A specially created artwork for the Guardian from Weekly Shōnen Jump. Photograph: MASHLE © 2020 by Hajime Komoto; JUJUTSU KAISEN © 2018 by Gege Akutami; NARUTO © 1999 by Masashi Kishimoto; BLACK CLOVER © 2015 by Yuki Tabata; UNDEAD UNLUCK © 2020 by Yoshifumi Tozuka; KIMETSU NO YAIBA © 2016 by Koyoharu Gotouge; HUNTER X HUNTER © POT (Yoshihiro Togashi) 1998-2022 All rights reserved.; BOKU NO HERO ACADEMIA © 2014 by Kohei Horikoshi; ONE PIECE © 1997 by Eiichiro Oda; YAKUSOKU NO NEVERLAND © 2016 by Kaiu Shirai, Posuka Demizu/SHUEISHA Inc.
They are selling more quickly than their publishers can produce them and vary from science fiction epics to high school romances. What, however, is behind this renewed interest in Japanese comics?
During my lunch break, I went to Waterstones to look for something for my daughter’s birthday (she is turning 12). I often fail to choose the correct books for her, so I approach the bookseller (a woman in her 20s) for advice. She points me toward the manga shelves. She’ll adore it, I’m told, and you read it from right to left. The high school novel Komi Can’t Communicate, about a shy kid, could help. How about the sinister fantasy Tokyo Ghoul? Preteens appreciate things that are a little bit improper for their age. However, when we scan the shelves – four whole bays, dedicated to manga! – it seems that volume one of every prospective series is absent. Due of their absurdly high demand, the bookseller at Waterstones claims that they are just impossible to maintain in stock.
Loved by preteens … Tokyo Ghoul. Photograph: TOKYO GHOUL © 2011 by Sui Ishida. Courtesy of VIZ Media
Manga, a general term for Japanese comics, has long been popular in its native country. However, sales have exploded globally during the last five years. The graphic medium, which covers a wide range of genres and is often produced in black and white, has startling numbers in the UK. Nielsen BookScan reports that 434,633 copies of manga books were sold in 2012, with a total market value of £3.17 million. 2019 saw a more than doubling of this, reaching 983,822 copies for £9.1 million. 1.8 million manga have been sold so far this year, which is almost twice as much as for the whole year in 2013.
The statistics are as staggering in the US. According to NPD BookScan, manga book sales in 2020 were 9.68 million, and in the following year they increased by 160% to 25.2 million. Manga outpaced romance, the next-highest growth genre, by three times in 2021, when it came to the entire print book market in the US. The English-language distributor Viz Media reports “phenomenal” growth over the previous 18 months in all of its markets, including the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
“It started to kick off and really build during the first lockdown when sales online tripled, month by month. Then, when the shops opened back up again, it really ramped up in there as well. There’s so much more demand for it,” says Bea Carvalho at Waterstones.
According to Stephen L. Holland, owner of Nottingham comics shop Page 45 and the current UK comics laureate, manga, which is typically published in volumes here rather than in Japan, where it is serialized in weekly magazines, was already selling faster than stores could get their hands on it. The lockdowns then made it so printers couldn’t physically print any more copies. The fact that there is both a great deal of curiosity and a limited supply here naturally heightens interest in everyone. Everyone lusted for them.
The US had the similar situation; there was even discussion of “the great manga shortage of 2021.” The second month of the lockdown, according to Kevin Hamric, senior vice president of publishing sales at Viz Media, “we were out of box sets.”
Manga, which is derived from the kanji “man” (), which means “whimsical,” and “ga” (), which means “pictures,” first appeared in the late 19th century. According to Ryko Matsuba and Alfred Haft’s history of manga, Japan had entered a “golden era” of manga by the 1980s and 1990s. Since 1997, more than 500 million copies of One Piece, the most popular manga in the world, have been sold. It was made by Eiichiro Oda and follows the tale of Monkey D. Luffy, a man who traverses the globe in quest of a mythical treasure and who, after consuming the Gum-Gum Devil Fruit, has the ability to stretch like elastic. This astounding figure is only going to rise, since the newest feature-length film based on Luffy’s exploits, One Piece Film: Red, is already shattering box office records in Japan and will be released in UK theaters on November 4.
Manga originally entered English-language markets in the 1970s, but a number of reasons have contributed to its phenomenal rise in recent years. First, more anime—Japanese cartoons that are almost always adaptations of existing manga—began to appear on streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon. Teenagers who were confined to their homes during a lockdown became fans of anime shows like Tokyo Ghoul (“Tokyo is haunted by ghouls who resemble humans but feast on their flesh”), Attack on Titan (“With his home town in ruins, young Eren Yeager becomes determined to fight back against the giant Titans that threaten to destroy the human race”), and My Hero Academia (“After he saves a bully from a villain, a normal student is Then fans discovered that the majority of these anime were based on manga, and that these titles had dozens and dozens of volumes in book form, extending the worlds of the beloved characters.
Komi Can’t Communicate. Photograph: COMI-SAN WA, COMYUSHO DESU. By Tomohito ODA © 2016 Tomohito ODA
“Our digital sales also grew astronomically during Covid and are trending up again this year,” says Hamric. “But there’s really no comparison. People want the print books. They collect them. They post pictures on social media.”
The consumer base of science fiction and fantasy shop Forbidden Planet has altered as a result of manga’s recent surge in popularity. According to Jamie Beeching, the store’s comics buyer, “It’s incredibly diverse the folks coming into our shops.” A few years ago, many of the males there would be in their 30s and 40s or late-teenage lads. And now I go in and notice a group of schoolchildren; they will have just arrived from school and are all quite thrilled about it. They are really knowledgeable and highly engaged. Many of them are still in their early teen years, and at that age, you become very into things.
