Last night, I attended the opening reception for an “Amerimanga!” exhibit at Northern Illinois University. It focused on the influence of manga on American comics, and had original art from a number of comic creators who have worked in a “manga style” to varying degrees. The exhibit was co-curated by Josh Elder, and he presented a lecture later on the history of the Japanese influence on American comics. After his presentation, the question was raised on whether comics in America have the potential to become as ubiquituous as they are in Japan, a point that Elder had raised earlier. Elder’s answer was spot-on, though it may have been surprising to many in the audience.
In Japan, it’s downright common to see packed trains with adults heading to and from work, absorbed in a wide variety of manga. While public transportation isn’t likely to gain more traction here in the States, in large part due to the powerful automotive industry, that scene Elder noted is still unlikely to play out here. But not because comics won’t become popular, but because the venue will be different. That people will carry around these phone book-sized tomes is unlikely in the U.S. However, people reading English language comics can achieve that level of popularity, and are well on their way to do so.
Their venue, of course, is the internet.
Rather than carrying around a bound stack of dead trees, people today are already carrying around their phones and tablets. These are devices that people have with them already and with the relative ease of access, whether it’s by local wi-fi signals or cellular coverage, they can access comics online from nearly anywhere in the country. They might not always think of the comics they read as comics, but that is exactly what they are. The devout following of xkcd; the link-shared strips of The Oatmeal; or the short, memed photo-comics taken from screen captures of TV shows and movies. They’re not always recognized AS comics, but that’s exactly what they are even if they’re not formatted anything like an installment of Peanuts or are drawn like an issue of Batman. They’re still comics.
Elder went on to note that the internet is a venue that seems uniquely primed for comics, a point which is perhaps debateable, but he’s unquestionably correct in his assesement that comics are gaining a level of popularity that they have in Japan, even if the people reading them in America are doing so via their Tumblr feed.