House of 1000 Manga
Poverty, Princesses and Zombies

by Jason Thompson,

The Poverty, The Princess and the Zombies

The way reading about food makes you hungry, reading about manga makes me want to read manga. In our ongoing exploration of “What is it like to be a manga artist?”, this week we check out three very different prose ebooks about the life of a mangaka…

Manga Poverty

Shuho Sato, a major seinen author, made headlines in the manga world over the last few years for his decision to leave the big publishers and publish his work online. His book Manga Poverty (translated by Dan Luffey) tells how he chose that path and ended up creating his site, Mangaonweb. Shuho Sato's best-known manga are the grim-and-gritty medical drama Black Jack ni Yoroshiku (“Say Hello to Black Jack”) and its sequel Shin Black Jack ni Yoroshiku; his other works include the 12-volume shonen series Umizaru (“Sea Monkeys”), about the Japanese coast guard, and Tokkou no Shima (“Tokkou's Island”), a seinen series about a World War II kamikaze torpedo pilot. However, Sato's book is much more about business matters, and if you aren't already familiar with his manga, Manga Poverty won't tell you much about them.

The thesis of Manga Poverty is that making manga doesn't pay much, the industry is broken (especially from a creator's standpoint), and printed manga is slowly dying. Sato breaks it down by numbers: only 1 out of 100 wannabe manga artists are ever able to ‘go pro’, and only 1 out of 10,000 are able to get weekly serializations, which according to Sato is where the real money is. (Sato doesn't mention that onlyseinen and shonen manga magazines run weekly; for shojo and josei magazines, biweekly is the best you can get.) When Sato started out in the late ‘90s, he tells us, his page rate was ¥10,000 a page (about $83), or about ¥800,000 a month for a 20-page weekly series. It sounds like a lot, but after paying the salaries of five assistants, Sato was actually losing ¥200,000 a month, despite working for one of Japan's most recognized manga magazines. (Five assistants? Dude, lay off on those super-detailed backgrounds…) As a result, for years, Sato barely eked out a living until royalties from the tankobon (graphic novel) editions finally let him pay his debts and earn some money. “If you want to become a manga artist, first you need to save up ¥1,000,000!” Sato warns readers. “The fact remains that the average mangaka's salary is equal to or less than that of a part-time worker at a convenience store.”

By 2010, around when Manga Poverty was written, Sato's page rate had risen to ¥35,000 per page, a much healthier sum. But Sato felt resentment at the narrow profit margin, and the fact that although artist royalties rise and fall, the salaries of his editors at Kodansha and Shogakukan were stable and even rose steadily. (The situation isn't so rosy for comic editors in the US; while editors at huge work-for-hire companies like Marvel and DC may make good pay, editors at small-press indy publishing houses often make minimum wage, if they're salaried at all.) Sato begins to think of ways to make more money and take more control of his works: he considers self-publishing, but after talking to printers he finds that he can't get the kind of big discounts that make it economical for large publishers. After a brief period of depression (“Maybe I should just die along with paper media”), and some consultation with his briefly mentioned wife, he decides to try creating a website and publishing his works online. Complications ensue: the web development fees are higher than Sato expects. Wanting some way to monetize, he tries to get permission to sell his own old books online, but his publishers refuse to give him the standard wholesale discount of 50% or less, eventually counter-offering that he can buy his books for resale at 80% of list price. (Incidentally, this isn't just a Japanese publishing thing: traditional American publishers have similar restrictions on authors selling their own books online.)

Eventually Sato decides to sell ebooks, which spares him the hassle of printing, warehousing and shipping. Anxious that readers won't come to a site just for his personal ebooks, he decides to invite other mangaka to publish on his new site, Mangaonweb, but as site admin he has to charge them a fee for their bandwidth, which opens him to criticism that he's simply taking the place of a print publisher and exploiting his fellow artists. On the upside, Sato is honest about this concern. Inspired by Radiohead's 2007 pay-what-you-want download album In Rainbows, Sato decides to make his own older work free on the site to attract readers. (In 2012, after Manga Poverty was published in Japan, Sato went a step further down this road and declared Black Jack ni Yoroshiku copyright-free.) His goal, as he repeatedly puts it, is to break out of the dying world of publishers and bookstores and find a new way to publish manga, a way for the age of social media: “Can a mangaka make a direct connection with his or her readers?”

