Critiquing Impressions of Feminine Storytelling: In Defense of Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas
Part One: Feminine Media & A Girls’ Comics World
This article is part one of a two-part series reviewing the reception to the English translation of Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas and its English-language reviews in Western comics culture. Part One of this series concerns the cross-cultural influences of Japan’s shoujo industry, while Part 2 discusses reviews to the Heart of Thomas translation and what this reception reflects as a barrier to a Western girls’ comics industry.
While Moto Hagio’s classic shoujo manga (girls’ comic) The Heart of Thomas was released originally in Japan in 1974 and has long been heralded a classic shoujo story, the English-language translation, released on January 2nd of 2013, drew criticism from popular reviewers for the very stylistic and narrative elements that drew Thomas’ original audience of Japanese girls and women and lack insight and context into the depths of the story that Hagio built. The very issues that reviewers critiqued Thomas for, namely, the dramatic plots, the delicate, overtly feminine visual touches, and the complex mechanisms of gender within the story, are all cornerstones of shoujo storytelling and are all very obviously coded as feminine storytelling elements. While Thomas depicts male characters, Hagio codes femininity into every element of the story, with every effort towards drawing in her assumedly female audience.
Thomas’ translation occupies a unique space in English-language comics as a beloved, popular work created by a woman for an explicitly female audience. The western-comics popular culture sphere has been crowded by male creators and stories for so long that a work as explicitly feminine as Thomas struggles to find a wide readership in English-language comics, as readers lack the tools to conceptualize such a feminine work. However, reception to Thomas illustrates the ways the explicitly feminine is undervalued and unappreciated in the mainstream Western comics world. By examining Thomas and its English-language reviews alongside literary and cultural motivations for Hagio’s storytelling styles, we can not only trace the greater significance of this landmark story, but we can also understand the barriers to bringing explicitly feminine comics to the mainstream comics world.
What is feminine media and why does it matter in respect to comics?
For the purposes of this essay, I will borrow from Sue Thornham’s description of media oriented towards women and define feminine media as “mainstream narratives which claim to speak to and about women, to inhabit a ‘women’s world’ and to offer positions of identification for their female consumers….across a number of media forms.” While femininity is a varied identity and experienced differently from individual to individual, “feminine” media is that which is obviously visually and stylistically geared towards women and girls. While gender is a purely constructed identity, women’s acceptance or preferences for overtly “feminine” media is not a biological result of their gender, but, as Lana Rakow explains in Rethinking Gender Research in Communication, due to “our gender system, which locates some people as women in a particular organization of social life, making that location appear natural and the result of biology and psychology rather than culture and politics.”
Not all women enjoy or consume this targeted feminine media, and outlets such as women’s magazines, romance novels, and soap operas face considerable criticism from feminist media scholars for their emphasis on consumerism, their reinforcement of traditional gender roles, their heterosexism and their racism. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes that triggered advertising in women’s magazines keeps women “in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry, and sexually insecure state of being aspiring ‘beauties.’” Contemporary analysis of “empowering” girl-oriented magazines finds that even when their emphasis on beauty remains about self-expression in healthy ways, “girls’ agency is often presented as explicitly tied to buying things with the promise that these goods will give them social power and independence.” Romance novels, an especially gendered genre of fiction, face considerable criticism for promoting conservative and outdated views on women in the world.
However, as Thornham writes, they also provide “pleasures of self-recognition, of finding women placed centre-stage in a ‘woman’s genre,’ of participation in a shared women’s culture.” Such fiction empowers readers through independence and identification. Similarly, soap opera, another female-targeted genre, “provides space for the creation and expression of a specific women’s culture, constructed in the spaces between, but also in opposition to, dominant or official culture.” Media created for women specifically has a reputation for having little aesthetic or intellectual value. In her discussion about soap operas, Thornham writes, “like in romance fiction, [soap operas are] regarded as trash by the dominant value system. Its fans, however, choose it in defiance of these values—as their cultural capital, and in doing so, constitute themselves as a site of opposition to dominant and official culture.” Even Wolf, in her criticism of women’s magazines, acknowledges that they have the power to bring feminist messages to ordinary women who may not be steeped in academic feminism. She states that “women’s media are the only products of popular culture that…change with women’s reality, are mostly written by women for women about women’s issues, and take women’s concerns seriously.” Women’s media provides a space for women to tell their own stories and voice their own desires in their own voices.
The lack of a visible women’s culture in mainstream comics misses an opportunity to draw a large female readership to our medium. While comics created specifically for girls in the early period of the medium’s history tried to reflect the desires and fantasies of young women, as time went by, mainstream comics presented a dominant ideology that reinforced stereotypes about women told by men. As romance comics dwindled in the 1970s, publishers told stories that, “no matter how well-drawn, read as though they were written by clueless forty-five-year-old-men—which they were.” While the bold underground wimmin’s comix creators told overtly feminist stories, a lack of mainstream stories told in the sequential form targeted towards young women and girls led to the incredibly gendered medium we know today.
The popularity of manga, and of shoujo titles in particular, amongst young people in the late 90s and early 2000s inspired many young artists who may not have been interested in the dominant comics culture to start writing and drawing within the medium. While comics like Womanthology, the revolutionary crowd-funded comics project that drew over $105,000 dollars to produce an anthology of female-created works, help galvanize a base of female creators, they are still the outlier. In fact, in a reader survey that accompanied the launch of DC’s New 52, a reboot of their comics continuity, only 7% of readers identified themselves as female. In 2012, the highest selling comic distributed by Diamond, the main publisher to all comic book stores, that was created by a women for a specifically female audience was the new reprinting of volume three of Kondansha’s shoujo Sailor Moon series as the 145th bestselling graphic novel of the year (by contrast, in 2011, the first volume of Kodansha’s Sailor Moon rerelease ranked 91st for its year). Fortunately, on Amazon, a number of English-language comics created by women for girls rank between the 40s-50s on Amazon’s list of bestselling comics, though the lack of visibility or promotional news about these titles is still a problem. While comics created with both genders in mind have risen in recent years, and while many if not most comics by independent publishers like Oni, Fantagraphics, and Top Shelf create works that take both genders in mind, few comics created for a specifically female audience, let alone an audience of young girls, exist in Western comics. The influence of shoujo and manga in general has in turn shaped the western comics world. Renowned contemporary American and Canadian comics and cartoon artists draw inspiration from shoujo titles. Brian Lee O’Malley, Hope Larson, and Adventure Time artist Natasha Allegri all cite shoujo series Sailor Moon as an influence on their art. Other creators, like Josh Tierney, the writer behind Archaia Press’ Spera, or Faith Erin Hicks of Friends with Boys, have cited other shoujo series’ as influences on their love of comics.
