The struggle of dutch manga publishers

July 20, 2010

A popular discussion in the dutch anime/manga community is the state of our local manga industry and more specifically the sometimes excruciating slow releases of new volumes of the translated series. While manga still hasn’t broken through to the general public, our publishers are sandwiched between the english and french market and until now they haven’t found the right momentum to change that.

I’m not familiar with the situation in the Netherlands, but in Belgium we are quite proud at our comic tradition. Series like Tintin, The Smurfs, Lucky Luke and Spike and Suzy are internationally acknowledged and comic albums as a whole are regarded as an important part of our culture. As a result every child grows up reading these “stripverhalen” (notice how the word ‘strip’ defines the linear structure of our comic albums, opposed to the dynamic panelling in japanese manga). Most of these young readers (between 8 and 16 years) outgrow comics with age and only a small percentage of the population (mostly men) continues collecting the more adult series of the European comics. There is however a steady market for both children series and more serious work and it’s no surprise foreign graphic novels are sold equally well. Luxury editions of manga from critically acclaimed authors like Osamu Tezuka, Jiro Taniguchi and Keiji Nakazawa are published for this niche audience of collectors and do fairly well.

Selfdrawing of Belgian comic author Franquin

Mainstream manga has more trouble gaining recognition. First of all, it’s nothing like the “strips” we grow up with. Manga has a different format, a different way of following the panels, it’s more graphic, more extreme in the depicting of emotions, it’s black and white and the stories overlap multiple albums. Most of these things are not hard to overcome if you just give it a chance, but for example the neverending stories prove to be a hardship for small retailers who don’t have the capacity to store and stock all numbers of volumes of such series. With the obvious result that nobody buys that single volume 12 of Death Note in the store. And that store abandons selling manga in the end.

Panel from The Adventures of Tintin from 1976

Secondly, the general public considers stripverhalen to be intended primary for younger children and to a lesser agree for teenage boys. Besides the exception to the rule called Kiekeboe,  reading strips at age 16 is rare. There is also a striking lack of material aimed at girls and young women. If only they’d know about manga, a medium that would perfectly fill the gaps. But the one thing that is indispensable for being know to the general public, is availability. Only a select few stores distribute manga and even less libraries have copies of the dutch translated works. A neverending circle: retailers and libraries don’t embrace manga because it’s not popular while manga doesn’t become popular because it’s not available.

In my opinion, there is a big potential audience for manga and a complete breakthrough of manga only depends on an overall increased availability. But until now, conservatism of both readers and distributers are holding it off. I wish there was a way to make manga an instant succes. Oh wait. There is.

The worldwide succes of manga is a direct result of the popularity of japanese cartoons commonly reffered to as ‘anime’. For example, the french manga revolution was started in the aftermath of the successful “Club Dorothée”, a children programming block on television which aired anime like Saint Seya, Dragonball Z, Ranma 1/2, Sailor Moon and lots more. Anime has however never found true popularity in Belgium and the Netherlands, except the 10year old airing of Sailor Moon and the somewhat more recent Dragonball Z. In recent years television studios have neglected anime in favor of teenage sitcoms and more child friendly cartoons. Maybe I should mention some airing kids anime like Pokemon, Digimon, Yugi-oh! and Beyblade, but these are not considered anime by the general public.

Dragon Ball Z: my first anime, and many others with me

No, the newest generation of anime fans gets formed out of the depths of the internet. A growing and concurrential fansub community have made anime easily accessible to the dutch youth, who speak the language of the internet without trouble. English has become the unofficial language of anime. The younger kids think the word ‘anime’ rhymes with ‘rhyme’ and their favorite character quotes are enthusiasticly reproduced by their fansub translations. This growing army of excited anime fans who gather at big anime conventions apparently prefer imported english manga to the new dutch manga. Not because they like the big ugly format or the more expensive prices, but because they believe english is the logical language to read manga. Ofcourse there are also people who just don’t have the patience to await the slow releases of the dutch version when the english are way ahead. We are only at volume 11 for Bleach, Berserk and One Piece while the US version is at 26, 33 and 54!

The argument of the bigger back catalogue of the US manga industry is also true for the french industry, which offers even more manga titles. In contradiction to the US edition, the french use the original smaller japanese format with slipcover and in general they are a lot cheaper. Especially in Belgium because of our bilingual education (I must admit our english is still better than our french although we get taught french from the age of 8.) french manga is still very popular. It’s not abnormal to encounter a manga collector with a mix of french, english and dutch manga. In some parts of the Netherlands german manga is also popular.

English, french and dutch cover of One Piece 1

In the middle of this divided market there are two publishing companies who translate mainstream manga in dutch. Mangakana has popular titles like Naruto, Bleach, Monster, Nana, Detective Conan and Inuyasha. Glénat has an interesting line-up with One Piece, Berserk, Fruits Basket, Battle Angel Alita, 20th Century Boys and Neon Genesis Evangelion oa. Both are daughter companies of big players in the french manga publishing world. And both companies deliver quality products with excellent translations (not an easy feature when you compare the regional differences of the dutch language). The sales however are still slacking. Preferences for english or french editions, limited interest by smaller retailers, no anime on television and misconceptions prove to be a bigger hurdle than expected. But it’s too soon for them to give up, so let’s hope the french companies don’t pull the plug yet. Some courage is needed at this point, but a reliable and steady release schedule will increase the confidence of readers and sellers.

In meanwhile some signs are hopeful. In Belgium the big multimedia store Fnac has added the dutch manga to their stores, JimTv has aired late-night episodes of Bleach, and the growing amount of published series (now more than 30) starts to gain recognition in the manga community. The only thing standing in the way of a bright future is the existence of illegal scanlations, a topic which I purposely ignored because it would lead me too far. Allthough I personally think they do more harm than good.

More info on Belgian comics can be found on wikipedia.
The publishing lists of dutch mainstream manga can be found here and here.



  1. There really ren’t many famous comic writers. Most of the stuff we read as a kid was import, either from Belgium (suske & wiske, the smurfs, etc) or America (Donald Duck, etc).

    As for anime, about eight years ago, some broadcasting companies started experimenting with anime on kids’ channels, in which we actually got a full showing of Gundam Wing, but that flopped in the end. Nowadays, the studios only import really cheap series from america, and the only series that do get shown on TV are shows as Bedaman, which exactly reaffirm people that “anime is just for kids”.

  2. *ahem*

    *”there really aren’t any famous dutch comic writers” is what I meant to write.

    • I sort of expected something like that. Our anime history is almost identical(I remember we had that gundam too), but we greatly differ in comic tradition. Makes me wonder if there is a difference in manga sales?..

  3. […] an interesting, longish post on the struggles of the Dutch-language manga industry in Belgium, where comics still are mainly for […]

  4. […] The Dutch manga market, meanwhile, has a whole set of struggles all its own. […]

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