On long-running works (part i)

In my high school days, I used to read The Wheel of Time, working my way from the first book to, by the end of my senior year, the tenth book. I remember the first few books fondly (up to the fifth). Not so much for the other half, and I gave up on the tenth book 2/5ths in. The pacing became glacially slow, and the tenth book featured plot lines that were happening concurrently with the ninth book, which was a thousand pages long.

One more book got released during my college days, and then the author died. The series still had one more book to go, which the new author split into three. The last book just came out last month.

I want to revisit the series again someday, now that it’s finished, but we’re talking about several thousand pages to go. Every time I think about The Wheel of Time, I can only sigh in relief that the story I once followed had finally concluded after so long.

How does this relate to anime and manga? Well, there are a lot of long-running manga that suffer The Wheel of Time’s same malaise, of taking ages to end. One might ask if they even intend to end. Some have even sacrificed coherence just to keep on running.

Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. But think of a hypothetical reader who started reading a manga ten years ago because it was about something he liked. Say, samurai, for instance. A few lengthy arcs later, it switches genres from adventure into fighting. Old characters are killed off and replaced by new ones, and the manga gradually shifts tone until our reader is all but reading an entirely new manga altogether. (Maybe that’s the point, that the author slowly worked his manga into something he really wanted to write. But that’s another post.)

So what does he do? He keeps on reading.

It may sound strange. But I know a lot of people who read and watch long-running shounen works. Very few of them drop what they’re reading, even if the manga changes so much, or if the last few arcs turn out to be stinkers. These people aren’t manga fans, not in the sense that they read a wide variety of manga and are always looking for more (which, by the way, is my definition of a fan). They’re Naruto fans, One Piece fans, Fairy Tail fans, etc. They just continue to read what they’ve been reading, and love it.

Why do they? Well, if the discerning anime fan can pick a couple of TV anime every season to watch regularly, then it sure is easier for anyone to go to a manga scanlation site every week to read popular, long-running manga. It’s a habit that doesn’t even take thirty minutes a week. Now, I won’t go a huge step forward and say it’s because they are stupid casuals who only follow mainstream manga (which are shit, because the only reason they’re popular is because they pander to the dumb masses who don’t know any better).

Ehem. That is certainly untrue, and I only put it out there as a ridiculous strawman. What’s sad is that some people actually believe that, though.

I’m still confused as to why this is the case, even if I’ve done this before (that’s what preamble on The Wheel of Time was for!). Is it just because people don’t know any better? After all, I take fiction more seriously than most around me, and not just because I create my own fiction too. I’m just really interested at it. I consume fiction because it’s interesting and I like it, even if sometimes it’s not the case for the latter. But if it becomes deadly dull or offensive in a way that I don’t want to pick it up anymore, then I won’t. I think the saddest thing to do is to brave a hundred chapters in the hope that “it might get better”. Because that’s the same excuse that abused people give for their abusive spouses.

I will talk more about this subject, recounting my own experience with long-running shounen works (Naruto, One Piece, Dragon Ball, and Bleach), and maybe come to a conclusion after a couple more posts. If you help me in the comments, then I might not have to write so much!

And I’m going to reply, I promise. Promptly.

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18 Responses to On long-running works (part i)

  1. bateszi says:

    Yup, Berserk is probably the best example of this. It’s a completely different story now to the one everyone fell in love with. Not saying it’s better or worse, but yeah. Also Vinland Saga, see the way a lot of people would rage over the “farmland saga” stuff. Compared to those 2, One Piece and Naruto have remained remarkably true to their early beginnings.

    • schneider says:

      Berserk is one of those manga I’d read if not for its length… I suppose the anime is the best.

