Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

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The meteoric rise of manga

Books+Publishing investigates what’s behind the current manga boom, and how it’s impacting publishers’ local comics and graphic novel lists.

It’s no secret that in 2021 the modest growth of the Australian book market was propped up by fiction sales and, drilling down into Nielsen’s categories within fiction, particularly manga, a sub-category of graphic novels. According to Nielsen, in 2021 manga sales were up by a whopping 86% on the previous year. And the trend isn’t isolated to Australia—last year countries including Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK all reported steep growth in the category. American company Viz Media, which is distributed by Simon & Schuster (S&S) in Australia, has the market cornered when it comes to publishing manga in English. S&S Australia reported that sales by its distribution clients increased by 81%, with Viz leading the charge. In announcing the launch of a dedicated manga online store last year, bookselling chain QBD Books specifically cited Viz’s manga sales, which increased twofold in Australia compared to 2020.

‘The current craze is all global by nature and supported strongly by cinematic and streaming film and TV releases for the most part,’ S&S Australia managing director Dan Ruffino tells Books+Publishing (B+P). In fact, S&S Australia recently appointed Jeremy Neal, who previously worked at specialist comics retailer Books Kinokuniya, to the newly created role of product manager for graphic novels, comics & manga—a position created in large part due to the meteoric rise in sales from that category.

‘It’s an exciting time to be working with manga, and especially Viz, who are growing so rapidly overseas and in Australia,’ Neal says. ‘Readers have really embraced manga both in and out of lockdown, but I think lockdown has really thrown a spotlight onto how widespread the phenomenon is. Films and streaming of anime and live action adaptations are also really driving the surge in popularity.’ The top 10 bestselling titles in Nielsen’s graphic novels category this year to date—and all published by Viz—are evidence of this: the list is dominated by manga series, all of which have been adapted into anime films and series. 

Top 10 graphic novels 2022 YTD 

  1. Jujutsu Kaisen (Gege Akutami, Viz Media)
  2. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, Vol. 1 (Koyoharu Gotouge, Viz Media)
  3. Chainsaw Man, Vol. 1 (Tatsuki Fujimoto, Viz Media)
  4. Chainsaw Man, Vol. 2 (Tatsuki Fujimoto, Viz Media)
  5. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, Vol. 2 (Koyoharu Gotouge, Viz Media)
  6. Chainsaw Man, Vol. 4 (Tatsuki Fujimoto, Viz Media)
  7. Jujutsu Kaisen, Vol. 1 (Gege Akutami, Viz Media) 
  8. Chainsaw Man, Vol. 3 (Tatsuki Fujimoto, Viz Media)
  9. Death Note Black Edition, Vol. 1 (Tsugumi Ohba, Viz Media)
  10. My Hero Academia, Vol. 1 (Kohei Horikoshi, Viz Media).

Based on sales year to date, 2 January 2022 – 23 April 2022.
Data supplied by Nielsen BookScan’s book sales monitoring system from over 1500 retailers nationwide.

Evidence of the surging demand for manga and anime is everywhere. According to Anime News Network, sales of Jujutsu Kaisen books increased by 750% since the premiere of the anime series in early 2020 and December 2021. The manga, which follows a cursed high school student, was first published in English in 2019, with the most recent English-language instalment, volume 15, published in April this year. Meanwhile, the film adaptation of Demon Slayer, despite being released during the Covid pandemic in 2020, went on to become the highest grossing film ever in Japan as well as the highest grossing anime film ever globally. 

I’ll never forget a trip to Barnes & Noble at The Grove, LA a few years back and being blown away at the scene of all these young kids, mostly boys, sitting on the floor of the manga/graphic novels section completely screen free and engrossed in books!’ says Ruffino. ‘I knew, then, this was something the traditional publishing industry had little idea about, and I was determined to join my S&S colleagues in other territories to sell Viz too.’

