Recently the New York Times, as a part of its "Arts Beat" section, initiated a column of best seller lists for graphic novels and collections. Divided into three sections — hard and soft cover graphic books, with a third list devoted to manga — the manga list in particular caught my attention since it was so patently lopsided. In one recent week, all 10 of the titles came from the same publisher, Viz Media, who couldn't resist celebrating this moment with a p.r. release trumpeting their chart domination.
To be fair, Viz's dominance of the NYTimes Top Ten was skewed by one basic fact: their mega-popular series Naruto is presently in the midst of its second publishing blitz, shoving four volumes a month onto the book racks to get closer to the homeland title's publishing schedule. Seven of the manga titles in the Top Ten list were devoted to the ninja trainee's adventures, the remaining three books being the most recent releases of Black Cat, Bleach and Arina Tanemura's The Gentlemen's Alliance †. Of these, the most intriguing entry is the last, which is released under Viz's Shojo Beat imprint. An "Older Teen" manga aimed at a girl readership, Alliance † is quite different from the boyish fight fantasies of all the other series on the list.
To get my own sense of what all the hot fuss was about, I recently read the volume that is currently perched on the NYTimes list. Picking up a manga title in its ninth volume is not the optimal way to introduce oneself to a series, but for a lot of young manga readers, I suspect, it's the way it typically occurs. Where I live, for instance, the number of store-sold manga books is pretty damn spare. One of the other secrets behind Naruto's chart success resides in the fact that it's one of the only titles you can find on the shelves of a rural area Wal-Mart — and even then the distribution of individual volumes is spotty. During Naruto's current blitz, only two of a given month's four releases have arrived at my local Mart, which definitely wreaks havoc with the books' serialized storyline. I had to wonder: just how easy is it for a newbie to pick up a manga title mid-story?