      I totally forgot about Vinland Saga! I’m a reader, and Farmland Saga is quite some work, but I have more faith for Makoto Yukimura than other authors because it takes tremendous balls to have an amazing… prologue. I’ll probably give it a year more before tiring of it. (and it doesn’t look like translations are completely up-to-date, but I dunno)

      Interesting of you to bring up OP and Naruto, which I will write about in the next post. From my experience with Naruto, it went deeper (pursuing long story threads about initial/established characters) instead of wider (i.e. introduce more characters), the latter of which grinds long stories to a halt.

  2. PhantomRenegade says:

    I suppose the stories most suited to the long running format are the episodic ones like Detective Conan and the like.

    This did get me thinking about Jojo’s adventure, i don’t think i’ll ever read it but it’d be interesting to know how/if the series has changed over the years.

  3. animekritik says:

    One reason in sticking to a long series when it goes through dramatic changes is trust. I mean, obviously this author attracts you. So maybe s/he does something new that’s totally out of your zone of interest, but you kinda trust that it will be good and maybe, who knows, expand your horizons and stuff. That said, I find it hard to get motivated to read a bicycle manga, even if it’s written by Mohiro Kitoh :/

    • schneider says:

      Thank you. That makes so much sense, but the reason I stuck through TWOT was that Robert Jordan, through all his flaws, had created a very immersive world that I loved. I put up with his ridiculous page counts until I couldn’t take it anymore. Man, that still hurts.

      I admire mangaka who are able to write and draw different stories. Like Makoto Yukimura. I suppose the reason why I like Vinland Saga so much is that it’s a whole different manga from, say, Planetes.

      And Mohiro Kitoh drew a bicycle manga? That somehow… frightens me.

  4. DoctorBaronvonEvilSatan says:

    I think the complaints about long runners only really crop up when you’re following a scanlation site which has archived a bajillion chapters or only have access to tankobon.
    If you’re buying a magazine like Shounen Jump every week you don’t get just Naruto, you get a bunch of other stories which you can read. Chapters span a dozen pages or so on average and when you’re flipping through a magazine it doesn’t feel so grating. It’s also a way for mangaka to be able to sell tankobon which is really their prime source of income. Some guy flipping through Jump and happening upon a really cool part in chapter 200 might get interested enough to check out the past chapters. That idea is also why long runners are long runners, so there are more chances for that to happen so more people will buy the tankobon.
    You really cannot look into manga, or really any kind of book, with just an eye for the literary side of it. One must take into account the economics and finance side as well. It is a business after all.

    As an aside, I think the fact that manga magazines and tankobon have to be actively sought out by the non-Japanese reader instead of it being available almost anywhere has a large effect on their attitudes towards them. By that I mean the disdain of those who think of themselves as discerning anime or manga fans.

    • DoctorBaronvonEvilSatan says:

      And some people like ninjas. They will read about ninjas. Anything they can get their hands on. Even if the ninjas are just fishing for 20 pages at a time.
      Some people like fighting. They will read anything that has spectacular fights. Anything they can get their hands on. Even if the fighters just goof off for 20 pages at a time.
      Some people like cars. They will read anything that is about cars. Anything they can get their hands on. Even if the people in the stories are generally awful and the story is dumb.

    • schneider says:

      Manga is serialized, yes, and chapters get compiled into volumes, but it still is there, but they’re written with the idea of continuing. After all, more chapters means more volumes, and more volumes should translate to more sales, because people reading the work will want to follow the story. Sometimes it’s more transparent that the author is continuing a story long past its expiration date, and that bothers me. Since the manga is so popular, editors will sometimes egg on their artists to keep on making new chapters, which tend to have a lower quality.

      But isn’t that also a problem if a prospective reader picks up a manga in Jump, decides he likes it and buys the first volume, and sees that it’s waaaay different from what he read this week? Isn’t there still a leap of faith required to pick up a long-running manga from the start? Hopefully, it has a great opening chapter and arc, but dozens of volumes are daunting, too.

