[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Manga for Girls
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Wed Sep 21 01:40:00 UTC 2005
Manga for Girls
By SARAH GLAZER
Walk into almost any chain bookstore and you're likely to find a
teenage girl sprawled on the floor reading manga - thick
black-and-white comic books by Japanese authors. Graphic novels,
including manga, have been popular with American boys for years now.
But, to the surprise of publishers, "shojo" comics (or manga for
girls) have become one of the hottest markets in the book business.
Two publishers - Viz Media, which is Japanese-owned, and Tokyopop, an
American company - have been the leaders in the American manga market,
which has more than doubled since 2002, helped along by a $5 billion
business in related animated films, TV series and licensed products
like dolls and action figures. Del Rey, in the Random House Publishing
Group, has become the first New York publisher to enter the shojo
market in a big way (in partnership with Kodansha in Japan). Last
year, Del Rey sold a million copies of its first 16 releases combined.
Next year, it plans to bring out close to 85 manga titles, most of
them aimed at teenage girls.
Shojo - the word means girl in Japanese - frequently involves a
lovelorn teenager seeking a boyfriend or dealing with situations like
entering a new school, being bullied or trying to break away from a
clique. There are also action stories featuring girls in strong roles
as scientists and samurai warriors. (The shojo genre has been called
"big eyes save the world," after the characteristic drawing style of
girls with saucer-shaped eyes who are sometimes endowed with
But parents and teachers, who are sometimes happy to see teenagers
reading just about anything, might be caught off guard by some of the
content of the girls' favorite books. Among the best-selling shojo are
stories that involve cross-dressing boys and characters who magically
change sex, brother-sister romances and teenage girls falling in love
with 10-year-old boys. Then there's a whole subgenre known as shonen
ai, or boy's love, which usually features romances between two
impossibly pretty young men.
Shonen ai themes are common in Japanese comics for girls (as they are
in Japanese literature) but, intriguingly, they appear to be almost as
popular with girls here. "Fake," a best-selling series from Tokyopop,
the largest manga publisher in the United States, revolves around two
New York City police officers who look more like male fashion models.
The older, more experienced one surprises his novice partner with a
French kiss halfway through Volume 1, complete with cinematic
"Fake" is the No. 1 manga series requested by teenage girls in
Glendale, Ariz., but Kristin Fletcher-Spear, a librarian who
specializes in teenage services there, says she refuses to purchase it
because of the graphic sex scenes in the last volume. That volume, the
seventh, which finally lands the heroes in bed, is shrink-wrapped and
stamped "Mature" for ages 18-plus by Tokyopop. (Volume 1 is rated for
readers 13 and older.)
So far, publishers have been relying on their own age-rating schemes,
and there's no central governing body enforcing a uniform rating
system. While parents have campaigned against books by authors from
Judy Blume to Roald Dahl, there have been few complaints about manga,
according to a survey Fletcher-Spear conducted of 100 librarians
around the country. That could be because most adults have never even
heard of it. (More than 40 percent of the general population is still
unfamiliar with the genre, according to market research released by
Viz Media.) And manga is unlikely to catch the attention of the local
P.T.A. because teachers don't typically assign comics as homework or
accept them for book reports.
"Manga has been below the radar of the kind of people who insist
certain works be pulled from library shelves," says Gilles Poitras, a
librarian at Golden Gate University in San Francisco who leads manga
workshops for librarians. "I'm expecting more challenges to come up in
the next few years."
During her five-year tenure as a young-adult librarian in Fort Wayne,
Ind., which ended in 2002, Katharine Kan had many requests for manga,
she said, but she could recall only one complaint, concerning nudity
in a story about a boy who changes into a girl when splashed with
water. Publishers say they encounter the most resistance to manga not
from parents but from independent booksellers, like JoAnn Fruchtman,
owner of the Children's Bookstore in Baltimore, which does not stock
any manga. "I feel most of it is quite violent and the outcome is not
necessarily as uplifting as I think literature should be," she says.
Shojo comics in America are mostly translated from Japanese originals,
and like all manga are meant to be read back to front, right to left.
If you open a typical shojo like a regular book, you're likely to see
a note saying: "Stop! You are going the wrong way!" The idea is that
it's "a completely different reading experience," as one popular
series, "Othello," explains on its first (that is, last) page. Shojo
has also spawned a fashion craze among girls for dressing up as their
favorite characters; the oddest must be "Gothic Lolita" - an
innocent-girl-gone-bad look that involves black frilly Victorian
dresses and a little girl's bonnet or headband. All this adds to the
books' cult appeal.
Manga has been the engine driving one of the fastest-growing segments
of publishing - graphic novels, according to Milton Griepp, publisher
of ICv2, an online trade publication. Manga sales alone surged to $125
million last year, from $55 million in 2002, and girls and women
account for about 60 percent of manga's readership. The strongest
market right now is among girls aged 12 to 17, according to Tokyopop
and Viz Media.
The proliferation of Web sites and high school clubs devoted to manga
testifies to the devotion of its fans. And not all of it is R-rated or
gender-bending. "Fruits Basket," a series with 11 volumes already, is
No. 1 on the latest shojo best-seller chart compiled by ICv2; it
follows the adventures of a girl who moves in with a supernatural
family suffering under a curse. The latest volume is expected to sell
well into six figures, according to Tokyopop, its publisher.
