Girls’ Illustrated Primer – Adventure for Young Women

25 11 2008


Image: Leave it to Portia, an homage to Leave it to Chance [copyright 2007 by Kean Soo]

There’s nothing quite like a nice, annotated bibiography.

After writing about and considering the market for josei I’ve been interested in the current state of comics for young women. It used to be a bit of a wasteland until manga came along and moved comics into the bookstores and into a tidy, multi issue book format. All of a sudden it became obvious that girls were perfectly willing to read comics. But what exactly are girls reading and was there anything else out there offering a challenge to manga’s grip on this niche market?

With the dissolution of DC’s Minx imprint earlier this year one was left to wonder at the future of comics for young women. Is the level of interest in shojo manga a sustainable phenomenon and where does that leave non-manga comics for girls – especially with the Minx attempt to woo this market having failed.

I wanted to get a sense of the tone of what’s being published for young women and to confirm if anyone is creating work that transcends a predictable adventure template in a way that is inclusive and engaging. Complex and unconventional narratives that would be appealing to young women sometimes miss being described as adventure at all because adventure usually suggests light entertainment, suspense and action. I want this to be a collection of comics that are fun for young women – not prescriptive or patronizing.

When I use the words “girls/young women” (interchangeably) I’m thinking for an age range between 12 and 17. (Apologies, I’m all over the place with my descriptors.) I read a lot of manga and review sites about manga so I have some idea of what’s out there and felt it was important to start trying to find non-Japanese titles for my bibliography.

I was also curious to test just how easy it would be to find titles based on a library subject heading search. It’s often remarked that libraries are a great existing source for “in-context subject-related recommendation”. I use reader recommendations on sites like Amazon a lot, as I think, many readers do. Could I get as far with the library catalogue based on subject headings? It was worth trying!

I started search with Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles subject headings, choosing “juvenile fiction – witches” which produced results that included the comics Ultra Maniac (manga), Clubbing (USA, Minx imprint), and Oddly Normal (USA). It was a start.

I then searched “graphic novels – canada” (because I really wanted to try to find some Canadian titles) which produced 60 results. None of the other Canadian titles seemed to fit the template of girls adventure. While there were adventure stories and some of them included female characters nothing seemed tailored for young women or particularly likely to draw their attention.

I thought searching “graphic novels — china” would produce some examples of manhua but there were no matching search terms. At least the listing of potential options lead me to “graphic novels — korea”. There was a good selection of manhwa, at least, and that lead me to Moon Boy, one of the titles that made the short list.


Image: panel from After School Nightmare [copyright by 2007 Go! Comi]

It started to seem that websites that had reviews of comics and manga I could peruse was a better place to start. It’s not that the library didn’t have the books I wanted – just that I was having a difficult time finding works that I knew would be useful to me without a bit of a review to accompany them.

The websites I enjoyed and found the most useful were ones I was already familiar with. I spent a lot of time on these sites perusing and taking advantage of the contributor’s discernment and smarts for which I am very grateful.

Comics Worth Reading

Good Comics for Kids (now part of the School Library Journal website)

MangaBlog (Brigid Alverson’s posting of the Blogroll’s reviews each day is so useful! thank you thank you)

No Flying, No Tights

Sleep is for the Weak

I also marched over to the local comic store a few times to get the opinion of the employees which was really invaluable. That’s how I was tipped off about Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things which is so good. I was given a lot of great suggestions. Thanks Happy Harbor!

So, here is the final list of adventure comics for young women I thought were making an interesting contribution to the genre:

After School Nightmare

Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things

The Good Neighbors

Leave it to Chance

Moon Boy

The Professor’s Daughter

Rapunzel’s Revenge


Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles

Vampire Knight

After School Nightmare v.1

21 10 2008

I’m going to leave behind strict adherence to josei series to write about After School Nightmare by Setona Mizushiro which, while it’s considered shojo, gets a 16+ rating (OT) from its publisher Go! Comi.

