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Comics & Games Retailer

The Weather Report: Manga Ready for Prime Time

By Oliver Chin

It has been a busy few media weeks for the comics industry.

The raucous Anime Expo just made a big splash at the Disneyland hotel in Anaheim, Ca. For me, the excitement was less that the Mouse police forcibly expulsed adult content exhibitors, than that the Los Angeles Times choose to preview the convention in their Calendar entertainment section (6/29/00). Writer Charles Solomon summarized the progress so far, "Over the last 15 years, anime in America has grown from the specialized preserve of a small cadre of hard-core fans to a half-billion-dollar-a-year industry."

Anime and manga have indeed come a long way in the past three years.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to attend the show. In case you haven't heard, I've recently left Viz to become the Director of Marketing (Customer acquisition and Retention) at www.obongo.com. The world spins onward, but unfortunately worse news for American comics followed.

Ratings Problem

The New York Times reported, on the first day of my official absence (6/26/00), how US comics publishers struggle to stay alive. Diamond Distribution had a conspicuous no comment, but a small businessman gladly opined, "Most people are still trying to survive in a milieu that doesn't work anymore. The market is getting smaller because people get sick of it or die off."

Soon thereafter, the San Francisco Chronicle (6/30/00) contributed a local profile on Last Gasp Distribution and how the market and readers for alternative comics has shrunk. Ron Turner mused, "Kids don't have as much time to spare for reading. They prefer animation movies, TV and the Internet. We used to print 12 comic books a year. Now we're down to two."

This climate recently forced NextPlanetOver.com to quietly sell itself to ehobbies.com. Remember how NPO was the raging bad boy of just a year ago? Now its obituary barely registered a passing ripple. So much vitriol was exhausted complaining about its controversial creation, but no lamentation was expressed on its failure. Maybe that's the danger to revitalize comics retailing: little to gain and much to lose. Alas, the pitfalls of etailing compounded this gamble and also claimed another victim: www.actionace.com unexpectedly shuttered its operations in NPO's wake.

Then PBS' Nightly Business Report (7/3/00) evaluated Marvel's latest business plan, and how the new X-men movie exemplified their decreasing dependence on comic book sales. Correspondent Scott Anson reported:

After a series of bad business deals, Marvel filed for Chapter 11 in 1996. The company emerged from bankruptcy two years later and is now trying to reinvent itself by turning away from its core business of selling comic books. Comic book sales have been declining for several years and now make up 5% of Marvel's cash flow. Most revenue now comes from toy sales. The challenge for Marvel and every other comic book publisher is how to appeal to a new generation that looks to movies, television and increasingly the Internet for entertainment.

Sadly, one of the two largest comics publishers is cutting its throat. If Marvel doesn't care about attracting new readers, comics retailing will suffer. As a byproduct of Marvel's retreat, Stan Lee jumped ship to DC to reinforce his persona as comic's public face. This is insult to injury: not only are comic's sales poor but also its image is outdated. I have nothing against the living legend, but Lee's not the industry's present or future. He is a silver age icon cashing in his reputation in a flimsy Net scheme. Myopically licensing "images" before creating quality stories, characterizations and comics for them, Lee has put the cart before the horse. This ill-advised short cut for a quick buck almost makes Marvel's strategy look wise.

Needless to say, comics seriously need reinvention.

Project in Development

This collective sturm und drang was nothing that we didn't know already. It certainly was not my intent to leave the market high and dry, but the timing was ironic. These events contrast starkly to how other kids' business are booming like never before.

Meanwhile, the fourth volume of Harry Potter series ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") had the largest first printing ever (+4 million copies at $25.95 retail; $100 million retail). Amazon.com preordered 250,000 copies alone, and therefore got to break the published mandated quarantine. The American publisher Scholastic (also a Pokémon licensee) has built an empire reinventing reading as entertainment for both boys and girls.

What does this have to do with anime and manga? Well nothing and everything. Anime and manga still inhabit the same comics world and face the same problems. There is no magic bullet to combat declining monthly sales for limited genres in less outlets, except to attract consumers wherever and however possible.

But as I've stated over the past few years, anime and manga have succeeded in building these other audiences and continue to develop more opportunities. Rising sales and exposure through numerous consumer markets: video, books, video games, TV broadcasting, and licensed merchandise. And last but not least, especially the Internet (Pokémon and Dragon ball Z were Top 5 search terms for Lycos in 1999).

Namely everything I had supervised as Director of Sales and Marketing at Viz. I unified the marketing of and cross-fertilized the sales of 11 product formats to create a larger presence to attract wholesalers, retailers and customers of all stripes. It has worked and will continue to do so.

Anime and manga are ready for prime time. All I need to do is check the Nielsens: Pokémon (and it's progeny Digimon and Monster Rancher), Dragon Ball Z, Gundam, and Sailor Moon dominate daytime and cable sweeps, with No Need for Tenchi, Escaflowne and more to come.

Challenging times persist for the comics industry. But, as I told my staff upon my departure the future of anime and manga has never looked brighter.

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This column dedicated to the late Joe Bankhead (Viz's warehouse manager), who helped propel Viz to better serve its customers and growing marketplaces.

Magazines

Comics Buyer's Guide is the USA's longest running magazine about comic books. Every month it features new comic reviews, nostalgic retroviews, interviews and a price guide. Oliver Chin reviews anime, manga, movies, videos, graphic novels, comics, and books.

Comics & Games Retailer provides news to comic and games retailers about practical how-to tips on selling comics and keeping up with industry and market trends. Monthly issues include Oliver Chin's column "Going Global" and other articles that give a national overview of the market.