These are interesting issues, but unfortunately, Manga Poverty isn't a great book. The nitty-gritty of starting and running a comics website are interesting up to a point, but this book consists largely of numbers…numbers…on and on until the whole thing gets a bit dull. Whether from Sato's personal reticence or from disinterest (it certainly can't be from deference to his publishers), there's not much juicy information here about Sato's personal life or about his process of making art and manga. (Here's one of the book's few tidbits: the walls in his old, cheap manga studio were so thin they could hear people having sex next door.) The closest things to a conflict are Sato's arguments with his arrogant editors (“Those books are the publisher's property, not yours!” “You know, even without manga, as long as our company exists, we’ll keep getting paid”) but it's worth reflecting that their own position in the new manga economy is even more fragile than Sato's; in an online world where creators and readers can interact directly, the very idea of editors—“middlemen”—might seem like an outdated concept. (Of course, since I'm an ex-editor myself, you can take my sympathy for the jerkhole editors with a grain of salt.) Perhaps Sato's ruminations on the death of print were fresher when the book came out in Japan in 2010, but in the end, this short book is less of a narrative than a manifesto, and less of a manifesto than an advertisement for Mangaonweb. To the extent that I'm writing about it now, on this site, it's successful, but readers seeking insights into the day-to-day life of a mangaka (rather than manga industry sales figures and business expenses) might find more to enjoy in Sato's English-language blog. (Incidentally, the blog is hosted by Manga Reborn, the crowdsourced legal scanlation site that Sato, among other Japanese artists, works with.) As of this writing, the bestselling series on Manga on Web is Arisa Yamamoto's Aiko no Maa-chan, a moe-ish manga about a girl whose vagina talks to her; Yamamoto started publishing on Manta on Web when his original publisher, Tokuma Shoten, canceled it for censorship fears.

The Princess of Tennis

Sato's book is basically a business manual which analyzes the economics of manga. For the adventure, the excitement, the OMG IT'S MANGA of making manga, you'll have to look elsewhere, like Jamie Lynn Lano's The Princess of Tennis: The True Story of Working as a Mangaka's Assistant in Japan. Based on blog entries which were later cleaned up and turned into a book, The Princess of Tennis tells the story of Lano's time from 2008 to 2010 working as an assistant to Takeshi Konomi, author of the Shonen Jump manga The Prince of Tennis. An American living in Japan, Lano deals with cultural misunderstandings, the nitty-gritty of manga-making, and the business of supporting herself on an assistant's salary (but not just on an assistant's salary: Lano juggled at least two jobs, working as a talent on the TV show Asahi Pop'n Press from 2009 to 2013). As she writes in the introduction, “This book is for everyone who loves anime, manga and Japan. For anyone who dreams of becoming a mangaka, anyone who dreams of what it might be like making comics in Japan, or who just wants to see what it was like working behind the scenes on The Prince of Tennis!

In contrast to the dry style of Manga Poverty, The Princess of Tennis is told with the vigor of a personal blog. (“THE PRINCE OF TENNIS!!!! I COULD WORK ON THE PRINCE OF TENNIS?!?!?!? My inner fangirl excitement level immediately jumped up by a factor of ten.”) An art college graduate living in Japan and working as an English teacher, Lano applies for the assistant job by recreating two pages from Prince of Tennis (a test to see if she can mimic Konomi's art style). She's invited to Konomi's house for what she thinks is an in-person interview, which due to a translation mixup turns into her being invited to stay the night and start working immediately; one of the other assistants takes her to a convenience store to buy clothing and toiletries, and she calls her teaching job and quits over the phone. As a huge Prince of Tennis fan, she's understandably awed by being around Konomi, a “gorgeous” man who wows her with his friendly, easygoing attitude. (“I'd seen Sensei's illustrations before, but never a page with panels and all, and on real manga paper. To me, it was like a Christian coming face-to-face with Jesus.”)

Soon, Lano is sleeping in a bunkbed in the assistants’ “crash room” and learning to do the many jobs of a manga assistant: tracing backgrounds, drawing the bottoms of shoes, doing it all with analog methods like white-out and hair dryers (to dry the glue when they cut and paste pieces of paper…yes, this is actually in 2008!!). Her work ranges from the mind-numbing chore of drawing speedlines to the cooler jobs, like designing a character's new costume, or very rarely helping Konomi with American-culture advice in scenes when Ryoma, the main character, is overseas. (Konomi takes Lano's advice to have Ryoma drinking root beer instead of juice, but dismisses her urging that no real teenage English speaker would non-ironically use the phrase “Miracle Boy.”) The assistants welcome Lano with genuine friendship and camaraderie, while Konomi acts like the ultimate “cool boss”: after a hard day's work, he takes them to fancy restaurants. (Everyone is predictably amazed that Lano can eat Japanese food: “Can you eat fish?” “Do you eat rice?”) He takes them out golfing. He takes them to Jump Festa, to publisher parties, and to Tenimyu, the Prince of Tennis musical. Of course Lano, being a fangirl, has already seen it twice, but this time she gets to go up on stage as part of Konomi's entourage. Konomi is a star, surrounded by adoring fans (mostly female; all those bishonen characters aren't for nothing), and Lano gets to share part of the sweet life, even meeting a handsome Prince of Tennis voice actor, which leads to a subplot of romance.

