Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Beginning Mangaka Syndrome

If you've been reading manga for a while, you've probably noticed that many manga that aren't doujinshi or one-shots probably have a significant variation in art quality over their run. This is particularly true with a mangaka's first big hit - IE, the first manga that not only goes into tankoubon printings, but goes past four volumes and becomes an anchor story for its magazine.

Now some of this is intuitively obvious - a beginning mangaka is new at doing his job for his soba and tofu, and probably isn't as skilled an artist as he will be after a year or two of drawing a manga for a weekly. But there's more to it than that - the curve of improvement seems to reliably start about vol 2 and settles into pleasant and usually much better art (and often storyline) by vol 4 or so.

So I took a look into the process, and economics, of being a mangaka. Let's just say that after looking into it, it's obvious that people don't go into drawing manga for the money...

It works like this: Would-be mangaka draws up a proposal (with character list) and sample chapter or two for a manga to be published in one of the many weekly or (rarer) monthly manga magazines. The proposal will be targeted both to the nominal readership of the magazine, and often also toward any editorial biases the mangaka might have heard of/been told of/observed about that particular magazine.

Here's an example of what proposal pages can look like. The mangaka is Kojima Akira, who later went on to draw the successful (and fun) shounen comedy/romance Mahoraba.

Chichiwomoge at mangaforums posted about this, and I snarfed the image from where he found it.

So our aspiring mangaka (who is either in college, or, more likely, has a mundane day job of some kind) makes his pitch to the editors at a magazine and...they buy it (as didn't happen with Seiken Shoujo). Happy mangaka charges home and hits the drawing board. And draws. And draws some more, probably while trading in his full-time day job for a part-time job of some kind and drawing every other minute he can spare.

For all of this labor he is paid the princely sum of ¥3000-5000 per page for a weekly magazine, and maybe ¥10,000 per page in a monthly. A typical chapter is 20-25 pages. As of this writing, there are ¥124/$US. A little quick math has our beginning weekly mangaka making under $500/week, and he's probably living near his publishers in Tokyo, which is the most expensive place to live in the world. The monthly author is doing no better. So yes, you can make a living as a young mangaka writing for a manga magazine, if you:
  1. Don't mind being poor
  2. Are single, and don't mind being single (and unable to afford dates)
  3. Don't mind living in (and spending all your time drawing in) a closet
Let's just say that you eat a lot of instant ramen, and your primary protein source is probably tofu, or natto if you can stomach it. You're living for your art, because you're probably not looking forward to your next meal very much.

Our aspiring mangaka gets published and...wonder of wonders! The manga is a hit. Circulation of the magazine goes up, the fan mail starts coming in, and there's talk of doing tankobons after there are eight or ten chapters done. The gravy train is rolling in right? Wrong.

The contract doesn't get renegotiated just because it's a popular entry in the manga magazine. Our mangaka is still doing the same work for the same money, and maybe will get a bonus, but now there's new pressure on him - If the manga really is a hit, the editors are going to start pushing for more content - color pages, character profile sketches, advertising copy, designs for toy licensing, etc. And no, they don't pay much/any more for it than they are already paying. So the workload has gone up, but the pay hasn't much, if at all.

Further, the mangaka is under a lot of pressure to keep doing whatever makes the story popular, all while still living in his closet, eating his instant ramen, and turning out the additional work on top of the weekly effort of getting the new chapter to press. He isn't getting much excercise, or good nutrition, and he's working millions of hours. The art quality is bound to suffer, and it does.

Eventually it becomes obvious to everybody that the manga is going to keep doing well. It also becomes obvious to the mangaka that he has to spread out the workload or he's going to get sick, burn out, or both. So he gets a small advance for the first tankobon and hires some assistants. but he can't afford a lot of help, and he can't afford experienced, talented assistants - they're probably chums from art school, or other aspiring starving mangakas. They are given jobs of doing things like backgrounds, color fill work for magazine covers, feature pages, and the upcoming tankoubon covers and extra pages. It's a welcome reduction in mangaka workload, but now the artist has to work on management and team-building skills...and he's still having to be creative on a weekly deadline.

