Images courtesy of the author
The era of mainstream manga has already arrived in the U.S. in full force. Popular titles, old and new, high-brow and low-brow, line bookstore shelves and dominate American comics sales.
While manga accompaniments of top-selling anime from Naruto to Attack on Titan have long been huge American hits, the manga market is expanding in substantial ways into untrodden territory: pulpy, niche genre comics and experimental, literary graphic novels alike. The simultaneous explosion in these twin areas in recent years reveals the genre’s greatest strengths, fundamental market flaws, and the mind of the American manga consumer. Holistically, manga’s long-growing ascendancy has brought two cultural worlds closer together than ever before, exposing orientalism on the American side as well as some unsavory, politically charged aspects of Japanese society.
Just how much has manga grown recently? A lot. Manga sales in the US grew 44% from 2019 to 2020 and are responsible for an 80% growth in graphic novel sales in 2021. These trends are aided by more publishers simply supplying more manga, and a greater diversity of it. This year, popular manga in America include fantasy adventures, gay love stories, gory battle showdowns, lewd peep-fests, sports competitions, and much, much more.
Some of this fandom is fueled by manga’s serial format, which provides abundant opportunities for in-depth characterization and slow-burning plots, like The Sopranos can do in six seasons compared to a one-off film. Many of my favorite manga series, like Hunter x Hunter and The New Gate, take full advantage of this format to indulge in intricate worldbuilding and satisfy fan desires to spend time getting to know characters and settings.
Then there’s the art. People who think of flashy hair colors and jumbo eyes don’t know the half of it: even manga that aren’t particularly praised for their drawings can feature beautiful scenes, highly-stylized action, and sharply depicted moments of intimacy. And that’s hardly to mention those manga that are iconic for their mind-bogglingly intricate, experimental, and gorgeous drawings, like Uzumaki and Berserk. Manga means well-drawn, carefully-plotted stories in every genre and flavor for any demographic—so it’s no surprise to me or anyone watching the industry that a fiction-crazed market in the U.S. would catch on.
Mega-hits like Demon Slayer getting exported to America is only one of the two ways that manga arrive on Western shores. The other comes from the enormous efforts of devoted online fans, who scour the web for new manga and (illegally) translate and upload works they like on various fan websites. Large and small manga US-based publishers essentially follow the crowd, acquiring and licensing official translations of titles that have already achieved, or are on the brink of achieving, large online followings. Manga posted on scanlation websites such as Manangelo receive millions, tens of millions, and sometimes hundreds of millions of views.
This diverse field only emerged in the U.S. over years of growth. “Manga exploded in the States beginning in the mid-90s when publishers stopped trying to slot it into the comic book market and instead positioned manga as part of a growing graphic novel niche in the trade book industry,” said Andrea Horbinski, a researcher of manga at the University of Berkeley.
“The key here is that when publishers were trying to position manga in the comics market, they were bringing over titles that they thought would appeal to comics fans: overwhelmingly white and male... [When publishers] also started bringing over manga that appealed to much wider demographics, namely girls and women, and inadvertently discovered a huge, largely untapped audience.” Fans during this period of time fell in love with Japanese comics because they told types of stories that simply didn’t exist in the West.
Some of the reasons for manga’s international success are obvious: they were new kinds of good stories. Think about it: imagination-sparking fantasy comics written for young women and girls, which even better, came along with anime adaptations, video games, and tons of high-quality merchandise. Thriving communities from Japan also produced all sorts of fan content that could now be shared and translated over the emerging Internet.
In Japan, genre diversity is even higher, with a large portion of manga marketed not just to kids, teenagers, or video game-obsessed shut-ins, but also to salarymen, independent 30-somethings, housewives, and even the elderly. This is a veritable spring of potential manga for international publishers to acquire and translate, and because the English-speaking world has largely only shown interest in manga appealing to teenage boys and girls until now, a huge reservoir of more adult manga remains untranslated. Manga benefits from being a more varied literary tradition than American comics or graphic novels because it includes more genres and covers more demographics over more years.
In contemporary manga, editors play a significant role. While sometimes original manga will get published as is, more often, there is a tug-of-war between editor and mangaka. “Editors request various characters and themes from mangaka to make magazines and books more attractive,” says Shohei Yoshida, a manga editor at Kodansha. “Plots are rarely decided without some kind of back-and-forth.” As in all industries, the market rules the day. Therefore, themes and tropes that drive sales in Japan will also drive the literature in both Japan and abroad. Horror used to be more popular ten years ago, but today, isekai (fantasy in another world) is by far the dominant genre.