Shoujo stories have the advantage of a large, female-driven comics industry backed by the most powerful publishing companies in Japan, where deciphering the interests and desires of girls shapes the entire industry. Publishers, editors, and artists rely on the concept of ningen kankei (human relations) to construct comics for young women. Ningen kankei, as defined by Jennifer Prough in Straight from the Heart: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shoujo Manga, is concerned with “person-to-person association or interaction with society” as well as “Relations between individuals including correspondence of emotions.” These relationships not only shape characters within girls’ stories, but also “holds fast the structures of economics, relativity, authenticity, and ideology within the shoujo manga industry.” These definitions rely on gendered assumptions about what women want, but they also are a powerful tool for introducing young women to comics. In 2008, the Mainichi Newspaper in Japan conducted a survey about reading practices, and of the 4800 men and women polled, 47% of late teenage women reported reading manga magazines, with 42% of women in their twenties reporting in. Seventy-three percent (73%) of teenaged women reported reading at least one manga book per month, while 53% of women in their twenties reported reading manga. Shoujo stories, once drawn by men and concerned with romance and perpetuating a male-formed feminine ideal, shifted thanks to a group of revolutionary group that decided to reclaim girls’ comics. These creators in turn inspired a host of creators that expanded the genre’s popularity both in Japan and abroad. Hagio, a member of this group, is inextricably tied to the popularity of shoujo in her role as an iconic visionary in girl’s comics.
Hagio and the Year 24 Group
The English translation boys’ love comic The Heart of Thomas was released by indie comics publisher Fantagraphics on January 2, 2013 after months of delays. Heart of Thomas follows Fantagraphics’ 2010 release of A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, a collection compiling several of Hagio’s other notable short works. Hagio heralds from a group informally known as the Year 24 Group, one of the most successful movements of women in comics the world has ever seen. The Year 24 Group, or, to some, the Magnificent 49ers, were a group of Japanese female shoujo artists born on or around 1949 (or, the 24th year of the Showa period in Japan). The Year 24 Group included such artists as Keiko Takemiya, Moto Hagio, Riyoko Ikeda, Yasuko Aoike, and a handful or two of other female artists. Hagio and Takemiya were roommates, and many of the other creators in the group would go to their apartment to work and collaborate. At the time they were working, girl’s comics followed a lot of the same conventions as they did in the US—most were romantic, and nearly all of them were written by men and enforced severe gender roles. The women of the Year 24 Group wanted to write comics for women by women, and pioneered many of the shoujo manga conventions that are commonplace now. The creators within the group explored genres as diverse as science fiction, fantasy, romance, slice-of-life, mystery, and action comics, all aimed at capturing the imaginations of young women. The works they created, like Ikeda’s Rose of Versailles, or Hagio’s Heart of Thomas all influenced all of the manga that would come later. They infused the shoujo manga genre with a real concern for the inner lives of women and girls, as perceived by real women and girls. They also paved the way for later female creators like Rumiko Takahashi, (Inu Yasha, Ranma ½), the ladies of CLAMP (Card Captor Sakura, Chobits, X1999), or Naoko Takeuchi (Sailor Moon), among others.
Thornham, Sue, “Narrating Femininity.” Women, Feminism and Media. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 55-83
Wolf, Naomi: From The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women: NY: Doubleday, 1991. Pp 58-85
Keller, Jessalynn. “Feminist Editors and the New Girl Glossies: Fashionable Feminism or Just Another Sexist Rag?” Women’s Studies International Forum 34 (2011) I-12.
Rakow, Lana F. “Rethinking Gender Research in Communication,” Journal of Communication, 36, no. 4 (August 1986), 11-26.
Wolf, Naomi: From The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women: NY: Doubleday, 1991. Pp 58-85
Keller, Jessalynn. “Feminist Editors and the New Girl Glossies: Fashionable Feminism or Just Another Sexist Rag?” Women’s Studies International Forum 34 (2011) I-12.
Rakow, Lana F. “Rethinking Gender Research in Communication,” Journal of Communication, 36, no. 4 (August 1986), 11-26.
Prough, Jennifer. Straight from the Heart: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shojo Manga. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011.
Robbins, Trina. From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines. 1999. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999.
SPACE MAGIC AND SCIENCE FANTASY: CC ON SAGA #3
Saga #3, the newest issue of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ beautiful space fantasy, blew me away with its versatile, breathtaking art and quick, fun pacing. There’s so much to like about Saga in general and with few missteps, issue 3 is no exception.
If you haven’t been keeping up, Saga follows two star-crossed lovers, Alana and Marko, in their journey to escape from both the war between their nations and the mercenaries sent to punish them for desertion. Also present: political undercurrents and space magic. I’ve heard Saga described as Game of Thrones and Star Wars combined, but as I don’t watch Game of Thrones, I’d have to summarize this comic as Star Wars with more interesting politics and a lot of swearing.
