"Sequential art" is a fancy way of saying "comics." Manga is of course the Japanese style of comics, now wildly popular around the world and generating readership among young people that American comics haven't experienced in many, many years. In fact, the audience for American comics, particularly the dominant superhero genre popularized by publishers like DC (Superman, Batman) and Marvel (Spider-Man, the X-Men), has been getting older, smaller and more insular for a very long time.
Why am I talking about all this? For one thing, Daniel Pink, author of Free Agent Nation and A Whole New Mind, and a big influence on my own work, is currently developing his next book, a career guide, in manga format. It's called The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, and samples can be seen here. The concept of a business book in manga form has been done before, by Shotari Ishinomori in his extremely ahead-of-its-time Japan, Inc.: An Introduction to Japanese Economics, but that was in 1988 (!), when manga was more exotic than blowfish sashimi. Pink, by virtue of his personal brand, the timeliness of the topic, and the cultural resonance of manga at this moment in history, seems far more likely to make a splash.
He's also riding a wave of broader acceptance for sequential art as a medium for the expression of serious ideas. Graphic fiction and autobiography has been steadily climbing out of the comic-book ghetto since the late 1970s. Originally, early efforts such as Will Eisner's A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (1978), Art Spiegelman's Maus, and Eddie Campbell's penetrating Alec series, were greeted with condescending headlines along the lines of "Zap! Smash! Pow! Comics finally grow up!" This continued up until the early years of this decade, in part due to the persistently greater visibility of superheroes in the pop culture. Around 2004, high culture bastions such as the New York Times and the New Yorker began taking serious notice of graphic literature. Today, works by serious writer/artists such as Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), Guy Delisle (Pyongyang) and Joe Sacco (Palestine), are routinely reviewed alongside prose literature, even if critics haven't quite figured out the right language to discuss the sequential art medium on its own terms.
Part of this is a generational shift. American critics from the Boomer generation grew up during a particularly benighted period in the history of sequential art where all comics were presumtively treated as juvenalia - a posture enforced by the industy's own internal code of censorship brought on by 1950s fears of juvenile deliquency. Some of the work produced in those years stands as imaginative, engaging storytelling and inventive art, but even the best of it was hamstrung by commercialism, poor production values, and lack of editorial ambition. When Boomers think of comics, they think, at best of the work of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in the pages of Fantastic Four, and when they think of comic-book culture, the unfortunate icon is the campy Batman television show from the mid-60s (the origin point of all those "Piff! Bam! Pow!" sound effects that dominated critical headlines).
GenX, by contrast, grew up with comics that took themselves somewhat more seriously. Socially-conscious work crept in to mainstream commercial comics in the 1970s, and a more ambitious generation of creators began asserting themselves in independent, self-published, and alternative titles such as Love and Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez, Eightball by Dan Clowes (Ghost World) and the various works of Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell).
The idea that comics could potentialy be more than heroes in spandex is uncontroversial to GenXers. GenX writers of serious fiction like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem celebrate their love of comics and have written comic books themselves without irony or condescension. Could one imagine Philip Roth or Anne Tyler doing the same? GenX critics like the estimable Douglas Wolk write intelligently and unapologetically about the medium, and generally welcome the dissolution of the boundaries that have fenced it off from other ambitious art and literature.
Millennials have had far less exposure to actual comic books (sales numbers since the early 1990s have been a fraction of their earlier highs, owing to the perverse distribution system favored by mainstream publishers), but much more exposure to comic-book culture in the form of big-budget Hollywood movies based on superhero and comic-book properties. They also gravitate to manga, apparently having far less of an issue with the stylized, slightly foreign feel of the art and subject matter as a result of having fewer preconceptions. As with technology, the medium of expression seems transparent to them. The old controversies about how seriously to take drawn stories (or drawn non-fiction) as compared to prose along are less than meaningless.
All of which bodes well for Mr. Pink and his latest opus. And personally, I wish him luck. I'd love to do my next book as a graphic novel!