These genre fads are another major reason that manga has become so popular in the U.S. Dedicated fandoms obsess over specific genres. One of these is isekai, where after death, the protagonist is reincarnated in a fantasy world modeled after popular RPG video games. A variety of stories can spring up, but in general, the young male hero gains incredible powers, vanquishes monsters, and meets a wide variety of sexy women. Another surging genre in both countries is yaoi, or boys’ love, focusing on male homosexuality for a female audience. These manga tend to revolve around a seme (the dominant masculine top) and an uke (the cute, shy bottom) and the stories develop with recognizable relationship and sex tropes.
Both of these genres are representative in that they are driven by fans and doujinshi (or self-published print works). In the case of isekai, fans post fantasy stories on novel-posting websites. Stories that blow up get acquired by publishers and turned into novels. Popular novels are turned into manga. It all starts with the fandom.
“The doujin part of manga fandom drives what's professionally published in Japan and thus what gets translated and published in the States,” says Horbinski. “Since the 1970s, the doujin sphere is where major trends in manga and other parts of the contents industry have frequently originated, and it's the reason that the absolutely wild variety of niche manga about things like food have arisen in the past decade or so.”
Some of these niche genres take tropes to a whole new level. Readers are so familiar with tropes that you end up with manga that are essentially meta commentary on meta commentary. A good example of this is an untranslated but highly popular boys’ love manga that roughly translates as “A 100% Boys’ Love World vs. a 0% Boys’ Love Guy.” The main character is fed through every preexisting boys’ love plot and character trope imaginable as he struggles to remain straight. It’s fan service in the purest sense: the entire manga only exists by appealing to the inside-knowledge of a fandom.
These fan urges are not always pleasant, but they make the whole machine hum. Readers that stumble into manga will often find themselves surprised by the sheer number of tropes. The same thing happens to new fans of anime, who will be puzzled at the intricate superpowers of protagonists, which have five different rules and four different stages, or at why so much artistic attention needs to be devoted to female characters’ breasts. Some of these tropes will be enough to turn certain readers off. But as we’ve seen, the quality of art, the quality of storytelling, and the diversity of the stories available have been enough to win out some of the stranger and thornier aspects of mainstream manga.
Simultaneously, manga is also developing outside of Japan in a polar opposite direction: literary and alternative manga have continued to gain momentum. Titles like this year’s translation of Yoshiharu Tsuge’s The Man Without Talent have had impressive commercial success for a literary comic. The Man Without Talent contains artful drawings, poetic storytelling vignettes, and the self-deprecating tale of a philosophical middle-aged man failing to support his family. It was originally published in the 1980s, but is still capable of catching readers’ eyes today.
Yoshiharu Tsuge translator Ryan Holmberg points out that some of the manga that are positioned as “literary” or “alternative” in the US have massive followings in Japan. “Part of the success of The Man Without Talent was that it reads very easily as a graphic novel in an English language context,” says Holmberg.
Publishers have embraced this genre, led by Drawn & Quarterly, which have brought over numerous alternative manga into English. Smaller publishers are pursuing the genre as well, for example, Glacier Bay Books in Oregon and Breakdown Press in London. Many of these alternative manga fit into the tradition of Garo, a manga anthology magazine founded in 1964 that specialized in avant-garde manga. Many notable manga artists came through Garo, and although it was never a huge commercial success in Japan, the experimental art and stories left a long-lasting influence on comics in Japan and around the world.
Glacier Bay’s recent publication, Children of Mu-Town by Masumura Jūshichi, is a good example of a literary manga title. Per Glacier Bay’s website, “Stylistically intermingling themes of gentrification and rebirth within the setting of a classic yakuza crime drama, Children of Mu-Town follows the course charted by youths of an aging residential housing complex who are struggling for their lives.” These manga are thematically sophisticated and stylistically experimental. And while it’s a tough bet for publishers of any size to shoot for more than 5,000 or so sold copies of these types of manga, the genre is clearly expanding in the U.S.
“As the general manga readership has continued to expand and diversify, we’re seeing a similar trend on a smaller scale with a growth of interest in more unusual and artistic works,” says Emuh Ruh, editor at Glacier Bay. “I think readers come to our titles not necessarily knowing what to expect, but looking for works that are bold and impactful, unusual in subject matter and style and yet startlingly beautiful.”
Some readers of alternative manga come from the U.S. graphic novel space, a few from the popular manga space, and still others from a generalized interest in Japanese culture and literature, which has also seen huge strides outside of Japan recently with authors besides Haruki Murakami producing bestsellers and winning major awards alike, such as Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman and Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station.
