As Mai the Psychic Girl already knows, the future ain't what it used to be. In the Japanese comic books of tomorrow, the telepathic protagonist is likely to have joined legions of heroines who have changed the face of printed-page anime for generations to come. Gone will be the fire-breathing men in tights, the beefy cyberpunk revolutionaries, the Amazonian super-centerfolds for whom XX is not a chromosomal pattern but a bra size. In their place, fully fleshed out (and less flesh-revealing) female characters will appeal to a novel readership prototype. A decade from now, the average comic book nerd may be more intrigued by realistic narratives than sci-fi adventures. He may be more fascinated by love stories than fight scenes. He may, in fact, be a she.
With increasing numbers of female readers flipping through their inked pages, Japanese comics (or manga, as they're known overseas) have already become the fastest-growing sector of the publishing industry, with 2004 sales reportedly totaling more than $120 million -- up 20 percent from 2003. Writing in the Village Voice Literary Supplement (May 2004), Robert Ito observed that of the 700 fans who attended the San Francisco manga convention Yaoi-Con in 2003, a majority were women and girls. In part, this inverted gender gap can be attributed to the rise of shojo, a subgenre of manga that's written by and intended for females. Bust (Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005) noted that in the mid-'80s, two leading manga publishers, Viz and Tokyopop, released only four shojo titles between them; last year, Viz released more than 300, while Tokyopop produced some 450.
'It's refreshing for a girl to read a story written by a girl, who knows her sensibility, knows what she's into, and can tap into those feelings she has,' Julie Taylor, editor of the girls' manga division at Toykopop, told Bust. That girl-power ethos feels like a coup within Japanese comics, which often objectify and infantilize women as teddy-bear-hugging Lolita stereotypes. By contrast, shojo protagonists behave like normal girls: They rehash their dates in Happy Mania; they contend with high school cliques in Boys over Flowers; they start rock bands in Princess Ai, which was co-written by manga aficionado Courtney Love. Plus, like good wholesome girls the world over, they obsess over their favorite after-school activity: sex.
And their libidos aren't quite what you'd imagine. One wildly popular female-oriented manga subgenre, yaoi, focuses on hookups between men -- though the same-sex protagonists don't seem any more authentically gay than the supposed lesbians on late-night cable. As the Voice's Robert Ito notes, yaoi men are often androgynous romantics with feminine features and long, shampoo-commercial hair. Perhaps, then, all-male comics like Kizuna: Bonds of Love and Selfish Love allow female readers to fantasize about sexual relationships between equals -- the kind of partnerships that might seem unimaginable if they were to take place between a man and a woman.
'Make [the character] a woman, erase all the instances of sexual harassment, and you've got a perfectly serviceable Hollywood romantic comedy,' Ito writes. Yet the standard also seems to uphold the gender bias that has informed Japan's erotic art for decades: With no female subjects to identify with, readers are left to assume that desire is something only men act upon.
Still, as manga meets 2005, and Del Ray Manga (a division of Random House) kicks off the U.S. publishing industry's first Japanese comics program with works by the all-woman artist collective CLAMP, it's a good guess that the genre will continue to diversify. For now, the average female comic book artist may feel pressure to imitate the characters and story lines celebrated by the boys' club. But with shojo rising, she can still feel proud to fight like a girl.