A candid and personal examination of the Philippine comics scene from a social, cultural, economic and business point of view.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The rise of the U.S. Graphic Novel, the Age Wave, and the Filipino Youth Market

Besides literacy and equitable income distribution, one other possible factor to consider in understanding why mature comics with serious literary and artistic content thrive in countries such as France, Italy, Belgium, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, is a rise in number of older people in these societies; a phenomenon colloquially known as the "age wave".


Since 1975, there has been a perceptively gradual and steady increase in the number of older people than young people in most developed countries of the world such as those mentioned above. (Source: "Global Aging" by Pete Engardio and Carol Matlock, Businessweek Asian Edition, January 31, 2005).

Examining also the history of comics publishing in these countries one will notice that their respective comics publishers produced more mature and literate comics as their market readership grew older. Over time, this publishing policy ensured the variety, growth, and public acknowledgment of comics as part of the mainstream, or popular culture, of these countries especially in France and Japan.


The age wave, or the global rise of an older population, has been attributed to declining fertility rates and longer lifespans. Birth control and better opportunities for women in most parts of the world have lowered birth rates from 5 to 6 children in the 1950s to as few as one or two today. Great advances in health care have also added two full decades to the world's average lifespan of 60 years old to 66 years today. (Source: "Global Aging", Ibid.)

The average working age in most parts of the world is from 15 to 64 years old. This demographic however, was found to be dwindling in countries such as France, Japan, Norway, Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and China, to name a few, where the number of elderly people aged 65 and up is increasing. (Source: "Global Aging", Ibid.)

"The ranks of 60 year olds and older are growing 1.9% a year--60% faster than the overall world population. In 1950 there were 12 people aged 15 to 64 to support each other on reaching retirement age. Now the global average is nine. It will be only four to one by mid-century, predicts the U.N. Population Division. By then, the elderly will outnumber children for the first time. Some economists fear this will lead to bankrupt pensions and lower living standards." (Source: "Global Aging", Ibid.)


The rise of a graying population however, is not without cost. In Europe and Japan the cost of caring for the elderly has risen, such that it is much cheaper to import foreign caregivers and health workers from India, Mexico, Philippines, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Brazil, Indonesia, Iran, and Egypt, less developed nations with younger impoverished populations starved for much needed foreign exchange. The earned foreign exchange is then remitted back supposedly for the development of these countries. This global income-earning opportunity sourced from an almost worldwide graying population is referred to as the "demographic dividend".

Not only the young labor force but also professionals from graying populations are also dwindling such that young I.T. workers, doctors, nurses, teachers, and other professionals from the same less developed nations with young populations are being called in as immigrants to fill the growing vacuum.

"World population growth has slowed dramatically over the last decade and appear headed for absolute decline. Forecasts by the United Nations and other independent organizations indicate that many nations will shrink in absolute size and the average age of the world's citizens will shoot up dramaticaly, as the growth rate of the elderly will outpace all sectors of the population. This will have, and in fact already has, an impact on the global distribution of labor, which increasingly will favor nations with comparatively young populations." (Source: "Faith in the Philippines" Speech before the 3rd Filipino Global Networking Conference, Waterfront Hotel, Cebu City, January 21, 2005, by CEO Jaime Augusto de Ayala, BizNews Asia, January, 2005 issue)


The United States however, is still considered to have a young population, or youth "teen" market, with high purchasing power. Though it will take some time, even the U.S. is not immune to the age wave.

"Because of a slightly high fertility rate and an annual intake of 900,000 legal immigrants, America's population should grow from 285 million now to 358 million in 2025. And the U.S. median age will rise just three years, to 39, over the next quarter century, before the aging of America really starts to accelarate." (Source: "Global Aging", Ibid.)

Yet as previously discussed in this blog, America's huge youth market is not supportive of its youth-oriented comicbooks more particularly the predominantly superhero comics from DC and Marvel which now generally sell about 20,000 to 40,000 copies a month per title. (Source: Interview: Michael Uslan, Man behind the Batman, Part TWO, SHH question no. 2, at www.superherohype.com).