This world of literary manga is in style and content so far removed from that of trope-heavy genre manga that it appeals mostly to a different readership altogether. And yet both are manga, and there’s no shortage of stories that bridge the gaps between artfully told stories and more generic romance and adventure.
Japan’s cultural cache of cool also plays a significant role in drawing in readers. While some hardcore anime and manga fans visit Japan because they love anime and manga, many others, including myself, fell into manga the other way around. Traveling to Japan and seeing the spectacular attention to detail paid in crafts, architecture, and a rich printing and literary culture kicked off my own relationship with manga. Even though I’m most interested in literature and storytelling, the first thing I fall in love with in a manga is the artwork, because it is most evident of this unique brand of Japanese craftsmanship. A high-quality manga is a three-dimensional literary body that synchronizes visual art, plot, and character dialogue towards achieving an ultimate effect. Iconic manga like Akira and Oyasumi Punpun are regarded as masterpieces for this very achievement.
Along those lines, manga has a pull that has to do with ideas of “authentic Japanese culture.” Western TV shows styled after anime like Castlevania or Avatar: The Last Airbender are still clearly Western. Falling into a story that is authentically Japanese—cultural bugs, tropes, and all—appeals to the urge many have to expand their cultural horizons and experience a different kind of storytelling, or to visions of Japan as a monocultural, perfectionist, craftsman universe. (Others are in it for the titties.)
But this notion of cultural authenticity is simply untrue: Walt Disney was a major influence on Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of manga, and countless mangaka since then have cited influences from all over the world. In anime, a lot of artwork has been outsourced to Korea for years and years. Japanese cultural hegemony or superiority has been proven a myth many times over. But there’s also no doubt that the deeply ingrained culture around manga within Japan is an essential force producing so many fantastic stories.
Challenges for artists and publishers in both countries abound. Yoshida expressed concerns about the talent pipeline in the digital manga environment. “The types of entertainment that can be produced by one person is expanding, so we have a production problem that the number of aspiring mangaka is decreasing and it is difficult to supply assistants,” says Yoshida. “The so-called “snack culture” [of reading short web manga] is growing in the younger generation, and the culture of enjoying fully-developed stories is on the decline.”
On the publishing side, any profit-oriented company will strictly veer towards the manga that have any hope of selling 5,000+ copies: typically those that have already built-up fan communities. The dominant position of fans, however, has further resulted in pitched battles with translators and publishers that have popped up in recent years over accusations of censorship, such as when a Seven Seas translation of the isekai novel Mushoku Tensei seemed to alter material to make a character less politically incorrect.
No small number of these manga and novels wade into sticky issues, like rape and slavery, and more than a few of them sexualize minors and depict uncomfortably large age gaps in relationships. After political backlash last year, Amazon removed a number of popular titles from its website (notably the super-popular title No Game No Life) over material that, while technically not violating Amazon’s policies, came dangerously close to doing so. No Game No Life was also banned in Australia for violating a clause concerning the depiction of minors.
We can say that manga’s full-fledged entrance into the U.S. books market has forcefully tossed all aspects of Japanese comics culture into the American mainstream. That means relentless fan service, horny men, and busty women. It also means carefully crafted ongoing stories, experimental artwork, and brilliantly executed themes. Much of the time, these poles exist within the same work. (Anime fans will know this from watching Neon Genesis Evangelion.) It means Japanese cultural supremacy. Narrow profit margins, the precarious nature of book publishing, and the relentless fan thirst for more manga have made it challenging for smaller U.S. publishers to adequately parse these complex issues when keeping up with the growing American market.
Manga, by serving as the source material for anime, is perhaps the single most powerful force driving Japanese culture into the rest of the world other than food. For a writer like myself, manga means a sophisticated storytelling and artistic mode that is made in Japan but multicultural in origin. It’s a mode that is roughly cobbled together from common influences, deep storytelling, unique art styles, and tropes and cliches. It’s a mode that not only produces a unique form of page-turning entertainment, but also can and should inspire new modes of art and storytelling around the world in turn.
Manga has caught fire commercially abroad, but has plenty more to give. For the first time, the English-speaking world is bearing witness to all the sides of Japanese literature: its most sophisticated, its most frivolous, its most dangerous, and its most enjoyable.
Eric Margolis is a writer and translator based in Nagoya, Japan. He translates novels, memoirs, short fiction, and poetry, and his writing has been published in The New York Times, The Japan Times, Vox, Eclectica Magazine, River River, and more.