I read v.1 of After School Nighmare this weekend and it got me thinking about GLBTQ narratives and characters in manga. There are actually a lot of examples to consider which is part of what makes me so grateful for the success of manga in North America. I’m generally happy with any stories about gender ambiguity and non-hetero relationships, particularly for younger readers, but I found some of the themes in this manga a little challenging to negotiate. After School Nightmare is about a transsexual hero/heroine struggling to reconcile themselves with the duality of their gender identification and is recommended by the Young Adult Library Services Association so I was expecting something relatively nuanced. Well…

I’m left with the impression that Mashiro Ichijo is completely female physically but there are a few confusing references to being male from the “waist up” and about his/her tall, lean physique being qualitatively masculine. It’s a bit vexing that such conventional ideas of male-female physical attributes are being adhered to despite this, ostensibly, being a story about gender ambiguity.

The true basis for Ichijo’s affinity for the masculine side of his/her persona and body is still a mystery but its hard to fault that decision within the context of the series because being female is framed consistently negatively. (In Ichijo’s case the disconnect between physical and psychological gender is not innate but is continually being examined intellectually.) The story starts with a very literal invocation of what Simone De Beauvoir described as the feminine quandary of being a “leaky vessel”. There are repeated references to the female body and mind being weak, a textual norm reenforced by Ichijo’s interpretation of his/her loss of a recent kendo match as a result of feminine physical deficiency. (One panel in particular really communicates the significance that clutching the bamboo kendo blade has for Ichijo.) I can acknowledge that a lot of these references and even the lost kendo match, specifically, have a greater narrative significance but I still have a bit of trouble getting past all the negative language around being female in a series that’s written for young women.

As old-school gothic horror I think After School Nightmare is a success but for me to have hoped that it would convey anything complex or even positive about gender roles or the transgender experience was a bit optimistic. Mostly the series focuses on the potential sexy outcomes of the creepy attention directed at Ichijo by deeply disturbed and unlikable characters of both genders. Will poor, confused Ichijo ends up with the sociopath misogynist or the sociopath misandrist and will he/she manage to escape from this manga’s take on hentai tentacles?

Perhaps as the story develops some of the themes around gender will coalesce into something a bit more complex and subtle but I’m not anticipating anything more then weird teenage misery-titillation. Not that I have anything against weird teenage misery-titillation.

Despite my reservations about some of the subtext I don’t personally subscribe to the idea that literature for teens needs to be prescriptive. This isn’t the complex gender-ambiguity text I might have hoped for but it has lots of – potentially enjoyable – psychologically convoluted, symbolist-prevy, non sequitur plot elements.

One might prefer a gothic-baroque visual extravaganza a la Vampire Knight or Godchild to Mizushiro’s delicate line work and minimally rendered settings but it’s interesting to see a lighter aesthetic touch applied to this kind of story.

This series seems to be quite popular at my public library (which is where I got the copy I read – yay, thanks public library!) with lots of requests placed on the more recent volumes.

The conclusion

15 10 2008

Well, not a definitive one… I thought it would be worth writing a quick follow up on my seminar.

It’s been an interesting and intense introduction to writing for an audience that may know less about the topic then me (my classmates) and, simultaneously, much more (the online manga fandom community). I struggled with the tone a bit because I was intimidated by the idea that I was setting myself up as some sort of authority on the subject. I have my own predilections and biases and struggle with my inability to read Japanese out of context… Not much of an authority, really.

I would like to know more about manga as both creative and corporate industry in Japan and it’s history as well as the growth and convolutions of both Japanese and worldwide fandom (and fandom is by nature intense and complex, isn’t it?). Most academic writing I’ve found focuses on fandom in the United States but what about the relationship and hybridity, for example, between la bande dessinée and manga in France? It’s a bit of a challenge to talk about manga rigorously and lucidly but still convey the fun, energy and genius of the medium.

As for my classmates, I think many of them were pleasantly surprised to discover that shojo and shonen are not the only manga genres out there. I spent a bit of time talking about the basic aesthetics. It’s easy for me to forget how manga looks to the unacclimatized eye.

For the library geeks – Eva made a great comment based on my survey of a selection of 5 titles and their inclusion in the collections of four large public libraries. Was how they had been integrated in to each library’s collections and if the way they were cataloged an indication of how they were perceived and selected?

Vancouver Public Library had current and complete series of volumes of Nodame Cantabile, Nana and Suppli. Nodame Cantabile has been cataloged with a “YA FIC” call number and added to the “Young Adult Graphic” collections while Nana and Suppli were both given a “FIC” call number and placed in the “Adult Graphic and “Popular Reading Graphic” collections.

