boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Girl power

Young women are driving one of the hottest trends in pop culture: Japanese comics

If you said the word "comics" a few years ago, it summoned up images of boys hunkered over magazines illustrated with their favorite superheroes.

The industry didn't make it easy for females to become fans. Many comics featured male-dominated stories with titles that ended with some form of the word "man" -- think "X-Men," "Batman," "Superman," or "Spider-Man." The work tended to be distributed in comic-book stores that some people would describe as creepy. Even if girls got into illustrated work, it lost its appeal once they reached a certain age.

"Girls would read `Archie' comics until they turned 10 or 11, then read youth novels or teen novels," says Matt Thorn, a visiting scholar at Harvard's Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, who has devoted 15 years to studying female readers of Japanese comics.

Then anime characters turned their unnaturally large eyes toward the neglected female demographic. Japan's version of animation powered such television hits as "Pokemon" and "Sailor Moon" in the 1990s and brought female fans to the threshold of Japan's vibrant comics and animation scene. It wasn't long before their love of anime sparked an interest in manga, the Japanese word for comics (it literally means "whimsical pictures"). First they reached for shojo manga, comics about relationships and love aimed at girls. From there, they easily made the jump to the more mainstream, action-oriented shonen ("boy") manga.

The Japanese comics are now so hot in the United States that ICv2.com, a trade-news website that focuses heavily on the genre, called it the fastest-growing sector of pop culture last year. Sales reached $100 million in 2003, growing by about 75 to 100 percent over the previous year, according to ICv2's "Retailers Guide to Anime/Manga."

Who's driving the sales? Young women.

"Manga is something especially teenagers can call their own," says Julie Taylor, senior editor of shojo manga at TOKYOPOP Inc., a popular manga publisher. "And they're really into it."

An addictive taste
Jenna Leary, an 18-year-old Berkley resident, owns a collection of 191 titles. Like most other fans, she got into manga (MON-guh) by watching anime on TV, in her case "Sailor Moon," the popular tale of a teenage girl superhero, and "Gundam Wing," a sci-fi adventure. That was back in sixth grade. Now her taste leans toward shonen manga, such as "Akira," an apocalyptic story of post-World War III Tokyo featuring motorcycle gangs, a nuclear explosion, and terrorists. The comics come in multivolume issues capped with cliffhanger endings that keep fans reading to the last edition. Leary is so captivated she's been known to spend $50 to $60 a week on the graphic novels when she has the cash.

"My friends decided I needed to go to a manga anonymous meeting," jokes Leary, who'll be a freshman at Bridgewater State College this fall, "because I have an addiction problem."

Think of manga as literary soaps for teens and 20-somethings. They're "The O.C." in graphic-novel form. Consider the upcoming release "My Love," which has a tag line that places its heroine at the intersection of sweet and dangerous: "She's feisty, cute, 15 . . . and a loan shark!" "X-Day" tells the story of five high schoolers who plot to blow up their school. "Princess Ai," which boasts Courtney Love as a coauthor, features an occasionally topless Love doppelganger who's both a singer and a winged superhero. A ratings system steers young readers away from overtly sexual or violent content.

A small but growing group of publishers plunder Japan for the hottest tales to translate. They include TOKYOPOP, Viz, CrossGen, Dark Horse, and Del Rey Manga, which launched last year. Even old-school comic publishers are getting into the act. DC Comics will introduce its manga line, CMX, in October.

A whole lifestyle has developed around the work. To find out what to read, fans pick up consumer magazines such as Animerica or go online to troll mailing lists and bulletin boards. These days, Publishers Weekly, USA Today, and Library Journal review graphic novels. Once fans know what they want, they head to their local Borders or Barnes & Noble, which carry shelves full of the work.

They can even find manga at their local public or school libraries. Every once in a while they'll gather at conventions, such as the second annual Anime Boston convention held this spring by the New England Anime Society, to purchase hard-to-find titles and pal around with fellow manga heads. Some even "cosplay" -- that's their word for dressing up as favorite characters.

Christa Newman, a 17-year-old who lives in Kingston, made her cosplaying debut as Michiru, the superhero who controls the ocean in "Sailor Moon," at the first Anime Boston last year. Since then she's dressed up as Yukari, the high school heroine in "Paradise Kiss," and the kitty character Merle from "Escaflowne." What made her want to wield a needle in an effort to look like them?

"I just kind of love the art form and how the characters are so much more developed than regular cartoons and comic books," says Newman, who will be a sophomore at Silver Lake Regional High School in the fall. "I love the characters. I also love sewing. So it kind of went hand in hand."

An art form matures
Newman and Leary are part of a phenomenon that began in Japan almost 50 years ago. Before manga took off there in the '50s and '60s, it was considered strictly kids' stuff, says Thorn, a cultural anthropologist and shojo manga fan. Then a new generation of writer/artists began using the medium to tackle adult themes. A popular new art form was born.

By the '70s, female manga fans began creating their own style of manga for themselves that they called shojo. They explored issues of gender and sexuality and developed new design techniques to detail relationships and moods. Today you can find horror, sci-fi, and romance manga. Stories are set in the fashion and sports worlds and in the halls of high school.