The first chance of real income is tankobon sales. Mangakas generally get 10% of the gross of tank sales. Tankobons typically sell for less than ¥400, so a single tank sale nets our mangaka an astounding $0.32 US. A minimum run is 10,000 copies; a good first press run for a popular new manga is in the 30,000 range. Bingo - if the manga has good buzz, the tank is appealing and is properly publicized by the publishing house (including uncompensated interviews for the mangaka), our mangaka might make $10,000 US from the first printing of volume 1 of his hit manga...but he had to shell out quite a bit of that to the assistants who freshened the art, did the color work, and filled in the omakes from his sketches. Nonetheless, he's a happier mangaka who possibly gets some meat on his soba noodles once in a while instead of tofu.

If he keeps doing his job well, he'll finally hit a level of comfort around volume four. At that point, there's enough residual income from the prior volumes still selling (and presumably in later print runs) that he can afford to pay his art team decently, and they, in turn, can afford to put honest labor into fleshing out his creation. If the consumers are addicted to the manga, they run out and buy the prior tanks, and as word of mouth spreads, more readers come on board with each additional tankobon publication. Meanwhile, of course, everybody on the team is learning how to draw the manga better and faster, because they've been doing it for most of a year by now (assume 8 chapters/tank and four tanks - that's 32 weeks' run in a weekly).

So let's say that he makes the same $10,000 residual from the first printings of all of the first four tankobuns. That's $40,000. His base pay from the weekly is still $26,000/year as long as he keeps pumping out pages. So our hypothetical mangaka has more than doubled his projected annual income from tankobun sales in the first year. Life is suddenly a lot better. And as his assistants get more proficient, he can possibly take a little more time and money for things like personal hygiene and a social life. He can rent an office, maybe upgrade apartments.

But now comes the ugly truth: all good things must come to an end. Most mangas have a sweet spot plot length between six and 12 volumes. If it's a fast-running manga in a weekly, it may only have a run time of a year or so, and then our mangaka has to start the process all over again. He will probably get some more money per page now that he's a known quantity, but most mangakas don't get lucky with a second hit as big as the first, and publishers know this.

Suddenly, there's a mass of economic pressure to keep the manga going just a little bit longer. It's a proven seller. It's making everybody money. Milk the cow a little more. Many mangakas do exactly that - they slow the story down, or put in filler plot arcs. Probably the most egregious filler arc I can name offhand is the Tsubasa/stepbrother arc in Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou. It's pretty clear that the only purpose of this plot derail into the life of a pop band with a high schooler lead singer was to extend the manga's run length from 19 to 21 volumes. Likewise, it's pretty apparent that Akamatsu was willing to keep going indefinitely with Love Hina, and I would guess that falling ratings were the only thing that saved us from another lame digression like the trip to MolMol.

On the other side of the ledger is that drawing a manga, particularly for a weekly, is a grueling task. It takes a lot of genki to do this week after week. If the mangaka isn't of the starving artist variety, and if he has been thinking ahead and has already successfully pitched the next manga to a publishing house, he might well decide to wrap the plot up neatly, take the money, and go vacation in Okinawa or somewhere to recharge before starting the cycle again. These are the manga that end neatly and well, like Mahoraba, Midori no Hibi, Planetes, Chobits, etc. Of course, there are also mangas that go on indeterminately because they can and should. Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou is one such. Gunslinger Girl appears to be another. The common element in these seems to be that the mangakas really like the living as much as they hoped they would. Sure it's long hours, but it's long hours doing something they like. Combined with genuine artistic ability and ability as a storyteller, these are the manga that give us something nice to remember and come back to years later.

At the top of the heap are the rare few mangakas who make a nice living because pretty much anything they draw sells well, and they have name recognition. Publishing houses are willing to give people like this a lot of money to get their product. Takahashi Rumiko is probably the obvious example of today, but there are several others. I suspect, though, that Takahashi-sensee has suffered her share on the way to the top.

No comments: