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U.S. Teenage Girls Prefer Japanese Heroes

'Shojo Beat' comic book for young women is up there with the latest Harry Potter sequel, as one of the year's biggest publishing stories.
 
 
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Usually, the publication of a new comic book is not news.

But, gadzooks! The July launch of "Shojo Beat" comic book for young women is up there with the latest Harry Potter sequel as one of the year's biggest publishing stories.

A thick, square-bound magazine published by Viz, Shojo Beat collects six English-language manga (Japanese comic books) and publishes them in monthly installments and distributes them at retail outlets such as Wal-Marts and bookstores--territory long ago lost by American comics. Manga are among the most vital sector of U.S. publishing, showing double-digit growth for the past three years. In the U.S., manga is a $110 million a year industry, but in Japan the manga market grosses approximately $4.7 billion each year.

The black-and-white comic books encompass hundreds of genres, but come in two basic vehicles: shonen for boys; shojo for girls. While shonen was established in the U.S. market in the late 1990s, it has been shojo that in recent years has helped the category explode in the United States.

San Francisco-based Viz currently publishes 29 shojo titles a year in the U.S., up from six in 2002. Shojo manga now makes up roughly half of all the titles published by Viz.

"Teen-age girls are definitely driving the manga market these days," says Evelyn Dubocq, head of public relations at Viz.

Tokyopop, the other major U.S. manga publisher, reports that over half the titles they publish are shojo manga.

"Absolutely, it's really being driven by girls, teen-aged girls in particular, but also older women," says Calvin Reid, senior news editor at Publisher's Weekly.

Girls don't read comics, according to traditional U.S. publishing wisdom.

"American comics, pretty much since the early 1960s, have been aimed at adolescent boys," says Reid. "American comics are action-adventure comics, superhero comics. There's just not that much out there for girls."

Shojo Are Different

But shojo -- usually written and drawn by women -- are different. And Shojo Beat's six series are, in particular, strikingly different from U.S. action-adventure fare.

There's "Baby and Me" about an 11-year-old boy who is forced to become the caretaker of his 2-year-old brother. "Nana" features two young women, both named Nana, trying to make it in Tokyo. "Crimson Hero" follows the ups and downs of a teen-aged volleyball player whose parents want her to give up her sport of choice and enter the family business.

Trisha Sebastian, a former associate editor at Anime Insider magazine, says the key difference between U.S. comic-book content and that of manga is ownership.

U.S. comic books are owned by corporations and their major franchises, with characters like Spider-Man and Superman treated more like trademarks than fictional characters. Their appearances, personalities and storylines are carefully monitored by the publisher and their titles are expected to maintain their status quo indefinitely: no deaths for major characters; no retirement; no reevaluation of priorities.

"Japanese comics are creator-owned and the creator makes sure that their characters evolve and change over time," Sebastian says. "With manga there's a beginning, there's a middle and there's always an end. It's story oriented rather than franchise oriented."

While some manga series may run thousands of pages, they are all expected to draw to a conclusion at some point, giving their narratives more shape and urgency. The major obstacles in manga series are resolved in one way or another, even if their resolution means the end of the comic.

Shojo manga has numerous sub-genres, from yaoi (focusing on relationships between gay male characters) to science fiction and fantasy.

However, as Evelyn Debocq notes: "Regardless of the level of fantasy, artifice or artistic ambition involved, most shojo stories remain grounded in universal concerns."

Characters in manga, and especially shojo manga, cope with loneliness, moving to new cities (sometimes in other dimensions), falling in love and chasing after workplace success, whether the workplace is in a restaurant, a rock club or a space station.

Savvy Marketing

In addition to the appeal of its content, savvy marketing has also helped shojo manga reach beyond the male-dominated U.S. comic book market, whose top-selling titles regularly top out with monthly sales of 250,000.

Publishers have regularly advertised manga on television and in magazines such as "Teen People." They have also gotten their product out of specialty comic-book stores, which some people have compared to locker rooms: dirty, full of soft-core sexual imagery and unwelcoming to outsiders. Although many retailers have gone out of their way to make their stores more accessible, comic book specialty shops are few and far between outside of major cities and they are the kind of place where someone not already in the market for comic books is unlikely to ever set foot.

"Comic book stores aren't necessarily girl friendly," says Julie Taylor, the editor of shojo manga at Tokyopop. "Manga reaches people because we got into the major book chains where girls feel comfortable going."

There's also the recent alliance between Tokyopop and CosmoGIRL! magazine, which will see monthly installments of the manga "The Adventures of CG!" appear in the popular monthly, starting this August.

Written and drawn by Russian-born artist, Svetlana Chmakova, the strip will follow the adventures of a U.S. college student studying in Japan and will reach about 6 million readers each month.

'Princess Knight' Started Shojo

Created in 1952, shojo got its start in Japan with "Princess Knight" about a young princess whose parents raise her as a boy to ensure they have a viable male heir to the throne. The serial -- created by Osamu Tezuka, the father of Japanese manga -- ran for three years.

While aimed at female readers, the first shojo were written mainly by men, but during the 1960s and 1970s, as more and more female creators were drawn to the form, that changed. By the 1980s, if a man wanted to write shojo, he usually adopted a female penname. Today in Japan, shojo manga represents about 30 percent of the comic market.

The Japanese women who create shojo manga are doing very well these days. Takeuchi Naoko, the creator of the enormously popular Sailor Moon, is practically a one-woman industry. Rumiko Takahashi, famous for combining shojo and shonen manga styles, has sold over 100 million copies of her manga.

In the U.S., however, fame and fortune usually evade comic-book creators.

"Comics, traditionally, have not really been a serious part of the book trade, other than collections of daily strips like 'Peanuts' or 'Calvin and Hobbes,'" says Publishers Weekly's Reid.

As for why it took comics from another country to reach the large, untapped female readership in the U.S., he shrugs. "American comics publishers just didn't get it. They didn't like manga; they thought it was a fad."

Now, however, the U.S. industry is trying to catch up.

Last year, New York based Archie Comic Publications gave "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" a shojo makeover with manga-styled art and an emphasis on ongoing relationships and storylines rather than issues that contain three or four free-standing "gag" stories.

The experiment was apparently successful. Archie Publications is now launching a manga version of "Josie and the Pussycats."

Harlequin, one of America's largest publishers of romance fiction, has been selling shojo manga versions of their romance novels in Japan for years. Now, the New York romance house has just signed a deal with U.S. comics publisher, Dark Horse Comics, based in Milwaukee, to start bringing these titles to the American market.

"It's not all superheroes and macho guy power," says Taylor of Tokyopop. "Shojo manga is traditionally written for women, by women, and you get a unique point of view that people haven't really seen in comics before."

Grady Hendrix is a film critic and programmer living in New York City.