Sporadic Sequential
Friday, April 04, 2008
Married White Male Seeks Mature Japanese Comic

The theme of the week seems to be: I like comics, but how come I can never find what I want? Examining matters further, this general lament seems to come in three distinct flavors:

1. I like comics, but there aren't enough books that appeal to my specific tastes. This is one that every comic fan has probably felt at some point, that existential angst that comes from feeling alone in the universe with your esoteric taste in sequential art. Among older manga fans, the concern is often framed as a worry that their favorite form of entertainment may be forever stuck in the same arrested stage of development while they move on to more mature matters, a fear that after all the Shonen Jump series lose their appeal the manga market will have nothing more challenging to offer them. (For superhero fans, the reverse generally seems to be more of a worry, that series are aging along with their fanbase and there's little left for a younger audience to enjoy.) Most recently this concern was expressed by Rivkah, who laments the fact that there's "very little published outside the realms of shoujo, shonen, cleavage, and spandex" and promises "I for one would sing the praises of any publisher who can start taking a serious look at more well-written josei titles (non-anthology) and seinen titles that aren't in the realm of the fantastic"; but regular participants in the manga blogosphere will recall that this has been a perrenial topic of discussion.

2. I know there are books out there I'd like to try, but I can't actually find them anywhere. This is a common complaint leveled at books that seem to have distribution problems for whatever reason. The best example recently would be the discussion around Dark Horse's underperforming manga titles. In response to the news, a number of people commented that they'd like to try the books but are unable to find them in their local stores. Jennifer de Guzman also touched on this problem when she unsuccessfully tried to track down the same books at three different sources: a comic shop, a bookstore, and a library. If people can't find what they're looking for, obviously they can't read it.

3. The books are supposed to be there, but it's too hard to find them. I suppose this one is a subset of #2, but I thought it was worth listing on its own because it touches on a slightly different problem than inventory: organization of said stock. The material might actually be there on the shelvessomewherebut if it's a chore to find, customers might give up in frustration and walk away empty-handed. Rivkah discusses the issue of organization at length in her LJ entry, wondering why she has to "browse through close to 5,000 volumes of manga every time I go to the comic book store just to find something I like." Rivkah mainly addresses the classification of manga (for example, why can't she search for "political manga" on Amazon and find what she's looking for), but others have tackled additional aspects of this problem, such as the chaotic mess the non-manga portion of the graphic novel section becomes due to the varying sizes and trade dresses for diverse books from different publishers, or even the question of why manga is shelved by title rather than author.

The first complaint is probably the most serious of the three: if readers feel that there is nothing in all of comics (or their preferred subset) that speaks to them, they will likely abandon the medium out of frustration. It can be argued that this is what happened to a lot of female readers before manga came along. My younger sister used to read comics as much as I did, but when she grew out of material aimed at younger readers (e.g., Archie, Richie Rich), she had no interest in superheroes, so she simply stopped reading comics altogether. (I often wonder if manga had been around back in the 80s if she would have continued reading comics.) The other two issues are largely structural and, as someone who primarily shops online, I don't really have a lot to say about them. (Although it would be nice if online retailers would expand the subcategories for manga. Barnes & Noble does a much better job of this than Amazon, with 18 subcategories versus 7. [I'm not counting "superheroes," which seems to turn up mostly books from Marvel and DC.] B&N's keyword search also appears slightly smarter, returning Eagle and First President of Japan on the second page of results for "political manga.")

I don't claim to have answers to any of these problems (especially not at the publishing or distribution level), but here are some tips that have helped me out in the past as a reader when I've felt I can't find what I want.

1. Read outside your comfort zone. It's easy to fall into familiar habits of only reading one type of comic, whether it be superheroes or manga or whatever. I mostly read manga, but I also check out Western comics from time-to-time, both literary and lowbrow. Who knows? You might just find what you were looking for somewhere else. (When I read Rivkah's request for more political and/or slice-of-life manga, my first two thoughts were Persepolis and Aya, but then I stopped myself from suggesting them because they weren't manga.)

2. Use the library. I'm probably spoiled by having an excellent public library system, but it could be worth your time looking into what resources your local community has. My library has everything online, so searching for a comic I'm curious about but not quite ready to commit to financially is as easy as firing up a browser. (They even have a Google widget so I can search from my start page!) Plus, many libraries participate in interlibrary loan programs, so the pool of available graphic novels may be even larger than you think.

3. Google! A no-brainer perhaps, but I've found Google very useful for researching and tracking down books that sound interesting. For example, a search on "political manga" returns a CBR article on Eagle as the sixth result, and from there it's a quick step to find the book via Froogle Google Products.

So what am I missing? What steps do you take when you can't find the types of comics you want to read?

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