Midtown Comics in Manhattan is mostly a man’s world. Customers browsing rows of action-hero-filled comic books are almost exclusively young men. The magazine rack holds only the likes of Details and Sports Illustrated. Store clerks are all male, too.
But a noticeable demographic shift is taking place at this comic book store and others like it with the advent of “manga,” or Japanese comic books. With hundreds of titles like “Boys Over Flowers,” “Gravitation” and “Fruits Basket” lining the shelves, Midtown Comics is now seeing another kind of customer: women.
Most of the women that come here are with their boyfriends, said Andy Setijanto, the assistant manager. But the ones that buy these, he said, gesturing to the shelves of manga, they usually come alone or with their girlfriends.
Loosely translated to mean playful images, manga has been a mainstay in Japan for decades. With sales of about $6 billion a year, the genre accounts for half of all literature publishing, according to experts. Only in the last few years have the comic books caught on in the United States, with most titles now licensed to U.S.-based publishing companies for English translation.
Manga is printed in bound soft-cover books, with black-and-white pages that read Japanese-style, from right to left. Characters are drawn in a unique artistic style, with wide, doe-like eyes and small mouths.
Manga titles vary according to the age group and sex of the target audience, but Setijanto, who orders all of Midtown Comics’ manga stock, believes the books have a particular appeal for females. They’re more diversified than the American comic books, so they have one for every girl–the adventurous girl, the home girl, the down-to-earth girl, he said.
Even in manga targeted for boys, there tends to be a female sidekick, Setijanto added, and they usually aren’t drawn in erotic proportions. Some of them aren’t even sidekicks, they’re actually a strong supporting character for the male counterpart,” he said. “It’s something women readers also look up to. It’s not the weak damsel in distress.
Susan J. Napier, a professor of modern Japanese literature and culture at the University of Texas at Austin, said that part of manga’s appeal is that it touches on real issues for women like relationships, family and school, even if within a fantastical world.
There’s a hunger in America for something that’s not just homogeneous American culture, and manga supplies that, she said. It’s this enchanting, fun, other world that’s a nice contrast to the grayness of reality.
The popularity of manga and its close counterpart, anime–Japanese cartoon animation–is partly sustained by the connections forged within its fan base, called the fandom. Fans, sometimes in costume, meet regularly at conventions. Napier says she has seen more and more women at the gatherings, sometimes coming in groups after meeting online or while browsing manga shelves at bookstores.
Fan Web sites and discussion boards abound. Mikhail Koulikov, a freelance writer for Anime News Network, an Internet anime and manga news source, began his own Web site, CorneredAngel.com, in 1999 to compile all the links to academic essays and journal articles about anime and manga, which now total some 1,500, he said.
If you think about it, most of the American superhero comics, even the ones with female characters, were created by men, Koulikov said. In manga comic books, there is a strong female presence because the authors write for both sexes, he said.
For Casey Connor, 23, a manga fan who works in promotions for the Oxygen Network, character interactions and development, a hallmark of manga, are what keep her hooked. She enjoys the original ideas of the books, like “GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka,” about a screw-up turned middle-school teacher who imparts his street smarts to his students; or “Fruits Basket,” about an orphan maid for a group of boys who turn into signs of the zodiac when they forge emotional connections.
The comic books are sold in series format, so Connor said she tries to limit her purchases each month as she slowly adds to her collection of about 100 titles. Though her local Waldenbooks in northern New Jersey now boasts all the titles she would ever care to read, she remembers a time when the store’s manga shelf was barely 2 feet long.
In earlier days, when she walked into male-centered comic stores to buy manga, you could hear the silence, Connor said.
Things have changed. Slowly but surely,” she said, “people are picking up on that comics aren’t just for teenage boys anymore.
— Rebekah Gordon – Columbia News Service