Master Of The Obvious: Issue #30

Wed, February 23rd, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Girls are the invisible men of the comics market. Companies don't want to know about them. The theories go that girls don't like comics, or they don't read them, or they may read them on a whim but aren't fans or collectors, or they'll outgrow them too quickly, or they've already got BETTY AND VERONICA, what more do they need? Or. Or. Or. There's always an excuse, but it always comes down to this: companies don't want to be bothered.

Which almost makes sense. Every comic put out through Diamond, which is virtually every comic published, is marketed only toward comics shops, and comics shops are geared toward superhero fandom. I've heard grown women complain about how hostile many comics shops feel, so I can just imagine how girls might feel about them. Given the overall condition of the market, finding and carving out the girl niche is just too damn much trouble, in light of the potential rewards.

Except.

It isn't boys alone turning Viz's Pokmon comics into million+ sellers. It's not even largely boys.

I know a preteen girl who, since she learned I work in comics, keeps hitting me up for comic books. It's been instructive. She's very selective. She has nothing against superheroes in principle, but ignores most of them. She finds the endless jaw-clenching fight scenes tedious, most of the art dull. Companies are fond of saying that comics starring women don't sell but, listening to my friend, it's not hard to tell why: most heroines are either played as endless victims who fight back or standard berserkers with a sex change. What she picks out of the stacks are SIMPSONS comics, the Cartoon Network and WB books (particularly SCOOBY DOO), YEAH!, BATMAN BEYOND. She doesn't read BATMAN ADVENTURES.

"It isn't boys alone turning Viz's Pokmon comics into million+ sellers. It's not even largely boys."[Pokemon]

Unless the issue prominently features Catwoman, Batgirl or Poison Ivy. She ignores SUPERMAN ADVENTURES. Unless it prominently features Supergirl.

She doesn't like the regular WONDER WOMAN, BATGIRL or SUPERGIRL comics. She thinks the animated versions of Batgirl and Supergirl (particularly the latter) are much cuter. She thinks the regular titles are ugly and the characters are unappealing. I'm not suggesting the current direction of these books is wrong - she's only one girl, though like most young girls she does have a network of friends, who presumably also have a network of friends, etc., and from the sound of it many of them read comics to some extent - but if these books are being published with the intention of reaching a female audience, especially a young one, they may be misconceived. She tries the Archie line every so often - mainly BETTY AND VERONICA and SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH - but it's like she feels she ought to like them but just doesn't.

I can hear some saying that almost all the books she likes are based on cartoons. True, but the only cartoon in the group she watches regularly is THE SIMPSONS. We'll get back to cartoons in a moment. If the cartoon books have any common aspects she likes, it's the simpler, cleaner art, and stories she can follow.

Sometimes I make suggestions. I pointed out YEAH! when it arrived, and she loves it. YEAH! is a book comics fans seem to delight in excoriating as a Josey And The Pussycats knockoff (aside from both being rock bands, I'm hard-pressed to see similarities) but somewhere either Peter Bagge or Gilbert Hernandez said he just wanted to do a comic his daughter could enjoy. It worked. With the cancellation, any goodwill the book may have generated may backfire. My young friend is angry that YEAH! is cancelled. While cancellations are a fact of life in our business, particularly these days, every cancellation of a niche product angers that niche and, against the popular myth that once kids are exposed to comics they'll keep reading comics, increases the probability that members of that niche will turn off comics altogether. A properly marketed comic is a hard enough sell. A mismarketed comic can kill potential audiences by frustration or omission, and give a company an excuse not to stray into that territory again, calling a lack of response a mandate. At least a couple of her friends thought YEAH! was cool when she showed it to them, but they'd never heard of it before and didn't know where to find it. What's the point of publishing a niche product if you're not going to tell the niche it exists or get it somewhere in the proximity of their hands?

She is, however, interested in GREEN LANTERN now. She came to the character through FANBOY, another book I suggested, and while she's still making up her mind about GL, she asked if I had any more comics by Sergio Aragones. She liked FANBOY a lot, and, as an intro to the DCU universe, it's far more effective that anything else they've put out in living memory.

"What's the point of publishing a niche product if you're not going to tell the niche it exists or get it somewhere in the proximity of their hands?"

But what she really likes is manga.

I came to manga both early and late. Japanese motifs made an appearance in American comics in the 70s, mainly through the work of Walt Simonson and others. Walt and Archie Goodwin, in their groundbreaking MANHUNTER series and a lovely short story they did for an adventure magazine published by Atlas Comics, turned ninja and samurai mainstream. After that gauntlet was picked up shortly afterward by Frank Miller, in DAREDEVIL and RONIN, Japanese-influenced material briefly became the rage, until oversaturation killed it. I hesitate to judge how deep the influence actually went. There are artists like Ken Steacy whose work is very similar to certain anim styles, but it may be parallel development. (Care to clear this up, Ken?) There are books like USAGI YOJIMBO that may owe more to Japanese movies than to anim or manga. There was a small fandom for ROBOTECH and SHOGUN WARRIORS and other Americanizations of Japanese properties, but it wasn't huge. A slew of independent comics used Japanese words for titles and featured fast moving gunman and sword users, and superteams were suddenly considered ill-clad if they didn't have some resident player who waves swords and spoke in uncontracted verbs, but that owes more to Miller than manga.