But sales figures don't fully capture the fan base among shojo
readers, who can whip through a volume in half an hour in a bookstore
and often pass along copies to friends. Librarians complain that shojo
books are so worn out from multiple readers that they quickly fall
apart. Manga titles in general are among the most popular young-adult
books at the Brooklyn Public Library, according to one librarian, Joe
Anne Shapiro - four of the top five young-adult books on the current
reserved list are shojo books (the No. 1 spot going to the fantasy
best seller "Eldest"); one recent volume of "Fruits Basket" had 90
holds placed on it, she said.
However, like the owner of Children's Bookstore, some librarians and
booksellers are unwilling to stock shojo because of their concerns
about nudity, sex and violence. "I'm constantly amazed at what I see.
Books that appear appropriate for little girls all of a sudden have a
girl and boy in bed together," Betsy Mitchell, vice president and
editor in chief of Del Rey, says of Japanese shojo that she declines
to publish here.
Some publishers have expurgated manga for the American market. But
they run the risk of outraging fans, many of whom buy the books in the
original Japanese and find fan translations online (known as
"fanlations") to make sure they're getting their manga pure. After DC
Comics deleted some sexual and violent content from "Tenjho Tenge" - a
"Lord of the Flies" set in Tokyo - incensed readers attacked the
publisher for censorship on fan Web sites and picketed its booth at
"We've made a serious decision to publish only series that we didn't
have to do that to because readers that enjoy manga hate seeing it
touched in any way," Mitchell says.
At a Manhattan Barnes & Noble recently, I found 14-year-old Hilary
Roberts sitting on the floor in the manga section absorbed in "Ray," a
series by Akihito Yoshitomi, about a nurse who uses her X-ray vision
to save patients. She also steered me to "W Juliet," by Emura, in
which a boy disguised as a girl wins the part of Juliet in the school
play and falls in love with the androgynous-looking girl playing
"Normal American comics like 'Superman' don't appeal to me that much.
They focus more on superheroes and fighting evil. Manga has more
fantasy and it's more romantic," Roberts, who is in 10th grade at
Bronx High School of Science, told me, adding, "I think the art is
prettier." That about sums up why girls long ago abandoned American
superhero comics, a market increasingly dominated by adult male
collectors saving mint-condition comics in plastic bags.
Some manga experts have tried to explain the huge popularity in Japan
of shonen ai and "yaoi" - its racier version aimed at older women - by
pointing to the lack of romance in traditional Japanese marriages and
the more restrictive dating codes common until recently. In Japan,
manga are "like the release of the id," says Frederik L. Schodt, a
Japanese translator and author of "Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern
But why should teenage girls in anything-goes America be equally
attracted? "It's safer, especially if you're a younger teen, because
it doesn't put you in the story; you can relate and not feel it's
something you have to emulate" sexually, says Robin Brenner, a
librarian in Lexington, Mass., who runs a manga fan group.
The frequent Shakespearean switches of sexual identity also mirror the
fluctuations for girls at puberty between feeling like a tomboy and a
sexual woman, several psychologists suggested. As for the standard
plot, in which a resistant male is overwhelmed by an older male
pursuer, girls may get a thrill from seeing the tables turned on
traditional sex roles.
In June, Viz Media introduced "Shojo Beat," the first manga magazine
aimed at American girls, and last month Tokyopop began serializing
manga in CosmoGirl, which has six million readers. Both publishers
have also announced novelizations of popular shojo. Tokyopop's spring
lineup includes a novel version of a best-selling shonen ai,
"Gravitation," about a love affair between a high school boy and a
famous male romance author (rated for 16 and up). And Viz will release
two novels aimed at girl readers under its new Shojo Beat fiction
imprint. Next month "Socrates in Love," an all-time best-selling
romance novel in Japan about a girl who falls ill with leukemia, will
come out, and early next year "Kamikaze Girls," about the high school
friendship between a female biker gang member and a frilly Lolita
type, will be published.
Publishers are also banking on girls staying interested in manga as
they head into their college years and beyond. Masumi Homma O'Donnell,
publisher of the New York-based Central Park Media imprint
BeBeautiful, believes that the sexier yaoi novels, which her company
introduced in the United States a year ago, are the key to keeping
female readers. Books like BeBeautiful's "Kizuna," a male love
triangle featuring explicit sex scenes between men, have been selling
strongly at Borders and Barnes & Noble, and adult women make up the
most enthusiastic readers. Among the almost 500 fans who lined up for
a book signing by the author, Kazuma Kodaka, in New York City in May,
only two were men, ICv2 reported, and they were seeking autographs for
"We hit gold with shojo with 14-year-old girls," says Eric Searleman,
an editor at Viz Media. "Now we have to lay the groundwork for the
The industry will be watching closely to see if 20-somethings can be
enticed by six top-selling Harlequin romances coming out in manga
format starting this December. The new joint venture between Harlequin
Enterprises and Dark Horse Comics, based in Oregon, will feature two
color-coded series: pink for 13-year-olds and up; violet for older
teenagers and readers in their early 20's. Harlequin sees the venture
as an opportunity to take their novels to "a much younger audience"
than the typical romance reader, says Mary Abthorpe, vice president
for new business development.
More than 250 Harlequin books have already been released as manga in
Japan, where manga are read much more by adults than they are here.
Whether American women will enjoy their bodice-rippers in comicbook
form as much as Japanese readers remains to be seen.
Sarah Glazer last wrote for the Book Review in April, about
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