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She's Got Her Own Thing Now
Opening Shot by Dirk Deppey
from The Comics Journal #269
Panel from Comic Party: Party Time Volume One ©2001 Aquaplus; English translation ©2003 Central Park Media Corporation

A word to the domestic American comics industry: She doesn't belong to you. Perhaps she might have, long ago, but her attentions are directed elsewhere now. She doesn't want you. Denying her existence won't help. Plying her with ludicrous stories that were clichés decades ago won't, either. Stomping your feet and reassuring yourself that she'll be back just as soon as this fickle whim vanishes from her mind is delusional thinking on your part -- and to everyone watching you, clear evidence as to why she spurned your advances. The current object of her affections treats her the way she'd like to be treated, and it's been a long time since anyone could say that about you. You don't register at all. You're not even a ghost; so far as she's concerned, you don't exist. Frankly, I'm surprised that it's taken you this long to figure it out.

Shoujo manga -- Japanese graphic novels for teenage girls -- have caught the American comics scene flat-footed. Women represent the minority of creators in both the superhero-comics and art-comics scenes, and while there tend to be more female indy-comics fans than devotees of Marvel and DC's output, theirs is likewise very much a minority viewpoint. American comics is a boys' club. Because of this, the emergence of manga, and its attendant introduction of a wholesale tradition of comics for girls of all ages, has left many of us searching not only for the correct way to interpret it, but indeed for language sufficient to even describe the phenomenon.

Along the way, we generally get it wrong. Most observers seem to fixate on the "girly" visual tropes -- the big eyes and flowery backgrounds. This is a mistake. What really sets shoujo apart from most Western comics is the degree to which it concentrates upon human interaction: First and foremost, shoujo manga is about people, and young people in particular. You're far likelier to find comics centering on human drama in shoujo than in any other form of manga, and for this reason alone it's an avenue ripe for exploration by serious comics readers. Moreover, it's one of the most graphically adventurous schools of cartooning you'll find anywhere in the world. Shoujo manga creators have spent the last 30 years searching for the most intuitive ways to depict conversation, emotional states and human nature in graphic form, and their success in developing a visual language sufficient to reaching these lofty goals has been nothing short of astonishing.

Finally, Western readers tend to equate the aims of shoujo manga not only with romance comics, but with the lame, stereotypical, male-produced variety that once dominated the genre in the United States. Again, this is a mistake -- the shoujo tradition can encompass a wide variety of locales, themes and story forms, and has been the almost-exclusive domain of female artists since the early 1970s, when the Magnificent Forty-Niners revolutionized the Japanese girls'-comics industry and established the tropes, themes and techniques upon which future generations of cartoonists would in turn base their own work. There's a great deal of romance to be found in shoujo, sure, but it's romance from a woman's point of view: subtle, intricate and possessed of a greater understanding of matters of the heart than you could ever hope to find in a back issue of Millie the Model.

While there had been tentative moves towards the importing of translated shoujo manga on American shores as early as the late 1980s, the domestic revolution really got into gear with the 1990s American debut of the animated series Sailor Moon, based upon Naoko Takeuchi's original manga Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon. With its whimsical sense of fashion, thrilling adventure and complex backstory, Sailor Moon was like little else young girls had ever before seen on television, and miles above anything American animators were offering them. The anime led to interest in the manga, which in turn became the sort of success that made the bookstore market sit up and take notice. Scratch a modern-day manga fangirl, and you're likely to find someone who watched Sailor Moon when she was young.

The reaction of the American comics industry to all of this -- to shoujo manga specifically, but also to manga in general -- has been interesting to watch, albeit depressing as all hell. For years, readers and producers of domestic comics have slowly settled into opposing camps, with superhero comics on one side and art-comics on the other, and both sides settled in to what can only be described as a tiny Nerd Culture War. The divide is intense, and often somewhat bewildering to first-time observers. Titles that fall between the two camps often find themselves with little space in which to thrive -- the occasional exceptions, a 30 Days of Night here, a Blue Monday there, only bring into focus the depth of the empty space in which they reside. Manga has fallen into this space, as well. To the extent that various manga titles have found purchase within the largely antagonistic landscape of the Direct Market, it's usually been the shounen titles that most resemble the comics comforting to the existing fanbase: Akira, Appleseed, Hellsing and the like.

Speaking for myself, the straw that broke the camel's back fell during this year's Emerald City Con in Seattle. I'd stepped out to smoke a cigarette and was watching the passersby. I noticed a family leaving the convention -- a Mom, a Dad, and a little girl no older than eight years of age. The girl was decked out in a beautiful, elaborate kimono and clearly distressed by what she'd just encountered. "But they didn't hardly have any manga at all!" she said as they walked away.