Saga manages to be both imaginative and fun, a solid, eye-popping genre story that leaves readers yearning for next month’s book. The simple issue-to-issue tension lacks some of Brian K. Vaughan’s usual major cliffhangers and generally builds steadily from issue to issue. As NOVI’s token Neil Gaiman devotee, I adore ‘90s and early 2000s Vertigo stories. Vaughan played a major role in the tail end of that movement with Y The Last Man, so Saga treats me with something both familiar and brand new. There’s something to be said about good, solid genre titles drifting somewhere in the middle between glossy superhero singles and introspective indie tomes.
Also the space monsters couldn’t be better. Everybody’s talking about the Spider Lady Merc, but my favorite monster is this guy from back in issue one.
Issue 3 begins with science fiction ghost children confronting Alana over how best to help Marko recover from a fatal wound. Elsewhere in the issue, bounty hunters and a robot king make more plans to capture the errant couple.
While I could care less about the issue’s subplot (weird robot king guy), the plotline featuring the ghost children presented interesting ideas about the way space conquest works in Saga’s universe.
The ghost children lived on Wreath before Marko’s race did, and far earlier than Alana’s nation’s war with them. How many races of sentient life exist in Saga? Where in the universe does the story take place? I can’t wait to find out.
I’m still completely enthralled with Saga, but while I found the art as engaging as ever (if not more so), I did not care one bit for the cheap splash-page cliffhanger at the end of the issue. The whole setup felt a lot less nuanced than it needed to be, but I will refrain from spoilers and let you draw your own conclusions.
Complaints aside, Saga #3 showcases Staples’ depth of talent as she effortlessly moves from magical, brilliant fantasy:
to stark, clean science fiction:
Staples’ use of color in issue #3 adds a deep richness to the art and creates dynamic, powerful setting changes. As always, her characters and settings can be beautiful and grotesque at the same time (see: Izabel, the pink, cutesy, semi-disemboweled ghost girl).
Saga impresses me as an incredible value for my three dollars. I feel like Vaughan and Staples milk each page for story. And I come away from each issue feeling satisfied, which rarely happens to me when buying singles. All in all, I’m probably not the best reviewer for this story, as I’m a huge fan of fun science fiction and I can forgive most offenses in the name of a good time. Even if a sci-fi story is bad, I’ll probably enjoy it anyway. As Saga lacks my science fiction pet peeve—unnecessary, gratuitously-erect space nipples— I had a great time.
FALLEN ON DEAF EARS: CC ON YOSHIHIRO TATSUMI’s “FALLEN WORDS”
After countless youtube rakugo videos and multiple rereads, I regret to inform you that I just don’t get this book. Fallen Words, the newest title by manga/gekiga [manga with a more cinematic/grown-up slant] luminary Yoshihiro Tatsumi, explores the Japanese oral tradition of rakugo through comics form. Rakugo is a comedic performance art where one actor performs many roles in very limited circumstances: he uses very few props and, from what I can tell, remains seated. The stories in Fallen Words have been acted out on the rakugo stage numerous times, but he explores them with a new perspective— it’s essentially turning a one man, one act play into a manga with full characters.
Unfortunately, many of the clever puns fell flat on me. I felt as if I had used an online translator to convert a literary text. I can tell that I am supposed to understand the humor, the laughter, and the varied experiences of the characters, but I just can’t seem to feel anything for them. Many jokes are clever, but the delivery and timing—elements Tatsumi himself cites as key elements of rakugo—fall flat. I am willing to attribute these communication problems to cultural translation, rather than blaming the title’s translator. More than anything else, Fallen Words made me question how, for example, beloved English-language folk tales would translate into a vastly different culture. Actions are conveyed, but idioms (and significance) wander away. Tatsumi’s beautiful depiction of Edo-period Japan, combined with his usual deliberate, precise framing, make Fallen Wordsa visual treat, but those elements just don’t combine for me into something that I can wrap my head around.
I first discovered Tatsumi’s work through my university’s library several years ago. I plowed through Abandon the Old in Tokyo several times in a day and was struck by his bleak, structurally logical work. After finishing The Push-man and Other Stories and then the beautiful A Drifting Life, I really fell in love. I could more easily relate to the more basic human emotions in these books. I am not one to grasp concept work very well, so a lot of the significance of Fallen Words—an experiment in translating performance art to visual/literary art—was lost on me. I enjoyed this collection of stories, but felt that their real beauty eluded me the whole time.
CONSUMPTION JUNCTION: CC on Translucent, with some Downton Abbey and Mass Effect
I recently read through some manga that I bought some time ago and discovered the first volume of Kazuhiro Okamoto’s Translucent in my pile. We are introduced to the main character, Shizuka, who is afflicted with Translucent Syndrome, a non-fatal, non-contagious disease that also seemingly has no cure and no cause. Surprisingly, rather than exploring the science fiction behind Shizuka’s partial invisibility, Translucent focuses on interpersonal relationships (which are just about my favorite thing ever). At its heart, this is a story about a transparent girl who struggles through adolescent self-image issues with the help of her boyfriend and classmates.
I love comics with obvious visual metaphors, and Translucent is just one long metaphor about adolescent hopes and doubts. Shizuka struggles with her quiet nature and her contrasting desire for recognition while her physical appearance phases in and out. As her loving boyfriend, Mamoru, and her school friends support her, she is able to create a stronger physical image for herself and finds it easier to maintain her presence in the world. Her loved ones reaffirm her and draw out her inner strength.
As a metaphor for her self-image, I found Shizuka’s visibility (or lack thereof) to be powerful and engaging, very much like Moto Hagio’s Iguana Girl’s use of the same technique. Want to tell a story about feeling like a monstrous outsider? Draw the main character as a monstrous outsider and have others react to it. Want to tell a story about feeling as if you are slipping away from the outside world, saddened by your own (seeming) unimportance? Draw the main character as a sometimes-invisible girl. What a fascinating and incredibly simple way to tell a story.