Toronto Public Library had current and complete volumes of Nana, Nodame Cantabile and Paradise Kiss and all were in the “Teen Graphic Books” collections with a “FICTION” call number.

New York Public Library didn’t have very comprehensive series coverage for any of these titles. Nana only seems to go up to v.6, Nodame Cantabile has a curious holdings gap between v.2 and v.14 and only v. 2 of Paradise Kiss is in the catalogue. Nana was included in both the “YA Graphic Novel” and “Graphic Novel” collections under the call number “GN FIC Y” and Nodame Cantabile was also in the “YA Graphic Novel” collection but with the call number “GN FIC N”. The single volume of Paradise Kiss was in the “Pop General Fiction” collection with the call number “GN FIC Y”.

Los Angeles Public Library has the greatest number of the titles from this survey in their collection. The only exception was Tramps Like Us. The volumes for each series were current and they are all given the Dewey call number “740.9999” (740 is “drawing and decorative arts” but I don’t know what the subfield 9999 stands for) with a Cutter number for author. I’m not that familiar with Dewey so I’m probably missing some of the cataloging methodology at work here…

Vivianne commented that the Winnipeg Public Library had copies of Nana, Paradise Kiss and Tramps Like Us(!). Nana and Paradise Kiss were current and both in the “Adult Graphic Novel” collection. However, only v.1 and 2 of Tramps Like Us were in the catalog – oddly, in the “Young Adult Graphic Novel” and “Adult Reference” collections(?) Again, I may be missing something in the methodology here…

Based on this review I find it hard to draw any definite conclusions. Each library seems to have dealt with manga, and graphic novels in general, slightly differently. It does seem that the more solid and comprehensively applied a library’s methodology for purchasing and processing manga the more likely it is that there will be a large, diverse and complete collection. Makes sense.

It was great to get so many helpful and friendly comments from the wider community – thanks everyone! It’s really encouraged me to do my best to keep posting!

Images: panel from Yotsubato! by Kiyohiko Azuma, character art from Usagi Drop by Yumi Unita

The future

2 10 2008

There are some legitimate reasons for public libraries to be hesitant to consider josei for their collections. Concerns about content aside, young women who currently read manga might abandon the medium as they mature. The possibility also exists that non-Japanese readers, confronted with Japanese texts that represent more realistic and specifically Japanese norms, will be unable or unwilling to negotiate cultural degrees of separation.

An equally likely outcome is that young women will continue to read manga. Manga readers in general, as they become more acclimatized to Japanese texts, will accept and perhaps demand more realistic and diverse texts then the manga currently being translated in North American. Initially, North American manga publishers offered readers series that conformed with North American comic consumption expectations. The titles were targeted to boys and young men and were usually variations on super heroes, science fiction and fantasy themes. With the success of manga for girls and young women the market has been completely redefined.

This series of articles creates an interesting chronology:

Girl Power Fuels Manga Boom in U.S. New York Times (December 28, 2004)

Girls’ Manga Goes Stateside, Manga for Girls Catches On in America Web Japan (March 28, 2006) *um, I don’t know about the “caused a sensation on par with that of the release of the latest Harry Potter title” part

Librarians Harvest New Manga Titles At Comic-Con NPR (July 18, 2008)

There is more popular demand for genres like josei and more realistic “slice of life” comedy. These genres have diverse representation in the Japanese manga market. More readers who have never considered reading manga may be attracted to these more mature and humorous titles. There are a lot of excellent Japanese titles available to be translated and offered to this growing and diversifying North American market.

There has recently been a reevaluation on the part of some of the larger North American manga publishers (and three-part interview on with Dallas Middaugh, Associate Publisher at Dey Ray Manga, Johanna Draper Carlson from Comics Worth Reading documented and commented on the changes at TokyoPop) and this has left room for some very new publishers to step forward with small, carefully selected catalogues. Some of these publishers are focusing on josei or including josei in their roster of titles. New imprints Yen Press and Aurora Publishing both have josei titles represented in the’s “Best New Josei of 2007” readers poll as does vanity press/comic and graphic novel imprint Last Gasp. Last Gasp’s licensing and translation of Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms represents a modest indication that publishers are becoming willing to risk bringing more complex and adult manga titles to North American audiences.

