Well, he didn't get it, and a lot of comic-shop regulars don't get it, but the truth is that American comic books haven't been the most popular comics in America in many years (newspaper comics long have been), and now they're not even number two.
People know how to say "manga" now; some use the nasal "American" a and some use the broad "Japanese" a, but they rarely say "magna" the way they pretty much all used to, and I haven't heard a rhymes-with-lasagna pronunciation in months. That's a pretty sure sign of mainstream acceptance, that and the fact that they sell like hotcakes.
I am interested in examining why people have taken to manga so readily, and so without further ado I present:
Why We Love Manga Part 1: The Medium Is the Message
The success of manga is inextricably bound up with its format. Translated manga has been present in the U.S. for years, generally in the same format as American comics, sometimes as perfect-bound books or graphic novels; always a niche manket, available in specialty stores that catered to nerds. But a few years ago (when was this? 2003?) Tokyopop changed the format of manga, making it somewhat smaller (sizing it closer to Japanese collections, incidentally). Manga now fit better on the book store shelves, and chain book stores, which had been growing irate at the lack of success of their graphic novel sections (remember when the Union Square Barnes & Noble got rid of all their graphic novels?), the merchandise of which tended to get damaged rather than sell, now found something sized better for display, and which wouldn't "flop over" the way graphic novels can. (Tokyopop also made manga cheaper, either by cutting corners or preserving authenticity, depending on your point of view.) Book stores pushed them and they sold. Manga's snowballing success in these parts has stemmed from this one decision. Comics haven't had a distribution system this pervasive and professional since all those head shops closed in the 'seventies, crippling the underground comics movement.
This is pretty clear-cut, and I don't think anyone disputes these facts, except maybe Viz's PR department. But why did manga sell so well as soon as it was made available to the public?
a. Manga are not "comic books"
Comic books have long labored under the burden of three stereotypes: 1. Comic books are for kids, 2. Comic books are for mental misfits, 3. Comic books are for nerds. In the Keith's Comics of Dallas obscenity trial, the prosecution stated (and I quote from the goddamn transcript): "Comic books, traditionally what we think of, are for kids. This is in a store directly across from an elementary school and it is put in a medium, in a forum, to directly appeal to kids." I don't think Wertham invented the "only morons and criminals read comics" line, but he's sure the one who brought it before Congress with his scare-book Seduction of the Innocent. And I don't think I need to prove that comic books are for nerds; who else would they be for? Basically, if you read comic books, you are either a loser or a five year old from 1963. Five year olds don't read comic books any more.
Obviously, when a product gets this much negative buzz, people aren't going to consume the product; it would be like chewing that gum that's full of spider eggs. So, realizing this, people have long been at pains to call their comics anything other than comics. EC coined the term "pictofiction" in 1955; Art Spiegelman did not coin but resolutely employed the term "commix" to refer to his Raw and Arcade anthologies: both overt attempts to distance work from the maligned comic book. The long, hard slog that the term "graphic novel" has had dragging itself into the idiolects of the nation is just the latest attempt to pretend that things that obviously are comics are not comics.
One problem pictofiction, commix, and, for a long time, graphic novels, had was that they are not very persuasive. Marvel's idea of what a "graphic novel" should look like ca. 1985 is revealing: it's a lot like a comic, only larger and 75 pages long; in other words, it's more like a Dell Giant from the '40s than any kind of novel. No matter how shrill Spiegelman's protestations got, his duck still looked like a duck, just bigger and artsier. There was little reason for anyone other than an ad-man to call comics anything other than comics. Manga had an advantage here: 100 million people were already calling it manga by the time it hit the bookstores. Obviously different from American comics in many ways, it demanded a term that had, fortuitously, been around for a century.
People who read manga do not read comics. They read manga. There's obviously a lot of crossover at the store, since it is, after all, a comic book store, but see how many shojo readers who aren't already huge nerds go on to pick up X-Men. It really seems that people naturally want to read comics (you know, like Dilbert), and only the stigma attached to the label "comic book" has been preventing them.
