The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 206 | Giant-killer: On Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan

Leaving Proof 206 | Giant-killer: On Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan
Published on Thursday, November 7, 2013 by
[UPDATED] Join us as we trace the rise of Attack on Titan, the breakout serial trade paperback “mega-hit” of 2013. ALSO: We muse on what the Nielsen BookScan graphic novel top 20 rankings tell us about bookstore graphic novel buyer tendencies.

Attack on Titan by Hajima Isayama

Any discussion of the most popular comics of 2013 would be incomplete without a mention of Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan, published by Kodansha Comics. The manga began publication in September 2009 as a serial entitled Shingeki no Kyojin (“Advancing Giants”) in Kodansha’s Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine anthology. Set in a steampunk-meets-the-late-Middle-Ages world, Shingeki no Kyojin has the remnants of the human race living inside a walled city-state, voluntarily penned-in because of the threat posed by roving bands of Titans—gigantic, minimally intelligent humanoids who eat people not so much for sustenance but seemingly as a gleeful diversion. The story revolves around Eren Jaeger, his adoptive sister Mikasa Ackerman, and their friend, the orphan Armin Arlert, three youths whose lives are irrevocably changed when Titans destroy their village and kill Eren and Mikasa’s mother. Eren, Mikasa, and Armin soon enlist in the Survey Corps (alternatively referred to as the Scouting Legion and the Recon Corps), a group of elite soldiers tasked with the supremely dangerous mission of venturing outside the safety of the city walls to gather information and intelligence that can be used in the war for survival against the Titans. A huge commercial success in Japan, Shingeki no Kyojin‘s chapters have been collected in 11 tankōbon (trade paperbacks in roughly the duodecimo size) to date, with over 20 million volumes in print as of Summer 2013.

In June 2012, Random House Publisher Services began distributing the English editions of the Shingeki no Kyojin trade paperbacks, titled Attack on Titan, in North America, but it wasn’t until after the animated adaptation of the comic—created and produced by Wit Studio, a subsidiary of animation powerhouse IG Port/Production I.G—started airing in late Spring 2013 on Japanese television and on online streaming services like Crunchyroll and FUNimation.com that North American sales of the trades began to pick up. Attack on Titan, Vol. 1 debuted in the Nielsen BookScan top 20 sales rankings for graphic novel sales in bookstores in June and the series has gone from strength to strength since.

Attack on Titan Nielsen BookScan graphic novel bookstore sales rankings since June 2013 (source: ICv2)
  • June 2013: Attack on Titan, Vol. 1 (ranked #19)
  • July 2013: Attack on Titan, Vol. 1 (ranked #12)

  • August 2013: Attack on Titan, Vol. 1 (ranked #2), Attack on Titan, Vol. 2 (ranked #10)
  • September 2013: Attack on Titan, Vol. 1 (ranked #4), Attack on Titan, Vol. 2 (ranked #7), Attack on Titan, Vol. 6 (ranked #9), Attack on Titan, Vol. 3 (ranked #16), Attack on Titan, Vol. 7 (ranked #18)

  • October 2013Attack on Titan, Vol. 1 (ranked #1), Attack on Titan, Vol. 2 (ranked #9), Attack on Titan, Vol. 7 (ranked #18), Attack on Titan, Vol. 3 (ranked #19)

AttackOnTitanVol2All in all, an estimated 500,000 Attack on Titan trade paperbacks are currently in print in North America, an impressive number for an import title, especially when measured against the numbers posted by the reigning king of North American graphic novel bookstore sales, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, which has seen combined trade paperback/hardcover unit-sales of over one million volumes in the past 18 months. Attack on Titan isn’t just one of the best-selling manga or serial trade paperback titles of 2013—it’s one of the best-selling comics of 2013 regardless of country of origin or format and it is one of the titles that industry observers are crediting for helping the North American graphic novel market register its first expansion since graphic novel sales contracted in 2008 amid the sell-off and eventual liquidation of major chain bookstores like Borders. Kodansha Comics announced at the recently-concluded NYCC that it would be ramping up the release of Attack on Titans volumes, shifting to a monthly release schedule through the fall so that the Japanese and North American editions will have synced up by January 2014. Attack on Titan is also one of the launch titles of Crunchyroll’s new comics-streaming service.

