So to start with the self-promotion:

The Comics Journal #288 is out, and I have several articles in it, including a long essay about the collected volume of Winsor McCay’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend which came out late last year. I also have a best of list, in which I talk about several manga titles I liked this year.

Besides me, in this issue there’s also a very entertaining discussion of why Stan Lee is dense and not very creative but still deserves props by Tom Crippen; some elegant, sexy comics from back in the day by Tarpe Mills; and a nice piece by Bill Randall on poetry comics, which sums up for me what’s wrong with both poetry and comics (though Randall’s take is somewhat less grim.)

The Journal has a good-looking redesign, and is supposed to be appearing in bookstores again for the first time in a while, so hopefully it’ll start being easier to find.

Okay, on to biting the hand that feeds me.

So, as I said, my best of list in TCJ focuses mostly on manga. I figured that I’d be a little unusual, but I was still kind of shocked at the extent to which I was an outlier. Altogether, out of 18 contributors and over 150 selections, I found, I think, a total of eight manga titles listed. (Four of those were my picks.)

I think that’s pretty pitiful. Even if you’re not all that interested in manga, it’s a huge segment of the Amerian market now, covering an enormous range of genres and subjects. Yet, in the Journal’s best of, it barely exists. I end up looking like the resident manga expert — which is kind of embarrassing, given my very, very limited knowledge of the subject.

I’ve talked about this a little before in other contexts, but the Journal has, in general, struggled to cover manga in a sustained way. Dirk Deppey made a sustained effort to improve things when he was managing editor, culminating most notably in issue #269, which focused almost entirely on shojo and included an epochal interview with Moto Hagio. Dirk also wrote an editorial in which he explained why mainstream and alternative American cartoonists really need to get their heads out of the sand and deal with manga as an aesthetic, cultural, and marketing phenomena if they don’t want to end up aesthetically, culturally, and actually bankrupt.

Since then, Dirk’s moved on to supervise TCJ’s website, and to write his newsblog Journalista, both of which are, of course, quite comfortable with, and friendly towards manga. Without Dirk, though, the print Comics Journal has retreated a step or two (at least) towards its old ambivalence. There are certainly many writers on staff who are knowledgeable about manga (Bill Randall, most notably, but lots of other folks as well). And Michael Dean, the new managing editor, who I have a lot of respect for, certainly doesn’t have any anti-manga grudge — there was a pretty great lengthy article on Asian comics recently, for example. But I don’t think there’s been any manga cover story since 269. There are rarely interviews with manga artists (and interviews are the Journal’s specialty after all.) And while manga titles do get reviewed with some regularity, there certainly isn’t the sustained interest or dialogue with manga that there is with alternative comics or classic comic strips, or even with contemporary mainstream super-hero work.

A lot of this is just because engaging with manga would be hard — how do you get those interviews, for instance, especially on a very restricted budget? For that very reason, though, I think the Journal needs to really, really be focusing on manga — and it’s simply not. I think this is a little unfortunate for manga — it would be great especially to see things like the Moto Hagio interviews on a somewhat more regular basis.

But whether or not the Journal’s manga blinders are bad for manga, I’m certain they’re bad for the Journal. I mean, as Dirk pointed out, the next generation of comics fans is going to be younger, more female and a lot more interested in manga than the current one. If you were one of those folks, would you look at TCJ and say, “This magazine really has something interesting to say to me?” Or would you say, this place feels like all those direct market stores I hate, and I’m not going anywhere near it?

Not that I want the Journal to abandon its mission or interests or personality. On the contrary, it seems like the Journal’s mission has always been, at least in part, to react to and think about what’s going on in the world of contemporary comics. In some ways, I’d be happier if the Journal was taking a hard-line “manga sucks!” stand. At least that’s engagement, of a sort. But instead there’s a kind of benign, somewhat bemused neglect. Given the barriers to dealing with manga on the Journal’s terms, that’s certainly understandable…but I don’t think it’s a wise long term stance.

Update: Dirk points out that finding interviewers fluent in Japanese and English is extremely difficult. I wasn’t trying to deny this; I think the Journal faces enormous challenges in trying to deal with manga. Initial improvements may really only be incremental — but if there’s no effort to do better, then things are only going to get worse (as they have already; the 2006 best of had much better manga coverage.)

If I ruled the world, here’s what I might do to start:

–find a well-respected manga blogger, and ask him or her to write a column in the Journal

–approach folks in the scanlation community and offer to pay them to find and translate classic out-of-copyright manga (obviously, the Journal doesn’t pay much, but these folks are mostly working for free, so the project doesn’t seem entirely implausible.)

–make an effort to find American academics who work with manga and try to get them to write for the Journal (Matt Thorn can’t be the only one, can he?)

–aggressively pursue interviews with people who work in the manga industry in the U.S. — translators, critics, etc. (Dirk’s done some of this on the website.)

I could be wrong, but most of that doesn’t sound too pie in the sky. The point is that coups like the Moto Hagio interview are probably not going to come very often…but you can make them more likely in the future if you start trying to lay the groundwork. Right now the Journal has (comparatively) very little presence, profile, or contacts in the manga world. Changing that will be difficult, but it will be impossible if you don’t start putting the time and effort in now.