      • DoctorBaronvonEvilSatan says:

        I know quite a few people who never really took the plunge to start reading the very first volume. They enjoy the series from that part on and shonen manga is written in such a way that you would not be lost or confused if you chose to read at a particular arc. That’s the benefit of having relatively simple characters. Manga editors have this in mind. They are not written with the expectation that someone interested is going to read all 100 volumes. They are written so that no matter which volume you feel like starting with, it’s interesting enough that you will want to get the others. Once you get a person to that state, they will no longer find the amount of volumes daunting as much. Once you have this kind of business model in mind then it’s easy to understand why long runners are as they are.

        For a western equivalent, the British series Doctor Who comes to mind. There have been several actors and the writing is all over the place with regards to each season and who is playing the Doctor. There is continuity but one is not required to have to start with the very first. The idea that different people have their own Doctor comes from that sensibility of writing it so that people can jump in at any season and be able to make sense of things and get hooked.

  5. I myself don’t read/watch much long-running works because, first, I’m too lazy to catch up to the newest chapter, second, long-running works, to me, are like keeping a dying man alive instead of letting him have his well-deserved rest.
    The last long-running work I finished was Bleach’s anime, 300 over episodes of this guy, fighting different monsters, people, whatever. It gets really, kind of a chore to watch, because, you know he is going to win.

    Currently.. only long-running work I read would be Medaka Box, but that one, all the ridiculous plot twists made it so entertaining.

  6. Reid says:

    And then there are some shounen series which should have gone on a little long…like “Holy Land”. And then there are some that just stopped, like “All Rounder Meguru” and “Noririn”. It’s unfortunate.

  7. Vikranth says:

    Can someone point me to articles about the “business/economic side of manga”, I dont have a clue :)

    • schneider says:

      I don’t know much either, because that’s usually the expertise of manga blogs… Most stuff I learn is about licensing in the West.

      Though I think you can glean a lot already on how Comiket works.

  8. Matt Wells says:

    The thing with series like Berserk and Hajime no Ippo is that the authors fully intend to keep on putting out chapter after chapter until they either reach cancellation or they die. And why shouldn’t they: who the hell wants to go back to the apalling weekly series rat race, desperately jostling for public attention with a new story every five years? The guy who created Guyver has done nothing BUT that for the last thirty years, and the end is still nowhere in sight.

    Guys like Takeshi Ohba are the exception. Most artists aim for that one big serialisation hit, and are content to put out the same material for the rest of their career. They finish at sixty with a pile of cash and retire into obscurity, cranking out the odd one shot or character design to keep their solid gold house in good nick. If the franchise has established itself wordwide, it’ll churn out money effortlessly. Just how hard do you think Akira Toriyama’s had to work since Dragonball finished airing? Nearly twenty years since the last TV episode and only NOW are they bothering to make brand new animation for it.

    And if you’re a fan of Jojo/One Piece/Kochikame/whatever Rumiko Takahashi is currently drawing… then that’s fine! People like seeing manga they grew up with still getting published, frozen in amber as an unchanging part of their childhood. Nostalgia is a potent drug. The problem is for new fans being introduced to their works experiencing the incredible highs only to catch up with disapointing stagnation in the present day.

    Then we get stuff like Battle Angel Alita: Last Order, or Initial D, or modern day Golgo 13. Miura may draw better than ever, but you can’t tell me the flow and heart of Berserk hasn’t suffered from his complacency. Many series WOULD be better off ending after five years or so, but it’s unlikey to ever happen unless the creator has iron cast integrity or is allergic to giant bundles of thousand yen notes.

    I think the saddest thing to do is to brave a hundred chapters in the hope that “it might get better”. Because that’s the same excuse that abused people give for their abusive spouses.

    Oh gawd, I’ve said that to myself so many times about Hajime no Ippo it physically hurts. No matter how little progress Ippo makes, fighting retarded new opponent after opponent, I just remember Takamura VS. Brian Hawk and I swallow my pride, PRAYING that we’ll see heights like that agin. But we never will.

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