Girls don't read comics. But I've never heard a tired old bromide claiming girls do not read manga.
b. The "satisfying chunk"
Manga offers what Heidi McDonald call a "satisfying chunk" of story. American comics sure used to, and now they don't, which means that customers are always complaining, after reading an issue, that nothing happened. The reasons for this change are due for their own essay (tentatively titled "What Went Wrong"), but for now let us note that while there was a time when a single issue of a comic would have Spider-man meet a foe, get defeated by the foe, mope around, become inspired, track down the foe, fight him again, defeat him, and then wrap up a subplot involving Aunt May--in other words, when an issue would contain a complete dramatic arc--nowadays Frank Miller can write entire issues in which Batman never leaves the car. We have grown accustomed to paying $2.99 for what is equivalent to three minutes of a movie.
Manga does not move at a faster pace, but there sure is more of it. Unless you're reading certain volumes of Dragonball Z, it's a good chance that something is going to happen by the time you reach the end of the manga. That is to say, whether you like the book or not, you're not going to feel ripped off for your $9.99: you've gotten some story: you've gotten your "satisfying chunk."
This perhaps less a "why people read manga" than a "why people don't not read manga." It's certainly a why people don't read American comics.
Why We Love Manga Part 2: The Message Is the Message
The most obvious appeal of manga is that it offers a diversity of genre and subject matter that American comics once had, and may have again soon, but currently lack. Simply put, most people, if given the choice, would not choose to read about superheroes almost all the time, and other things only on occasion. Although manga is certainly riddled with its own legion of cliches (to an extent that a new reader can scarcely be aware of, and will be, inevitably, disappointed to discover), these cliches appear in disparate genres such as high-school romance or robot fighting. Diversity is a much-trumpeted advantage of manga, and we should not give it short shrift, but there are, I think, other advantages manga offers, to wit:
Although manga (of course) comes in a range of styles, and Lone Wolf and Cub does not look like Inu Yasha, let alone Crayon Shinchan, there is a general manga style, which you can learn about in any number of how to draw books. Some say that the style has been popularized by the need to make anime of popular manga, as it's an easy style to animate; it's also an easy style to draw.
When I say it's easy, I don't mean this pejoratively. Junko Mizumo is a much better artist than Michael Turner, but her thick, smooth line and stylized faces are easier to copy than ten thousand little pencil lines obscured by seven layers of computer airbrushing. Although I have not done a scientific study, it certainly seems that a higher percentage of manga fans draw manga characters than American comics fans draw American comic characters. (Although I think of myself as someone who can draw, I never came close to learning how to draw in the Marvel "house style" I loved; I copied Berke Breathed and Peter Bagge.) Every Japanese child is a good artist (isn't it true?). And if you can draw your favorite manga characters, if you do draw your favorite manga characters, that's another level of engagement that American comics rarely offer.
A paranoid reading might hold that American comics began their precipitous decline in popularity when the a hard-to-draw photorealistic style of Neal Adams overtook the simpler Curt Swan style, itself harder to copy than earlier Wayne Boring or Sheldon Moldoff. (Note that I'm not trying to ballyhoo simpler styles here; some of the greatest artists in the medium have been hard to copy, such as Gil Kane and Wally Wood; but who can draw like Wally Wood?)
Anyway, nothing makes for popularity like getting the reader in on the action.
Appeal to authority: Phil Jimenez agrees with me on this.
b. The sex thing
Most manga is, on some level, about sex. This is hardly a revolutionary situation, as a quick glimpse at any picture of Power Girl, or the White Queen, or just about any heroine, will reveal that most American comics are also about sex. But manga offers something different: It offers sex that is either 1. much more perverted or 2. much less perverted.
