Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
This column is an attempt to address the fact that I often use manga vocabulary I don’t always explain when I write reviews or talk about manga in this forum. I assume (probably quite incorrectly) that if you are reading my posts you already know the terms I use most frequently. But recent comments from our wonderful new columnist Kelly Thompson made me think that I should probably explain myself a little.
The following is a list of words I often use — in the future I’m thinking about creating a list of words from anime / manga culture I don’t tend to use and explain why.
Manga — The Japanese word for comics. People sometimes call comics which were created outside of Japan, but which have been clearly inspired by manga style and culture, “manga,” but I tend to reserve the word “manga” for comics actually produced in Japan. On the other hand, sometimes it is quite helpful to use the term “world manga” or “Original English manga / OEL,” to categorize the work of artists that clearly see themselves working in a certain type of comic-book culture that is Japanese-inspired. (See Svetlana Chmakova’s Dramacon).
Manhwa — The Koren word for comics. A good number of manhwa have been licensed for the U.S. The primary publishers of manhwa are Yen Press, Netcomics, Tokyopop and Udon Entertainment. Melinda Beasi is currently giving manwha a higher profile among manga bloggers in her weekly column, “Manhwa Monday”, which you all should check out at her blog.
Shonen — shonen are comics intended for “boys” (even though many types of readers in Japan, including teenage girls, read them). They tend to be action and / or battle oriented, have an adolescent male lead / hero, and are often (although not always) formulaic. The hero often expresses a desire to be “strong” and spends the majority of his time acquiring new battle-oriented skills through fighting enemies. These comics, therefore, tend to be very commercialized and inspire long-running anime series (see Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, etc). They also tend to be a gazillion volumes and often feel overly drawn out since as long as they are profitable they tend to keep going. Akira Toriyama’s Dragonball / Dragonball Z has come to epitomize all that contemporary (i.e. post 1980) shonen comics have become today — particularly Z‘s long battle-arcs that seem to go on forever (which I believe is more characteristic of the anime, which indulges in many filler episodes, than the manga).
I personally tend to like odd-ball shonen titles — like Gin Tama, which is based on a fairly out-there aliens versus samurai! concept, or comics that displace certain aspects of the traditional shonen formula, such Claymore with its half-female half-demon lead. For example, another favorite of mine, Nabari no Ou, is actually a moody character study of a boy who is truly unfit for heroism. In other word, the comic likes to mask itself shonen — the story also features a war between clans in the ninja world — but it doesn’t really follow the formula that closely.
For the record, I don’t necessarily feel “commercialized” or even “formulaic” are insulting words when describing shonen works. A lot of what makes shonen fun is seeing what individual creators can really do with the traditional formula and how they adapt it for their own storytelling purposes.
Shonen Trend of particular interest to American comic book readers — There might be a shonen title for every kind of sport you can imagine. A number of them have been licensed for the U.S., including Slam Dunk, Prince of Tennis, Eyeshield 21, and Hikaru no Go (yes, there’s a comic about the board game Go. Deal with it, it’s totally awesome). For some reason, sports comics don’t seem to do that well with American audiences which is a shame because even a pathetically uncoordinated person such as myself can appreciate them. (Sidenote: Everyone should go out and buy Big Windup! which is a fantastic anime series about high school baseball and hasn’t done as well in the American market as it should have).
Shojo — shojo are comics intended for “girls,” even though as you all might have figured out I’m nearing 30 and I still love shojo. A lot of very different types of stories are classified as shojo and even 4 and 1/2 years later I have great affection for Dirk Deppey’s definition of shojo: “What really sets shojo apart from most Western comics is the degree to which it concentrates on human interaction: First and foremost, shojo manga is about people, and young people in particular” (TCJ, Issue 269). While people might assume that shojo automatically = romance, there are many, many types of shojo comics. I won’t disagree romance is an important component of shojo but really, like the Deppey quote indicates shojo is really just about people and how they relate to one another.
Just as shonen tends to feature young adolescent males as protagonists, shojo tends to feature young adolescent females. That means a lot of works do take place in a high school and feature the first pangs of love. However, shojo covers all sorts of experiences, and first love is just one of them. I’m a fan of all sorts of shojo — I like the straight up high school romance titles, the fantasy epics, the quirky comedies…really, the only thing I don’t like in shojo is stupidity (i.e. stupid girls, stupid boys, stupid plots). I’ll give almost any shojo title a chance to win me over and it is hard to make me actively dislike one. Just like shonen, shojo has its problems with formula but a lot of the most commercial shojo works out there do something really quite extraordinary (such as Fruits Basket and the way it takes its odd concept of a family-cursed-to-turn-into-a-zodiac-animal-when-hugged-by-someone-of-the-opposite-sex and uses it as spring board for a grand emotional epic).
