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The Highest Caliber Ninjutsu
Excerpt from ¡Journalista! for October 12, 2006
(Note: Red text indicates a dead link.)

Do these sorts of announcements come in packs? Over the past couple of days, several comics and graphic novels found themselves either winning or being nominated for national awards of one sort or another. Easily the most impressive such announcement occured yesterday, when Gene Yang's graphic novel American Born Chinese was nominated for a National Book Award under the "young people's literature" category. (The listing can be seen at the bottom of this page.) It's the first time that a graphic novel has appeared in the NBA's shortlist, by and of itself an astonishing achievement even of the book doesn't go on to actually win — the National Book Awards are among the most prestigious such awards to be found in the United States, and it likely wouldn't have occured to most mainstream book critics that a graphic novel would ever get such a nod. For devotees of comics as literature, it's a stunning validation of the form. The winner will be announced at a benefit dinner and ceremony November 15th in New York City, and will receive $10,000 and a bronze statue.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Scream Awards, dedicated to honoring the most beloved of new offerings to the American pop-culture junkie and staged by cable-television network Spike TV. I doubt you'll see My Chemical Romance playing music at the National Book Awards presentation ceremony any time soon, but they fit right in at last Friday's Scream Awards, along with entertainment from another category: comic books. Likewise, the values of the two awards couldn't be farther apart: the Best Comic-Book award went to Robert Kirkman and Sean Phillips' Marvel Zombies, a comics miniseries about what would happen if all of Marvel's characters were turned into flesh-eating zombies. Sean Phillips won Best Artist for the series, Frank Miller took both Best Writer for All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder and the "Comic Book Icon" award for being Frank Miller, and — my favorite — Vampirella got a nod for having the Best Rack on the Rack. Man, that's class.

Something for everyone, right? Well, one more award was given to a graphic novel yesterday, and I can't shake the notion that it was the most significant one, at least in terms of what it signified for the acceptance of comics and graphic novels in the greater American marketplace: The 2006 Quill Awards, sponsored by Publishers Weekly parent company Reed Business Information, also gave out an award for graphic novels. Nominated were Masashi Kishimoto's seventh volume in the hugely popular manga serie Naruto, Alison Bechdel's visionary Fun Home, Walter Mosley's panel-by-panel Fantastic Four #1 deconstruction Maximum FF, Brian Fies' webcomic-gone-print Mom's Cancer, and the seventh volume in Kohta Hirano's adventure-manga series Hellsing. And Naruto won.

 

This image and below: Panels from the first volume of the blockbuster hit series Naruto, ©1999 Masashi Kishimoto.

 

Why do I think this is significent? Put it this way: In both the National Book Awards and the Scream Awards, the kind of titles selected reflect the values of the nominating committees, and thus while nominees and winners are undoubtedly delighted to be recognized by their philosophical peers, they probably wouldn't be all to surprised by the fact that they are philosophical peers. By contrast, here's how a book gets to win a Quill Award:

The Quills Nominating Board, comprised of approximately 6,000 invited booksellers and librarians, establishes the consumer short list from those English language books published in North America and marketed to the United States between August 1, 2005 through June 30, 2006 that meet the following criteria:

  • Starred review in Publishers Weekly

  • Borders© Original Voices

  • Top of the Bestseller lists from Publishers Weekly and Borders

  • Titles from the Booksense Picks of the Year

Readers will vote on the 5 nominees selected by the Nominating Board in each of the 19 categories and Book of the Year from all nominees in all categories.

In short, books meeting the criteria and selected for the shortlist are then voted upon by casual readers encouraged to visit the Quill Awards website at their local Borders franchise and independent bookstores participating in the ABA's Booksense program. Winners of the National Book Awards and Scream Awards are selected by afficianados of highbrow and lowbrow culture, respectively; winners of the Quill Awards are selected by the greater bookbuying public.