One of the other things that I enjoyed about Translucent is the way that it explored the social perceptions of the visible female body. It’s really neat how we see the effects of invisibility on a person, the way that being ignored can make one feel, but one of the coolest points in the story is when Shizuka’s beautiful classmate bears her soul about wanting the disease herself, just to catch a break from the way she is constantly judged.
This girl is in 8th grade, so she’s roughly 13 or 14 years old, and the constant strain of being evaluated and sexualized makes her want to disappear. It’s easy to forget that the “privileges” of beauty often come at a pretty steep price—this girl is just walking home from school and her character and intelligence are called into question (“She must lack discipline…seems she gets good grades though”). Her ability to walk safely down a street is called into question because of her physical beauty.
Other than Translucent, my consumption has been a real mixed bag. Between watching an unbelievable amount of Downton Abbey with Kachi and playing Mass Effect, I sometimes find it hard to remember that other things exist in the universe, like eating or sleeping at normal hours. I’ve basically spent an unbridled amount of time imagining Maggie Smith as the Illusive Man and cackling about it
(thanks, VGE and Rachel, for encouraging this train of thought and sending me wonderful lines of Maggie Smith-as-a-Mass-Effect-character dialogue).
I’m Sorry I Didn’t Like Womanthology More by CC
Womanthology, the “
best [second best, following Richard Burlew’s Order of the Stick reprint] funded comics project ever to feature on Kickstarter,” finally released for non-Kickstarter donors a few weeks ago and consequently, recently arrived at my house. On one hand, the incredible success of Womanthology in the first place proved all the haters wrong: women do care about comics, both about making them and reading them, and there is actual money to be made in Girl Comics (comics for women, by women, or both!). As a solid anthology alone, outside of the experiment, the comics were not at the level of quality that I expected. Especially not for the $50 pricetag.
Womanthology has been arguably the most talked about comics project of 2011 because of how revolutionary it was and how much money it made. The Kickstarter page met its initial $25,000 goal in one day and made $109,301 by the end of the donation drive. The full title of the book is Womanthology: Heroic, and this entire collection centers on comics by women with a theme of heroism With legendary mainstream creators like Annie Nocenti and Gail Simone, and a host of indie creators, Womanthology drew an immense amount of buzz. Unsurprisingly, creators like Neil Gaiman and Kevin Smith offered incentives to donors (and, incredibly surprisingly, so did ‘90s It-Man Rob Liefeld). 150 female creators of all ages, skillsets and backgrounds worked on Womanthology, editors, artists, and writers alike. The characters, too, represent a wide spectrum of ages, sizes, and ethnicities. Womanthology is filled with single illustrations and fairly short comics, most ranging from 2 to 4 pages. Each page is lined at the bottom with helpful tips from editors and creators or the short RPG comic that runs through much of the book.
Womanthology Features Excellent Creators and Provides Keen Insights
Many of the comics within Womanthology are very fine. The collection starts with the breathtaking Superless Hero by Kelly Thomson and Stephanie Hans. Project Manager Renae de Liz’s unnamed superhero comic effortlessly engaged me and I found myself yearning for more capes titles about realistic female protagonists facing real girl problems—by the end of the six-page issue, I regretted that it was a one-shot instead of a continuous story. The Spinster, a gorgeous retro pulp comic by Ming Doyle and Jordie Bellaire completely took my breath away with its glamour and style. In Every Heart A Masterwork was by far my favorite comic in all of Womanthology. This simple story of a little girl’s experiences with her brother’s scary comics paralleled the Womanthology collection as a whole: girls finding comics, and adapting the medium to be the way they wanted it to through their own creativity and vision. The Dreamweaver by Jill Pantozzi and Nur Hanie Mohd really blew my mind with its engaging story about chance and the extraordinariness behind ordinary circumstances, though I thought it was a bit busy with too many panels. Pink Elephants, by Ellen T. Crenshaw, melted my heart and broke my brain with its cartoony elegance.
The children’s section, filled with toothy grins and colorful illustrations by kids, gave me tremendous hope for the future of girls in comics. The little girls and young teens who contributed to this section showed a lot of skill and a lot of ambition. Their vocal passion for comics really proved that women of all walks of life and all ages connect with and engage in the medium. Finally, the back of Womanthology provides interviews and historical context to the “phenomenon” of women in comics. By far the most phenomenal part of the anthology was the creator’s handbook section, which provides essential tips to any creator hoping to hone their skills and break into the industry.
A Not-So-Flawless Collection
In light of all of the wonderful parts of Womanthology, I have to admit that many of the comics featured within the collection were so amateur that I was disappointed in the anthology as a whole. As an experiment, Womanthology was an exemplary effort and a wonderful success. As a book on its own steam, I was unimpressed as a reader. I would go so far as to say that a mixed-gender book of this level of quality would face a great deal more criticism. None of the comics within the collection were particularly bad, but many of the comics are far too mediocre for publication in a $50 anthology. There are far too many titles and quite a few are so short that they stop right as they got interesting. Jettisoning some of the lower-quality comics would have led to a stronger anthology.
My expectations were extremely high going in. I anticipated that Womanthology would be like Flight (another anthology including many skilled female creators). Instead, it felt like a bound version of Deviantart, minus all the creepy Sonic The Hedgehog porn comics. I wanted to take my Womanthologybook and shove it in the faces of the internet jerks who jeer at the idea of women in comics, push it right into their noses and say “See, see what we can do?” However, I just don’t feel comfortable doing that with this volume.
I realize that nobody expected Womanthology to evolve into the wild success it became. I also understand that everyone in this book worked on it for charity. Comparing it to a more structured book with a page rate for artists is just unfair. At the same time, I feel like some of these comics were so unrefined and amateur that they made the entire collection look less professional, less easy to take seriously. I’m not here to rip on anybody or call them out, but many basic problems like poor composition and paneling, bad coloring, and for many creators, hasty and grating lettering choices eroded my reading experience. These are things I would not expect from any hardbound, professional collection of comics. Some of the pinups had the same anatomical problems many female readers have deplored when male creators use them: namely, grapefruit boobs and weird boob/butt spine arches.