Ironically, the American youth market is more supportive of the Japanese comic or manga, especially Boys and Girls' manga. U.S. superhero comics it seems, have lost their "youth appeal" and have been customized to attract a limited and largely young adult cult audience.

But other than the Japanese manga, the U.S. teen market of 13 to 17 year olds spend their billion dollar allowances on other, more satisfying diversions such as music, bowling (the highest rated participatory sport among U.S. teens), movies, fashion, television, radio, computer games, and the Internet. These interests however, are not shared by the youth markets of France and Japan, the two other great comics producing countries of the world. (Source: Elissa Moses, "The $100 Billion Allowance: Accessing the Global Teen Market")


French teens in fact, were found to spend more time with friends, buy jeans, athletic shoes, watches, backpacks, prefer foreign movies, drink bottled water and smoke cigarettes. Japanese teens on the other hand, also spend more time socializing with friends, listen to music, watch more television than play video games or use the computer, are avid readers of daily newspapers and magazines, and are serious shoppers. (Source: Elissa Moses, Ibid.)


Curiously though, serious literary works in graphic novel format have become popular in the United States despite its huge youth market. And it is not the youth that is supporting this graphic novel boom but adults. This emergence of an American adult audience for mature graphic novels can be ascribed to several factors:
  1. These graphic novels treat of serious, reality-based subject matters that are within the comprehension and appreciation of an adult audience, such as terrorism, alienation, politics, war, oppression and racism, to name a few;
  2. Some of these serious graphic novels like Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis", and Art Spiegelman's "Maus", have become standard textbook reading in collegiate learning institutions populated by adults such as the U.S. Military Academy and others;
  3. These graphic novels are largely sold in bookstore chains across the U.S. and are frequented by a broader, more varied, mature and literate adult audience, not by the now few, out-of-the-way comics specialty shops visited faithfully by adolescents and cult comics enthusiasts; and
  4. The emergence of a new breed of sophisticated, older, and mature comics creators such Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Marjane Satrapi, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Daniel Clowes, Craig Thompson, Harvey Pekar, James Kochalka, Peter Kuper and others, that are now being publicly recognized by a mainstream U.S. middle class, adult audience.

The facts speak for themselves:

"Global publishers say that graphic novels--which include everything from the hugely popular Japanese illustrated stories known as manga to highly sophisticated works like "Persepolis", Art Spiegelman's 'In the Shadow of No Towers" and Joe Sacco's "War's End"-- had their best year ever in 2004 and look to grow even more in 2005. In the United States, sales of graphic novels have leaped from $75 million in 2001 to $207 million in 2004. Booksellers in America, Britain, Germany, Italy and South Korea cite graphic literature as one of their fastest-growing categories. In Borders, one of America's largest bookstore chains, graphic novels sales have risen more than 100 percent a year for the past three years. In France, where comics have long been mainstream, sales are reaching record highs, up to 13.8 percent to 43.3 million copies in 2004; indeed, five of the ten bestselling books in France last year were comic books. Manga, which already represents 20% of Japan's publishing market is also spreading rapidly in South Korea, Thailand and other countries; in many cases, locals are buying American versions of the originals in an effort to learn English. Move over, Spider-Man. Graphic literature has finally broken out of hobby shops and into the mainstream. Superhero fantasies have given way to grittier, more pointed works grounded firmly in reality. Academics in the United States and Europe are teaching comics as literature in the classroom. Books like 'Persepolis"--as well as Sacco's "Palestine" and 'Safe Area: Gorazde", and Guy Delisle's "Pyongyang"--are held up not only as great literature but also as instructive guides to global conflict zones." (Source: "Comic Relief" by Rana Foroohar, Newsweek International Edition, August 22, 2005 issue)


A $207 million sales figure however, is not enough at this time to place the whole U.S. comics industry at par with the historically consistent quality and output of France and Japan but it is a good start and a welcome sign of recovery. Nobody is yet sure if this momentum could be made more permanent but the marketing efforts of American grahic novel publishers and distributors is such that they are positioning themselves this early to penetrate and nurture an older and mature adult market. The age wave in America is still a long way off but by positioning themselves this early, the negative impact of a dwindling youth market in the future will be lessened by a then established market for sophisticated and serious graphic novels patronized by a broad and varied adult audience not only in the U.S. but in other countries of the world, especially in countries with graying populations.


