Sunday, February 20, 2011

"...And I helped!" Manga’s contribution to the death of the CCA.


In the wake of the recent unsurprising news that has finally made it into mainstream media, that MPAA ratings are nothing more than a corporate censorship tool used to maintain entertainment monopolies. The not-so-recent demise of the Comic Code Authority can hopefully offer some helpful insight on how to hasten the end of the for-profit disease that is the genuinely evil MPAA Rating System.

Unfettered by knee-jerk restrictions of 1950's moral panic, manga shows us the heights that American comics could have reached if not for a Godwin-envoking, research-faking maniac (Fredric Wertham, who doe snot deserve the title "Doctor") in the aftermath of the horrific cultural destruction perpetrated by one Anthony Comstock.

The final nail in the coffin often gets too much credit. It signifies the end of an era, entity, or other institution being forced into that long good night either by circumstance, attrition, or social upheaval. It doesn’t really do much though. If you were trapped in a coffin with all the nails in the lid except one, you’d probably stay trapped. No, it’s those first nails that are the truly important and often heroic ones, desperately holding down the coffin lid themselves while that which lies within struggles to break free with all its strength. These “first-nail” endeavors often have their significance muted by the passage of time and the ascendance of a subsequent generation which knows no other world than one where the effects of the “first-nail” efforts might as well have existed forever and all time. Thus, these “final-nail” efforts come to signify the entirety of a struggle in a singular, lasting, well documented, and stationary mote.

To over three (perhaps four) generations, it’s just as impossible to picture the CCA having any real power to change things in publishing, as it is to imagine a world where the color of your skin meant sitting in the back of the bus. We’ve never known a world where the McCarthy-era soaked tenets of this bully pulpit were followed by the publishing industry as absolute unbreakable law. A world where breaking from such obedience to these racist, sex-phobic, misogynistic, paranoid, hyper-puritanical whims, would mean they would put you out of business in an instant. But that was exactly the case of EC Comics:

What, Me Worry?

By the time I was born, let alone old enough to be hauling new comics home from St. Mark’s Comics every Wednesday, the CCA had already passed the event horizon of irrelevance, becoming a lame duck with the publication of Amazing Spider Man #96. The cat (more like paper-tiger) was out of the bag, and Marvel survived publishing a comic without the seal of approval, effectively telling the world that the emperor had no clothes. The CCA desperately tried to amend its code in a very retroactive “I totally meant to do that” fashion, but it was too late.

But though the CCA was shown to be worthless, it wasn’t going to go away any time soon, and they made laughable efforts to evolve. They were still around during the 1980’s, and only by perhaps just a slim margin was the CCA not revived with new strength and legitimacy during the “music scare” of the 1980’s, which brought us the PMRC organization, and first painted the RIAA as the “bad guy” when it came to opinions of pop-culture fans. Thankfully, the “Highlander-style" reinvigoration of power never happened with the CCA, and in the 1980’s, manga started creeping into the commercial comic-shop circuit, all of it sans-CCA label, with ninja-like stealth.

It was acceptable in the 80's

Things trotted along, and no one really worried about that ever shrinking CCA tag in the corner, as it no longer had any value. But the ever present nagging feeling it reinforced; “comics are for kids” and the “living in your parent’s basement” stigma if you were over the age of 14 and still buying them, still clouded the minds of comic readers and non-readers alike. The CCA stamp was a zero-sum entity. All or nothing, no shades of gray like we see in the equally destructive and more powerful MPAA ratings. This fact gave even more substance to the notions that all things published as comics were “for kids,” requiring their precious eyes to be shielded from possible destructive “adult” elements; Elements which belong in novels or films, where there is a system capable of differentiating between the many levels of age-appropriate content... anywhere but comics (think of the children!). But manga was now on the scene, providing narratives and windows into universes so much deeper than the one- dimensional dictates of American CCA approved comics. Slightly more plentiful than before, manga were chock full of CCA violating content like nudity, homosexuality, “liberated women,” successful criminals, nice guys finishing last, gambling, sword-fights, and happy drunk-drinkie time. And by that fact, they actually offered the reader a story where the ending was NOT a forgone conclusion, and therefore, genuinely entertaining.

Left: CCA Approved content
: Worse than Hitler (According to "Dr" Wertham)

Then the 1990’s comic bubble happened, and suddenly comics were not entertainment but a financial instrument. This produced three major environmental factors that would have lasting effects both on the CCA and manga itself.