Almost every review I’ve read of Womanthology has been completely glowing and I haven’t found one yet (that wasn’t drenched in sexism and ignorance) that bothered to call out any of its flaws, which I think is also unfair. These creators deserve the same level of scrutiny as any other artist. They are presenting themselves as pros and they deserve to be evaluated as such—not ripped apart, but properly criticized when their work is subpar. It is what any creator deserves, and it’s the only way to form an accurate opinion about one’s work and to grow.
But I can’t stress this enough: I am a fan of Womanthology. According to the Womanthology Kickstarter, a second volume, Womanthology: Space is coming out and if there is one thing I love more than Girl Comics, it’s space adventures. I’m going to donate as much as I can, and I am taking heart because according to their website, the next volume will be smaller, take fewer contributors, and offer artists a page rate. I believe this will guarantee a higher quality book overall.
Due to the political upheaval around reproductive rights in seemingly every southern state in the US, while 2011 was politically the year of the War on Women, it was a great year to be a woman in comics. 2010 marked Marvel’s Girl Comics—essentially, Womanthology, but for the mainstream—a collection of comics written, illustrated, and edited by women entirely. We now know that both mainstream and indie publishers have the ability to create massive tomes of work by women and for women. One of the major insults we comics girls hear whenever we point out the sexism and unfairness of the industry is that if we wanted comics that treated us with respect, we should stop “whining” and make them ourselves. If anything, projects like Womanthology prove that there are enough female artists, writers, and editors to do just that. I’m proud that Womanthology exists because I want to dedicate my career to making the sort of comics that women of all walks of life can read and enjoy. While Womanthology wasn’t entirely a collection of The Greatest of All Female Creators, it is a good representation of Many Girls Who Love Comics And Also Make Them, from the young kid with her crayon superhero drawing to the seasoned industry pro. For all my problems with Womanthology: Heroic, I’m looking to see what comes next.
While we’re recuperating just a little bit more from the big event this past weekend, I wanted to share my favorite Staple! ritual with you: Staple Cats. The premise is as simple as it sounds. Staple Cats are just cats that artists around the show were willing to draw just for me. They were all kind enough to let me share them with you NOVI readers.
I’ve been sort of developing a shrine of slightly unnerving cat prints, so I like to see what is out there in the world as far as interestingly drawn cats. (Here is an incredibly low res phone picture if you want to see my small collection thus far).
So, without further ado, here are some awesome cats by some of the coolest people at Staple.
Chelsea Hostetter, Koumori Comics
NOVI Cats by the NOVI staff
CONSUMPTION JUNCTION: SHOJO EDITION
Yup, that’s what we’re calling it now. We’ve decided to switch things up here at Novi and do one more detailed consumption post every week. This week we bring you CC and all the fantastic things that didn’t make it into her month of shoujo articles.
Shoujo Manga Month is going to be over in a few hours, so I want to look back over some of the things that didn’t make it into my articles in this week’s consumption post: CC Edition. Here is an image-based consumption post of all the cool stuff I had to throw on the scrap heap due to time constraints.
This is the giant stash of shoujo books that somehow influenced me during my research through the month of February. And this isn’t even everything, either, it’s just most of it.
Continuing on, here are a few clips from the stack of volume 1s I had laying around my apartment, just to give you a sample of what I’ve been looking at all month.
But first let’s talk about From Eroica With Love, the story of a dashing thief, a handsome nerd, and a cantankerous army dude. Also boners. Check out this man sandwich over here.
I have never read a manga that was as gleeful about dick jokes until this moment and it is absolutely glorious.
So many of the landmark features of the 24 Year Group are on display here and I am absolutely giddy about it.
(I am seriously freaking out here guys, how am I going to find a v-necked jumpsuit this fierce?? The answer is that I can’t, because there’s no way something this amazing exists in real life)
Also, sweet, elegant panel structure
From Eroica With Love is pretty obviously a boys love comic. I didn’t have much time to talk about the history and importance of boys-love comics on shoujo manga this time around, and while I wasn’t super well versed in the genre before Shoujo Manga Month started, I can appreciate how fun and ridiculous this story was.
I mean really, it’s beautiful. Also v-necks.
I tried to locate this book on amazon, but the results were pretty lacking.
Now let’s talk about Kodocha, which was this cute and amazing story of a child star and her annoying classmate. At this point three weeks later, there are only two things I strongly remember from this series:
1.) Sana gives absolutely 0 fucks
2.) Akito’s creepy-looking dad is the steward of all of my future nightmares.
3.) SANA’S MOM HAS A SQUIRREL LIVING IN HER HAIR.
Finally, there was Marmalade Boy, which was cute but made me a bit uncomfortable what with the polyamorous parents and step-sibling romances.
On an unrelated note, I give this hot teacher 4/5 Tuxedo Masks.
Look at this sweater. Look at these glasses. Look at this man. How am I supposed to pay attention to the cutesy not-actually-incestuous, slightly-awkward romance with this guy’s dreamboatiness getting all up in the way??
I don’t know if you can tell from the pages and pages of articles here, but I think SHOUJO MANGA IS THE FUCKING BOMB. This stuff is almost everything that I’ve read this month, and I just want you to appreciate the IRREVERSABLE DAMAGE this research will probably do to my romantic expectation in my everyday life. All in all, I read a lot of really cute stories with interesting characters, but a lot of the titles here that I didn’t cover were left out due to a lack of time or a lack of imagination on my part. Regardless, thanks for following along with me.
