. The truth is that manga has been around the U.S. market for 20 years." And Griepp reports that backlist sales for popular manga series like Chobitsand Cowboy Bebop continue to be strong.
There are more publishers entering the market. DV, Digital Manga, Bandai, DC Comics and Marvel have started manga programs; Penguin and Holt will start programs in 2005; and more sales channels are opening, including traditional bookstores as well as video and gaming stores and mass market retailers. The popularity of anime—a larger market that is growing even faster, thanks to DVD sales, broadcast and cable TV—serves to bring fans of the animated series over to the book versions.
Why the popularity? American comics have traditionally been action-adventure series aimed at boys. Manga offers adventure, romance, fantasy, erotica, even sports comics—there's something for readers of all ages and both genders. The books are released in series—Rurouni Kenshin runs to 28 volumes—so fans just keep coming back for more.
Back to the quiz: Rurouni Kenshin is a bestselling series about a motley but effective crew of samurai swordsmen. Fruits Basket is the story of a high school girl adopted by a loving but unusual family—if you hug them, they change into animal characters from the Chinese zodiac. Ken Akamatsu is the creator of two enormously popular series: Love Hina, about a would-be college student who ends up the super of a girls' dormitory; and Negima, about a Harry Potter—like wizard kid who teaches English at a girls' school.
And why should booksellers care about Ghost in the Shell, a cyberpunk manga about crime-fighting cyborgs? In December the anime Ghost in the Shell: Innocence will be released on DVD, and in November GITS: Standalone Complex began showing on Cartoon Network's popular Adult Swim late-night block. Both anime releases will have fans scurrying to find the manga.