Beeching continues, “Manga is also far less expensive than standard graphic novels since it’s black and white and often produced on cheap paper, meaning you can obtain quite a few pages for a very modest sum of money. You can thus buy a lot of manga if you’re young and spending your pocket money.
Nia Ewington, a 17-year-old from Stockport, claims that Attack on Titan was the first anime she ever watched. It was widely shared on social media and extremely well-liked, she claims. The hashtag #mangatok has 523 million views on TikTok, where teenagers suggest books to one another and display their bookcases. Each character has an intriguing past, and the plot is quite intriguing. It sticks out much since it isn’t too similar to other mangas. She hasn’t finished the manga yet “as the anime hasn’t caught up and I don’t like to read ahead,” but she is now reading Jujutsu Kaisen, in which a guy is attempting to defend the world from demons.
13-year-old Isabella Garside said that she came upon manga while seeking for something new. Her current favorite series is Death Note, which centers on a high school student who discovers a notebook with the ability to murder anybody whose name he puts in it. She explains, “It pulls at your emotions.” And “it’s quite simple to read.”
Manga includes a variety of genres, including traditional superhero tales like My Hero Academia. Like Jujutsu Kaisen, horror. Try Chainsaw Man for action. other literary tales, like Ping Pong. Stories about the LGBTQ+ community, including Boys Run the Riot or My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness. Cooking: Viz offers a television series titled Culinary Wars! that is billed as a “saucy food comedy.” Young girls are the target audience for shoujo manga, which features romance and high school drama. Except for YA literature, that’s simply not really reflected in many places, according to Beeching. The term “isekai” (roughly translated as “another world”) refers to being reincarnated into a video game or fantasy world, such as a man who is reborn as a slime monster or a man who is reborn as a spider. These are places that are mostly served by Japan.
According to Yu Saito, deputy editor-in-chief at Weekly Shnen Jump magazine, this range of genres is in part responsible for the surge. We now have a huge variety of manga genres that naturally developed without marketing to appeal to readers of all ages and inclinations, going above and beyond what other media can provide. I believe this is the reason manga was able to transcend national boundaries and gain readers everywhere.
ATOM: The Beginning. Photograph: Titan Comics
Atom: The Beginning, an original manga based on the late manga artist Osamu Tezuka’s classic Astro Boy, will be released in October by science fiction and fantasy publisher Titan’s newly established manga brand, Titan Manga. It follows two robotics engineering students and their most recent endeavor in a science fiction series. In recent times, Titan has also seen success with two manga adaptations: Ryuko, an account of a yakuza woman, and a Sherlock Holmes adaption.
According to Titan Entertainment senior vice president Andrew Sumner, learning about manga is like entering a huge Aladdin’s cave. It’s a truly rich environment that you can go into, investigate, share with friends, and promote various works. New readers weren’t even aware that such a richly complex creative world existed.
The rise of manga in the West, according to Sumner, is a result of younger people leaving the DC and Marvel Comics world, which follows “a distinct set of norms,” for a new visual medium. These series are often written and illustrated by the same person.
I’m a tremendous Batman fan, but the truth is that Batman is owned by a company, and there are a ton of different Batmans out there, he adds. “But with manga, you basically read volume after volume of the same creative team delving deeply into a certain concept and a specific universe: their work often hasn’t been passed on to a broad range of secondary writers. In my opinion, manga has a creative through line that most well-known western comics just cannot match.
It’s safe to say that this is what drew Yoshimizu, the creator of Ryuko, to the genre. He had always aspired to be a storyteller as much as an artist. “A movie was my ambition, but I need money and would have to supervise a large crew. But one person can make a manga,” he claims.
Earlier, in 2008, Western publishers made a big push into manga, saturating the market with what Viz Media’s Hamric calls “substandard manga.” “The shelves were just jammed full. Everything that was published was distributed, which resulted in market saturation, claims the author. Then came the recession, the closure of the major manga department at the book chain Borders, and the decline of manga. Publishers now choose the publications being translated with greater care, and retailers are equally pickier about what they carry. Many cultural aspects are difficult to translate. We do our best to bring over the best of the best, but just because something works somewhere doesn’t guarantee that it will function in English.
A movie in print form … Ryuko. Photograph: Titan Comics
Manga “stopped being a specialized genre, and became a popular one,” according to Hamric, in 2021. “Oh, you don’t want to read that!” was a common refrain for me as a child. Parents, teachers, and libraries just did not understand comics, and there was no TV or movie element to it, he remembers. In contrast to Japan and France, where comics have long been regarded as a literary genre, this attitude was quite different. However, generations develop. People my age have begun having children, and because we grew up with comic books, we believe it is okay for children to read them.
Holland notes that sales of other media as well, outside manga, have increased. Sales of comic books have increased recently across the board; in the UK, 2.3 million copies were sold in 2019 and 3.2 million in 2021. He had been looking forward to this change for years. “I anticipated the enormous stratospheric surge would arrive the second that this nation started receiving a critical mass of signals when we first opened our bookstore, 28 years ago,” he adds. “At the time, no adult major media outlet covered comic books. There was no animation on TV. Not a single adult knew another adult who read comic books thirty years ago. They were so close to becoming embarrassed by it. There is now a critical mass where adults and young people are conversing about comic books and manga. Comics are now often discussed in British society.
The Promised Neverland, which is about a group of orphaned kids who “uncover the horrible reality of the outside world they are barred from seeing,” is the gift I received for my birthday. With my daughter, it’s a big hit. Fortunately for me, there are still 20 volumes to go.