SHOUJO MANGA MONTH: STABBINGS AND VEHICULAR MAIMINGS IN CONFIDENTIAL CONFESSIONS
Now that February is drawing to a close, I am wrapping up this month’s shoujo manga theme with Confidential Confessions, a mind-blowing collection of cautionary tales about being a girl. If you still need an intro to what shoujo manga is and why it’s important, I recommend that you go back and check out my previous articles: the latest one covered Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories and explored the pinnacle of what shoujo manga should be, while my first article on Wedding Peach explained why a mediocre story can be so much more tiresome than a bad one. For those of you skeptics, today I plan on talking about what makes up a glorious and fantastically bad shoujo manga, and why strong feelings are such an important part of the package.
Catharsis and Shoujo Manga
Before I jump headlong into Confidential Confessions, I think it’s important to understand why catharsis is such an important part of shoujo manga. In my last article, I talked about how a really great shoujo manga can span the length and breadth of human emotion with relatable characters that stand in for a reader’s life and experiences. Moto Hagio’s “Iguana Girl” was so touching because readers could easily relate to the story’s eloquent depiction of isolation and insecurity. Everyone feels that way at one point or another, and Hagio was able to evoke strong feelings by tapping into a really strong emotional core.
Catharsis—or, pretty much, the expelling of a huge heap of emotions in one burst—is an essential convention of shoujo manga. A lot of ladies’ comics explore the everyday horrors of real life this way, by facing protagonists against the worst of the worst with extreme, unrealistic levels of emotion. In my new favorite analytical text about shoujo manga, A Sociology of Japanese Ladies’ Comics, Kinko Ito discusses how the dialogue in such stories is “often very negative and thus painful, and the pictures portrayed the…emotional and physical reactions to pain” often with a “healthy and humanizing effect.” In short: we read some powerful, intense stuff and we come out of it feeling better.
This is what Confidential Confessions is trying to be: an infinitely relatable collection of real-life girl problems. Unfortunately, it fails completely by presenting circumstances so ridiculous that readers can’t really buy into them. Manga critic Johanna Carlson puts it succinctly: “[Confidential Confessions is] billed as an honest exploration of ‘the harsh realities of today’s youth’, but for me, it’s more like an old Cecil B. DeMille epic — 80 minutes of glorified sinning, and 10 minutes of redemption to make it the audience feel virtuous instead of embarrassed for watching.”
SO, WITHOUT FURTHER ADO, I PRESENT TO YOU THE WORST, MOST AMAZING MANGA I HAVE EVER READ.
Year Initially Published in the US: 2003
Year Initially Published in Japan: 1998
US Publisher: Tokyopop
Japanese Publisher: Kodansha
Creator: Reiko Momochi
Characters injured or killed by running head first into moving vehicles: 4
Some of these dudes were OK to look at but most of them were really creepy. One of the stories deals with a lesbian relationship: the female love interest was somehow even worse than most of the dudes in that she couldn’t even make out with her crush without trying to stab and/or choke her. There was only one guy that I thought was even remotely studly, and it was this awesome dad who sticks up for his daughter after she complains to her school about the rapey volleyball coach.
Jesus Christ I am getting old. It’s always the teachers, librarians, and dads that get to me these days.
There are not enough numbers in all of creation to properly rate how fucking creepy every single romance turns out. The love interests of Confidential Confessions are about as reliable in their sexual predatory-ness as Frank Miller heroines are in their prostitutiness. Do you love your boyfriend a lot? WELL PREPARE YOURSELF for the moment he tells you should have died fighting your rapist, you disgusting skankadoodle. With the exception of maybe one or two dudes, every guy in Confidential Confessions is about as ready to brandish a boner at you as he is to look at you. To their credit, a lot of these boyfriends learn that they’re not super cool guys and need to man up and act like human beings, but even the nice ones still say pretty disgusting things sometimes.
Why Confidential Confessions is Actually Sort of Redeeming
While Confidential Confessions can get to some pretty mind-blowingly terrible lows, it actually does convey its messages effectively and engrossingly. Again, Confidential Confessions is a collection of different stories about how shitty being a girl can be. Each story features a different female character working through a seemingly universal problem. As such, many of the problems are easy to relate to and they are so titillating that you are drawn into the story, whether or not you want to be.
Some of the stories really pull you in with that universal appeal. These characters struggle through so many understandable, real life problems that you just find yourself sympathizing along with them, even if those problems are poorly-explained and ridiculous. The first story of the series presents the pain of suicidal teenage cutters and magnifies that hurt, that nobody-feels-what-I-feel emotional thing we all had going at 15, and the story about rape echoes a lot of the fears and struggles survivors commonly express. A lot of the stories even center on female-on-female bullying, and the destructive ways that kids can tear each other apart.
While these girls might fall onto an aggressive penis, heroin needle, or errant public transit vehicle every time they turn around, they actually express the sort of problems girls actually experience. Unlike mainstream comics, when a girl gets sexually assaulted in Confidential Confessions, she takes that shit on a self-actualizing journey towards healing and discovery. In mainstream comics, she’d only be kept in the story after her assault to provide some dude a motivational backstory. These girls don’t get shoved into refrigerators and forgotten. They climb right back out, slowly but surely. And that’s sort of cool (unless they meet some terrible fate by the end of the story—but more on that later).
Many of the stories in Confidential Confessions don’t have real endings, either. They have stopping points. Sometimes that stopping point is an HIV-positive girl and her best friend and boyfriend leaving home for college together.
Sometimes it’s a girl wishing she had succeeded in stabbing her stalker ex-boyfriend to death. Still, sometimes the stories trail off, which feels so much more real.
The art can be pretty effective sometimes too. Reiko Momochi really knows how to transport your eyes from frame to frame and can heap on the shoujoiest shoujo techniques ever, usually in a really satisfying way. Look at this googly-eyed, split-panelled goodbye kiss moment right here. There isn’t really a need for a lot of dialogue here, and the finality of it all is expressed pretty masterfully.
