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Comics & Games Retailer

Comics Cornerstones

By Oliver Chin

In the past decade, manga in the West has gone from the underground the mainstream. Just like the American notion of the melting pot, this type of immigration has changed the comics industry in many ways.

Certainly many younger readers now view manga and like imports as the style they expect comics to be drawn in. No longer is the stigma of being "foreign" a negative selling point that publishers need overcome. In addition, as the next generation of illustrators and writers enter the industry, they increasingly pay homage to their manga influences in their own work, and therefore alter the very nature of domestic comics themselves. Lastly, retailers are recognizing that this category has become a crucial element of their sales, and want to grow this side of their business.

On this note, recently I observed a few managers of a local book chain initiate a batch of trainees on the selling floor. As they passed from the newsstand to the graphic novel section, one manager perked up and proudly pointed to the racks, "Graphic novels have become a top category for us, especially in Northern California. Sales have been rising and manga has become a big part of that." The trainees dutifully nodded and took notes.

In fact, the newbies may soon realize that too many companies are jumping into the manga pool and are in danger of oversaturating the shelves with undifferentiated product. So I'd like to take time to remind retailers at large of some classic anime/manga titles that should be key components of your catalog. Here is one particular "cornerstone" that you can use to build your store selection around, and will help support your customers expanding interest in this evolving field.

Giving up the Ghost

Every publisher needs luck and timing. Though its business model is going Hollywood (Sin City following Hellboy, etc.) Dark Horse got into manga near the ground floor by originally publishing Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell (GITS) back in 1995 as an eight-issue comic. Set in the dark future where the line between man and machine has blurred, secret police monitor the internet's cutting edge criminals. Major Motoko Kusanagi is in the cyber trenches, foiling hackers with both her mind and body.

Soon afterward Manga Entertainment released the VHS version (directed by Mamoru Oshii) that added fuel to the emerging anime fire in the United States. Armed with a haunting soundtrack and galvanizing FX, GITS has been considered one the trailblazing series (both print and video) that stoked the imaginations of an audience brought up on video games and their desire for more sci-fi wizardry.

Author of other flights of fancy such as Dominion and Appleseed (also just produced as a feature length 3D animated film and slated for domestic DVD release by Geneon), Shirow displayed a fanatical if not convoluted eye for mecha, babes (the heroine Major Kusanagi is the World Wide Web's Black Widow), and firefights, which proved to be a lethal lure for fanboys on both sides of the Pacific. The double dose of anime and manga also set the marketing template to crack the US market: leverage the success of one format into another, and then both would reinforce each other.

Rewind, Repeat, Replay

After a decade, GITS has found renewed relevance. As the producers of every blockbuster also get addicted to the same success, a follow up was naturally in the offing. Dark Horse went back to the well again in 2003 by publishing Shirow's sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface, as an 11-issue monthly series, with an additional 200 pages added since when it was published in Japan (testament to the creator's obsessive perfectionism and revisionism). Again set in a future world of 2035, the leading lady Motoko Aramaki is another bionic supermodel cum hacker who fights on multiple digital planes. Recently Dark Horse has printed the trade paperback version, priced at $24.95.

Manga Entertainment followed suit in 2004, by trumpeting the reincarnation of the beauteous Major Kusanagi in the multipart DVD series Ghost in the Shell - Stand Alone Complex ($24.98 vs. special editions at $49.98). Originally airing in Japan in 2002 as an extended TV show, Kusangi, Batou and the rest of the Public Security Section 9 crew do their 2030 version of "Law and Order" by tackling a number of cases in quick succession. Though the robotic, bullet-totting vehicles known as the Tachikomas become a strange sideshow, this title maintains the drama and police professionalism of the original plot.

Soon thereafter, Dreamworks debuted the next GITS movie in America, Ghost in the Shell 2 - Innocence, and rapidly churned out a DVD release to ring in 2005. In Kusangi's absense, her partner Batou has paired up with the all-too human Togusa to track the serial killer of gynoids (robots constructed with sexual functionality). However this sequel proved to be less groundbreaking in theme and execution than its predecessor, and the fast-track DVD was crippled as a compelling consumer purchase since it lacked an English language track, decent English subtitles, and any extra content.

Shell Game

Meanwhile, after Dark Horse re-released the graphic novel of the original GITS (in a Japanese format, reading right to left, with even more pages), Manga too welcomed the new year by releasing a "special edition" of their GITS DVD ($34.98). As fans have come to appreciate, this version was digitally remastered and outfitted with ample audio tracks and extras such as production shorts and cast interviews.

On everyone's heels, Viz stuck its finger into the GITS franchise by publishing the "ani-manga" of Ghost in the Shell 2 - Innocence, graphic novels created from screen captures of the animation itself. Packaged in a four-volume box set ($39.98), it is the latest incarnation of this rapidly adapting license. Last but not least are the plethora of toys (both import and domestically licensed), video games, and merchandise that a successful concept inevitably creates.

So in a fitting way, the endurance and proliferation of GITS has mirrored the development of the American anime and manga market as a whole. Like a DNA strand, Shirow's manga and Oshii's anime became a tightly weaved pair that imprinted its genes on successive animation, movies, comics, and other forms of digital entertainment. As its prolific creator continues to spin more tales from cyberspace, GITS will remain a touchstone for new generation of fans for ages to come.

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.