Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Comic-Con: Women in Manga

On Saturday, I attended this female-oriented panel at San Diego Comic-Con International, moderated by Eva Volin, chair, Great Graphic Novels for Teens. The panel included a wide variety of women from across the manga scene, from publishers and artists to reporters and librarians. While this is a nearly blow-by-blow account, there are some minor omissions, especially since I was taking notes by hand.

The panel included Leyla Aker, an editor with Viz; Lillian Diaz-Przybyl, an editor with Tokyopop; Deb Aoki, manga editor for; Becky Cloonan, artist and creator of Tokyopop's East Coast Rising; Robin Brenner, librarian, and JuYuon Lee, an editor at Yen Press. The room, albeit small, was filled to capacity with young girls, women and men of all ages. Of course, everyone was interested in hearing about what the comprised group of experts thought about the role of women in the manga publishing industry.

I think much of what was said during this panel can be summed up in a quote that Volin used to kick off the panel, "In manga, women sit in the 'teacup' next to the 'kettle' of men."

The role of women in publishing

Volin started by asking Aker about her transition from traditional publishing to her role at Viz, where she oversees the seinen imprint IKKI. For Aker, her biggest frustration was that while women often served in editorial roles, the decision-makers continued to be men, noting that the disparity wasn't nearly as bad as it is in Tokyo publishing houses, where there are still limited opportunities for women. In referencing the disparity in the U.S., Aker said, "You will be frustrated by it if you let it."

Next up was Diaz-Przybyl, who described her experience at Tokyopop. When she joined the staff a few years ago, she was the first Japanese speaker in editorial, but, at the same time, half of the editorial department was comprised of women.

Lee, who started working in publishing in her native South Korea, mentioned that the disparity was less of an issue there because of the smaller size of publishing houses. In her experience, editorial departments are staffed primarily by women. But, she noted that the major difference between the U.S. and Korean markets was the cultural connotations used in the States. While everything is simply known as "comics" in Korea, there are several different terms used here, including manga, manhwa, graphic novels and comics.

Finding comics for women

Volin then asked Cloonan how she discovered manga. Cloonan started reading traditional superhero comics and, growing up, thought that working in comics was an unattainable job. However, she discovered Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma 1/2 in floppy format at her local comic book store and that changed her life, especially since it was written by a woman.

From here the conversation changed with Aoki asking, "Who is marketing well to older teens and women?"

As evidenced by the dearth of good josei titles in the "Best and Worst Manga" panel on Thursday, Aoki pointed out that most of the titles aimed at an older female demographic are, for the most part, trashy, Harlequin-style romances. From what she's seen, older teens are reading seinen, but there's still a growing market.

And while the focus of the conversation was on sales, Brenner noted that for her, a librarian, the issue was less about sales, but reader interest.

"I don't care how much they sell, but how much do they circulate?" Brenner said. "More and more women are coming up to me - they are diverse readers and they're vocal; men pick up books and leave, while women pick up books and talk to you."

While the anecdotal information provided by the panelists showed that women are looking for "smart" manga, the question still remained: is the market growing to accommodate an older, more mature, female audience?

The U.S. market

According to Aker, the U.S. manga market can sustain older readers, but it's still developing. She noted a recent study comparing subscribers of Shonen Jump and the now-defunct Shojo Beat. While a whopping 40 percent of Shonen Jump's subscribers are female, only 5 percent of Shojo Beat's subscribers were male.

"Girls will read shonen, but boys won't read shojo," Aker said. As other panelists noted, this is a trend seen across the publishing industry and isn't confined only to manga.

Once again, the panelists looked at the gender composition of the manga industry, specifically artists. Aker and Diaz-Pryzbyl noted that there were mangaka who specifically chose to remain gender ambiguous with their pen names and not allow their likenesses to be seen. By doing so, the artists insured that their gender wouldn't work to their disadvantage, but it certainly shows the gender discrimination still afoot in male-dominated Japan.

Will women read manga?

The conversation turned to the success of josei titles, with Diaz-Przybyl noting that there was an inherent need for cultural understanding mature titles. Diaz-Przybyl mentioned that in Tramps Like Us the main character's constant reference to her boyfriend as her sempai despite the fact they were in a serious relationship. Basically, there is a barrier of cultural understanding inherent in titles for older readers.

But, perhaps Aker's reference to some marketing research conducted on Viz's behalf truly told the story. Evidently, a focus group showed that "women will pick up manga if 'the pictures are taken out.'" So, it wasn't the content itself, but possibly the presentation of the story in a graphic novel format that turns women off.

Cloonan chimed in with an anecdote of her own, noting that she has bought manga for her mother, a voracious reader. But, her mother has never understood the appeal of manga, nor read any of the books she's been given.

Not 'real' books

The conversation then turned to a well-worn topic -- that comics are not considered "real" books. Both Volin and Brenner mentioned the flak they receive from fellow librarians who don't consider manga literature. There were also mentions of "reading manga in public," which I've done myself as mentioned in my "Goodbye, Shojo Beat" post. By reading in public, the panelists hoped to dispel some of the stereotypes surrounding graphic novels as a genre.