Significantly, most contemporary shojo is created by women so when you read shojo you are reading works that are very much informed by female sensibilities and narrative desires / needs. Word to the wise — don’t be fooled by the fact many shojo tend to look like they are all made of pinkness and flowers and cotton candy. Shojo will rip your heart out and show it to you and don’t ever think otherwise. Even the fluffiest of series — for example, Del Rey’s Kitchen Princess — indulges in some serious darkness at some point in its run. In other words: Respect the shojo, my friends.
Favorite contemporary titles currently include NANA (a wonderful tale about two very different girls named Nana who meet at the age of 20 and whose lives become intertwined), Skip Beat! (a hilarious tale of a jilted girl who decides to get her revenge…by entering showbiz), Two Flowers for the Dragon (offering lovely fantasy-world building and features a young woman who turns into a dragon), High School Debut (one of the most charming high school romances I’ve ever read, about a girl who decides to “debut” in love upon entering high school)…and this list could go on and on.
Favorite “classic” shojo titles include the amazing Swan (from the 1970’s it follows the rise of a talented young woman in the world of ballet, and its use of panels is amazingly inventive for its time), From Eroica with Love (also from the 70’s, hilarious parody of James Bond and cold war politics in Europe. Also features two of my favorite characters of all time — an uptight German NATO officer and a decadent British art thief who decides he’s in love with said German NATO officer), and Banana Fish (shockingly intense and gritty tale from the 1980’s, set in NYC featuring guns, violence, drugs, gang warfare and god knows what else…nothing about this title looks or feels very much like “shojo” and stands as reminder how flexible the category can be).
Seinen — Japanese comics aimed at adult males. However, just like shonen titles, I suspect that seinen tends to appeal to both male and female comic readers. Currently, Viz media is publishing a number of great seinen comics under its Signature imprint. (I think all but two or three of these would be classified as seinen). Darkhorse also tends to publish seinen, which should tell you something.
For the record, these are the comics I would recommend to people unfamiliar with manga. Naoki Urasawa’s Monster, 20th Century Boys and Pluto are three fantastic works that I can wholeheartedly recommend to regular readers of Western Comics.
Josei — Japanese comics are aimed at adult women. Very little josei has been published in the U.S. and most of what has been published is all kinds of awesome. Josei are comics that often deal with women’s working and romantic lives. Distinct from shojo in that they can be more frank about the reality of everyday life after high school and college.
Tramps like Us, Butterflies and Flowers and Suppli all deal with women’s working lives in very different ways and each holds a special place in my heart.
Yaoi / boys’ love / bl — Comics about same-sex male romances by women for women. This is a very popular category of manga in both Japan and the U.S. that often has outsiders scratching their head. These works can range from fairly tame to very, very explicit.
Yaoi is about female fantasy, and in that sense it often fails to acknowledge the realities of gay identities and experiences. The best works acknowledge various aspects of gay life but sometimes even the ones that don’t do have something to recommend them.
Yugi Yamada — whose art and men are very much not pretty, standing out from the majority of yaoi — is probably one of my favorite yaoi creators of all time. She’s got a flair for dialogue and character and offers very-much-not-idealized romances that are all kinds of realistic but never ever boring. Not to mention she’s got a nice handle on both the funny and the touching.
Fumi Yoshinaga — my favorite comic creator of all time. I try to reference her at least once a week and if I haven’t I feel I’ve failed the universe somehow. Pretty much 99% of her professional work has been published in the U.S. That is just how damn good she is. She has three works, though, that are absolute masterpieces — Antique Bakery, Flower of Life, and Ooku. Start with Antique Bakery and marvel at her talent for food porn and her deft observations of everyday life. Move on to Flower of Life to discover her ever expanding abilities to make high school life hilarious, fresh and still completely true to life. Finish up with Ooku and watch her take on an alternative history of Japan with style and intelligence.
Next time: Why there are certain words from anime and manga culture I probably won’t use here and why.
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