When I was done with my cigarette, I went back inside and relayed this story to an acquaintance prominent in the art-comics publishing scene. "I hate to say it, but good," was his reply. Indeed, I told the story several more times that day, to both indy-comics and superhero-comics professionals, and the reaction was more or less the same each time. A young reader disappointed by the selection offered to her? Good. The future of comics walks out the door, unable to find what she wants? Good. I left the convention early, lost in a foul mood. I swear: I love the comics art form with a passion, but my utter contempt for the American comics industry grows like a cancer with each passing day.

Given this attitude -- the industry's, not my own -- it should come as no surprise that American comics professionals in general, and retailers in particular, have been slow in embracing manga. This is in part understandable; as both an industry and a culture, manga comes with an intimidating learning curve and a fairly steep financial investment as the cost of entry. As a result, manga hasn't become nearly the sales revolution in comics shops that one might expect compared to its successes elsewhere. Writing in his Tilting at Windmills column for the comics website Newsarama, esteemed San Francisco retailer Brian Hibbs explains the dilemma:

I truly don't understand why we're seeing such drastically different results in the DM than in the bookstores with manga. The other places on the list where BookScan shows great sales, I'm doing well with that work -- but not manga. I can barely give manga away. Sales are compressed in the first weeks, then I never sell another copy again. I'm stuck with a disproportionate amount of unsalable stock, and more product is being released than I could possibly rack, even if the sales were there. This perplexes me.

Part of the problem is institutional: American comics shops have been spandex-oriented boys' clubs for so long that convincing the non-comics-reading public that they can be anything else is a hard sell. It must be said, though, that retailers are frequently their own worst enemies in this regard. My own local comics shop is an excellent example of this phenomenon. On the one hand, it's one of the best places to buy comics in the Pacific Northwest, and has one of the finest selections of manga in Seattle this side of the Japanese bookstore in the international district. On the other hand, how would anyone know? Walk outside and stare at the window display, and you'll see posters for superhero comics, art-comics, Complete Peanuts -- but nothing whatsoever to indicate that manga can be purchased there. Apparently, their marketing strategy involves some form of telepathy. Reputation and cluelessness are a deadly combination, and the Direct Market carries both in spades.

You certainly can't lay all of the blame at retailers' feet, however; the rest of the industry is far worse. Critic Paul O'Brien laid out the dimensions of the problem in his column for the website Ninth Art:

[...] While the American publishers continued to fight over the same audience, the Japanese just pitched their tent down the road and invited in the public. And, in doing so, proved what some people had been saying for years - the approach of the American industry must, on some level, be fundamentally misconceived. Granted, the manga audience was drawn in partly through links with anime fandom, but that's not the point. Here is a mass audience who want to spend money on comics. And other than the reprint houses, how much success have American publishers had in reaching them? Next to nil.

With the emergence of manga as a dominant force in the American bookstore market, domestic comics producers are at long last questioning their previous publishing strategies. Alas, the question most often being asked by the major houses runs along the lines of, "How do we get these manga readers buying Spider-Man comics?"

Short answer: You don't.

Long answer: Manga sells for several reasons, some cosmetic, some related to content, none related to the kinds of comics you seem hellbent on shoving down young readers' throats.

Manga is drawn in a style that years of videogame play and anime viewing have accustomed readers to accept. It's a comfortable, broadly conceived style that emphasizes character and emotion, while still leaving plenty of room for kinetic action. Visually, manga exudes a pop sizzle that goes down as easy as a Dan the Automator jam. The extended storytelling provides a distinctly cinematic feel, yet it would be a mistake to dismiss the form as merely aping film; the practitioners of manga are well-versed in the narrative techniques native to comics, and have used them to develop a unique and extensive set of storytelling tricks that simply wouldn't work in animation. (The tendency to drop into "superdeformed mode," where characters suddenly transform into ultra-cartoony versions of themselves when broad comedy is demanded, is a classic but by no means unique example. There are anime that copy this technique, to be sure, but it doesn't flow nearly as smoothly on-screen as it does on the comics page -- usually, it's used as an intentional nod to manga tropes when it's used in anime at all.)

More pertinent, though: manga isn't a genre but a meta-category. There aren't one or two kinds of manga stories -- there are hundreds. While American youth-oriented comics are by and large trapped in the clutches of the One True Genre, manga offers a stunning variety of story-forms that are likely to pique your interest regardless of what kinds of stories you like: action, mystery, horror, fantasy, crime, historical epics, romance, sports, comedy, gothic, school drama... the list goes on and on. Shonen Jump is currently serializing a story dedicated to the ancient Asian boardgame known as Go. Could you even imagine Marvel or DC doing such a thing?