As time was running out, the conversation began to wind down, with Lee mentioning that there simply aren't enough titles for older women readers, as they're looking for content they can empathize and connect with. But, there was hope in the younger girls market eventually maturing into readers who are still determined to enjoy their manga.

Geeking out

In possibly the funniest moment during the entire panel, Aoki mentioned her determination to read manga. "I've been reading manga since I was 8," Aoki said, "I would sit there with my Japanese-English dictionary and write in the margins."

To which Aker replied with a sigh, "Oh, Deb!" which was met by a laugh from the audience. Volin also chimed in with a well-timed narrator's remark, "Deb just raised the bar of geekdom."

At this point, the panel took questions from the audience regarding a variety of topics and I specifically asked what the implications of the Shojo Beat's shut down had on the larger women's manga market.

The tough questions

Aker took the question in stride, noting that when the magazine shut down, her colleagues and she knew that this question would inevitably arise. For the most part, Aker said that the magazine was unsustainable in the current economy, noting the recent demise of other magazines.

She also took the time to once again highlight the gender disparity in readership between Shojo Beat and Shonen Jump. Unfortunately, time had run out by the time Aker finished answering my question, so the room had to empty in order to accommodate the next panel.

My reflections and thoughts

Much of what the panelists said was all too true -- that women simply aren't reading comics in the numbers that men are right now, so, of course, the market is catering to that. But, there's hope in the young girls and women who are dedicated to reading manga.

Perhaps Shojo Beat was simply ahead of its time, but for now, the market is tightening because of the recession. However, I think there is light at the end of the tunnel, especially with some of the licenses discussed and announced at San Diego Comic-Con International.

Specifically, Viz's license of Ooku, by Fumi Yoshinaga of Antique Bakery fame, and Yen Press's announcement of Bunny Drop, both josei titles, give me hope that publishers aren't dismissing the market entirely and are simply in a 'wait and see' mode. If nothing else, this panel was a refreshing, female-dominated look at how women are affecting -- and being affected by -- the U.S. manga industry.


  1. Great write-up, Lorena! I really wished I could attend that panel and you've made me feel like I was there. Thank you!

  2. @mbeasi Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed my (nearly) blow-by-blow account. Overall, I think this panel showed that there is still optimism in the industry and that everyone is just waiting to see what happens once the economy recovers.

  3. love the write-up!

    "Girls will read shonen, but boys won't read shojo," Aker said. As other panelists noted, this is a trend seen across the publishing industry and isn't confined only to manga.

    Ugh yes, it rather annoys me how it's taken for granted that fiction geared towards guys are the default that everyone can and should read, whereas if it was fictional work geared towards women, suddenly the guys can't read it anymore. *headdesks x1000*

    I hope Shojo beat will make a comeback soon. *crosses fingers*

  4. @galimagery Thank you -- I'm glad you liked it! And, yes, it is annoying how literary appreciation doesn't go both ways and that "chick lit" is often looked down upon.

    Here's to hoping that Shojo Beat can make an online comeback, especially as seeing how Viz has launched both Shonen Sunday and IKKI this past week...

  5. the general female population just don't have any experience reading manga/comic in this country. i've tried to get my friend(30 something ) to read manga b/c she has a little girl and suggested some josei for her and shojo for her girl. she doesn't like the manga but likes the k-drama adaptation of the same manga(hana yori dango) Not being a comic book reader , for her, comic is hard to sustain her attention span. she belongs to a generation who prefers watching tv and reading text than reading pictures.. older ppl are set in their ways

    but her daughter does like the comic and manga i suggested and took to it very well.

    i also grew up partly in taiwan this is completely not the case there. everyone grew up with manga there and a 30 and 40 year old have no problem reading in the format of manga..

    unfortunately women(20 something and above) in US have been turned off by superhero comics for 30/40 years and comic is just not a reading format they're used to.

    even in tv shows there's less geared toward women and more to men.. whereas in asia tv drama is really dominated by what's favored by women/girls.. (idol drama for example).. it's very culturally diff.

  6. @Softpill I totally agree that it's mostly a culturally dominant attitude that "women simply do not read comics." For me, I grew up reading non-superhero comics (think Disney and Archie), but I also read a wide variety of novels and books. By the time I hit junior and senior high, I was no longer reading comics and was instead drawn to other visual media and literature. Of course, I was brought back to comics with my discovery of manga. It had everything I wanted -- short formats, meaningful stories, interesting characters and entertainment at its best.

    Unfortunately, I know few women in RL who appreciate manga and/or comics, but thankfully young girls are interested in it as a viable alternative (or in addition) to other books. I've shared some shojo books with my co-worker's daughter who is a reluctant reader and she's loved them.

    And, as a whole, you're right -- American media is still dominated by content created by men for men with a few exceptions. But, I think that will eventually change as more women become vocal and persistent about the types of media they want as part of a larger neo-feminist movement. Of course, I could be wrong...