The Reality Distortion Field

Several years ago, I wrote this report on the request of some industry pals, regarding a “manga” business seminar given by a prominent non-Japanese company in the field. I have changed all the names to protect the guilty.


So I had a very interesting and quite enjoyable time at the Manga Seminar at the Yamato Foundation today. I suspect as well, that once SuperManga had got over the realisation that they weren’t going to just do a sales pitch to a docile crowd of consumers, they rather enjoyed themselves, too. Mr Moderator got up and exhorted everyone to just stick up their hands and ask questions whenever they felt like it, because “after all, this is a seminar”.

Dave Smith and Jimmy Jones (not their real names) seem like perfectly affable, intelligent people who know their material well, and have a reasonable grasp of the history of manga since about 2001. They seemed unaware of developments and innovations before that date, but it was difficult to tell if that was the usual wilful ignorance of the SuperManga Reality Distortion Field, or if they were simply uninformed about anything that was not of immediate concern to their company and their own roles in it. Jimmy, for example, was prepared to imply, or rather to allow his audience to infer, that SuperManga had invented back-to-front printing in English, and that SuperManga was “taking comics *to* Japan”, as if this wasn’t something that had been going on when he was still at school.

I found them both very likeable. Their sole shortcoming appears to be years and years spent addressing crowds of gullible sales clerks and Party faithful. If it had just been the three of us, I am sure we would have had a whale of a time, since they could have dropped the silly SuperManga TAKING THE WORLD BY STORM pretence, and discussed several serious issues within the manga field, which they had clearly pondered in the past. I felt almost guilty subjecting them to due diligence, but to be totally honest, Jimmy’s first set of statements were founded on such vague figures that my hand shot up of its own accord. This was supposed to be a business seminar after all, and I predicted that it would become a SuperManga love-in and pseudomanga pitchfest unless I kept it on track.

So, I asked a “statistical question”. How was it that their market share was 80% on the Power Point slide in front of us, but only 65% in Jimmy’s own notes. Was the Power Point slide out of date?

Yes, he conceded, it was.

“So your market share has contracted 15% in just a year?” I heard myself saying. (Sharp intake of breath from the man behind me… not a good thing for him to be hearing just three minutes into a business seminar!)

“Er…yes,” Jimmy replied.

“But that wasn’t actually my question”, I added. “My question was: If your market share is now 65%, it is 65% of WHAT? Of the comics business?” No, said Dave jumping in here, manga are not the same as comics.

“But,” I pointed out, entirely on autopilot, “your company policy has divorced manga from its Japanese origins and there is no such thing as a single manga ‘style’, nor were Nielsen or Bookscan in any position to define it for themselves. So 65% of what?”

“What’s your name?” asked Dave.

“Jonathan,” I said.

“And you’re from…?” he asked, guardedly.

“I’m a member of the public,” I said. At which there were several titters at the back, and even the moderator couldn’t help stifling a giggle. I heard some excited rustles from somewhere behind me, with the room now divided into people who knew exactly who I was, and people with no clue.

“Anyway,” I said, “all these things considered, your market share is 65% of what? Of comics, of book sales, of Things That SuperManga Sell…? And if manga are separate from comics, could you please define for me, what exactly is the difference between a manga and a comic?”

Quite unexpectedly, the day had turned into one of the more fun episodes of Dragons’ Den, with me in the role of the doubtful, scowling blonde businesswoman, and SuperManga’s sales force as the beleaguered Russian immigrants trying to borrow twenty grand to sell lunar energy and cube-point pens.

Jimmy then launched into SuperManga Obfuscation Alpha, which didn’t actually answer my question, but since both he and I knew the question was entirely unanswerable within his company’s own parameters, I didn’t pursue it. In fact, he firmly and politely closed the issue, without answering the question, and then moved on. (I am actually even more bored than SuperManga with the entire question of What Is Manga? But they’re the ones who try to turn it into something it’s not. As far as its use in English is concerned, Fred Schodt and Peter Goodman very specifically defined the word in 1983. Everyone else since then has just been, as I like to say, “trying to sell you something“).

A lady on the other side of the room then very reasonably pointed out that SuperManga’s figures distinguished between “kid’s manga” and “manga”, which seemed a bit arbitrary. Did their own market share figures, for example, also include competition with Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh, which were presumably also manga, albeit filed in the High Street as just “comics”. (No, I wasn’t operating her as a puppet! Although if I had been, I would have got her to add that Transformers has just sold 80,000 copies, and since it is a vaguely Japanese-looking thing with robots in it, and drawn by people who *think* they know manga, would that also qualify Transformers as a manga under SuperManga’s woolly definition?).

These questions are important. Without proper definition of such issues, none of the company’s sales figures mean anything. It makes it impossible to gauge how big the business really is, or how well it is doing. This irritates me, eternally, because such fudges and obfuscations place people’s livelihoods at risk, including the many people in the room who “wanted to be manga artists”, and who think that SuperManga will make that happen for them.

Dave’s own presentation was weighted to drift ever closer towards their interests, allowing more and more of the dialogue to be dominated by me-me-me noise from the usual suspects, and bland managerial responses of corporate encouragement, drifting away from the actual hard facts of the business that would determine whether or not it was likely they would ever see a penny.

