These days, it’s taken for granted that the comics industry has become a media juggernaut in the western world—as evidenced by the myriad movies based on comic-book heroes that have been released over the past decade and by the exceptional profitability of Marvel’s cinematic universe. It’s estimated that the American comics industry earned $1.28 billion in the North American market alone in 2020. However, it turns out that Japan’s manga industry is vastly more profitable: Japanese manga creators and publishers raked in $5.6 billion that same year in their home country alone.
Koyoharu Gotouge’s Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba (serialised from 2016 to 2020) is an example of manga’s runaway success. Sales of this series—a dark fantasy historical adventure about a young man named Tanjiro Kamado and his cursed sister living in Taisho-era Japan during the early twentieth century—have surpassed expectations on both sides of the Pacific. While it’s unlikely that, as some have claimed, this work alone outsold the entire worldwide comics industry in a single year, its international success cannot be ignored. And anime too has seen record popularity and growth globally.
This success has caught the attention of creators and producers of comics, especially in the United States. The veteran comics writer Chuck Dixon, who did prolific work on Batman in the 1990s, has not only praised manga publicly for its “dedication, passion and craft” but has criticized the recent work of some of his fellow American comics producers, particularly Marvel and DC. He and others have characterized the current mainstream comics landscape as lacking variety or as over-politicized and didactic. Long-simmering disagreements on this issue among American comics creators and producers have recently bubbled to the surface—which can only play to the advantage of manga and anime creators.
Back in the 1980s, many in the west worried that Japan might come to dominate the world economically. These days, many westerners have the same worry in response to China’s economic rise. But now, western worries about Japanese dominance are back in the spotlight, at least in the pop culture world, because of how decisively manga is outperforming its American competition. Why is this happening, and what might creators in the western world learn from this development that might enable them to garner similar success?
Diversity of Genres
Part of the answer lies in the huge volume and subject-matter diversity of manga creations. Different manga are aimed at different audiences and are formally categorized as for Shōnen (young boys), Shōjo (young girls), Seinen (adult men) or Josei (adult women). For example, one can choose from the family-friendly Doraemon series (serialised since 1969), the murky action of Golgo 13 (serialised since 1968), the postapocalyptic drama 7 Seeds (serialised from 2001 to 2017) and innumerable science fiction works—such as those produced by the long-standing Gundam franchise. Some of these are deeply engrossing epics comparable in scope and quality to Frank Herbert’s Dune. Then there is Hirohiko Araki’s JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (serialized since 1987), which became notorious and influential as a result of its genre-busting nature—as well as various lighthearted yonkoma gag strips, popular Isekai tales about characters transported to another world, and dramas set in historical periods such as nineteenth-century Hokkaido. As a result of this variety, there’s bound to be something for almost anyone. In addition, most manga content is readily available on cheap newsprint, in paperback and—increasingly—online, which both helps it reach a wide audience and keeps production costs low.
Another reason for manga’s success is that a large number of different publishers and distribution outlets provide it—from giant conglomerates like Kodansha to specialty houses and grey-area doujinshi. By contrast, English-language comics content remains heavily dominated by Marvel and DC, and they have mostly focused only on superheroes like Superman or the Fantastic Four, regardless of whether the genre is sci-fi, fantasy or historical fiction. Moreover, they tend to rehash old plots and rely on well-travelled narrative arcs to the point of fatigue, fostering confusion, if not ennui, among fans. There are a few exceptions, such as Brian Michael Bendis’ noir-esque Alias (running from 2001 to 2004), which became the basis of the Jessica Jones TV series, and some content from smaller independent publishers—such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography Maus (running from 1980 to 1991) and The Walking Dead (running from 2003 to 2019).
Nevertheless, in general, characters wearing capes and spandex remain the standard, especially in America. Some of this may be a legacy of the 1950s moral panic over comic books in the west, epitomized by the 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, which argued that comic books were a negative moral influence—leading publishers of the time to establish a voluntary self-censoring code known as the Comics Code Authority. As a result, only a handful of genres survived. (While Japanese manga is no stranger to moralistic criticism, it has never had to contend with this kind of gatekeeping.)