In the story about crazy lesbians, we get to see how the main character sees the girl she’s in love with, and we can really feel that thick intense first love feeling in the way the panel is composed. It’s all so graceful and elegant that it’s hard NOT to follow along.
NOW, THE BAD STUFF
Remember when I said that Confidential Confessions was literally the WORST? This is the manga version of a bargain-barrel collection of Lifetime Original Movies—only infinitely more digestible because manga is so easy to read. Some of the stories are OK, but some of them involve a hair-eating lesbian walking into a room to find her crush getting molested by her dad.
Then the crush’s jilted stepmother stabs the father to death, muttering “people die so easily.” The crush chokes the hair-eating lesbian nearly to death until they find solace in each other to survive the oncoming years.
I mean I just have to tell you to trust me—I’d need to scan 4 pages of comic to show you the process in which a teenage lesbian walks in on her crush’s molestation and then the scene where SHE STANDS THERE WHILE THE DAD IS STABBED TO DEATH.
Rather than tell you in loving detail all of the hilariously exploitive plot points, I am going to try to show you some of the most bizarre moments in Confidential Confessions.
There’s the anti-drug PSA where this obviously fat fatty fat fat decides to start doing speed and meth and LSD in order to fix her appearance as well as her school troubles.
She realizes that drugs are actually pretty rad
And then the yakuza show up
But it turns out all along she was doing drugs to be good enough for her professor dad.
This is one of the more awesomely terrible stories, but a lot of them are sort of like this.
By public transportation at the most dramatic moment. Seriously, there are 2 maimings and 2 running-into-traffic-related deaths over the course of the 6-volume series.
I feel that any sort of commentary on my part for the following images would be moot and excessive. Without further ado, here is a gallery of amazing moments with very little context, because honestly the stories they come from don’t make a hell of a lot of sense anyways. Enjoy.
This one is from a story where the volleyball coach is molesting all of the students on the inter-high champion volleyball team.
“WHAT KIND OF WOMAN DO YOU WANT TO BECOME, CHIKA?! THIS IS HIGH SCHOOL VOLLEYBALL, NOT SOME SORT OF GAME.”
This is from a story where two suicidal teens have to figure out how to save up enough money for cyanide capsules.
This one is the ultimate first world problem.
This is from a story where a girl tries to overcome her rape. These are just things people tell the main character during her struggle.
In this one, Confidential Confessions covers stalking and domestic violence. The ex-boyfriend freaks out and starts creeping on his ex, going through her trash, and leaving her presents like this:
Before showing up like this to abduct her:
This is her ex-boyfriend, by the way.
And these two are just too ridiculous not to include.
One of the most unsettling things about Confidential Confessions is that the stories are generally pretty sexist. All of the men are either predatory or protective. None of the female characters really show a lot of agency until they are pushed into action by some outside force. Also, whenever any of them express dissatisfaction about getting groped on the train, molested by teachers, or treated like crap, everyone around them just tells them to shut up and stop being hysterical women. Many of the stories within Confidential Confessions follow the same pattern: a young girl is a victim, until either she isn’t anymore, or she dies an untimely death. Isn’t there a way to confront circumstances without making your characters into victims?
In the only story about same-sex couples, the main lesbian relationship is explained away as the side effect of a troubled childhood. In fact, many of these young women make the poor choices they make due to lack of a father figure. I find it deeply troubling that so many universal problems faced by so many women are explained away by having that old sexist standby, “daddy issues.” Why is it always “daddy issues?” Can’t women have other reasons for having any mental illness at all?
At the same time, I feel like my gratitude to Confidential Confessions for actually talking about lady things wouldn’t exist at all if English language comics had any tradition of expressing female thoughts and opinions. It’s amazing that Confidential Confessions has female characters that confront difficult circumstances while remaining the main characters in their own stories. Shouldn’t that just be the default, though?
BOTH A 10 AND A -10 AT THE SAME TIME
I am not going to lie to you. I love this manga. It provided me with at least ten times the enjoyment I got from Wedding Peach. The problem withhating Confidential Confessions is that it meets all of its goals. You can sit down with all six volumes and read them all in one long afternoon. The awesome spreads and layouts will transport you from page to page in a wonderful blur where somehow, as ridiculous as the plots get, everything makes sense.
The absolute best part of Confidential Confessions is the godawful plot structure. Every single page makes the reader wonder how things could possibly get more ridiculous. Sometimes things get so weird that I can only imagine the creator thinking “If I can’t make the most emotionally intense, beautiful manga the world has ever seen, by god I will go down in history for making the worst.” You’ve got a whole heaping helping of catharsis over here. There are over-the-top feelings dripping from every page. Unfortunately, very few of the emotional moments in Confidential Confessions resemble the actions and words of real live human beings, leaving the whole experience feeling cheap and disingenuous.
But seriously. Hair eating lesbians. Spunk in a jam jar. Teachers beating students with kendo swords while dropping them into pools. Girls running forlornly into trains. I have never laughed harder or with greater frequency than I did while reading this manga.
The problem is, this book revels in deeply troubling ideas about what it means to be a woman in the world—and these problems are so disturbing that chocking them up to cultural difference feels condescending and false. Confidential Confessions is cheap, gimmicky, and ridiculous. If you are the sort of person who loves flea markets and ironically browsing archived geocities websites, you will love it. If you are in devoted pursuit to fine arts, it’s going to rub you the wrong way so hard your brain will be completely raw by the end of the second volume.
Wrapping up shoujo manga month with something so bad gives me a bit of pause, but I think to really appreciate girl comics, one has to look at all of the extremes—good, bad, and super duper ugly. Girl comics deserve recognition when they are awesome, and just as much condemnation when they utterly fail. By marginalizing them and refusing to talk about what’s bad with sincerity, honesty, and a bit of love, we let everybody else dictate how we tell our stories. While I’ve had some pretty harsh things to say this month, every review I’ve written, I’ve written with pure love and respect. I’d rather talk about the elements of Wedding Peach that didn’t work for me than write off all shoujo manga stories as girly trash. There are a lot of interesting things to say about the way women read, write, and experience comics, and I’ve had a fucking blast looking at it with you.
