Having a few free vacation days I decided to check out the ICv2 conference on Thursday before the NYCC proper. Since I was going to NYCC as press, ICv2 was allowing those same people into their conference for free. Two major themes popped up again and again. One was obviously the economy and the other was how the internet is affecting comics.
Every panel touched on the economy and its ramifications on comics without fail. It was an unavoidable cloud over the whole conference. Everyone mentioned that while the entertainment business is often thought of as recession proof, it is anything but. No one was telling tales of apocalyptic visions but it seems like everyone was bracing for impact. The assumption is that best-selling titles will see little to no drawback but everything that is not A-list will be hit hard. Smaller publishers could be in trouble and small titles might start dropping like flies. Everyone also expects to see a lot less experimentation this year.
The other major theme was how was the Internet is going to affect the comic industry. Everyone agreed that it is was an excellent tool for promoting comic sales, getting out information, and developing comic communities. However, everyone also agreed that they need to develop a greater Internet presence. The major problem is still not having fully figured out how to use unique features of the Internet. No one has successfully created a way of selling comics for download and companies have yet to truly realize the potential of web exclusive content. If there was a universal portable book reader this would change quickly but so far the iPod of book-readers has not appeared yet.
I noticed two major things on the manga side of the equation. The first was the big news that everyone has been taking about. The manga bubble has clearly burst. Manga sales were down approximately 17% in 2008. Despite the fact that most companies kept insisting that the growth would only level out it has in fact gone down. I predict we are going to see a bunch of manga companies disappear in the next couple of years. Those who stay around are going to start to being more conservative about their licenses. Unless they are VIZ and have crazy amounts of Naruto money to back up their lesser titles. Another thing I noticed was an increasing amount of resentment for scanlations within the manga industry. This struck me because I feel the anime industry did the same exact thing. They started out seeing fan-subs as a necessary evil. People were using them to watch stuff for free but it gave the companies a good idea of what to license and was publicity for the commercial product. But as time went on and fan-subs improved, anime companies began to take an increasingly negative view of them. The same thing is starting to happen with fan-scans. While they are different industries and there are different factors that weigh into their markets, I am sure that we will see an increased number of people in the manga industry complaining and possibly going after fan-scans sites.
The highlight of ICv2 was Art Spiegelman’s keynote address. He is obviously a very knowledgeable man and his lecture of the history of comics was both fascinating and well researched. He starts with the earliest proto-comics and works his way to the present while hitting most of the major milestones including the popularity of newspaper comics, the Comics Code Authority, the rise of manga, all the way to web-comics and the Internet. He examined the unique nature of comics as an art style and means of expression with its own language. He was a little too insistent in a comic equivalent of the Auteur theory. He seemed to push the theory that all the great works are produced by individual artists over long periods of time. I think that is a narrow perspective. I can’t say I agreed with everything he said but it was a well informed opinion from an expert in the field. Heck, he even knew what yaoi was.
If anything was obvious from this conference it was that 2009 will be an important year for comics in general but manga specifically. A bad economy, an increase in pirated materials, and the challenges of adapting comics to new media are all important issues. I am sure that we will see the death or shrinking of several manga companies this year. I also see many B and C-list manga titles being dropped, put on slower release schedules, or put on hiatus. These are not really radical predictions. It is obvious that these things are going to occur just by looking at 2008. But every year has major challenges that have to be overcome. I am curious to see which companies are going to rise to the challenge and which are going to fall behind.