Finally, and most importantly: The vast majority of manga being reprinted in the United States reflect the vision of a single creator or set of creators. This isn't quite as inflexible a rule as that statement makes it sound -- many manga studios more closely resemble the "communal assembly line" employed by Will Eisner than they do a single artist sitting at a drawing table -- but even if the guiding force behind a given story (the manga-ka) is merely plotting and drawing the main characters' faces, there's still a single guiding force behind the story.

To emphasize the point, compare two media phenomena that attempted to drive sales towards graphic novels: Naruto and X-Men. The fact that Naruto has become popular in both print and animated forms should surprise no one; given that it's the story of a young boy who's secretly a nine-tailed demon, who spends his days going to ninja school and getting into constant trouble, you could safely call this series a license to print money from the moment its creator wrote that concept down in his notebook. If the Naruto anime left you interested enough in the story to go to a bookstore and check out the manga, you'd find more of the same: The anime stays as close as possible to manga-ka Masashi Kishimoto's original concepts, and Kishimoto is in turn the consistent driving force behind the creation of the comics version, regardless of who spotted the blacks or drew a particular forest background. So long as you first bought the Naruto volume with the big "1" on the spine, liked it and followed it with the one labeled "2," you're pretty much guaranteed to be satisfied by the results.

If the X-Men films convinced you to pick up your first X-Men graphic novel, however, you'd be in for an entirely different experience. Your first exposure would depend upon which author's version of the series you pulled out of the stack, be it Stan Lee, Chris Claremont, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar or Chuck Austen, and the artwork would likely change from one artist to another within the book's pages. If you remained interested enough by what you read to buy a second one, that second volume would be as much of a crapshoot as the first, unless you very carefully observed which names were on the spine each time you invested your hard-earned dollars on a new book. The replaceable nature of the writers and artists, as dictated by the work-for-hire business practices upon which Marvel depends, actively discourages casual readers exactly to the extent that casual readers can never be sure what they get when they open an X-Men book.

Even where American comics publishers have managed to attract followings of both genders in bookstores, they by and large haven't known what to do with them. DC Comics came close when they unexpectedly struck gold with Neil Gaiman's Sandman, and to their immense credit they allowed him to close the series with an actual, conclusive ending when he decided that he was done. Alas, they couldn't simply leave it at that: Dead Boy Detectives, Books of Magick, and the current shambling mound of a sequel, Life During Wartime, try without success to keep the spark alive, and the results usually remind one more of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein than The Bride of Frankenstein. The most instructive example is Jill Thompson's attempt to graft a manga coating to the franchise with her Death volumes. This is the sort of thing that suggests a concept being driven into the ground more than a concept being given a new lease on life. What's next: Beneath the Planet of the Endless? Death Goes Hawaiian?

The Vertigo imprint is the closest thing DC has to a successful, Tokyopop-style brand, and yet its chief skill seems to lay in repeatedly dropping the ball. Even when the artists it publishes concoct imaginative and engrossing works, the results are just sort of thrown to the wall to see if some strange, Sandman-style magic will be enough to make them stick. Both Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's Preacher and Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson's Transmetropolitan have the potential to do well among the sort of readers that don't usually read comics -- which is to say, most readers -- yet if Warner's Inexplicable Pigmy has ever spent so much as a single dime in advertising or promotion on these series anywhere outside the Direct Market, it's news to me.

Unable to imagine a business model that doesn't involve the superhero comics upon which their corporate officers grew up, incapable of investing in different works unless they do well in the overwhelmingly superhero-oriented Direct Market, and unwilling to spend any significant time or money promoting such works outside of said market if it involves anything laughably resembling a long-term investment strategy, the titans of American comics have thus essentially ceded the game to the Asian invaders without a fight. What makes all of this so wickedly funny is that companies like Tokyopop and Viz are practically rubbing Marvel and DC's noses in the practices that have allowed manga publishers to succeed at levels previously thought impossible... and yet Marvel and DC still clearly can't figure it out. DC's foray into manga has so far been notable mainly for the whole Tenjou Tenge clusterfuck (see Newswatch, TCJ #268 for details). Marvel, by contrast, has responded to manga with an ever more elaborate series of pratfalls and farting sounds -- excuse me, I meant to say "a variety of failed comics imprints and half-hearted attempts at aping the form." No matter how low your opinion of American comics publishers might have been, reality has just proven you an optimist.

Man, look at you. Did you even hear a word I just said? What are you, stupid? You still don't get the point, do you? It has now been conclusively demonstrated that the young female reader is, in fact, quite willing to buy comics. She just doesn't want yours. She's got her own thing now, and if you want her to notice you again, you're going to have to play by her rules. If you can't be bothered to do that, you have no one to blame but yourself.

(Click here to read the editor's notes for The Comics Journal #269.)

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