Another small press licensing interesting work is Fanfare/Ponent Mon. This imprint has a mandate to license alternative comics from Japan. Josei titles like Blue by Kiriko Nananan and Kinderbook by Kan Takahama are part of their catalogue. (Brigid Alverson from MangaBlog interviews Fanfare/Ponent Mon editor Stephen Robson.)

The average manga consumer might hesitate at the higher price point of this imprint’s books and this is a good opportunity for public libraries to provide access by purchasing these more expensive but good quality titles on behalf of their patrons. Again, the quality and aesthetic of these titles has potential to appeal to readers who wouldn’t generally consider reading manga.

Johanna Draper Carlson from Comics Worth Reading has posted a few very good articles about the future of josei that have generated thoughtful comments:

The State of Josei Manga

Josei Manga in the US

Images: panel from With the Light by Keiko Tobe, character art from Walkin’ Butterfly by Chihiro Tamaki, panel from Blue by Kiriko Nananan

The trouble with josei

27 09 2008

Manga is immensely popular with young female readers and many of them have been reading manga since it began to be integrated into public library collections in the early 2000s. These readers are now in their late teens and are familiar with manga and comfortable with its format and conventions. It could be expected that they will continue to read manga but be interested in more sophisticated subject matter and narratives. More good quality josei translations are becoming available in North American to meet this demand and there has been a precedent set by the integration of many seinen titles into public library collections. Despite this josei titles are currently under-represented in many public library collections.

There are a few potential reasons for this.

Providing access to mature material in a comic book format presents a challenge to public libraries. In North America comics are still primarily perceived as being for children and young adults – mature content in this medium can provoke controversy. Josei could be perceived as inappropriate for the public library patrons it might attract but despite the potential for censure public libraries regularly purchase both classic and current seinen titles that would generally appeal to a male demographic. Manga like the revered classics Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike (violence! non-consensual sex! single parenting!) and Akira by Katsushiro Otomo (violence! non-consensual sex! mutation!) and newer titles like MPD Psycho by Eiji Otsuka (just think of the worst thing you can imagine!) contain violence and sexual themes. The “mature content” warnings affixed to these materials during cataloguing and processing can be expected to deter some patrons (and attract others) regardless of their age. These titles are included in public library collections based on their cultural and artistic merit or by public request and they are potentially accessible to inappropriately young readers. Clearly, this is a risk that selectors have been willing to take in adding seinen titles to their collections. Public libraries make these purchasing decisions because they have a mandate to provide diverse materials to their patrons and existing policy allows for the incorporation of comics that contain mature content into public library collections.

Reservations regarding mature content should not be a deterrent to providing access to josei. If the aesthetic extremes of seinen have been judged acceptable for public library collections there must also be a place for the decidedly more humane and often humorous mature content represented in josei.

Another facet of comic collection development is that the established readership for comics in North America is still predominantly young men. Public libraries must always consider the needs of the communities they serve. Without a demand for comics marketed for women there is no impetus for public libraries to provide them. Manga, however, has reached a level of acceptance with young women the far exceeds their interest in North American comics. While North American comics have failed to attract a significant market of loyal female readers the potential exists for young women who read manga to retain their interest in the medium. While many public libraries shape their collections based on popular demand there may be a lack of awareness amongst female manga readers that genres other then shojo exist.

Public libraries could be positioned to facilitate awareness of the some of the josei titles that are available to their patrons through recommended reading and personalized title referral services. With a bit of judicious purchasing josei could become a legitimate and popular part of public library collections.

Images: image from the anime television series based on Pet Shop of Horrors by Matsuri Akino, panel from Tramps Like Us by Yayoi Ogawa, character art from Paradise Kiss by Ai Yazawa

A bit of methodology

27 09 2008

This is a brief survey based of the OPACs of a selection of four public libraries in major cities in both the United States and Canada. With one exception (Toronto) the criterion was that the city had a “Book Off” – a Japanese used-book chain store. In both North American and Japan a generous portion of these large stores is devoted to used manga (predominantly in Japanese).