But these starstruck moments eventually wear off, and Lano reports on some of the downsides. Her first bit of disillusionment comes when Su-chan, an assistant and friend of Lano's, is fired for no real reason. Apart from the perks like free food, being an assistant doesn't pay very well (though Lano doesn't go into as much detail about her finances as Shuho Sato). More frustratingly, Konomi's work ethic gets sloppier and sloppier, till he is turning in his pencils right before the monthly deadline (Lano worked on the monthly sequel New Prince of Tennis, not the original weekly series), leaving the assistants to finish all the inking in just a few days. Since Konomi is unable to commit to a schedule, the assistants are expected to wait around the office doing nothing for days on end in the off chance their boss comes in and needs them. (“It was easy to deal with at first, but as time went the amount of time before Sensei showed up to work gradually started to lengthen, until it was not unusual to not see him for three or four days into our stay.”) In the end it's this unpredictability and flakiness, rather than the 16-hour days (or at one point, 60 hours of straight drawing), that drives Lano crazy. When she finally texts Konomi on behalf of the entire studio asking him when he'll show up for work, he responds by passively pseudo-firing her by text (“I think that you should go home right now.” “No, I can stay!” “No, you should go home now”) and then, through the head assistant, makes her sign a contract promising she can keep working for him if she won't argue so much. The next time they see each other at work, he doesn't say anything about it and he's all smiles.

Despite this and other similar incidents, Lano eventually concludes that she likes Konomi-sensei, and ends on a positive note of respect for a 40-year-old man who can get up on stage in red leather pants and sing anime songs in front of thousands of fangirls. The hard questions like whether you can really make a living as a manga assistant are barely touched on here (Lano had another job on the side, after all); The Princess of Tennis is more about the “good life” of manga, stuff like getting to eat delicious Chinese food, opening thousands of boxes of chocolate sent by readers on Valentine's Day, working on a much-beloved property and sharing the sense of ownership (even if your own contribution was just one of many hands). It's a fun book about the glamorous side of manga, written in a casual and readable style, and as an account of Lano's experiences it's a blast. The biggest question it leaves me wondering is, not the secrets of Takeshi Konomi's personal life (Lano drops hints, but refuses to reveal their private conversations), but what kind of graphic novel or manga will Jump-trained mangaka Lano do next?

Manga Zombie

“The best manga are always the worst manga. And vice versa. Manga should never be 'healthy' or 'educational' or 'good for kids’.
—Takeo Udagawa

The flipside of the manga “good life” is stories of the dark side of being a mangaka…the kind of horror tales told in Naoki Karasawa's dark gag manga Mangaka Zankoku Monogatari (“Super-Cruel Stories of Manga Artists,” a parody of the title of Shinji Nagashima's 1961 classic “The Cruel Story of a Manga Artist”). For every manga artist who becomes a megastar, there's a manga artist who dies young from health issues related to overwork (like the protagonist's uncle in Bakuman), or manga artists who go half insane from isolation and stress, like the artists profiled in Takeo Udagawa's 1997 book Manga Zombie. This awesome book is available online in a partial translation by John Gallagher which went up in 2008; the online portion was intended as just a teaser for an eventual English print publication of the entire thing, but even if there's no sign of that wishful print edition seven years later, the online part is still big and well worth reading. The premise of Manga Zombie is that before commercialism took over in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, manga used to be more like American underground and pre-Comics-Code comics, a lawless place of minimal editorial interference where you could find the Japanese equivalents of Robert Crumb (or, since Crumb self-published most of his comics, perhaps Fletcher Hanks, an outsider artist working in the ’mainstream’, is a better comparison).

Udagawa is fascinated by the stories of these fringe manga artists and their works: manga that's “grungy, vile and disgusting”, “warped manga by a warping mind.” Chapters are broken down by general manga styles, like “Fleshbomb,” “Trauma”, “Outsider” and “The Dark Side of Gekiga,” but a summary can't begin to explain how cool this book is; it's especially fascinating if, like me, you believe that the most interesting thing in a work of art is the way it reflects the psychology of the author. It's a cool glimpse of a time before manga was an industry, like the industry Shuho Sato belonged to (and which is now changing rapidly), and definitely before manga was a thing of superstars and merchandise and giant festivals attended by thousands of fans. Put these three books together, and you might have a little picture of the manga industry, where it's come from and where it might go.


Like drawing? Like manga? Like tabletop games? If you like any of these things, check out my Kickstarter for Mangaka: The Fast & Furious Game of Drawing Comics!

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