Comics Careers for North American Manga Artists

Cosplay in Baltimore
Baltimore, Maryland - Cosplayer dressed up as Lucy, the main protagonist from the manga/anime Elfen Lied.

greyloch/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

In Bakuman, the manga about making manga created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, two teenage boys pursue their dreams to become professional manga creators. Over the course of 20 volumes, the teens become young men who toil over their drawing boards to reach their goal: to get a popular series featured in Weekly Shonen Jump magazine.

It's not an easy career path for Japanese creators, but it is possible to make a living as a manga-ka in Japan. However, for creators outside of Japan who draw comics with a strong manga influence, it's much tougher to get published and get paid, especially in superhero comics-centric North America. Is it possible to make a living in manga in North America? What would it take, what needs to change in order to create real opportunities for North American 'manga' creators?

Is Making a Living in Manga Only for the Lucky Few?

This topic came up at the 2012 Toronto Comic Arts Festival when Svetlana Chmakova (creator of Nightschool, and illustrator for James Patterson's Witch and Wizard graphic novel, and arguably one of the most successful North American comics creators working in a manga-influenced style) asked this question to a few creators and publishing pros at breakfast one morning.

Later that same morning, I threw the question out there to Bryan Lee O'Malley (Scott Pilgrim), Becky Cloonan (Demo and East Coast Rising), and Adam Warren (Dirty Pair and Empowered), who are all very successful comics creators whose work have strong manga influences. The trio were panelists on a Sunday morning TCAF panel entitled "Making Manga in North America." Like Chmakova, they were all grateful for the success they currently enjoy but expressed doubt that it would be easy for others to follow in their footsteps.

9 Reasons Why the American Manga-Making Economy Is Broken

Now that manga has been published in English in North America for over 30 years, we now have a generation, if not two, maybe three generations of creators who are influenced by Japanese comics. Many want to make a living making comics. There's lots of talent out there, but right now, prospects for these young artists to make a living just by drawing manga-style comics in North America? Well, they're not great. Here's why:

  • A smaller pie = fewer slices - Compared to Japan, fewer people per capita purchase and read comics on a regular basis, thus the North American comics publishing industry is much, much smaller / generates much less money.
  • Want to be published in manga magazine? Dream on - Unlike Japan, there are few North American anthology magazines that feature up-and-coming comics creators.
  • American manga readers tend to snub/ignore 'fake' manga - While North American manga readers love manga from Japan, they have have been reluctant to show the same level of support for homegrown content. This includes the artists' alley scene at many anime cons where pin-ups and buttons featuring fan art of Japanese manga characters outsell original comics stories and characters.
  • Little love for homegrown manga at superhero-centric comics shops - Many comics shops are focused on selling mainstream/superhero fare from the bigger publishers, so self-published work doesn't get much play there. Same goes for most bookshops, big chain or independently-owned stores alike.
  • The demise of Borders/ the rise of digital publishing - The North American manga publishing business is in a state of constant flux, partly due to the closure of the Borders Books and Music, a manga-friendly retail chain of stores. The rise of digital publishing platforms is also changing the way books are sold and read in a big way.
  • Risk-averse publishers tend to shy away from original content - In these tough economic times, few North American publishers are less willing to take a chance on original 'manga-inspired' works by new creators. Instead, they are largely focusing on adaptations of best-selling young adult novels, which have a built-in audience and stories with proven success. This is great in that it generates paying gigs for artists, but in the end, it's not original stories that they've written/created themselves, which is the dream for many aspiring creators.
  • Art school, then what? - Art schools in North America produce scads of aspiring comics creators who have few real job opportunities waiting for them at graduation, or they graduate without the business/marketing skills necessary to market/sell their work or get picked up by publishers.
  • Want to be an artists' assistant? Good luck - Unlike Japan, apprenticeship/assistant opportunities are scarce in North America. Several pro artists have expressed interest in getting assistants but various factors, including the lack of talent living in close proximity to an artist's studio and reluctance to take on the responsibility to pay someone when they can't quite meet their own expenses, has been mentioned.
  • Webcomics are fun, but don't always pay the bills - Many aspiring comics creators now rely on webcomics to polish their craft, but most webcomics are free to read, and only a handful of webcomics creators make a viable living solely from their online work.

There are probably more factors than what's listed here, but you get the idea.

What Does It Take to Create a Vibrant Comics Economy?

A vibrant comics economy needs talented/hardworking creators + (paying) readers + (paying) publishers + training (apprenticeships/art school). Right now, there seems to be a shortage on several fronts, so fixing the 'manga as a career choice in North America' situation is not easy.

Why? Well, if art schools pumped out more creators and gave them the training they need to succeed (not just drawing, but business/marketing too), where are they going to get their first paying job or gain real-world experience/apprenticeships/opportunities to hone their skills and showcase their work to readers if there are only a handful of opportunities available?

Even if we have publishers who are willing to pay/publish new artists' work, it means nothing if artists are lacking in skill/professionalism who can pitch their work to publishers, deliver consistently good work, and meet deadlines.

Even if we have better comics/more talented creators, it means nothing if we don't have that critical mass of (paying) readers.

Even if we have readers who are willing to pay for new, original work by artists inspired by manga, it means nothing if they can't find quality comics at their local comics shop, bookstore, anime or comic con, or find that hidden gem in a vast sea of so-so/mediocre or simply hard-to-find webcomics on the Internet.

And even if every comics creator decided to go it alone and opted to self-publish/rely on Kickstarter to fund their comics projects, what happens when they discover that their book needs to be marketed and distributed to comics shops and bookstores, and publicized so the press and potential readers will know about it? Will they miss out on the editorial/business guidance that an experienced editor/publisher can provide so they can take their work to the next level?

Trying to figure out the 'making a living in with manga in North America' problem is a huge, huge topic. So many want to do it, so few succeed, and there's so much to fix. This has been a long-standing problem and one that deserves some attention. So I threw it out there on Twitter, and boy, I got a lot of great responses from pros, fans and up-and-coming creators alike from North America, Europe, South America and Asia.

Here's are some of the questions that I asked to the Twitterverse: Q: How did we get here? Where are we now? And what would it take to create an environment where N. American 'manga' artists can thrive professionally?