AttackOnTitanVol3How do we explain Attack on Titan‘s seemingly out-of-nowhere commercial success in North America? Looking at the timing of the trades’ sales spikes, it’s clear that the animated adaptation has played a huge role in popularizing the comic and the property, much in the same way that AMC’s hit television adaptation of The Walking Dead has helped drive sales of the eponymous Image Comics series. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the majority of people in North America familiar with Attack on Titan first encountered it in its animated form. As with the best full-motion adaptations of comics, director Tetsurō Araki (Guilty Crown, Highschool of the Dead, Kurozuka), screenwriter Yasuko Kobayashi (Casshern Sins, Witchblade, CLAYMORE), and the artists of Wit Studio have stayed reasonably faithful to the source material while streamlining it in places to better serve the aesthetic and storytelling needs of the animation medium. Wit Studio has brought an elevated stylishness to the visuals, imparting a “web-swinging” dynamism to their interpretation of the Survey Corps’ use of their compressed air-powered “Three-Dimensional Maneuvering Gear” that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Not that Isayama’s art in the comics isn’t good, but there’s a looseness to his rendering style, most apparent in the earlier volumes, that may turn off Western readers expecting to see the crisp and more conventional linework typically seen in popular shōnen manga like, say, Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto or Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece.

attackontitanvol4To say that the comics’ popularity is solely due to the influence of the animated adaptation would be inaccurate and unfair, however. Anecdotally, “scanlations” of Shingeki no Kyojin were already among the most widely read and circulated on the Internet before the animation aired and even before Kodansha started producing the English-language Attack on Titan trades.

Thematically, Attack on Titan is centered around the trinity of narrative motifs that typically informs shōnen manga: yūjō (friendship), doryoku (effort), and shōri (victory). Yūjō is exemplified by the close relationship that binds Eren, Mikasa, and Armin as well as their camaraderie with their military peers. Doryoku is seen in the trio’s will to succeed in their training as cadets and their missions as young soldiers—this is especially apparent in the cases of Eren and Armin, both of whom had to overcome notable deficiencies during their military training. And as is the case with most shōnen manga, it is that combination of yūjō and doryoku that will allow the protagonists to achieve shōri. Isayama does more than just regurgitate common shōnen manga tropes, however. There’s a bizarre, almost dreamlike element to Attack on Titan, most evident in the design of the Titans themselves. Isayama recounted in a recent TV interview that the idea for the humanoid monsters

… came to him when he encountered a drunk customer at the Internet café he was working at. He said he was inspired by the lack of the ability to communicate even though the person was of the same species, and thought at that moment that the most familiar and scary animal in the world is actually the human.

Indeed, there is something quite disturbing with the depiction of the Titans, many of whom bear an affect that can be likened to the grinning, careless stupor of intoxication or ignorance.

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attackontitanvol5Isayama further subverts reader expectations by depicting the best soldier among the three co-leads as the female soldier Mikasa. Mikasa isn’t just the best all-around fighter among the three friends, she is the top-ranked cadet in their trainee squadron and is already respected by most Survey Corps veterans as their equal (or superior, even) in combat. Also worth noting is Isayama’s portrayal of what can be described as post-traumatic stress disorder in the young veterans of the war against the Titans. Attack on Titan has received criticism from some quarters as being overly violent and militaristic in tone, and I can definitely see and understand how it can be interpreted as such. It’s never advisable to try and divine a creator’s intent and beliefs from their fiction, but I’ll go so far as saying that far from glorifying war, I think the Attack on Titan manga and the anime adaptation do a good job of tempering their portrayals of fantasy violence with depictions of the mental and emotional toll that combat takes on the soldier, and any parsing beyond that I would categorize as speculation on my part.

