Monday, November 21, 2005

I was inspired to go buy Sexy Voice and Robo by one of Dave Welsh's columns. I had seen it on the shelf, but had written it off as one of those scholarly-hipster essay collections that Viz used to publish on an irregular basis. No, it turns out that it's an oversize-edition manga collection, an alternative sort of affair. And it really does look alternative, like those rather scribbly black-and-whites that were all the rage just before the speculative direct market imploded, the ones that still get published at Small Press Expos that I never bother going down to Baltimore for. Hrm. Anyways, Sexy Voice and Robo. It's a terrible title, but a pretty good comic. The artist has a great feel for character, and restrained humor. The art is kind of sloppy, though - messier than I'm used to from Japanese artists. One of the signal strengths of the manga/doujinshi, mangaka/assistant dual-level system that feeds Japan's monstrous manga market is the way it builds professionalism, and basic competence.

The standard studio arrangement of a mangaka and a cloud of assistants ensures that artists are educated through the on-hands work of an old-fashioned guild-style apprenticeship program, while providing the manpower for major works to be cranked out in rapid, machine-like fashion. The doujin sub-system gives the apprentice assistants an outlet for any creative impulses which can't be expressed in the masterwork they're spending their daylight hours slaving over, and a way to let off steam. Thus, by the time that the assistant is ready to become a mangaka in her own right, she's had at least a few years of rigorous training in the accepted method, observational instruction in how to put together story, layout, and narrative in a well-thought-out system, and usually at least a few experimental outings in the doujin market to work out the kinks and try out the stupid artistic ideas which just won't fly with an actual audience observing.

American indie or alternative comic artists are generally doing it on their own hook, making it up as they go along because there isn't any solid equivalent of the mangaka-and-studio small-shop system in the States. The result is that artists either grow or die, and you have to suffer them in their growth period, while they don't have a good grasp of scripting, or layout, or drawing, or whatever they're naturally not so good at, at least initially.

By saying all this, I don't mean to slight Sexy Voice and Robo's artist. I'm pretty sure that the slightly rough art and the fat, brutal linework are atmospheric, intentional. It was written for an alternative publication, after all, and that sort of audience is looking for "authenticity", which some interpret as slop. The rough urban setting, full of minor scams and rough edges, is well-served by the art style.

I'm not sure it's equally well-served by the omnibus double-length, oversize edition that Viz gave Sexy Voice, though. Blowing up the page layouts to twice the area of the usual American manga-collection page doesn't do any service to the already rough and over-dark inkwork. Additionally, although there's two volumes of material in this single omnibus, and thus it's essentially a wash as far as cost goes, it's still more of a financial bite to ask a browsing customer to lay out twenty dollars for a speculative title, than a single ten-dollar outlay for the first volume, followed no doubt quickly by another ten for the second volume.

The marginal opportunity cost of the later model is the greatest part of why the ten-dollar manga-volume market has taken off the way that it has. Doing strange little alt-indie works like Sexy Voice and Robo at a twenty-dollar price point seems to be an exercise in self-defeat. Were they looking for lower sell-through numbers? Does it add extra indie cred for an edition to fail to sell?

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