As previously stated, the Philippines is still a predominantly young nation. But unlike the United States, the age wave is seen to hit the Philippines at a much earlier time and within this century, to wit:

"Within 20 years, East Asia's dynamic tigers will be youthful no longer. South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong will have a median age of 40. Indonesia, India, Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Iran, and Egypt will still boast big, growing pools of workers for two decades. But they're on the same demographic curve and will show the effects of an aging population a generation or two later. "The aging workforce is the biggest economic challenge policymakers will face over the next 20 years," Monika Queisser, a pension expert at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development." (Source: "Global Aging" by Pete Engardio and Carol Matlock, Businessweek Asian Edition, January 31, 2005)

The estimate is that the number of youthful working age Filipinos will hit its peak at 68% in the next two decades, or at the year 2025. After this, the graying of the Philippine population will start a generation or two later. In this context, a "generation" is defined by the Oxford Quick Reference Dictionary as the average time (about 30 years) in which children are ready to take the place of their parents. Consequently, a generation of 30 years after 2025 is 2055, and two generations from 2025 is 2085. It is estimated that in either of these years, 2055 or 2085, the youth population in the Philippines will start to dwindle, and that the number of older people will begin to rise.

"Philippine population has shifted structurally where those of working age--from 15 to 64--will considerably dwarf those of dependent age (children and the elderly). In 2005, our working age population is projected to constitute 61.8% of the population. This is projected to rise to 63.9% by 2010, 65.6% by 2015, and 68% by 2025." (Source: "Faith in the Philippines" speech before the 3rd Filipino Global Networking Conference, Waterfront Hotel, Cebu City, January 21, 2005, by CEO Jaime Zobel de Ayala, BizNews Asia, February 7-14, 2005)

What do all these data mean for the Philippine comics scene? Prevailing comics publishing policy is primariy centered on the youth market. A far cry from the bakya class C, D, and E adult market of the Filipino banketa komiks of yesteryear.

A 2001 study by an internationally renowned advertising firm however, does not idenitfy comics reading as among the Filipino youth market's spending, leisure, or reading priorities. Thus:

"The nationwide survey conducted by McCann-Erickson Philippines discovered that 13-21 year olds in all social classes today are more social and connectivity-driven than ever before. "With the kind of physical and social environment they now live in, they feel a much stronger need to be stimulated by the world around them." explained Nandy Villar, Vice President for Strategic Planning of McCann-Erickson. The McCann Youth Study, which sought to understand the values, morals, attitudes and practices of young Filipinos, noted their social activities like eating out, going to the mall, hanging out with friends, and talking on the phone have become more popular than in 1992, when the study was first undertaken." (Source: "Interactive.gen takes over", Special Report, Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 14, 2001).

According to the National Youth Commission, as of 2001 the Filipino youth aged 13-24 make up 60% of the country's population, or 50 million young people. (Source: "50 Million Youth deserve to be heard", Special Report, Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 14, 2001)

Printed comicbooks however, are not interactive and do not meet the more socially inclined and electronic gadget conscious youth of today. Like those in the affluent A and B income demographic, the youth market in the class C and D demographic living in and out of Metro Manila have equal access to advanced communication technologies today such as cellphones, cable television, and the Internet.


The McCann-Erickson study also found that because of their ready access to prevailing communication technology, the Filipino youth are more politically outspoken and socially conscious given the widespread media coverage of the political developments at the time surrounding the ouster of Joseph Ejercito Estrada from the presidency. The Filipino youth surf, chat, text and download almost incessantly. With the present and widespread media coverage surrounding the alleged election-rigging scam committed by incumbent President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, we could safely assume this particular finding to be applicable and valid even to this day.

