Japanese Comics With Gay Themes Attracting Young Female Readers

Hottest manga subgenre is guy-guy romance stories written for female audiences.

Here's an unexpected turn of events: A lot of comic books these days are for girls — especially when they're about boys in love with each other.

At the New York Comic-Con last month, the power of comics to bring in young female readers was in full force. That pull had nothing to do with superheroes and everything to do with manga, those small, thick digest comics that originally hail from Japan and these days dominate the graphic-novel bestseller list. Much of manga's focus on relationships and the lives of young people — rather than men in tights — have brought girls to comics in a way that Superman and the X-Men never did.

At the convention, girls were all over the manga booths for companies like Tokyopop and Viz and more than happy to testify to their manga passion.

"Basically in every crack in my room you can find manga," said college freshman Christine Rodriguez, 18, who came to the con with her 12-year-old sister, Danielle. The girls said they are avid readers of Tokyopop's "Fruits Basket," a long-running series about a girl who lives with people who can turn into animals, and Viz's "Naruto," an ongoing adventure about a boy in ninja school.

"I started getting into them more and more, and now I started a whole club in my school," said Danielle.

"Yes, I tainted her," added Christine.

Girls Go Wild For Manga:
Comics featuring male-male romances are particularly popular with a female audience.

Pink-haired Honora Banks, an 18-year-old freshman at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said she and her friends are hooked on all kinds of manga. "I love the 'Gundam' series because they're really awesome machines, but I'll go for the sappy stuff too."

Manga experts say Japanese comics first started seeping into American culture in a big way in the mid-'90s, thanks in large part to the popularity of Japanese cartoons — anime — like "Sailor Moon" and "Pokémon." Publishers jumped on board, initially targeting boys with stories of robots and ninjas. But the recent explosion in popularity is due in large part to publishers waking up to what girls want.

"When we started it about six or seven years ago we couldn't get manga anywhere," said Stuart Levy, CEO of Tokyopop and the only comics executive at the NY con's panel of industry leaders with sunglasses and intentionally unkempt hair. "They said, 'No way. You're never going to get this stuff in the stores in America. Just go back to Japan and don't bother.' "

Now Tokyopop's 40 books a month comprise a large portion of the manga wall at big bookstores. Tokyopop has comics in CosmoGirl and featured as strips in newspapers. The company has collaborated on manga with Linkin Park and Courtney Love. (Click here for photos from Love's "Princess Ai.") Levy said his company also plans on getting manga onto cell phones this summer.

"We're hoping that the readers here will begin to see manga as a medium where it's very similar to soap operas or whatever they see on TV, except it's in print," said Yumi Hoashi, whose parents forbade her to read manga but who is now the editor in chief of Viz's mighty Shonen Jump manga anthology, whose monthly circulation of 200,000 is 30 percent female. Last summer Hoashi also started editing the new Shojo Beat magazine for Viz. Shojo is the common term for manga aimed at girls.

(Click here to check out some Manga cover art.)

One of Tokyopop's most heralded artists is 26-year-old Svetlana Chmakova, who writes and draws "Dramacon." "It's about two people who go to these conventions and it's love at first sight," she said. "But there are obstacles: He is a jerk. She has a boyfriend."

Not being Japanese, Chamkova is part of a movement championed chiefly by Tokyopop to cultivate non-Japanese manga creators. Levy said he could see relevant Western manga arising in much the same way regional hip-hop emerged following the art form's birth in New York. For now the top manga sellers are still all from Japan.

Original English-language manga might not be taking firm root just yet, but there's little doubt that another bold idea is: yaoi. That word, pronounced "yow-ee," is a Japanese acronym for a series of words that can be translated as "no peak, no climax, no meaning." What it refers to is a burgeoning subgenre of guy-guy romance comics, written by women for a female audience. The New York Comic-Con even held a yaoi panel called Brokeback Manga, hosted by Kai-Ming Cha of PW Comics Week, who wore an "I (Heart)Boys" T-shirt for the occasion.

"Yaoi is perfect for post-shojo readers," said Masumi O'Donnell, publisher of "Be Beautiful," a yaoi line of comics aimed at women 18 and over. "It gives very romantic stories and romantic situations and plots, but these are very impossibly beautiful men. Women like looking at beautiful men, and that's why I thought this would be a very popular genre."

Yaoi can range in explicitness from the two-police-detectives-in-love manga "Fake" that Tokyopop rates for ages 13 and up to the much more explicit affairs of "Embracing Love," which is published as part of O'Donnell's "Be Beautiful" line. At the Brokeback panel, "Embracing" artist Youka Nitta explained that, in Japan, there was a divide between the expectations of her older and younger readers. "She has more younger fans who want harder, more explicit material," her translator said. "And the older they get the more romance they want. And the women [readers] are often not doing so well with their husbands."

Lillian Diaz-Przybl, 26, who edits Tokyopop's yaoi imprint, Blumanga, said there might also be something liberating for girls who read about two guys falling in love instead of the conventional girl-meets-boy. "As a woman you're automatically intended to associate with the female character in that situation," she said. "Even in things that I would consider feminist and good examples for women you don't always really associate with that character. That might not necessarily be who you want to be. Boys-love manga totally flips that on its head."

Tiffany Law, an 18-year-old senior at Brooklyn's Grover Cleveland High, said she's a big fan of "Only the Ring Finger Knows," a title from another major yaoi publisher, Digital Manga Productions. But she said she has to be careful how she lets other people find that out. "It's just not a topic that you just pick up when you just meet them. It sort of works it in there or they see it on your bookshelf and you have to explain." She said most of her female friends who read manga read yaoi.

The leading yaoi publishers have taken caution to keep their titles out of the hands of underage kids, shrink-wrapping books and covering them with content-advisory labels. Still, Levy said he knows someone, somewhere will eventually get upset that gay male love is being published as comics entertainment for young women.

"We're just trying to represent all kinds of storytelling, all kinds of people out there, all kinds of lifestyles," said Levy. "In fact, we're going to do Christian manga too. We have a feeling if you're reading one you're probably not going to be reading the other."

And with yaoi taking off, what's next? A number of publishers are pushing manwha, which are manga-style comics from Korea. Kai-Ming Cha also thinks something called yuri has a chance. That's girl-girl romance. She said it would likely be targeted to girls, though she conceded it might attract a few guys as well.

For manga comics at least, male and female are welcome, in whatever combination.