The public library OPACs I searched were:

Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL)

New York Public Library (NYPL)

Toronto Public Library (TPL)

Vancouver Public Library (VPL)

Nana by Ai Yazawa: LAPL, NYPL, TPL, VPL

Nodame Cantabile by Tomoko Ninomiya: LAPL, NYPL, TPL, VPL

Paradise Kiss by Ai Yazawa: LAPL, NYPL, TPL

Pet Shop of Horrors by Matsuri Akino: LAPL

Suppli by Mari Okazaki: LAPL, VPL

Tramps Like Us by Yayoi Ogawa: [none]

A review of the collections at these public libraries indicates that there has been investment in established josei titles like Nana, Nodame Cantabile and Paradise Kiss but that it isn’t comprehensive. Three of the more recently released josei titles currently available in North America are not well represented. The popular and critically well received titles Pet Shop of Horrors and Tramps Like Us are almost completely neglected.

Images: panel from Yotsubato! by Kiyohiko Azuma (I know, it doesn’t fit the genre, but I love her so much!)

Bête noire text – Tramps Like Us

26 09 2008

Despite the popularity of this title ( reader reviews) and its positive critical reception this series is generally not included in public library collections.

Sumire Iwaya, the protagonist of Tramps Like Us by Yayoi Ogawa (licensed in North America by TokyoPop), is an ambitious and attractive journalist who has found herself isolated by her success. She returns home at the end of a particularly bad day to find a young man sleeping in a box near her doorstep. Exhausted and lonely she invites him to live in her apartment on the condition that he assumes the role of being her pet. Sumire even going so far as to “name” him Momo after the dog she had as a child. (The original Japanese title is Kimi wa Petto, literally, You Are My Pet.)

The premise seems potentially risqué and, indeed, much visual and textual tension is generated by the odd proximity this living arrangement creates but this manga is not particularly explicit and the adult themes are handled with a lot of nuance and humour.

Tramp Like Us has all of the narrative tropes that make josei so enjoyable and relatable. The complexities of office relationships and the tensions between personal expression and social expectation endlessly vex Sumire. Romantic relationships and her ability to negotiate them are far from idealized.

The manga-ka of the series, Yayoi Ogawa, is talented and prolific and her work continues to gain popularity in North America. Her art work is very distinctive. The line work in particular is an extraordinary balance of elegant fluidity, expression and simplicity and Ogawa’s page designs are effective without being distractingly over-executed.

This manga is an illustration of how public libraries could expand their collections to include titles that would appeal to older female readers while also enhancing quality and diversity. When purchasing for public libraries a bit of extra time taken to read a few online reviews would clarify the quality and content of what might initially seem merely a lascivious amusement. There is a lot of bluntly pornographic manga available and public libraries have to act judiciously in selecting more adult material. Increased knowledge of josei and awareness that the genre has a lot of merit should help to insure that josei titles are not dismissed along with other more shallowly explicit titles. Tramps Like Us is a series for adult readers but, particularly when the quality of the story as art and entertainment are considered, it seems a good candidate for public library collections.

aside: Why was Tramps Like Us chosen as the title for the licensed translation in North America? It makes this series sound really questionable and is also, well, lame. Is it a reference to the Bruce Springsteen song that also comes up when Googling this manga? Double lame.

another aside: Ogawa does seem to have a unique ability for choosing subject matter that looks really incendiary at first glance. (The links in this section are all over the place…) Some of the plots of her josei titles are a bit eyebrow-raising; Baby Pop “cool and gorgeous Nagisa paired with her perverted and stupid step-father Ryunosuke”(!), Candy Life “39 year-old man or the hot 19 year-old guy which is the 39 year-old’s sort of adopted son?”(!), Extra Heavy Syrup “Yuki and Emiri are staff at Syrup Cleaning Service, but they actually only have one true goal… and that is to find their long-lost boyfriend, Akira.”(!?). (I’m really hoping that this is a gonzo-josei riff on Katsushiro Otomo’s Akira.) Needless to say, it may be a while before Ogawa creates another series as amenable to public library collections as Tramps Like Us.

Images: panel from Tramps Like Us, Extra Heavy Syrup (cover image) by Yayoi Ogawa,