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Branding Irony

When will CMX make its mark?

I’ve been thinking a lot about branding lately, and considering the ways manga publishers carve out their individual pieces of the market pie. Since part of me will always be an arrested adolescent, I can’t help but view it in terms of the high school dynamic.

Viz is that rare creature, the really popular girl who people actually like. She’s everywhere: vice president of student council, the basketball team, honor society, French Club, choir. She builds houses for Habitat for Humanity, writes a teen column for the local paper, knows all the school custodians by name, and pulls it off without making you think she’s a stuck-up phony. She might be a stuck-up phony underneath it all, but she seems sincere.

Tokyopop is a slightly different kind of popular kid. It’s like the jock who’s also student council president. He’s a little full of himself, and he can’t always be bothered to remember your name, but he’s amiable enough. You know the student council vice president does all the really heavy lifting, and this guy’s kind of skating by on charm, but he fills his function. And you don’t need to really connect with him to appreciate that function. Everyone knows him, and he isn’t hopelessly obnoxious, even though he lives in that neighborhood with all the McMansions.

Digital Manga is the cool, quiet, (you think) bisexual guy who wears vintage trench coats to school but doesn’t ever seem like he’s got a hunting knife in his pocket or anything creepy like that. In study hall, he draws all kinds of cool doodles on his notebooks; they can be a little disturbing. He’s in a band, and that would usually make you roll your eyes, but this band is actually supposed to be pretty good. They actually play gigs at college bars near campus… ones that card and charge covers.

Del Rey is kind of a spooky girl, not quite Goth, but you can tell she’d break out in hives if anyone ever dragged her into a shopping mall. She’s really smart, but she isn’t obnoxious about it. She’s not ubiquitous like Viz, but whatever she does, she does well. She writes blissfully depressing poems in the literary magazine, wins the county art competition, and only gets honorable mention in the essay contest because her writing was too barbed. And she’s funny, firing off just the right deflating remark when circumstances demand.

And CMXCMX is that kid who, when you get your yearbook and flip through it, it takes you ten minutes to remember if you’ve ever been in a class with him before. If you really think about it, you might remember that he got in trouble that one time, but you don’t think it was for anything cool. You might say to yourself, “Is that his name?”

Seriously, what the hell is up with CMX? Almost a year in,DC’s manga imprint has yet to make any headway towards an identity. The only time it’s gotten any buzz at all was for the gaffes in its handling of Tenjho Tenge. Since DC maintained an almost monastic silence during that affair, they won’t even participate in the badpublicity.

In case it isn’t obvious, CMX makes me a bit angry. That’s partly because it seems so smart on paper. One of the big two American comics publishers finally seems to be taking manga seriously (unlike Marvel’s drearyMangaverse experiments or its promising-but-doomedTsunami line). Instead of going through weird contortions to make “manga-style” comics that would be palatable for a super-hero fan base, DC took the step of publishing actual manga.

And that, apparently, is as much of a step as DC has been prepared to take. They’ve assembled a middling range of titles for translation, with the only unifying theme being that there are better samples of the genres they represent. Land of the Blindfolded is decent enough shôjo in a market already offering plenty of very good choices. From Eroica With Love seems to be fondly regarded by the niche audience that appreciates sexually ambiguous master thieves. Madara fills the sword-and-sorcery niche in a way that critics rave is “somewhat formulaic.” Recent release The Devil Does Exist has been compared to Hot Gimmick “without as much complexity or interest.”

CMX isn’t exactly setting the critics spinning, nor are the books flying off the shelves. I don’t recall ever seeing aCMX title crack the top tiers of the BookScan list, and they don’t make much of a dent in the direct market’s monthly takings. I’ve heard an anecdote or two about house ads in DC’s monthly comics leading to a few CMXsales. (Actually ICv2’s monthly figures show Tenjho Tengedid make a respectable showing in March, landing at 45th in graphic novel sales at comics specialty shops. That puts it behind only 8 manga titles from Tokyopopand one each from Dark Horse, Del Rey, and Viz.) But the direct market is a very small part of the manga sales picture.

It isn’t like DC is too dignified to engage in aggressive marketing. These are the people who convinced The New York Times that Identity Crisis was artistically significant. When it comes to turning promotion into sales for their direct market properties, they demonstrate an almost shameless vigor. Why not direct some of that ruthless energy towards CMX?

They’ve put out loss leaders (the Ten-Cent Adventuresand the 80-cent Countdown to Infinite Crisis), assembled an anthology book for their Vertigo titles, and crow over every sold-out title in their stable. Their Vertigo trade paperbacks are strong, evergreen performers in the bookstore market. Why, then, can’t they seem to even get their manga output shelved properly? Sometimes it’s shoved in with the super-hero product. In other stores, it’s all clustered together in the Cs, like CMX is a series title.

What makes this particularly bizarre is to see manga publishers of every scale market rings around behemothDCADV Manga has provided book chains with stand-alone cardboard displays for its titles. Viz has announced plans for a new shôjo anthology and companion line of digests. Tokyopop just wrapped up its “Rising Stars of Manga” contest and has leaked word about a new line, “Manga After Hours” for the chick-lit crowd. Digital Mangahas built an entire web site for its upcoming flurry of yaoi titles. And on Wednesday, word broke that spooky little Del Rey has moved more than one million units in less than a year since its launch.

One million units moved in under a year. For Del Rey. It has six series in print. That’s fewer titles than CMX has in its rotation.

(Now, before anyone beats me to it, I know. Del Rey is an arm of Random House, and Random House is working with Japanese manga monolith Kodansha. It isn’t as though they’re operating out of a garage. But DC is owned by Warner Brothers, which isn’t exactly Pop’s Hardware.)

So where does that leave us? What can we conclude when faced with a comics publishing giant letting its manga line flop around? Has DC assumed that the manga market is a money tree, and they need only place baskets underneath it to harvest the cash? Is the idea of CMX much smarter than the actual publishing plan? Or do they just not care very much?

I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it’s frustrating to watch an outfit with so many resources make such indifferent use of them. DC has the opportunity and the ability to make a serious bid for the manga audience and to provide that audience with vibrant, engaging titles. Why the hell aren’t they?

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