First: Comics were being produced and sold at a record pace. Many people were buying and then selling them without a second thought to the actual content, because they never looked past the cover. A cover that they could care less if the stamp of approval from an organization based on the social values of their grandparents was on it or not.
Second: This rapid buying and selling had publishers scrambling to produce anything, regardless of the narrative or artistic quality (how else can anyone explain Rob Liefeld). This lead to seriously poor quality publications and the endless spinoffs soon generated brand fatigue (or character fatigue) in readers. This led manga being accepted as an alternative to what American comics had become, almost preserving the higher quality narratives that readers had come to expect. This helped give manga a foothold in the third factor.
Third: Extreme retail proliferation. During the boom of the 1990’s, the national comic retail footprint expanded exponentially. I remember in my neighborhood alone, the number of stores you could walk to, went from 1 up to 5 in a single year (after the bust it’s back down to 2). Comic retail was everywhere, and brought with it the “fringe” titles that included all manga, making their way onto the shelves next to the 7 different X-men spinoffs with varying chromium covers vacuum packed with a “limited edition” collectable trading card of Jubilee and 17 pages of ads for Extreme Ranch Doritos, Sega CD games, and Mountain Dew. Sure that issue of Ranma1/2 was a wallet-destroying $4.95, but next to the alternative, it was totally worth it.

Viz's first American release of Ranma 1/2 (issue #1, full color).

Point #3 is the most important here, because with such fierce competition, and the need to sustain sales as comics become a business unto themselves and not simply a product carried at stores that sell other things (drugstores, and so on). The majority of retailers and distributors did not consider the CCA seal as necessary and were happy to carry any publication that didn’t have it if it were part of a successful product offering. This meant that a book that didn’t carry the CCA stamp now had equal footing in the war for shelf space.

What's missing?

After the inevitable comic bust, the seeds planted by manga were watered by the popularity of anime (most American Otaku discovered anime first and then sought out manga, where I was an anomaly seeing manga first and then seeking out anime). From the desolation of the previous bust rose an indie comic scene to rival that of the major publishers, and not only was Japanese manga a large part of that, but after a few years American produced manga-style books starting permeating retail channels via independent labels and independent producers. The choice of appropriate content was put into the hands of the consumer, and not pre-determined by an organization which gleefully exercised its power to censor content, simply for the sake of feeling powerful.

Yes I bought this crap... give me a break, it was a different time.

This was the start of the final leg of the power drain from the CCA, which included the massive success of non-participating Dark Horse and Image Comics, and the withdrawal of Marvel Comics in 2001. Hoards of publishers weren’t even bothering with the CCA, including boatloads of Pokemon comics going out the door, all without the “seal of approval.” This was important in that it literally drained the life-blood of the CCA, and made it impossible to ever be relevant again. Their all-or-nothing way of doing things could never weather the kind of cultural transitions that happen in a country like the USA, nor could it ever weather the kind of rapid evolution in media retail in a country like the USA. The forced censorship of the MPAA and ESRB are more insidious and difficult to dislodge because they have gradient levels, but it’s only a matter of time before theaters stop giving a crap about ratings, but given what's happened with the downright criminal censorship of The King's Speech, it still may be a while before theaters stop giving a crap about MPAA ratings in favor of selling tickets. When films and games are bought and consumed exclusively by the end-users (as they soon will be via digital distribution), the MPAA and ESRB will become worthless as well. We can see that process in action at the moment with the once powerful now irrelevant PMRC, who’s “Tipper Sticker” has in effect been thoroughly murdered by P2P sharing, iTunes, and music streaming services.

This is why nobody likes you and you're going to die alone Tipper!

It only took a bit over 50 years, but this power-hungry censorship organization, the product of McCarthy era fear mongering, and predicated on a medical hoax by a misogynist doctor, has finally been rightfully buried in irrelevance. ...and manga helped.



Sip some Champaign in celebration, and keep up the good fight.

Do you have any stories from 1990's English language manga collecting? Share them with us here, share them with the internets for otaku e-points... you'll feel better.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fools, You Know Not What You Do: How American Otakus are going to use Tanaka's RIETI Report to make themselves look stupid.

As much as I love statistics and business and the like, I can’t go into the veracity of this report as much as I would like to, but rather make the following, zero-sum, blunt, inescapable point to the American Otaku out there because I know what you're thinking:


Just stop right there.

Headline: Internet Piracy Boosts Anime Sales, Study Concludes. Reality: No. Well maybe, but just in Japan. With American otaku already loading their own petards for a strong self-hoisting with the strength of all the self-righteous uninformed opinion of a birther, one can hardly expect my efforts at damage control to be of any effect. These people who hurt the anime/manga market outside Japan with fansubs and scanlations will see what they want to see, and think they do no wrong. The happily smug reaction that American Otaku (Clarissa at AWO, I'm looking at you) will feel in their misplaced vindication is no doubt to be so thick, that no light of fact or reason shall be able to cut through it, and thusly such illumination shall be felt by only a precious few (Daryl at AWO I'm looking at you). It is in the hopes that I can reach said special precious few who can further illuminate the true meaning of the RIETI report that I am writing this here.

