TOKYOPOP's "100% Authentic Manga" line of graphic novels has been burning up sales charts in both book stores and comic shops since its inception, but with summer approaching, the company intends to turn up the heat. Not only will the current manga offerings be increased, but new and more provocative manga will also be introduced to western audiences, though some know it by the name of "shonen-ai." Many readers will recognize this term and immediately think "man love" or "gay comics," but there's more to shonen-ai than just than just sexuality. To learn more about this type of often misunderstood and misrepresented manga, CBR News spoke with Senior Editor Jake Forbes.
"It literally means boy love," explains Jake Forbes of the term "shonen-ai." "What it means is that the romance is of a boy-on-boy nature and typically the comics are not very explicit. It's often implied romance or simply touching, maybe some kissing too. The term 'yaoi' describes gay romances of a more explicit nature. Shonen-ai can be totally innocent crushes between two boys or a more in depth romance. It's traditionally written for or read by teen girls- it's usually created by female manga artists. Shonen-ai manga usually isn't created by or written for gay people- the creators may or may not bring up homosexual issues, like the gay lifestyle or gays in society. In 'shoujo' they like to focus on the 'shonen,' the pretty boys, and to some degree, shonen-ai is taking two pretty boys and removing the girl from the romance. Often times it's a female fantasy romance more than a realistic gay romance."
While the appeal to a female audience is one of the defining characteristics of shonen-ai, it can also be categorized by how different it is from western comic books that feature homosexual characters or situations. "Actually, it's more similar to 'slash fiction' writing or fan fiction writing than the gay comics I'm familiar with," admits Forbes. "The homosexual issues are secondary to the romance. To use our upcoming 'Gravitation' as an example, it's definitely a romance between this high school boy who wants to be a musician and the writer he gets involved with, but it focuses more on the music industry, breaking in, the management and the lyrics rather than the issues of their romance."
An earlier press release sent out by TOKYOPOP mentioned the demand by fans for shonen-ai comics, and Forbes says that the company has responded by acquiring two of the most popular series. "There's been a lot of requests, but far and away, 'Gravitation' and 'Fake' are the most popular. 'Gravitation' has a huge following with teen girls, and I was surprised by the huge response we received once we announced the series. 'Fake' is another series with a big following. It's a shonen-ai series with an accompanying anime to bring in more fans, something very unique. The two series are both very different in tone but will draw many of the same audiences. While 'Gravitation' is a traditional shoujo type drama if you will, or music drama, 'Fake' is a straight-forward detective cop series with romance on top of that. Shonen-ai is really only one element of a story and can be applied to many different genres."
Though Forbes does say shonen-ai isn't overtly explicit, TOKYOPOP is sure marketing their new series as "wildly addictive" and "provocative," using phrases that would make one possibly doubt Forbes' assertations. "Well, 'Fake' does get pretty explicit at the end," he admits. "It's slow building and the last volume gets hot and heavy with a pretty graphic sex scene in it. 'Gravitation' is in the same vein as 'Mars' or 'Peach Girl,' so there are discussions of sexuality and moments of intimacy, but it's not explicitly drawn. It's very contemporary, very emotionally raw, but not explicit."
Though these series may cover new ground and may not be too shocking for most people, there's still the question of whether or not audiences will readily accept the driving concepts of these series. Take the concept of "Demon Diary," for example, which depicts a student-teacher relationship and is bound to raise some eyebrows. Forbes understands why people may wonder if TOKYOPOP is taking a risk releasing the series but believes that the content of each graphic novel will overcome preconceptions. "'Fake,' genre-wise, is the most acceptable to the common reader who doesn't know about shonen-ai, because it's basically a cop drama about two cops who happen to be gay. It's very simple to understand for anyone. Then you have 'Gravitation.' If you're just looking for gay themes, it won't be that exciting to you because it's first and foremost a romantic-comedy-drama. It's not a heavy, thematic look at homosexuality- it's about the characters, the music industry and it's easy to get into if you like shoujo manga. You mention 'Demon Diary,' and it's basically a fantasy series with shonen-ai elements. It's less explicit and more implied than many might think- it's more just looks and touching, so I don't think the subject matter will be hard for people to accept or understand. It's probably most similar to our 'Dragon Knights' series, but with more of a fashion sense."
Many readers may wonder, some less innocently than others, if TOKYOPOP plans to release any manga featuring lesbian characters, exploring the other side of the coin. "We actually do have one… we have a line of comics from the creator Erica Sakurazawa. She does a lot of sexy, contemporary love stories, and the just released 'Between the Sheets,' which is about two young women recognizing their romantic attraction. Manga lesbian romance is not common in Japan as gay romance, but lesbian subtext is not unusual such as in the wonderful kids series 'Cardcaptor Sakura,' where you have girl-on-girl crushing where it's never explicit. Then there's 'Miyuki-chan in Wonderland,' another CLAMP title we're putting out, which has girls flirting all the time, but there's nothing explicit, as in many of our series. But there's not much serious Lesbian manga for us to present."
Forbes stresses that readers who are curious about TOKYOPOP's new shonen-ai series should give them a read and preview some of the series on their website. "It's all about the story. For us, sexuality is secondary to the good storytelling."