Cultural Appropriation Done Well
Another reason for manga’s success is that it emerged during a period in which there was a lot of interest in content produced by cultures other than one’s own. This is not solely a modern phenomenon. The medium of comics originated in picture books produced in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and after the Meiji Restoration, Japanese artists began taking more inspiration from foreign sources as varied as French Art Nouveau and early American newspaper cartoons and comics. But Japanese creators’ interest in foreign culture accelerated after World War II, when bits of Anglo pop culture became readily available in Japan. Manga artists like Osamu Tezuka (1928–1989) were among those inspired by pulps and Disney, and found ways to reimagine them for a different audience, through works like Astro Boy (serialised from 1952 to 1968). These early artists’ efforts not only gave manga—and anime—a recognizable aesthetic, but also set a precedent for later mangaka. For example, the Dragon Ball franchise took inspiration from Journey to the West and from western sci-fi; the works of Kaoru Mori combine a distinctly feminine flair with a deep understanding of both Victorian Britain and Central Asia; and My Hero Academia (serialised since 2014) is as much a love letter to classic American superheroes as it is a distinctly Japanese spin on them.
Some of these artists’ US counterparts have taken a similar approach over the decades. Marvel and DC have not been shy about introducing non-European characters and concepts. Examples include the Immortal Iron Fist’s ode to Chinese martial arts, Black Panther (the first African superhero), the futuristic Anasazi Dawnstar and Craig Thompson’s Habibi (2011) (which is pervaded by Middle Eastern and Islamic motifs, even though Thompson is neither Middle Eastern nor Muslim himself).
In recent years, however, the practice of admiring and taking inspiration from other cultures has come to be stigmatised in some circles as cultural appropriation, to be seen as problematic and as somehow oppressive of minorities—an exercise of power over them. Those who take this view condemn the use of other cultures’ ideas regardless of how those cultures’ members feel about it. Their idea seems to be that only those who own the culture have a right to portray it. Anyone who falls foul of this tenet risks incurring the ire of a particular set of activists. This has, predictably, stifled creativity—a problem that has become the elephant in the room.
When fiction explores politics today, the effort is met in certain circles with intense and divisive contempt. But fiction has always explored political issues, and comics are no exception. For example, early on, Stan Lee used Marvel superhero exploits as a vehicle to tackle social issues: he created X-Men allegories about bigotry and civil rights, and a Spiderman narrative arc about drug abuse in the 1970s, even when it meant he was going against the Comics Code Authority. And manga does not avoid exploring political issues. For example, the autobiographical Barefoot Gen (serialised from 1973 to 1987), which covers the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath, isn’t shy about conveying its author’s leftist views. Meanwhile, much ado has been made about more recent content—such as Gate: Thus the Japanese Self-Defense Force Fought There (serialised since 2011), which has attracted attention because of the right-wing, pro-military stance of its creator Takumi Yanai.
These days, manga is better positioned than American comics are to explore political issues, not only because Japanese political stances don’t neatly align with the western categories of left and right wing—and not only because of the wide variety of political stances that manga creators tend to take—but also because manga creators are not generally penalized for exploring those issues in fiction, or refusing to do so. Even if, as some critics have claimed, Attack on Titan (serialised from 2009 to 2021) can be seen as war-crimes apologia, it is still considered by many to be a solid work that can be savoured regardless of its politics. Similarly, one can be sympathetic to the plight of the persecuted Ishvalans in the series Fullmetal Alchemist (2001–2010) without knowing that those characters were inspired by the indigenous Ainu of Hokkaido. Whatever the creators’ politics (or lack thereof), they tend to let their stories speak for themselves, and to avoid forcing their views down their audiences’ throats.
On the other side of the Pacific, however, things are different. At some point, in America, Marvel, DC and others started trying to escape the shadow of yesteryear’s censorship and to pursue more serious, topical themes. By the 2010s, this effort had become so pronounced that many fans and critics began to feel that it had become intrusive or distracting, to the detriment of the fiction. Increasingly, American writers have been putting their political views front and centre in their stories, with what many see as heavy-handed grandstanding along progressive (or woke) lines. While this may be seen as an attempt to appeal to new audiences who may not have previously been inclined to read comics, it’s also rooted in questionable assumptions: that the industry is sexist and bigoted; that it is in need of reinvention to better represent women and minorities; and that anyone seen as holding that effort back should be slammed.