More than just manga 

While the recent growth of the graphic novels category as a whole is intrinsically linked to the popularity of manga and anime, other graphic forms are also seeing increasing sales. In late April the live-action Netflix adaptation of Alice Oseman’s graphic YA series Heartstopper debuted on Netflix to much fanfare and online buzz. Hachette, which distributes the books in Australia, says the week the show debuted saw an 84% increase in sales on the previous week. Local sales of Heartstopper this year to date now number 52,000, and Hachette is currently in the process of reprinting 73,000 more copies to meet demand. 

Heartstopper, which began as a web comic and has now been published by Hachette in four print volumes and a colouring book, is a queer love story about the blossoming romance between two English schoolboys. Hachette product manager Cassy Nacard tells B+P that the popularity of the Heartstopper series has been building since 2015, when UK writer and illustrator Oseman crowdfunded a limited print run, meeting her fundraising goal in less than two hours. Since publishing the series more widely in 2019, Hachette says each volume’s sales have increased on the previous one, fuelled by a strong online community and a devoted fan base.

‘Even before we heard a whisper of the Netflix series, many fan sites and discussion groups starting popping up online, where followers of the series were fan-casting and creating trailers,’ says Nacard. ‘There is something about the love story between Nick and Charlie—first love is a universal theme—and the way it is told in graphic format that appeals to people of all ages.’

According to Nacard, YA graphic series like Heartstopper and Lize Meddings’ Sad Ghost Club—based on an Instagram account of the same namereflect the issues contemporary teens are currently facing, while offering a gentle, hopeful alternative to other media. ‘The graphic novel format encourages readers to recognise themselves, and the message is delivered in a gentler and more subtle way,’ says Nacard. ‘The series are also seen as an antidote to the more violent and disturbing offerings available for teenagers, along with the ongoing negative impact of the Covid pandemic on teen mental health.’

What about Australian comics? 

While international phenomena like Heartstopper, Jujutsu Kaisen and Demon Slayer are undoubtedly having a moment globally, it remains to be seen if their success will affect the way Australian presses release comics locally. In the past few years small, independent publishers have begun releasing ‘adult’ comics for a general audience. Last year Scribe published its first graphic novel, Two-Week Wait by Luke C Jackson, Kelly Jackson and Mara Wild, and will publish Sam Wallman’s Our Members Be Unlimited later this month. Nonfiction work Still Alive by Safdar Ahmed, published by Twelve Panels Press in 2021, has been sold to Fantagraphics and has sold 2300 copies to date, helped along by shortlistings in the CBCA Awards and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. However, according to Erica Wagner, Bernard Caleo and Elizabeth MacFarlane from Twelve Panels Press, graphic novels remain a small, specialist subset of publishing. 

‘Graphic novels are one of the most labour-intensive forms of storytelling,’ posits Wagner. ‘The financial risks are significant, as graphic novels are expensive to producethey don’t usually fit into economical printing formats, and often require a four-colour printing process. Coupled with the fact that sales for graphic novels, like literary fiction, remain modest (with notable break-out successes), publishers are reluctant to direct significant resources to nurture projects that would benefit from close engagement at the structural, editorial and art-direction level over a period of years.’ 

Scribe senior editor David Golding agrees that production costs are a significant barrier to producing comics in what is still a nascent market, noting that only publishers with enthusiasm for the format are taking risks in that area. ‘We are taking a measured but hopeful approach, but ultimately we are publishing comics for the same reason any particular publishing house works with a particular category—because we are excited by this type of book. I’ve had a lifelong passion for reading comics and thinking about how they’re made, and I’m supported by our publisher-in-chief, Henry Rosenbloom, who has also long been interested in the possibilities of comics.’ 

Golding and the team at Twelve Panels all point out that there is no shortage of talented comics artists in Australiathe presence of artists such as Tom Taylor, Tommi Parrish and Simon Hanselmann on the lists of international comics publishers Fantagraphics, Top Shelf and Marvel is a testament to this. (Scribe will publish Parrish’s second graphic novel Men I Trust in late 2022.) And comics artists are not only creating books. MacFarlane recently contributed to a research report into the ways the skills of graphic storytellers are being applied in industries including health and education, and how demand for these skills is increasing.

