GeekOut

The paperback island in a sea of manly storylines

Editor's note: Danica Davidson is a writer whose articles have appeared on MTV.com, Publishers Weekly and the Los Angeles Times. She also writes English adaptations of Japanese graphic novels. She has recently finished her first young adult novel.

I’ve heard many women talk about different forms of prejudice they’ve faced in the comics world. As a journalist I've always found myself the only woman out of the who-knows-how-many journalists, publishers and writers participating in phone conferences to talk about new comic books.

Sometimes the men on these calls seem uncomfortable and not sure what to make of me.

But at anime conventions, I feel right at home beside other female manga fans. Attending these conventions, I’ve never gotten a sense of “You’re a woman so you don’t really belong here.”

Why such a difference? Publishers, manga journalists and fans I spoke to often raised the same points to explain manga’s popularity with women: more female creators, more variety in styles.

“The American comic industry has a very strong ‘superhero’ image, and while that isn't the entirety of the industry, that tends to be how people view it,” said Yoko Tanigaki, sales manager of Digital Manga Publishing.

“When manga first started coming over to the US, it offered women something different from the superhero comic – a different art style, more relatable female characters, a wider range of stories, among other things. Manga is more openly diverse – you see a lot more variety at first glance, and that makes it easier for women to find something that appeals to them.”

“You also have greater numbers of female creators crafting comics and manga in Japan than you currently see in the American comics market, which further increases the variety of choice for female readers,” pointed out JuYoun Lee, senior editor of Yen Press.

I didn't find any hard data on the exact number of male versus female manga creators, but Tanigaki, Lee and Leyla Aker, the Vice President of Publishing at VIZ, all agreed they were about even.

“There seems to be about an equal number of male and female mangaka at work,” Aker said.  “This gender parity is one of the major differences between the Japanese and Western comics industries.  I think one would have a hard time arguing that the greater number of female manga creators isn't a direct factor in the greater number of female manga readers.”

When asked the percentage of titles aimed toward women at their different companies, Tanigaki and Lee said that many of their titles overlapped and they often advertised more for readers in general. However, Aker said that about a third to a quarter of all titles on VIZ’s list are aimed for a female audience. Lee said that maybe 70% of Yen Press’s list is geared more toward women, and Tanigaki said 80% of Digital Manga Publishing titles are yaoi, shonen-ai, or shojo, which are traditionally read more by women.

“I honestly believe women are just as interested in the comic format as men no matter the country of origin,” said Robin Brenner, Creator and Editor-in-Chief of the graphic novel site No Flying No Tights and author of “Understanding Manga and Anime.”

“Women are just are more likely to pick up titles that acknowledge or seek them as an audience," she said.  Japan has been pursuing women and girls as an audience in earnest since the 1970s, whereas we here in the States left that audience behind in the 1970s (in the 1940s through the 1970s, there was an awareness of girls as a comics audience, although again they were rarely the target audience.)”

Brenner gave a little more background on the history of women and manga: “In the 1970s, Japanese editors of manga magazines decided to try something new.  They'd been producing comics for girls and young women since the 1950s, but they were never a roaring success.  They already had a number of female creators working in the business, so they smartly asked: if we want to sell comics to girls and women, why don't we hire some women to create them?  Thus, a number of legendary female creators got their start as primary artists on a number of famous girls titles (‘Rose of Versailles,’ ‘To Terra,’ ‘From Eroica with Love’)"

As a result, she said, from that point on, many creators of girls' and women's manga were women.  "They introduced elements that their male colleagues could not have predicted, and diversified the kind of content appearing in manga aimed at girls and women.  They also developed an artistic vocabulary distinct from shonen or seinen manga that is recognizable and distinctive,” she said.

“There are definitely American comics that are appealing to female adult readers, and several series that have significant female readership,” said Deb Aoki, a cartoonist and the Manga Editor at About.com. “However, when we're talking about female teens and tweens, manga definitely wins the race for readers in that demographic.”

Aoki listed diversity and female creators as two big reasons for this, but also pointed out that manga is more accessible than many of the famous American superhero titles in the sense you can jump right into them instead of going back through decades of dense storyline.

“For example, reading X-Men requires knowing a lot of back-history of the stories and the characters,” she said.  “Because mainstream American comics are largely geared to a readership who are already immersed in the Marvel or DC universes, and have spent years getting to know the mythology, the characters and the relationships between the characters, these stories don't offer an easy entry point for new readers.  By comparison, you can easily pick up ‘Sailor Moon Volume 1' or ‘Vampire Knight Volume 1' and get into the story immediately.”

Another aspect for the popularity, she said, was manga’s easy access at bookstores as opposed to comic shops.  Anyone just stopping in a bookstore could pick up a manga title.

Still, the most common reasons stressed for manga’s popularity with women were all the female creators writing (and personally knowing) what women like themselves enjoy reading, plus the fact there are just so many different types of manga for many different tastes.

“I do think that more female creators in the US would lead to more diversity of content and style in US comics,” Brenner said.  “The more women who are able to tell the stories, the more diverse and interesting those stories will be for everyone.”