There was a breathless and stammering creature on the same row as me, asking plaintive questions about manga art style, and What It All Meant. I felt a bit sorry for her, because the question was entirely unsuited for a business seminar, particularly not one run by a trio of blokes who refused to define what manga was. Mr Moderator eventually delivered a stump speech about a few manga tropes, and rather desperately asked if anyone in the audience would like to step in with an explanation of Why They’ve All Got Such Big Eyes. He was, I think, rather hoping that I would bail him out. So I didn’t.

Dave got back to the case at hand, which was bigging up SuperManga’s manga nights at a chain of local bookstores. He quoted some interesting figures, namely that the average revenue at a manga night is £1000/event, but that the top sales were £2661 for one night in a southern university town. Had it just been us two, I would have quizzed him in depth about this — £1000 turnover versus what sort of outlay? Mean or median? How many first volumes sold? What kind of repeat business? But I really wasn’t in much of a position to audit every one of their figures, and had to pick my moments carefully.

Maybe I was reading it wrong, but I think that Jimmy and Dave were having much more fun grappling with me than they were with fielding the usual “is it all violence?” “can you see nipples?” questions from the rest of the crowd. Inevitably, as the subject of “Original English-Language Manga ” (i.e. “comics”) came up, the white noise grew, as numerous would-be artists asked hypothetical questions about whether SuperManga would be interested in buying Attack of the Space Ninja, their new magnum opus.  Of course, once again, had we been on our own, I would have kept them very busy with this, asking about the precise definition of publishing “in partnership with creators”, and the implications for intellectual property exploitation. I would have also liked to have asked about initiation costs, and asked for their opinions on whether the early manga business (pre-1997) was over-engineered in terms of design, retouch and production. We were, after all, supposed to be discussing the SuperManga business model — not that there was much of a chance to get to grips with it.

Instead, I limited myself to a question on the logistics of dealing with the back catalogue, with particular reference to ensuring that enough early volumes of long-running serials continued to be racked in stores. I could see from the look on Dave’s face that this was an issue that SuperManga has only recently been facing, but one which they were obviously concerned about. He outlined their intent to push stores to rack, say, the first three and three most recent volumes of a given series, and to post signs on the shelves exhorting consumers to simply ask for the store to order any that were missing. I followed up by asking him if internet ordering could take the load off back catalogue in stores, but he surprised me by revealing that SuperManga do not have an internet ordering operation through their website. (Given more time, I would have quizzed him on this apparent omission, but time was running out, and he wanted to show us some pictures of some movies that SuperManga are making based on “manga”).

At which point, I swear to God, a man I had never met before, sitting right at the front, stuck his hand up and said: “I’m very sorry, but I am totally confused now. That guy over there [pointed at me] raised a very interesting question about what manga actually is, and you tried to close the issue earlier on, but I would like to open it again…” He then proceeded to grill them for five minutes about what they thought manga was, and rather charmingly offered Kiriko Kubo’s work as an example of something that is undoubtedly manga, but which doesn’t fit their paradigm. By this point, I think Jimmy in particular was ready to shout ALL RIGHT, THEY’RE JUST COMICS! NOW FUCK OFF! but he offered SuperManga Obfuscation Beta.

Mr Moderator then jumped in with a circular argument, which amounted to the fact that people (including SuperManga themselves, although he didn’t dare say it), had wilfully misled readers about manga for ten years, so it was a bit late to fight it, so manga was whatever SuperManga said it was. And wasn’t it spiffing that it was TAKING THE WORLD BY STORM?

Dave then tried to round up by explaining that storyboards were comics and that every manga was a storyboard for a movie… a statement of the blindingly obvious, and delivered with a little smile in my direction, with all the authority of a SuperManga Wheel Rediscovery. I felt achingly sorry for him, delivering such nonsensical soundbites to crowd after crowd of excitable fifteen-year-olds really appears to have dulled his senses; senses which, when faced with real questions from the half a dozen audience members who were actually *there* for a business seminar, really do appear to be honed very sharply indeed.

I’m not sure what the rest of the audience made of it. I suspect that some of them just wanted to hear about Big Eyes and Laser Guns, or show the speakers their colouring-in. I have included the facts that I found interesting above, but obviously, they were buried amid such doubtful conclusions and claims, that I don’t think it will have benefitted any members of the public. In fact, to anyone of rudimentary intelligence, listening to what was said today, the upshot would have *discouraged* people from investing in the business, as it soon became abundantly clear that much of its putative success was founded on smoke, mirrors, and spurious comparisons of apples and oranges.

Twice, and not at my urging, both SuperManga speakers outlined their future expectations that their own market share would continue to dwindle as others jumped on the bandwagon. That would have been an interesting subject for prolonged discussion, as it spoke to the very heart of their interests in intellectual property, and debate over what constituted “quality”. But there was no time.

If I’d been in a bad mood, I would have asked them why they thought their enthusiastic descriptions of their publication of a Korean comic, drawn in Thailand, really belonged in the hospitality room of an Anglo-Japanese Foundation, but I got the impression that a lot of the audience were starting to think that themselves. My work was done!

I could have quizzed them for hours more about the SuperManga business model — of which we had barely scratched the surface. But hey, admission was free. I should go to more of these.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade.

5 thoughts on “The Reality Distortion Field

  1. I would reconsider going to anymore of these as it could be detrimental to your mental health. A risk assessment is in order for the next one. Dave and Jimmy remind me of the POSH on the Titanic that still boasted that “this ship is unsinkable” when the champaign glasses were starting to slip off the table by then. It would certainly depress me to see that the industry that we know and love is in the hands of the likes of Dave and Jimmy and their “superiors”. Hope they had a nice food spread afterwards.

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