By John E. Ingulsrud and Kate Allen
Melinda Beasi, in the Boston Manga Examiner of May 18th, reports that CMX, DC Comics manga publishing arm, plans to cease publication. The first reaction to such news is: Manga readership is declining. This kind of reaction is based on the assumption that readers and consumers of popular media are also the purchasers. In the case of manga, the correlation between readers and purchasers is not so straightforward. In Reading Japan Cool, we have pointed out that in addition to purchasing, readers borrow and lend manga. Readers then sell and purchase used manga.
Outside of Japan, the literacy practice of scanlation has become widespread. Scanlation involves someone in Japan purchasing the manga magazine as soon as it is published, scanning it and sending it to a friend or group of friends who translates the speech/thought balloon content and then makes the work available on the Internet. A web search of “manga scanlation” will bring up literally hundreds of sites representing fan communities who provide translated manga for free. It is this practice of scanlation that publishers blame for their loss in sales.
Complaining about manga and comics readers’ literacy practices is nothing new. While the focus tends to be on content, seen as dangerous or in bad taste, there have been complaints about their basic formats. In the anti-comics campaigns of the 1940s and 50s, comics were criticized for being published on cheap newsprint. Yet, by printing comics this way, it allowed publishers to price them at a level children themselves could afford. Between 1945 and 1960, most Japanese readers could not afford to buy their own manga and so they got access to them through book rental shops. When they could buy manga, these were printed on even rougher newsprint than their American counterparts.
A closer look at Beasi’s report reveals a strong empathy with readers who may be left stranded since their manga series has been discontinued. A recent radio program reporting on the economic impact of the oil spill on the Alabama coast carried an interview with a mother who said her daughter could not afford her favorite manga. As manga readers ourselves, we know this means not simply being cut off from manga in general, but from one’s favorite story or stories, and it is all the more painful when you know the story is out there.
The vast majority of manga are created as narratives, and mainstream manga consist of serialized narratives. Fringe manga generally carry non-serialized self-contained stories. Once a genre receives a reliable following, the stories become serialized. These serializations continue for years, even decades. The popular manga title Naruto has been serialized for ten years, One Piece for nearly thirteen. The series based on the fictional salary man, Kosaku Shima, began in 1983.
The discontinued series that Beasi describes appear to be manga published in bound volumes, not as magazines. In Japan, for mainstream manga, the installments to the stories are published, together with installments of numerous other stories, first in thick manga magazines on cheap newsprint. Then later, if they are popular, they are published separately as books. That means the story is published twice in two different formats. However, for the overseas manga reader, there is usually only one format, the individually titled books. Although there are some manga or collections of manga available in magazine format on newsprint, readers abroad know that they have to wait and that the installments have been released months if not years earlier in Japan.
Reading a manga magazine in cheap newsprint on the day of release carries both the topicality and the disposability of a newspaper. Consequently, the installments carry the urgency of “news”. When we purchase our copies of Weekly Morning on Thursday mornings, we notice three or four others in the train car reading the same manga magazine. We know we are the first to read the installments. Kosaku Shima, for example, has been President of his company since 2008. The bound bilingual edition of the first installments of his tenure was finally published this month by Kodansha International. Meanwhile, in the weekly magazine, his electrical appliance company has already merged with other companies, changed its name, and seeing the future in producing lithium batteries, his staff are searching the Bolivian highlands for minerals.
It is this immediate access to installments that readers crave. If on the day of the magazine release, the installments could also be released on the Internet in Chinese, English, and Korean, this on-time publication would beat any scanlator. Then later, the polished bound version could be released. Manga stories do have the capacity to engage readers outside magazine installments, which is why readers purchase the bound versions. Yet, we cannot deny the thrill to be reading the story as it is created.
John E. Ingulsrud is Professor of Applied Linguistics in the Department of International Studies at Meisei University. Kate Allen is Professor of Linguistics in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University. They are the authors of Reading Japan Cool: Patterns of Manga Literacy and Discourse.