Give it a few years

In the meantime, in line with international trends, local graphic publishing seems to be primarily focused on books for children and young adults. ‘We’re actively looking to grow our local graphic list and to acquire graphic novels across all children’s categories,’ says Hachette Australia head of children’s publishing Jeanmarie Morosin. ‘Graphic novels are perfect for newly independent readers who are making that transition out of picture books and into longer form reading.’ Morosin cites the junior fiction graphic novel series ‘Cranky Chicken’ by Canadian-based Australian artist Katherine Battersby as one example, as well as a recently signed LGBTIQA+ YA graphic novel rom-com from local artist Briar Rolfe. Fremantle Press branched out into similar graphic territory with the queer YA love story Stars in their Eyes by Jessica Walton and artist Aśka last year, while local artist Remy Lai has found international success with her middle-grade hybrid graphic novels Pie in the Sky, Fly on the Wall (Walker) and Pawcasso (A&U Children’s). Recent publications from Allen & Unwin’s children’s imprint also include Treasure in the Lake by Jason Pamment, comics artist First Dog on the Moon’s debut book for children, and of course the wildly successful work of Anh Do and Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton.

Last year, the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF) published three graphic novels by four young First Nations creators, in partnership with Gestalt Publishing and Stick Mob. With help from mentors including graphic novelist Brenton McKenna, author of Ubby’s Underdogs (Magabala), the three graphic novels, Mixed Feelings by Declan Miller, Exo Dimensions by Seraphina Newberry, and Storm Warning by Lauren Boyle and Alyssa Mason, were created during ILF-funded workshops throughout 2018 and 2019, and made history as the first graphic novels written by First Nations women. Meanwhile, Hachette has found success with a range of graphic novel adaptations of classics such as Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, and is set to publish a range of Shakespeare graphic novels for readers aged nine and up. Thames & Hudson, which distributes publisher Abrams, has the successful graphic adaptations of Frank Herbert’s Dune on its list. So it seems that while publishers are powering full steam ahead with adaptations and graphic novels for children, original, adult-oriented Australian comics might take a little while to catch up.

‘It’s been fantastic in the last few years to see Mandy Ord on the longlist and Lee Lai on the shortlist of the Stella Prize, and we’ve received lots of positive interest in our books, so I think there is a growing acceptance of comics as a medium,’ says Golding. ‘However, it’s too early to say if massive growth in YA/manga will translate to comics in general.’ 

MacFarlane notes that while multimodality became a new category in the VCE text list as of 2017, the shift is still marginal—only one graphic novel text is available for selection each year, and so far these have been classics of the form: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. ‘I hope an Australian text might be on the list soon, and that the category might be expanded,’ says MacFarlane.

‘At this moment, it’s looking like a visual century rather than a verbal one,’ says Caleo. ‘We are immersed in images from the moment we wake up, and I think that the operations graphic narratives demand of us are fun for people who are highly visually literate.’ MacFarlane concurs: ‘The graphic storytelling format requires the kind of complex assembly that readers are far more familiar with now than ever before (at least in Australia—these kinds of texts have a much longer history in places like Japan and France).’ Caleo points out that Japan is ‘probably thirty years ahead of the rest of the world’ in terms of comics. ‘Manga is popular,’ he suggests, ‘because Japan has the most elaborated, most complex, most popular economy of comics in the world. This has driven experimentation, an avant-garde, and incredible elaboration of many genres.’

While Australian comics and graphic novels still have some catching up to do in terms of sales and mainstream reach, there is a small but vocal community of publishers and artists championing the artform. Who knows? Maybe in 30 years’ time Australian comics artists will experience the same kind of global success as their Japanese counterparts. 

‘There are so many amazing artists working on long-form projects in Australia,’ says MacFarlane, ‘and I hope they all find publishers, whether it’s us or someone else!’


Category: Features