American audiences got their first look at the art form when shonen manga began arriving at comic bookstores in the mid-1980s, says Thorn. "No one thought of translating anything but for boys."

In those days, the work was difficult to collect. This is how Adam Ferraro, president of the New England Anime Society, says he once amassed his Japanese comics: "The only way you could get any manga at all was in a monthly traditional comic-book format through specialty publishers. Every month you would get 32 pages of a comic book. It would take forever to come out. After about a year, they would release a graphic-novel compilation of everything they put out in the past year."

Slowly, the industry began to embrace females. In 1994, Thorn translated one of the first US shojo titles, Keiko Nishi's "Promise." But it took the breakout of anime later in the decade to make manga publishers seriously set their sights on young women. In 2002, TOKYOPOP laid the groundwork for manga's spectacular popularity by implementing a series of changes. It cut the price of its titles from $15 to $9.99. Instead of the 32-page issues that were once the norm, TOKYOPOP's publications began averaging about 200 pages. The company sought distribution in mainstream bookstores and with retailers such as Tower Records and Suncoast. To add a touch of authenticity, the graphic novels were sequenced from back to front in traditional Japanese style.

The number of releases headed skyward. When TOKYOPOP first published manga in 1998, it released four titles. This year it will publish about 450. Viz, a competitor, will release more than 300 titles. "A lot of series from Japan that would have taken years to come out on this side now come out in a fairly speedy time frame," says Ferraro.

It's made the job of collecting much easier for fans like Leary. She turned to manga four years ago after a friend gave her two volumes of the "Saint Tail" series. She was intrigued by the comic. "It had an interesting tale about a girl who sneaks out and solves mysteries," she says.

Leary discovered that she could find the graphic novels at her local mall in Taunton. Initially it was hard going. "When I first started reading it, no one knew what it was. It was like, `Oh, we have a tiny selection there dedicated to it.' You're like, `Oh, that's nice,' " she says sarcastically.

Now any title she wants can usually be found or ordered at her local Waldenbooks. "They've added more and more shelves of the stuff," she says. If a particularly addictive volume isn't immediately available, she'll head to Tokyo Kid, a well-stocked anime/manga shop in Harvard Square, or order from Amazon.com.

Market transformation
The effects of the distribution and price changes were on parade in April at Anime Boston. About 4,100 people showed up, says Ferraro. Half the attendees were female. It's a significant shift from the '90s, when Ferraro saw predominantly male crowds at similar conventions.

The transformation of the manga market has raised the ire of some hard-core fans. Thorn criticizes TOKYOPOP specifically for translations he calls "shabby. They're hiring these young college fan boys and fan girls who are dying to have their name in print and work for peanuts. They're cutting corners for retouching and lettering. That's how they got the low [sale] price."

Taylor, the TOKYOPOP editor, writes such complaints off as a problem of purists who disagree with any changes made to the original translations. "We do it as authentically as possible," says Taylor. "Not something that's a really rough translation that doesn't read well. . . . It's a thin line because we want to please and honor the source material, but we also want to give our American readers an authentic experience."

Teen readers seem satisfied.

Newman, who owns about 75 manga titles, started the 15-member South Shore Anime Society (www.geocities.com/southshoreanimesociety) with some friends a year ago. They meet twice a month to watch anime videos and chat about new manga releases. Her interest was initially sparked at the age of 8 or 9 when she started watching the "Sailor Moon" anime on television.

She soon took the manga plunge by reading "Sailor Moon Stars," a portion of the "Sailor Moon" series that wasn't available in anime form. The worlds are so intertwined that manga inspires anime series and anime series can be turned into manga.

This hobby is serious enough to influence career choices. Leary dreams of owning her own manga shop. Newman plans to study computer animation when she goes to college. Her love of manga -- as well as sci-fi -- has also caused her interests to go where most girls' have not gone before. She's actually fond of American comics. At least some of them.

"I'm very into `X-Men,' " says Newman, "which has lately had an adult-oriented story line. I enjoy Marvel [Comics] a lot. Marvel has teen anguish and more real-world situations than DC [Comics], which is pretty much `I'm a superhero.' "

But it's the heroes and heroines of Japanese comics that continue to intrigue. Leary is currently wrapped up in the shojo manga series "Hot Gimmick," which tells the tale of a young girl who is blackmailed by a neighborhood bully. "There's a big secret they're not going to reveal until the last volume," Leary says excitedly.

Newman's favorites include "Mars" and "Peach Girl" -- two series about high school girls dealing with the usual teen problems: boys and jealous girlfriends. Another one Newman likes, "Paradise Kiss," takes place in the fashion world. She also loved "X-Day," that tale about the overburdened teens planning to blow up their school.

"By the end of the manga," Newman says, "they don't actually tell you if they actually blow up the school or not. You have to use your imagination and kind of figure it out on your own."

It doesn't hurt that manga is often stocked with guys who are considered hot even in their hand-drawn state. The metrosexual look is in with readers at the moment.

"I like the guys to have, like, the long hair," says Leary. "The guys who are more feminine looking."

"Yeah," concurs Newman, "actually there are a pretty good amount of cute boys in shojo manga."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives