Posted on October 15, 2006 in Uncategorized

When I heard about the Manga Invasion evening, my first thought was of the holiday resort where three Leicester football players were arrested a couple of years ago. As a Leicester fan myself, I was more than a little surprised by the idea that the scandal should be celebrated and even discussed via a panel.

Luckily, just as I was collating my end of season videos to demonstrate a club history otherwise free of such incidents, I became aware of what manga really is. It quickly became evident that this combination of dynamic and colourful graphics with the written word has a strong cult following and efforts were already underway to bring it into the mainstream UK market.

I was therefore greatly looking forward to learning more and I approached the Embassy of Japan with a growing feeling of anticipation. Having arrived and worked out my bearings (likely doors through which food and/or drink will be carried in, etc.), I was tipped off that I should secure my seat as soon as possible.

Having a look around I soon realised the reason for this – the venue was absolutely crammed (complete with manga artwork, see pic) and before long it would be standing room only. Not only did this demonstrate the pulling power of an SYP event, but it was evidence that manga had already begun capturing the interest of those in the publishing industry.

Having taken our seats, we were provided with an introduction by Mr Noboru Sekiguchi, Deputy Director of the Japan Information and Cultural Centre at the Embassy of Japan. He cited a recent UK survey which revealed that 91% of respondents considered Japan’s image to be very favourable and 35% of 18−29 year olds thought often, or very often, about the country or aspects of its culture. He went on to state that manga was joining Japanese music, fashion and design as a major element of current popular culture.

Continuing, he said the high take-up of events and the strong PR campaigns were evidence of manga’s place in current interests and that the stage was now set for expanding this enthusiasm, particularly among the younger generations. He concluded by highlighting the new manga award and pointing to the unique form and presentation of the genre and how it can portray a person’s innermost feelings.

Paul Gravett, a published manga expert and the panel’s Chair (pictured), then took over as he introduced each member of the panel before beginning the questions. First to answer was Gillie Russell of HarperCollins, who described the publisher’s programme of children’s graphic novels and highlighted the move into the mainstream and away from cult status. Gillie pointed to the Playstation as evidence that children are now more exposed to Japanese culture than ever before and suggested manga artists would start using their influence on current novels. She also highlighted the importance of working through the ‘gatekeepers’ – the parents, teachers, etc. who would be vetting the choice of books – when considering what would appeal to children.

Next to speak was Emma Coode, also of HaperCollins. Her focus is the adult market for graphic novels and she is also the Editor of the recent Buddha series. Emma stated that their manga publications work well on all levels and in addition the books can compete with anything else in the literary market.

As manga series tend to involve a high number of books coming out with great frequency, Emma also highlighted the way the spines can be designed to line up – a work of art in itself. This further emphasised the point that manga has the potential to offer something on both literary and artistic levels.

Emma was followed by Simon Spanton, Editorial Director of Gollancz Manga – an imprint of Orion. It was through their partnership with VIZ Media, a group experienced in introducing manga into western markets, that they quickly built up a portfolio of series. According to Simon, the UK was lagging behind other European markets such as Germany, France and the Netherlands in its responsiveness and this created an opportunity.

Simon went on to mention how manga readers expect a book every month or at least every other month. A positive aspect of this for publishers and booksellers is that the series are linear and people want to collect them all rather than an odd book here or there.

Offering another perspective on manga, Ruth Harrison from The Reading Agency described how they have been pushing the books to public libraries and schools, supported by widespread POS material and a ‘Manga Mania’ campaign. She reported positive results, with young people keen to access the new genre.

Ruth placed the growth of manga into context by reminding the audience that only a few years ago it was virtually impossible to find a legally sold copy. Now, she said, libraries and schools are keen to find out more about the publications. She pointed to the pressure for fast turnarounds of series and also the vast array of spin-offs – as diverse even as manga hairstyle classes.

In a seemingly endless and brilliant panel, next to answer Paul’s leading questions was Dennis McGuirk from TOKYOPOP (TP). He outlined the aim of making manga more accessible in the UK and declared its target was to ensure everyone had at least one publication. To give an indication of the demand for a manga publication, one hundred Ottakar’s branches had stocked copies by the end of the first week of sales, and Dennis highlighted the hunger for the genre evidenced via the internet.
TP wishes to be as interactive as possible with its audience. This includes the different versions it posts on its US sites for the public to choose and a virtual online studio. Dennis claimed the high street is gradually catching up with the trend and that the UK was now ahead of the US in like-for-like sales growth.

As part of its drive for young people to become involved in manga, providing a platform for feedback, format and direction, TP runs a competition through which there have already been twenty winners, with over forty books published as a result. According to Dennis, the original competition received acclaimed and national coverage in the US with over three hundred entries last year. The winners of this year’s competitions will be published simultaneously in the US and UK.

With Paul Gravett regally directing the show, the floor was then opened up for questions. Emma Coode was the first to answer one on the growing popularity of manga, and emphasised the need the make the public aware that manga is for adults as well as children. Simon Spanton took this point further by stressing the importance of introducing the genre into ‘dusty publishing boardrooms’. He went on to point out that Japan is a world-leader in mass-communications technology and it is therefore important they now catch up in terms of the written word.

Ruth Harrison highlighted another aspect of manga – its functionality as a technique for teachers to engage children with. It was only a year ago that the Daily Mail, needing little excuse to urge the white middle-classes to batten down the hatches in fear of anything foreign, declared that manga was corrupting children with pornography and violence. Ruth used this to illustrate how fast perceptions have changed of the increasingly popular genre.

Having discussed at length the issue of introducing manga to the mainstream UK market, a new point was raised – the possibility of selling publications back to Japan. According to the panel this has traditionally been a problem, though it was claimed that return sales are starting to happen more frequently. The issue may have been due in part to the split between the traditionalists and those who have adopted a more modern approach to take the books into the mainstream market.

The questions continued to come with a seemingly unabated pace – I would have to write a novel myself to report them all – but one thing that was clear was the determined, sustained and innovative effort to bring manga to the UK. This included hearing about Manga Shakespeare and also new titles from Random House – currently numbering fifteen and rising.

Just as the thirst for learning about manga was finding a rival in the thirst for the wine being generously prepared, a cry went up for continuing the discussion in the refreshments area and everyone moved on with a mind full of new information. As proof of the extent of attendees’ interest, copies of manga books were quickly snapped up, with most people vowing to read them on the way home.

I’m afraid to say I haven’t had a chance to read mine yet, though they have overtaken the Leicester City videos in the backlog, which means I will definitely get around to it shortly. All in all, it was great to have the opportunity to hear more about a trend likely to go from strength to strength in the UK, and to see the potential for increasing diversity in the book world, which can only be a good thing.