I was talking with my dad this weekend, telling him about the incredibly and insanely funny new collection of Don Martin material, and we got to talking about comics in general. Now Dad grew up in the 1950s, so most of his early comic book memories center on what was generally pretty bland material. He would've been just getting into comics around the same time as Seduction of the Innocent came out and the Kefauver hearings were on. Comics -- with the notable exceptions of Mad in high school and Heavy Metal in college -- weren't a big part of his life until yours truly started getting into them. (Although Mom recently noted that she just uncovered a picture of me at age 2 in a kiddie pool with an inflatable Batman figure, so I clearly started early!)
With that said, though, Dad has always been appreciative of any form of artistic expression and saw the huge wealth of options beyond the standard superhero fare I was reading at the time. Indeed, he started getting into comics himself back then picking up things as diverse as Judge Dredd, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Zot, Somerset Holmes and Shatter. (I later discovered that his tastes also included the likes of Cherry Poptart and Time Wankers.)
Dad's interest in comics waned after I moved out. That was due in part to my influence not being present, but it was mainly from the 1990's implosion which saw the demise of many comic book shops. The only ones left for a while in his area were a solid hour's drive away. Most of his interest in comics these days are old Golden Age books that feature magicians as the lead characters.
All this is to say that, while Dad's not really plugged into the comics industry, he's not completely oblivious either. And he's noticed, as so many people have, that many bookstores' manga section has increased dramatically in recent years. It's a topic we've actually discussed before -- in fact, the last time he stopped by for a visit we stopped in a Barnes and Noble and I answered his question about who's buying all these by pointing to the 14-year-old girl who happened to walk up and start browsing. This weekend, though, his question was something roughly equivalent to, "Why are there so many volumes of these things? As much as I've looked at them, it all looks pretty much exactly the same. The same style of artwork and similar-looking storylines." This coming from a man who A) knows a thing or two about comics in the first place, and B) actually took a number of art classes in college.
Now I don't claim to be an expert in manga, by any means, but I've read at least enough to recognize that while, yes, there are some similarities in style in many manga titles, there are distinct differences in execution when compared side-by-side. By way of comparison, look at superhero comics -- to someone not familiar with them, any given issue of Superman isn't that distinguishable from any given issue of Captain America. One guy's got a cape and a big S, the other guy has a shield and a big star but it might otherwise look pretty much the same. He realized the point and added the similar notion that, to the uninitiated, contemporary mystery novels all might look the same too, with some allusion to death on the cover and a title bearing a bad pun.
Which raises the question of diversity. How much is really necessary to sustain the business? People, I think, are intrigued by manga because it looks so different than "typical" American comics. How many folks reading them are actually aware that a good percentage are actually OEL capitalizing on the trend? (Not to collectively dismiss OEL books, mind you! I'm just pointing out that some of what is being sold as manga, technically, isn't and could just as easily been created in something more "traditional" for an American market.) But at the same time, people often stick with the familiar and will gravitate towards books that look/feel like things they've already read.
It ends up being a balancing act. You need comics that a large population will buy to sustain yourself as a business. At the moment, that seems to be "classic" superhero fare and manga. There are some people who are going to work within the superficial notions of that but push the boundaries in other areas. (Jack Kirby doing superheroes in the 1960s for example. Or Alan Moore doing them in the 1980s.) But you also need to folks to really test the limits of what is possible. People who are willing to do some trailblazing for others, putting out books that might not be commercial successes now, but set the stage for other styles to gain popular acceptance. (Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar spring to mind. Can you see Brian Bendis trying to write in his styule if it weren't for the underground comix folks? I can guarantee it'd go over like a lead balloon!)
The problem is, of course, that no one really knows what that balance is. How much are you willing to gamble on the next Frank Espinosa when you know that you can make a decent number of guaranteed sales by going with someone like John Romita, Jr.? For some folks, they have to make that gamble simply for economic reasons. If you can't afford an Andy Kubert, you might have to "settle" for a Scott Dalrymple. If you have the money, why put yourself at greater risk than necessary? Why not hire someone people are familiar with? For as much as I would love to see more experimentation from marvel and DC, I can't find fault with them for not doing more. They're in this comic book business to make money, not to extend the art form.
I showed the first handful of issues of Rocketo to my father when it first came out. Like (I suspect) everyone who's enjoyed the series, he was initially attracted to the absolutely gorgeous brushwork. It looked like a very different type of book. I give a lot of credit to Erik Larsen for picking this up from Speakeasy relatively quickly. (Actually, I've developed a LOT of respect for Larsen since he became publisher at Image; he's made some fairly bold decisions that seem to work both on creative and commercial levels.) But for every Rocketo, how many "standard" titles are out there? Is there an ideal mix? If so, should that mix be distributed among several publishers, or does it make sense for each publisher to hold to that mix individually?
I don't know the answers. But I do know that my dad's eyes were drawn to the stuff that stood out from everything else on the shelf. He wasn't interested in manga since it all looked the same; he wasn't interested in superheroes since that all looked the same. But maybe something along the lines of Joann Sfar? Or Michel Rabagliati? Maybe that's why he was interested in my Don Martin book -- who else looks like Don Martin?