In a way, Attack on Titan reminds me a bit of Robert Heinlein’s Hugo Award-winning science-fiction novel Starship Troopers, a work that has influenced a lot of manga over the years, not just because of seeming character analogues (Eren = Rico, Mikasa = Carmen, Armin = Carl, Titans = the Bugs, etc.), but also because of its use of an existential conflict against an inhuman enemy to reduce the more philosophically troublesome aspects of justifying a war of extermination into arguments that are more manageable in an action-adventure fiction context. That morally reductive approach carries with it problems of its own, but no more so than most other fictional treatments of conflict, and I have suspicions that Isayama might be taking the story in some unconventional directions in future chapters given the developments seen in the latest volumes in the series.

Lessons from the Nielsen BookScan trends

AttackOnTitanVol6One of the more interesting observations in looking at the Nielsen BookScan graphic novel top twenty monthly sales rankings for 2013 is the paucity of new DC and Marvel titles. The rankings are monopolized largely by Image Comics (The Walking Dead and Saga in particular) and manga titles like Attack on Titan, Naruto, One-Piece, and Sailor Moon, with strong showings by Dark Horse’s Avatar: The Last Airbender titles during the first half of the year. Part of this observation can be explained away as selection bias: Most sales of new DC and Marvel trades and hardcovers are conducted in the Diamond Comics Distributors-moderated direct market (i.e., comics specialty shops) and not the Nielsen BookScan-tracked bookstore market. Still, the fact that the only consistent top twenty sellers for DC in bookstores are 20+ year-old titles like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and Batman: The Killing Joke and the fact that Marvel, the direct market sales leader, has gone consecutive months without even a single title in the bookstore sales top twenty strike me as indications that bookstore graphic novel buyers aren’t too interested in the current superhero stuff from the so-called Big Two.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that titles whose authors have significant name-recognition are among the few Marvel or DC books breaking into the bookstore top twenty. Unlike comic book shops, which generally group their wares according to publisher brand, bookstores are more author-focused in how they present material to the prospective buyer. In many ways, this is a more sensible approach to marketing graphic novels: What is a more reliable predictor of graphic novel quality, its author/creative team or the brand under which the book is published?

AttackOnTitanVol7Part of the problem with the general public’s perception of comics, particularly superhero comics published by Marvel and DC, is that there is still the lingering notion that they’re disposable entertainment of little artistic or literary merit, valuable primarily because of their utility in commerce. And I think some of the blame for that perception problem has to be laid at Marvel and DC’s feet. The Big Two, because of their vested interest in their ownership of the characters they publish, have always maintained, both in pronouncements and by their actions, that creators and creative teams on their ongoing titles are pretty much interchangeable, almost like glorified assembly line workers who can be shifted around and slotted in and out as needed, and that it’s the characters and “brand” that are important. It’s an approach that has worked well for them in the work-for-hire superhero comics-dominated direct market, where force of consumer habit and “brand loyalty” have sustained many ongoing high-profile titles through extended stretches of creative team instability and general creative fallowness.

I strongly suspect however, that for most bookstore customers, the identity of the author is the only “brand” that really matters. That’s reflected in the Nielsen BookScan rankings by virtue of the fact that most of the titles in the monthly top twenty rankings, whether they are Western comics or manga, are titles with strong authorial associations. That is, they are titles that are strongly identified with their authors. WatchmenV for Vendetta, and Batman: The Killing Joke aren’t in the bookstore top twenty because they’re DC books—they’re in the top twenty because they’re written by Alan Moore. As a simple thought experiment, consider this question: Would sales of Stephen King’s bestsellers radically change if he switched publishers from Simon & Schuster to, say, HarperCollins or Random House? Similarly, would Marvel acquiring the publishing rights to V for Vendetta or Watchmen significantly affect their sales performance? In both cases, I’d say that the answer is clearly “no.” And as we’ve seen with the much-maligned Before Watchmen books, slapping on the Watchmen label on comics without Alan Moore’s involvement (or even something as basic as his approbation) isn’t enough to convince Watchmen fans that the result will be in any way critically comparable to the original or worth buying—even DC’s own publicity department could only muster up a half-hearted recommendation for the line’s hardcover collections—at least not in quantities anywhere close to the numbers the original still does, over a quarter-century since it was first published.

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