If you don’t know what the Tanaka RIETI report on anime piracy is ... just follow the link to the story I'm not going to recap the thing here. The story itself (not the report) exemplifies the aforementioned problem. It does a great disservice by inaccurately equating this report's findings to the Funimation lawsuits, and simply garners its information from what seems to be only the English description of the report itself:

Whether or not illegal copies circulating on the internet reduce the sales of legal products has been a hot issue in the entertainment industries. Though much empirical research has been conducted on the music industry, research on the movie industry has been very limited. This paper examines the effects of the movie sharing site Youtube and file sharing program Winny on DVD sales and rentals of Japanese TV animation programs. Estimated equations of 105 anime episodes show that (1) Youtube viewing does not negatively affect DVD rentals, and it appears to help raise DVD sales; and (2) although Winny file sharing negatively affects DVD rentals, it does not affect DVD sales. Youtube’s effect of boosting DVD sales can be seen after the TV’s broadcasting of the series has concluded, which suggests that not just a few people learned about the program via a Youtube viewing. In other words YouTube can be interpreted as a promotion tool for DVD sales.

That's all some people are going on. Lots of people commenting on this can’t read the report. This is literally judging a book by its cover, and then writing book reviews as well.

Seeing this, it is easy to be drawn to the conclusion that this somehow applies to English speaking markets. It does not. This study only encompasses sales and after-market piracy within the domestic Japanese market. While it’s nice to think that English speaking markets somehow play any role which can have an effect on the producers of anime/manga in cases like this, it is because of piracy circumventing and preempting licensed distribution that they do not. So let me say this again, the report is not applicable to English speaking markets (or any markets outside Japan). However it is reasonably detailed, rather specific, and looks like this:

It asserts a specific point about anime DVD sales and rentals in Japan. Regardless of veracity, these conclusions cannot be superimposed to the USA or any other market in which the legitimate media delivery channels are preempted by people who steal the work and make it available for free in the form of fansubs and scanlations. In Japan, these properties do not have to worry about online bootlegging BEFORE the episode airs on TV. Because of this, they can make pre-agreed advertising agreements, accurately predict revenue, and start a genuine product lifecycle for a property.

This devaluing effect that anime piracy in the form of fansubs and scanlations in international markets has is very real and I have detailed it before. I have also noted that without the ability to sustain the regular needs of a business, international markets will have no input in the type of anime and manga that are produced, leading to a Galapagos effect in the type of stories that evolve. Some have argued that it is because anime/manga are “different” from American media is the reason they do like it so much, but Turkish Tapdancing is “different”... the South African Vuvuzela Philharmonic Laser Light Show is “different.” The quality of “different” is in no way the exclusive deciding factor in why people in English speaking markets like Japan's anime/manga. It is that, along with a combination of other qualities, which causes the popularity of such material and changes in what the Japanese market likes could easily change that balance to the point where although it remains “different,” fails to resonate with audiences outside Japan. That is a real possibility.

The Japanese DVD market is miniscule compared to the USA. It really is a different universe. Where as in the USA, some labels exist only as home media entities, the Japanese DVD labels don’t go through the licensing and localization dance to get a title out (for their domestic anime obviously, not for Hollywood productions). Additionally, media consumption habits (both legit and pirated) of consumers in general create a very different animal in terms of commercial markets between Japan and the USA. This difference in media consumption created a very different set of metrics and mechanics which going into detail about would simply lead to a post of biblical tl;dr proportions. So let's just call it a case of "apples and oranges."

To conclude; In Japan, anime/manga productions FIRST reach the market through a legitimate media distribution channel (TV broadcast, online/mobile download, direct to DVD, etc.) and are then pirated. In the USA anime/manga productions are pirated FIRST, and then (because of the time it takes to license and localize) released through legitimate media distribution channels. Do we understand?

Japan:-----Commercial release --> then --> Pirated.
USA:__----Pirated --> then --> Commercial Release.

That difference is the game changer. In international markets, the fact that the target audience has already consumed an anime/manga before a license can be obtained for that market, means that said license is worthless. Fansubbers and Scanlators are stealing the license that the original producers have every right to sell. The fact that they (fansubbers and scanlators) don’t charge anything means nothing, because the damage done to animators, artists, writers, assistants, and publishers is the same as if they were selling bootleg DVDs at $100 a pop. They are actually worse than for-profit bootlegers because they honestly believe they are doing nothing wrong.

It is true that Japanese production companies have constantly and incorrectly harped that if piracy just went away everything would be sunshine and smiles, which is a very Japanese thing to do. Every Japanese industry and political party does that. Additionally, half of the major entertainment execs in Japan have no idea what youtube really is, but just know it's part of that big scary internet. But in case you weren't paying attention, that's totally beside the point. This publication is going cause a problem in American fandom, by giving a moral ego boost to people who know they are hurting the business that creates the things they love, and they’ll take that boost because they want to think what they are doing is helping. And nothing said or done, will assuage their misplaced self-granted absolution.

This is no "get out of jail free card" for fansubers, scanlators, and the American Otaku that keep them around. No matter how much they want it to be.

ANN also helpfully points out that this is a paper by Tetsuo Tanaka, published by RIETI, and is not specifically all encompasing of RIETI's official platform (which is a political force to be rekoned with at times). It is also important to note that Professor Tanaka had already expressed some views to the same effect as the paper's findings, so this may be a case of some tunnel vision.

[July 17 2011]: Just in case anyone was wondering, I added that little stop-sign graphic because I was sick of the thumbnail on the top 5 posts being almost impossible to make out. This looks a little better.