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TCJ Shouj

The Comics Journal 269, The Shoujo Manga Issue, is book-ended by two worth-the-cover-price pieces.

Editor Dirk Deppey opens the edition with a scathing meditation on western comics publishers’ general failure to offer anything that engages women of any age (She’s Got Her Own Thing Now”). In charting the ascendancy of manga by and for women (whether shôjo, shônen-ai, yaoi, josei, or some cross-pollination), Deppey drives a knife right into the heart of the Direct Market:

“Unable to imagine a business model that doesn’t involve the superhero comics upon which their corporate offices grew up, incapable of investing in different works unless they do well in the overwhelmingly superhero-oriented Direct Market, and unwilling to spend any significant time or money promoting such works outside of said market if it involves anything laughably resembling a long-term investment strategy, the titans of American comics have thus essentially ceded the game to the Asian invaders without a fight.”

Manga watchers have been making similar observations for some time, but the effect of Deppey’s piece is startling, building relentlessly from truth to truth. And he doesn’t even stop there, moving on to articulate TCJ’sevolving approach to manga coverage and its (partly deserved) reputation for critical elitism.

For me, it was that elitism that partly marred TCJ’s other recent comprehensive manga outing, The Comics Journal Special Edition: Manga Masters. Edited by Matt Silvie, its focus on the avant-garde was illuminating but frustrating, though its piece on Osamu Tezuka helped balance the scales. (Tezuka, like legendary Will Eisner, can be forgiven for being popular by virtue of his role as a trailblazer.)

But TCJ 269, entirely apart from its considerable individual merits, almost functions as an apology for Manga Masters. It’s probably unfair at this point to marvel at TCJ’sembrace of commercially successful, mainstream comics, but to see the industry’s flagship periodical seriously examine titles like Fruits Basket, Hot Gimmick, and Love Hina is unexpectedly thrilling.

One thing TCJ has always done exceptionally well is the comprehensive creator interview, which brings me to the second showpiece of the edition. The shôjo content concludes with a spectacular package on Moto Hagio, a leading figure in the Magnificent Forty-Niners. This group of women manga-ka led the way in re-imagining shôjo and laying the foundation for its visual and emotional sensibilities.

Eminent shôjo scholar Matt Thorn introduces the Forty-Niners, and TCJ’s resident manga guru Rob Vollmar provides a fascinating review of Hagio’s X+X. The pieces combine to whet reader appetites for Thorn’s lengthy interview with Hagio, which would be fascinating under any circumstances. That it’s conducted by Thorn, a leading figure in shôjo scholarship, takes it to an entirely different level. (For readers unfamiliar with Thorn’s body of work, visit http://www.matt-thorn.com/ at your earliest convenience.)

Thorn’s discussion with Hagio is frank, funny, and endlessly illuminating. Hagio is generous with her biography – her comics-hating parents, career milestones and setbacks, etc. – and her artistic philosophy. It’s fascinating to see Hagio discuss her inspirations and approach, particularly the fluid view of identity that seems to inform her work. I don’t think anyone could have been a better partner in this conversation than Thorn, who brings both a scholar’s insights and a fan’s unabashed admiration to the proceedings.

It becomes clear that Hagio is a seminal figure in manga of any type, not just shôjo. Her most recent work,Otherworld Barbara, should have finished its run in Japan, and her bibliography lets readers know just how much of her body of work is out there waiting to be translated for new audiences. If Thorn’s translation of Hagio’s hauntingHanshin: Half-God (reprinted in the magazine) is any indication, manga publishers shouldn’t waste another minute in making Hagio’s work available in English. (Deppey and Thorn hope that might be a consequence of the profile, and I would love to see their scheme bear fruit.)

Either Deppey or Thorn’s piece would have been reason enough to buy the magazine, but there’s a treasure trove of good material between them. Deppey takes an informative and sympathetic look at the amateurs who make untranslated manga available to web surfers (“Scanlation Nation: Amateur Manga Translators Tell Their Stories”). Johanna Draper Carlson provides a detailed appreciation of josei superstar Erica Sakurazawa (“What’s Love Got to Do With It?”). Cartoonist Lea Hernandez discusses shôjo’s influence on her own work (“Draw Like a Girl!”)

Some twenty titles are reviewed. Highlights include Shaenon K. Garrity’s detailed analysis of the visuals of the classic ballet manga Swan (by Kyoko Ariyoshi, CMX), Steven and Jillian Grant’s fascinating take on Miki Aihara’s twisted Hot Gimmick (Viz), and Kristy Valenti’s ruthless assessment of Courtney Love’s vanity piece, Princess Ai(Tokyopop.) The range of work under scrutiny is impressive, and the mix of voices equally so. (Full disclosure: I wrote a short review for the issue.)

If there’s a problem with the issue, it’s in the occasional tendency of some contributors to write in absolutes. Deppey’s look at two titles on the shônen-shôjo border (Chobits by Clamp and Ken Akamatsu’s Love Hina, both from Tokyopop) relies on a somewhat rigid view of gender identity and sexual development. (Viewing these fan-service smashes through the lens of Camille Paglia is some weird kind of genius, though.) Valenti provides an interesting overview of yaoi and shônen-ai (“’Stop, My Butt Hurts!’ The Yaoi Invasion”) but underplays some of the potentially controversial aspects of such manga. And Trina Robbins lobs some bald statements in her overview of all-ages shôjo (“Universes in Their Eyes: All-Ages Shôjo Manga”): “On the other hand, all-ages shoujo don’t seem to talk down to their readers like the American kids’ comics do… Everything is cute, everything is pretty, because girls like Cute and girls like Pretty.”

In his analysis of Chobits, Deppey jokingly proposes that readers could make a drinking game out of an oft-repeated sentiment from that manga. I would suggest you could do the same by chugging a shot every time a writer defines shôjo in TCJ 269. But instead of being redundant or scattered, the attempts to pinpoint precisely what shôjo is prove fascinating, particularly in their cumulative effect. None of them are wrong, but none of them are comprehensive, either. Put in a row, they provide ample testimony to the fascinating range of material shôjo contains and the rich range of responses it inspires.

And that’s the ultimate beauty of this issue of TCJ: it looks at shôjo and its various offshoots with wide, probing eyes, open minds, and genuine appreciation. It can’t say everything there is to say on the subject – no magazine could, no matter how accomplished – but it makes an ambitious, articulate attempt.

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