1. first: It is possible to read tens of thousands of American comics without once stumbling across the idea that people would even want to steal panties. Little Lulu and Nancy (and dozens of other characters) showed their "bloomers" three times a page for years without passers-by getting a single nosebleed. Although you might have thought, after reading Lady Death, that comics had gotten just about as pornographic as they could without actually being pornography, Naru's bowel troubles in Love Hina, the "piss in my eyes" scene from Wounded Man, the "on" switch in Chobits, and maybe and maybe not any number of parts of Strawberry Marshmallow should make you think twice. Even relatively kid-friendly comics regularly contain perverted characters (such as Kimura in Azumanga Daioh or Muten Roshi in Dragnoball); Mr. Weatherbee never makes improper advances on Betty, which may be sufficient evidence that Archie is not manga. If I call yaoi perverted, I'm not being homophobic; while it is perfectly reasonable to expect gay men to be aroused by the sexual escapades of gay men, it's perverted for anyone else to be. (N.B.: In my experience, no one buys just one yaoi title; yaoi is purchased by the pound.)
Traditionally, American comics that are just perverted fantasies are clearly nothing but a comic about perverted fantasies (such as Tarot), while most or all of the manga mentioned above mixes pervert content with long stretched of, you know, content. Even Wounded Man has lots of fighting. It's one thing to take Hard Cocks Comics out on the bus; it's another thing to take out Antique Bakery. Bodice-ripper romance novels (alternately: Maxim) are clearly pornography, but they contain enough foofaraw that you can convince yourself when reading it that you are not reading pornography; same goes for Negima; and sometimes people want to pretend they are not reading porn.
Of course, American comic artists could simply start making comics that mix coprophagia with a healthy dose of soap opera (and doubtless they will). But I think manga was necessary to open this can of worms. For yaoi: put it this way: it's a little embarrassing to admit that what you really want to read about is two boys kissing, in the same way that it's embarrassing for me to admit that what I really want to see is two girls kissing. It's less embarrassing in manga format; the fact that it comes from another country makes it more acceptable. We will return to this theme as we address:
2. The idea that a story can be about two people who fall in love at the tender age of, say, eight, and then meet each other when older, fall in love, true soul mates, and, after many obstacles, get married--this narrative was already obsolete in the West by the end of World War I. It is, frankly, a saccharine embarrassment. A story about two virgins who share a first kiss and TLF!!! would be laughed out of any venue in America. Any lingering inertia this motif had was completely destroyed by the 'seventies.
Except that it happens all the time in manga. Apparently the Victorian ideals we had thought dispatched by the sexual revolution still have some kind of appeal (see the upcoming essay "The Case Against Sex"); but it is not in American texts that they survive. These are stories of sexuality without sex, and although I"s may depict innumerable lovingly-rendered two-page spreads of Iori's camel toes, how many volumes must pass before she even kisses anyone? I see the people who read Ai Yori Aoshi, and I assure you they are not people who could stomach this kind of story if it came from any "sweet" or "romantic" American comic. But when reading a text in translation one has to grant certain things to the text. For example, Finnish poetry relies heavily on doubled phrases, such as "he bore a shield of gold, a shield of silver." Ordinarily, the reader would be within his rights to demand to know which it was a shield of gold, or of silver, or possibly of electrum, but it's really not a valid complaint when reading the Kalevala; it's something you grant. Well, when reading certain comics translated from the Japanese, you have to grant that true love will never die, and despite all the misunderstandings Naru and Kaitaru, or Aoi and Kaoru, or Mugi and Yuu really have been saving themselves for each other.
Of course, you simultaneously have to grant that a string of semi-naked co-ed bathers are going to walk in on each other, oops!, which explains 1. above. It's not just a parade of fetish objects; it's simply the convention of the Japanese harem manga genre. You've got to grant the convention. You've got to grant this yaoi.
So how about that manga, huh? Some crazy stuff there. Anyway, that's why it's so dang popular. Also the robots.