Wired continues its series of excellent features about manga — following up on this morning's mini-comic with a lucid and fascinating story by Daniel Pink about the faltering market for manga in Japan and the way that copyright infringing donjishi (fan-comics) are helping to staunch the bleeding, and thus attracting support from the giant wealthy corporations they appropriate from.
Also up is a great little survey of "weighty" subjects covered in manga form, from Shakespeare to college test prep.
Yet the role of manga in the broader economic ecosystem is perhaps more important than its actual sales figures. Japan's vaunted pop culture apparatus, it turns out, is really a manga industrial complex. Nearly every aspect of cultural production – which is now Japan's most influential export – is rooted in manga. Most anime (animated) movies and television series, as well as many videogames and collectible figures, began life as comics. Dragonball – now a multibillion-dollar international franchise comprising movies, games, and cards – debuted as an installment in Weekly Shonen Jump in 1984. Uzumaki Naruto, the protagonist of the mega-property that bears his name, first showed his blond ninja head in the pages of the same magazine eight years ago. Trace any of Japan's most successful media franchises back to their origins and you'll likely end up inside a colorful brick of newsprint, where 20 pages of exquisitely matched words and drawings tell the inaugural story.
But manga has become a bit like network television in the US. It reaches a wide but inexorably shrinking audience. Weekly magazine circulation is on a steep and steady downward slope; book sales are no higher than they were a decade ago despite a rise in population. Still, manga is more influential in Japan than network television is in the US. Comics occupy the center, feeding the rest of the media system. If they dry up, other media players risk losing their deepest and most vital source of material. If manga gets creaky, and by all accounts it is heading that way, it could undermine Japan's entire pop culture machine. What the industry needs is something that can rescue it from decline – a force that can reenergize its fans, restock its talent pools, and revive its creative mojo. The sound of those flapping backpacks may herald the arrival of that savior.