Two good tastes that taste good together!
DROPS OF GOD is what you never knew you always wanted.
Knocking around New York Comicon last week, it was nice to see all the enthusiasm for comics as ever, though one very large elephant in the room (other than videogames) was the central dilemma for the American comics industry is the shrinking market of readers as they get older and grow out of superhero comics or Young Adult books. There was also still the common misconception from parents who weren't regular comics readers that comics were still only for kids, which I found when I stopped by the mainstream publishers' booths and observed the slightly bewildered reaction of parents to their teenage kids' enthusiasm for manga and adaptations of popular YA novels like GOSSIP GIRL and TWILIGHT.
That's what the Japanese comics industry has over the Western industry. In Japan, more than in France, the manga market is cradle-to-the-grave: there are manga series that cater to every age group, social class and just about every interest in Japan. Japan is a highly literate society and reading comics is as normal as turning on the TV everyday.
The biggest surprise at NYCC, hidden away at Vertical Inc.'s table, was the US launch of the Japanese wine appreciation manga DROPS OF GOD. Originally begun in Japan in 2004 and still going, LES GOUTTES DE DIEU, the preferred French title, or KAMI NO SHUZUKU, the sheer idea of the manga has surprised everyone I've told about it. It's not even something the French have thought to do, though the manga has been translated into French for years now and is a huge seller in France, another place other than Asia where a bestselling comic can sell millions of copies.
Meticulously researched and with more than a hint of real experience from the writers, DROPS OF GOD follows young upstart Shizuku Kanzaki's bid to compete in an elite wine appreciation competition in order to earn his late father's priceless collection of rare wines. His adversary is his adopted brother, an evil wine critic who corrupts everything he touches. This may sound goofy to some, but the quintessential Good vs. Evil conflict provides the framework for teaching the reader how the wine industry works, how to sample, drink, understand and appreciate wine, There's a genuine passion about wine in the telling of the story as it strives to show the reader why wine can be a passion for people who love it. It shows how wine and love of wine can be synonymous with the passions, struggles and complexities of Life itself, how the purity of the passion has to be fought for against commercialisation and being used purely as a symbol for status and power by those too materialistic, power-hungry and just plain evil.
Tadashi Agi is really the pseudonym for the brother-sister writing team Shin and Yuko Kibayashi, long-time veterans in the manga industry who between them have each written long-running manga series in several genres under other pennames and aimed at different markets, from the teen Sci Fi series GETBACKERS and PSYCHOBUSTERS to the mystery series KINDAICHI CASE FILES. Yuko is currently writing the final chapters of the popular teen technothriller series BLOODY MONDAY under the pen name Ryo Ryomon, now out in US from Kodansha. Shin is a former manga editor and so the two of them know everything there is about manga storytelling, art, pacing and are major players in the industry, with many new series they write becoming instant hits in their respective markets. You may not know this from reading DROPS OF GOD, but the enthusiasm for wine and the wine world comes across as genuine, and utterly sincere in the series' desire to teach the readers about wine and encourage them to start trying it themselves. When I last checked, the series was up to volume 27 in Japan and still being serialised. The art is naturalistic, none of the usual cartoony-kawaii big-eyed stuff, the men and women depicted are as beautiful as the idealized stars of Japanese and Korean TV dramas, which signals the more adult audience it's aimed at. Only a frighteningly precocious child would want to read this comic and I rather hope he or she doesn't exist. Unsurprisingly, there is a live action TV series version that started in 2009.
In Japan, DROPS OF GOD is a prime example of a popular, mainstream comic series catering to a specific demographic: the target audience for DROPS OF GOD has been young, professional, aspirational men and women from their 20s to 40s. It has not only sold in the millions, but the real wines the series covers have seen massive sales and rise in popularity as well, a prime example of popular culture and popular tastes feeding each other in a symbiotic relationship. Somehow, being a nerd for wine is a lot more socially acceptable than being a nerd for magical girls or giant robots piloted by teenagers. It's not surprise that comics circles here in the US have been unaware of this book – I told Aaron from A Comic Shop all about it and took him to the Vertical Inc. table to see it at NYCC. All the marketing of DROPS OF GOD has been primarily to wine and food publications and websites, which is the target audience after all. The recent glowing review from the foodie website Gilt Taste reports that DROPS OF GOD is now the most important wine publication in the world, where being mentioned can cause the sale of a particular wine to skyrocket. Real-life winemakers make cameos in the comic and the writers would turn their attention to lesser-known labels and vintages and turn them from obscure, cultish names into international bestsellers. The Kibayashis have become major players in the world of wine as a result of the series. For all the talk and dreams that US and UK comic creators have for mainstream acceptance, DROPS OF GOD is the realisation of that dream, surpassing it into not just mainstream but upmarket acceptance.
Gilt Taste review:
I wasn't paid or bribed to talk about DROPS OF GOD. I don't even drink alcohol these days. I just like the idea that it exists and I like the look in people's eyes when I tell them about it.
(Thanks to Ed Chavez at Vertical Inc. for some additional information)
DROPS OF GOD vol. 1 is now available in US bookshops and online shops.
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