Is it too soon to say I told you so, yet? Despite its best efforts, the North American comics industry has found itself on the outside looking in on the very graphic-novel revolution for which it worked for so many years. The graphic novel has arrived, the American public is reading it, and its author is Japanese. Welcome to the 21st century.

 

Read excerpt from right to left.

 

While they're careful not to show it in public, for the most part, this fact has domestic comics professionals from coast to coast beside themselves in frustration. I was able to witness the antagonism towards manga held by many in the American comics industry first-hand when discussing the subject at comics conventions and in phone conversations during my run as Managing Editor of The Comics Journal. Many American comics professionals are deeply jealous of the way Japanese comics have swooped in and swiped readers and marketshare widely regarded as rightfully belonging to "us." As Tom Spurgeon put it in a recent Engine thread:

Under the right circumstances, a lot of North American industry folk and even creative people will express opinions that are downright hostile to and contemptuous of manga. Phrases like "get our shelf space back."

The thing is, the mindset behind the notion that we'd "get our shelf space back" if only it weren't for all that manga is pretty much wrong on the face of it. The big chain bookstores are anal-retentively diligent about tracking sales from store to store and shelving accordingly. If Western comics sold better than they do in bookstores, they'd get more shelves. That they don't get more shelves has little to do with manga and everything to do with the state of Western comics themselves.

I make it a point of visiting as many different big-chain bookstores as I can as often as possible, and I have to tell you: If I weren't into comics, I wouldn't look twice at the non-manga GN section, either. Something approaching two-thirds of its contents are representative examples of the One True Genre, with the leftover shelf space devoted to everything else. This is a pretty big disincentive in and of itself. If you don't want anything from a given genre, you aren't going to visit that section of the bookstore. Too many people in the comics industry are still convinced that if only superhero comics are presented properly, it'll be enough to push "comics" into the mainstream again. The logic is false because a one-genre medium is a self-defeating proposition regardless of what that genre happens to be. Look, I'm not into mystery novels, so I don't go into that section, period. If Barnes & Noble suddenly went to an all-mystery format, I'd stop going to Barnes & Noble. Fortunately, nobody at Barnes & Noble's that stupid. It's a shame that we still seem to be.

The problem is even worse in North America's network of comics shops, known among insiders as the Direct Market. The greater problem, however, is that there's no center in the Direct Market. It's too heavily skewed toward superheroes on the one side, and literary comics on the other, with precious little room between them for anything else. Because of this, there's never enough commercial momentum to allow publishers of Anything Else to get better bookstore distributors and make successful leaps to other markets. Thus, the non-manga GN sections in your local bookstores look the way they look. It'd be a problem regardless of Asian-produced competition; if manga suddenly ceased to exist tomorrow, we wouldn't "get our shelf space back" — far likelier would be that the rest of the shelf space would simply contract accordingly, or worse. Manga is comics' economic anchor in bookstores right now, and it's the Narutos, Negimas and Fruits Baskets volumes that ensure that the comics section is profitable enough to maintain. Remove that anchor and I strongly suspect that some bookstores might well be tempted to drop graphic novels altogether.

Americans are avoiding the domestic comics industry because the domestic comics industry currently has very little of interest to offer them. It's just that simple... which brings us back to the Quill Awards. The public has spoken, but then it's been speaking with its wallet for some time. America has no problem with buying and reading comics. It just has a problem with buying and reading our comics, is all. In the end, neither autobiographical wizardry nor pretentious superhero justifications were enough to beat Naruto's kage bunshin no jutsu, either in the Quill Awards or in bookstores across the continent. With his latest clone holding onto the USA Today top-150 bestsellers list for an eighth straight week at #133, and now this latest victory, the little genin can rest easy — he became the Hokage of the graphic-novel world after all.

 

Above, top: Panel from American Born Chinese ©2006 Gene Luen Yang.
Above, right: Detail from Frank Frazetta's cover to the Vampirella 25th Anniversary Special ©1996 Harris Publications.

 

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