If you are interested in seeing more reviews like these, or even if you just want to yell at CC for her treatment of Wedding Peach, drop CC a line at firstname.lastname@example.org .
WHAT’S NEW HERE
These are the comics, books and comic books we here at NOVI consumed over the last week, plus some of our feelings about them.
I finished reading Pandemonium by Chris Wooding and Cassandra Diaz, a kid’s comic published by Scholastic. It’s a really cute all-ages story for kids interested in the darker stuff. It seems like an interesting take on the Angels vs Demons trope. The story revolves around this teenage demon Seifer Tombchewer (I was initially won over because his name is the same as my favorite FFVIII character). His father and mother want him to be an athlete, he’s the star of his school’s skullball team, but he feels he’s destined for something greater outside of his small demon town. While walking home one day he gets hit in the back of the head and wakes up in his kingdom’s castle. Apparently Seifer looks just like Prince Talon, who’s gone missing. While the castle guard are out looking for their lost prince, Seifer has to pretend to be Prince Talon until he returns. There’s some pretty interesting stuff in here for a kid’s book, but I expect pretty good things from the publishing company that brought us Bone and Amulet. The first volume ends on a ‘The End… For Now,’ which means it’ll probably be a while before we see can hope to see any continuation of the story.
Wooding’s tale is pretty solid, especially for a children’s book involving political intrigue with royals (which I find can be really, really confusing if not handled properly). He does a really good job identifying who’s on what side, and most importantly having a clear point of view for the “villains”. It’s my opinion that with most political intrigue stories, neither team should be viewed as evil. No country should ever want to willingly enter war without consciously knowing they’re going to risk life and money. There should be a very clear and defining moment where one country does something that the other country would consider wrong before moving into action (I get really tired of ‘Romeo and Juliette stories where ‘Our kingdoms have hated each other for decades!’ is a theme). I feel that the tone is something Wooding is very obviously going for. He’s not afraid to make jokes at a character’s expense and give them small trials and victories along the way of a bigger story.
Diaz’s art is also very well-rendered. She excels at drawing the deadpan teenager stare, but still letting tiny specks of emotion that teens are usually afraid to show seep pass. Her linework is different from most you see in average comic books, thin lines with minimal weight, perfect for royal characters. If there is a second volume, I really hope she’s attached to it. My only concern is that it is an anime/manga influenced style, and while I’ll read anything if it’s pleasing to the eye, you’ll be surprised how many people walking into the store who snub anything with that style if that isn’t from Japan (they’ll even snub Korean and Chinese comics because they aren’t meant to be read right-to-left). When I show lots of people American-based manga-style artists, their typical reaction is “Why would I read something from America if I can get it from Japan?” There is such a strong sense of hipster elitism in the manga crowd that sometimes it leaves me stunned. People like this have often not given Scott Pilgrim a second glance because they see O’Malley’s art to be too much like manga, and they feel they get more out of reading something from Japanese books.
I also just finished reading The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde by Cole Haddon and M.S. Corley last night. IT WAS SO GOOD. I want this comic to become a movie, except maybe in the end the bad guys fall into a vat of acid instead of poop. It’s the craziest bromance story I’ve read in a good, long while. I want to write more about this, but I’ll run late for work.
Also-also, started reading Fantastic Four: Season One by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and David Marquez, a retelling of their early adventures in a modern setting for people who want a solid origins story that’s not from the 60s. I honestly really love reading origins stories, so I have no problem with reading updated origins every 10 or 15 years with updated social norms/technology/atmosphere/etc.
Right now I’m reading Yu Aida’s Gunslinger Girl in between all of the shoujo manga I’ve been keeping up with. Gunslinger Girl sort of reminds me of Alien Nine in that it’s about a bunch of little girls who were thrown into violent situations and altered beyond normal humanity (but here, they’re all cyborgs). I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how nuanced (and non-gratuitous) the story has been so far, but I’m waiting until I finish it off to make a values judgement about it.
Ok, so as a pre-teen discovering comics on the internet, one of the first things I discovered was the Pants Press. Jen Wang, Dylan Meconis, Erica Moen, Bill Budron, and Vera Brosgol. They blew my adolescent mind and it is good to know that 10 years later they are still making fantastic comics. After publishing works in various volumes of Flight and doing storyboards for movies like Coraline, Anya’s Ghost is Brosgol’s first full length published graphic novel, and it is goddamn beautiful. The story tackles issues of teenage angst, the isolation of immigrant children from their peers, the burgeoning sexuality a lot of teenagers just aren’t ready to handle, compassion, forgiveness. It is also legitimately scary at times. Go, read it, report back.
In comic shops this week
My Friend Dahmer.
By Derf. This was initially self-published as a 28 page pamphlet back in 2002. It’s a dark, moody retrospective memoir that is full of rear-view mirror commentary by the cartoonist. It’s here expanded into full on 224-page GN format. Serious stuff.
By Brandon Graham and Simon Roy. If you haven’t picked up 21 yet I don’t really know what to tell you. Sci-fi weirdness at it’s best. Real American Comix, even if the creative team here is Canadian.
Diary of Mr. James-Teacher
By Harvey James. Harvey’s autobio take on teaching in Japan. He’s very readable and he’s reblogged some stuff from NOVI, so you should buy his book.
Dark Horse Presents 9
Various. There’s a Paul Pope story in here.
By Tom Gauld. Whenever someone asks me for the first British cartoonist off the top of my head it goes 1) Tom Gauld 2) Ralph Steadman 3) One of the Nobrow guys. This is Gauld’s longest work to date. His shorter works are essential.
By Jeff Smith. Are you following this series? I ain’t, but I gotta rep new Smith work. Big and Beautiful.