This kind of contemporary content—loaded with heavy-handed agenda—tends to come across to many people as preachy virtue-signalling (almost exclusively in the woke or American leftist mode), which alienates a large number of people in the genre’s long-time audience, as well as people who have encountered the genre more recently. It’s no coincidence that this approach has gone hand in hand with the general decline in quality that American comics writer Chuck Dixon and others have noted, because characters are reduced to mere vehicles for political statements. For example, classic heroes such as Iron Man are being hamfistedly reduced to caricature-like targets of ire solely because of their status as so-called privileged white men, while Black Panther and other characters whom the writers wish to lionise are narrowly depicted solely through the rhetoric of identity politics. And many authors who are creating content like this, such as Dan Slott, seem to spend more time flouting their activist credentials and harassing—even attacking—their erstwhile fans online than they spend creating content.
This hyper-partisanship is unfortunately not confined to Marvel and DC. Some independent comics publishers are also pushing an everything is political mindset in which the colour of one’s skin, one’s sexuality and one’s ideological stance take on an even greater prominence. Nor is the problem confined to only one segment of the fanbase. The ComicsGate movement, which began as a response to the politicisation of the industry, has itself devolved into a forum for bitter infighting between conservative and leftist writers.
The result has been a vicious cycle of toxic animosity in which the wrong ideological leanings can potentially make one the target of cancel culture, or worse. The focus on hyper-politicisation at the expense of quality—and the resulting culture war—have contributed to diminishing returns for the industry. Whether one thinks everything should be political, or wants nothing to do with the controversy, it’s driving people away, and it’s a far cry from what Stan Lee envisioned. These aren’t lost on Japanese creators, either. On 21 July 2021, Takeshi Natsuno, president of publisher Kadokawa, broached the “need to redefine the standards of the Internet age and determine what is acceptable for the public and what is not,” endorsing censorship of more explicit content to appease western norms, and, implicitly, become more in line with American comics. It was met with sharp indignation from fans, mangaka, and even those within the company, who feared that such moves would set a negative precedent for the industry, or for freedom of expression. While Natsuno later apologized after significant pressure, the resistance to such efforts nonetheless illustrates an unwillingness to compromise on what made manga and anime so successful, and repeat the mistakes of their American counterparts.
Changing Course from a Perfect Storm
These challenges are further exacerbated by the rising cost of these publications. The average price of an issue, whether released by Marvel, DC or one of the larger indie publishers, has increased so steeply that it is crippling further growth. Indeed, this phenomenon alone might explain why more Anglophone fans are flocking to manga. With other factors put into consideration, however, it’s close to a perfect storm.
Some of the responses to the situation have been counterproductive. Prominent figures like Power Girl co-creator Gerry Conway tried to have mangaka taken to task for their supposedly rampant sexism and misogyny. (Even if one ignores the myriad successes of female Japanese creators, such attacks are little better than the name-calling of yesteryear, along the lines of dirty little Japs or yellow perils.) Other comics creators merely seem keen on doubling down on politics. Maybe most of them are doing this only to keep themselves afloat financially, or to placate activists and avoid the risk of culture war backlash against them. But it’s unclear how long current trends can be sustained. While the industry proved resilient enough in 2020, who’s to say that luck will hold? Changing course isn’t impossible, however. For example, Dixon has suggested that American comics producers could avert disaster by taking cues from their competitors, rather than antagonising them—and antagonizing their own audiences. One model they could look to is that of France, whose art has historically had a major influence on Japanese culture. Even though the French had their own version of the Comics Code Authority in the ’90s, French creators and fans came to embrace manga in the same way that they had embraced the Japonisme of yesteryear—so much so that the French manga market not only overtook the Franco-Belgian bande dessinée market in sales, but also transformed the local comics scene, giving rise to manga-inspired forms like manfra and syncretic nouvelle manga.
The US is no stranger to this approach: consider the emergence of works featuring “Anime-esque art.” And Marvel has invited mangaka to make series based on their intellectual property, with surprising success. Yet this approach doesn’t involve just echoing or mimicking those properties’ aesthetics. It extends to creating consistent, engrossing stories, with interesting characters who can speak for themselves. The ability to do this is not somehow culturally exclusive to the Japanese: as shown by risk-taking endeavours like DC’s Doomsday Clock (running from 2017 to 2019), Americans are just as capable as any other people of creating works that reflect universality.
It’s not impossible for America’s comics to evolve to the point where they can stand proudly as equals with their manga counterparts. It will not be easy, however. As long as the factors that have made manga so much more successful are ignored, those who merely perpetuate the status quo risk more than diminishing returns or the hostility of fans. And the window of opportunity for positive change isn’t going to stay open forever.