Drawing In the Gals

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In the world of comics, men are superheroes and women are superficial. But not in shojo manga, the emerging genre of Japanese comics that is finally giving girls their due.

Manga comics, printed as cheap, multivolume paperbacks and sold at major bookstores, have ignited graphic-novel sales around the world. In the U.S. last year Manga racked up some $100 million, almost double 2002's sales, according to ICv2, a pop-culture trade publication. The two dominant U.S. publishers of manga, Tokyopop and Viz, will ramp up their 2004 title count to more than 300 between them. Later this year DC Comics plans to launch a manga imprint called CMX.

Shojo manga, the cute-but-cool subgenre targeted at girls, are a big part of that boom. Shojo typically feature 13-to-16-year-old female protagonists and are generally written and drawn by women but have little in common with the corny romance titles of yesteryear. Shojo plots focus on love and relationships, and often include adventures in magical worlds outside the humdrum realities of school and home. Mecca Moore, 13, of Los Angeles, buys manga every week and says she spends $1,000 a year on the stuff. "[Shojo] tell a story in art that makes a person have a special connection," Moore says. "You can actually feel what the character's feeling and see what the character's thinking."

Viz's top-selling shojo title, Fushigi Yugi: The Mysterious Play, by Yu Watase, typifies the genre. It tells of Miaka Yuki, a lazy student with exam nightmares. A strange library book allows her to visit ancient China, where she meets a handsome but avaricious young warrior. Like most shojo, the tale features lush costumes and impossibly beautiful boys. What may surprise new readers are the author's interjections and frequent shifts into goofball humor — both classic manga tropes.

Tokyopop's big release this year will be Volume I of Japanese cartoonist Natsuki Takaya's Fruits Basket, due this month. One of the best-selling shojo titles in Japan, it tells the story of Tohru Honda, an orphaned junior high student who discovers that the cutest boy in school morphs into a rat whenever he is hugged by a girl.

American-born shojo talent has also begun to emerge. Jill Thompson's manga-style Death: At Death's Door was one of DC Comics' best sellers last year. "You can flip through quickly, but you feel a lot of emotion without having to read words," says Thompson. "I've always liked art like that."