“Manga Before Flowers”

by  in Comic News Comment
“Manga Before Flowers”

Here is our new weekly manga columnist, Danielle Leigh – BC.

Like a lot of women who are in their twenties and read manga today, I can trace my love of shojo manga (simply put: Japanese comics targeted to girls) to an animated show called Sailor Moon. Whether or not I knew it was Japanese then, watching it in high school, I remember feeling embarrassed and enthralled by its unapologetically girly nature. The show’s plot was fairly simple — a group of fairly normal junior high school girls were actually superheroes who transformed to fight evil antagonists and save the universe. They may have been a reincarnation theme, as well, who can remember…. The main character, Serena (her name was Americanized for U.S. television) was annoying, a whiny cry-baby klutz who happened to transform into a superhero — “Sailor Moon” — who could somehow save the universe.

Even now I have a hard time understanding what attracted me to this series considering its simplistic plot-lines and dialogue (it first began airing in the U.S. when I was 15, already older than the characters it represented). I do know I probably wouldn’t have loved it so much if I hadn’t first learned to love superheroes and animation in the early and mid 1990’s through exposure to animated shows like Batman: TAS, Superman: TAS, and Spider-man: TAS, X-Men. But unlike those shows, Sailor Moon’s plots stunk.

Why, then, did I fall in love with this series? While the show was absurdly popular in Japan, I did not know that it also fell into an entire genre of Japanese anime and manga entertainment known as “the magical girl.” The magical girl genre follows a girl’s transformation into a superhero in order to battle the forces of evil to save the world. Although on U.S. television I had my choice of superheroes (even a teenage Peter Parker in case I tired of adult superheroes like Batman and Superman) I didn’t have an animated series that revolved entirely around female life – even a fantastical female life. And while I had female superheroes through X-Men and Superman’s Lois Lane was a strong female character without equal, what I didn’t have was a show about personal relationships first, and saving the world second.

I can see now that the show’s fairly conventional “magical girl” dynamic is not what attracted me to the show. What I glommed onto as a teenager was a show which emphasized human relationships and emotional bonds over exciting – even, at times, coherent – plot-lines.

What I would later learn was that there was a whole body of sequential art novels and animated texts which focused exclusively on personal relationships. And female experience. And they were Japanese in origin. But it wasn’t animation that caught my heart and set it on fire for shojo. It was comics, manga, whatever you want to call those charming graphic novels you can now find in every chain bookstore in America for less than 10 dollars a pop.

In spring of 2005 I happened to pick up a volume of Hot Gimmick (published by Viz in the U.S.) from my local library. At the time I was reading American comics on the edges of superhero life (Y: the Last Man, Runaways, Sleeper, Gotham Central) but hadn’t yet made the connection between the sci-fi anime I’d watched in college and the small, but growing, manga section located in my comic book shop. Hot Gimmick wasn’t like my American comics – it was about a dippy, but sweet, teenage girl named Hatsumi who was continually getting pushed around by the not-so-sweet-boys-next-door and who couldn’t find a sense of self-determination if it ran her over in the street. The boys in her life tricked her, messed up her life, ordered her around and did many other bad things I won’t describe. The series was trashy and anti-feminist in the extreme and yet, god, it was interesting.

I, who wouldn’t read romances published in English, was simply a goner. I would end up buying and later selling the entire series, as many people would end up doing who like me followed this neighborhood soap opera over the course of 12 tortuous volumes. Finding Hot Gimmick wasn’t necessarily about finding a great comic so much as it was about finding comics that felt as if they were created just for me.

And, boy howdy, were these comics girly. There were big eyes, flowery backgrounds, pixie pink covers, pretty looking boys and impossibly pretty looking girls – every cliche mainstream American has about Japanese manga was right there ensnaring me. But people can mistake this art style as insipid or ridiculous – for me, what shojo does better than any other comic genre I’ve ever seen is represent the dynamism of human emotion. The story-lines run the gamut from ridiculous (how many people do you know have childhood friends who become a) models, b) famous actors, c) famous musicians…I think you get the picture) to the sublime (watching the title character of Emma do something as simple as explore the world around her for the first time with corrective glasses is a moment of beauty and power in which not a single word is spoken.) Whether or not I can identify with a particular character’s plight isn’t as important as the rush of feeling I get when the emotions leap off the page and accomplish feats I didn’t know pop art was capable of.

My interested in and affection for shojo continues, even if I’ve become more discriminating as I’ve learned to target what I love about the genre and what I find less appealing the more time I spend with these texts. While I also read manga and U.S. comics intended for boys and adult men, I never feel so much at home as when I crack open one of the “girly” books originally intended for Japanese audiences. In March I’ll have been reading manga for three years and while I still yearn for the time U.S. publishers will bring over Japanese comics actually targeted to women my age, I know that even if they did a part of my heart would still belong to the beautiful and melodramatic worlds I find in shojo.