This genuine concern by the Filipino youth for the country's political and social well-being as exposed by the country's mass media, is not one of a unified political cooperation, but of political polarization and cynicism, distrusting in general the country's political institutions. This collective distrust has also caused the development of a dangerously fragmentary mindset saying that the youth have to ultimately rely on themselves and their families if they are to survive economically. National unity and cooperation are thus seen by our present youth as empty bromides and one big pipedream.

The McCann-Erickson study further found that this infamous "kanya-kanya" system has in turn spawned a new set of mores and values for the Filipino youth. Due in part to a collective cynical psyche and widespread access to media, schoolwork has consequently declined to a significant level as young people give more attention to leisure activities presumably as a means of escape from the economic hardship all around them. Foremost of these activities are role playing computer games, MTV, MP3, modems, mobile phones, and the Internet. As a result of this wide exposure to escapist electronic media, the Filipino youth's role models have consequently been those of the same media, specifically showbiz personalities, and not their parents who usually fail in giving them proper attention, resorting instead to fear and authority rather than parental love and friendship.

The same study also found that most young people begin to smoke, date, and drink alcohol at age 16. To a significant degree, more young people tolerate pre-marital sex, divorce/separation, and alcohol intake. An increased percentage of 25% of those who have had sexual intercourse are not worried about sexually transmitted diseases. And, a significant number say that they would consider abortion under certain situations.


The foregoing clearly show that the Filipino youth of today are not as simple or innocent as one would believe them to be. At a very young age, they have been exposed to, and are dealing with, adult situations and circumstances. Because of the existing income inequality in Philippine society, an inadequate education system and prevalence of functional literacy (or mediocrity) it is no wonder that most of our youth have become jaded and cynical. What kind of comics content then, should be provided to such an audience?

If one were to provide wholly entertaining and harmless escapist fantasy as is being done now by imported and locally globalized Filipino comics, doesn't this help inflame even more the Filipino youth's cynicism towards his/her society and culture? By nurturing the Filipino youth's retreat into the world of foreign-inspired fantasy and harmless improbability, are we not indirectly creating a false enthusiasm and admiration for foreign lands and their culture, at the same time promoting disdain for a perceived impoverished local culture? Aren't we aggravating the situation by unintentionally molding jaded and cynical individuals to ultimately be incapable of facing and dealing with their individual problems in real life? Doesn't this unreasonably wholesale patronage to pure fantasy and escapism stunt the potential reader's literacy level as well?

Changing our perspective now from a business and economic point of view, wouldn't this exclusive focus on entertainment content constitute an impractical and losing proposition considering that there are other alternative media specializing in the same content, is doing a better job, and is patronized even more by Filipino youth rather than the printed "entertaining" comic? Between a printed 32 or 100 glossy paged comic, and a computer game that you can play for hours, or "Friendster" on the Internet, or a multifunctional cellfone, its no contest. The printed comic loses big time.

Yet, there is the untried alternative which is that of providing an unmet need of the audience. Instead of pandering to the Filipino youth's juvenile cynicism and near bacchanallian preoccupation with leisure, why not produce mature, adult, socially relevant, Filipino comics that genuinely speak of the human condition from a Filipino perspective, and which help elevate the Filipino youth reader's comprehension and appreciation for the arts and other disciplines beyond his current functional literacy level? This is of course, without compromising at the onset the comic's entertainment value which is to be kept at a minimum. Education and inspiration in comics is after all, an unmet and real need especially in difficult and trying times such as these.

From an economic and business point of view, this would in the long run help develop not only a mature and adult audience in the future, but also lay the groundwork for the production of more varied pieces of comics works that only an adult and mature audience can support not only in the Philippine market, but in foreign markets as well, especially in countries with graying populations.

In other words, why not in anticipation of the age wave, produce Filipino comics that help a predominantly young and directionless audience grow up?


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