It wasn't something I paid a lot of attention to. I used the ninja as a motif in WHISPER but used the book to undermine the ninja myth. While I find much about Japanese culture fascinating, the bushido ethic, which became a vapid buzzword in American action comics in the 80s, always struck me as a massive rationalization of institutionalized slavery. I found giant robots a concept on par with giant gorillas. (I wrote one issue of SHOGUN WARRIORS, a giant Japanese robot comic, for Marvel very early in my career, and was given a series bible that had fairly elaborate character descriptions of the two male "pilots" of the robots, while the female pilot was simply described with "she speaks with unconscious poetry." Not having a clue what that was supposed to me, I wrote all her dialogue in haiku.) A lot of what I saw of manga reminded me uncomfortably of "furry fandom," a subset of comics and science fiction fandom obsessed with female humanoids covered head to toe with fur, epitomized by the cat women circulating through Cordwainer Smith novels. (In my experience, "furries" are harmless, pleasant folk and generally decent people, but I still find the concept sort of creepy.) To the extent manga influenced American comics, it seemed to be artists cribbing design elements alone, unconvincingly retrofitting them to American material.

And I didn't like the art. There was a kitsche painter in the 60s named, I think, Keane, who specialized in huge-headed malnourished waifs with sad, monstrously wide eyes. To this day, I'm sure they were the inspiration for the well-known design of "Gray" aliens of modern flying saucer lore. I've also wondered if Keane wasn't the unacknowledged inspiration for many manga artists. Of the manga I saw, only the art on LONE WOLF AND CUB and AKIRA, abortively published by First and Epic respectively, stood out, and, of all, only those two seemed to have stories worth following. By the 90s, I wasn't looking at any of it.

So this girl told me what she likes about manga, over American comics. The stories are funnier, more light hearted, more sophisticated and varied. The characters are more rounded. She prefers the simpler, more robust Japanese art. I asked her to loan me a few titles. She did: DRAGONBALL Z, THE ELECTRIC TALE OF PIKACHU, RANMA , LUM, a smattering of other titles. It was interesting. I'm still not entirely sold, but I can see what she sees in them.

Enough has been said about POKMON, but its appeal can't be chalked up to marketing monsters alone; the characters may be too simplistic for adults, but they're convincingly complex and believable for kids. Akira Toriyama's DRAGONBALL Z hasn't had anywhere near the same level of marketing (at least not yet), but is the hottest cartoon show in the country. (My young friend says the boys in her class are equally hot for DRAGONBALL Z comics, and they're even available from the local library system.) The comics are sensational. Its hero, Goku, is a superhero in no uncertain terms, virtually a parody of Superman who crashes to Earth as a baby with instructions to destroy the place but hits his head and grows up nice instead. He's so pure-hearted and endlessly good-natured he makes Superman look like Satan. (He even dies to stop a world-threatening menace, then gets more martial arts instruction in the afterlife before returning to life to take on an even greater threat, eventually evolving to become the mightiest fighter in the universe.) I can see why American superhero comics are dying if this is their competition. On the one hand, it's mostly plain and simple fight scenes, alternating punches with gargantuan energy bolts. On the other hand, the characters are so well-drawn and straightforward, so filled with love and hate and potential, that they suck you right in. The series, both DRAGONBALL and the darker follow-up DRAGONBALL Z, convince you that anything can happen.

[Ranma 1/2]

Most interesting and sophisticated is Rumiko Takahashi's RANMA , a screwball comedy disguised as a very nicely drawn martial arts epic. Ranma is a wandering young martial arts student who learns he has been promised in marriage to martial arts tomboy Akane. Both, resentful of their fathers' scheme, immediately fall in love but refuse to be the first to admit it, touching off an endless cycle of complications and misunderstandings usually fueled by the vast array of suitors (each also skilled martial artists) each has. Some of the material is just hysterical, and Gerald Jones (who also translates the DRAGONBALL material) does a terrific Americanization. (It's hard to believe RANMA and the cruder LUM - basically THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS with aliens, in a style reminiscent of SUGAR AND SPIKE - are done by the same person.)

As with everything, there are good manga and bad manga, but they all share a vitality largely missing from our comics, and this may result from existing in a culture where the populace pays attention to comics, but it's also clear most of these comics are the product of singular visions. Certainly there are recurring motifs that obviously have some cultural inference I don't get: the cute girl who can't cook, the aged martial arts master who's a dirty old man, the mighty hero with the ridiculous phobia, etc. But each of these manages to present a coherent self-world that's confident and totally convincing. This is something seen less and less often in American comics, and it's the one vital element. Backgrounds are more than window dressing, every element in a picture looks like it belongs in that world. While each series apparently develops its own recurring structure, those structures become signatures, instead of the strips having structures imposed on them. Despite the common elements, there's a level of surprise and discovery in these comics that most American comics don't even begin to approximate. There's real energy in this work.

Equally interesting has been the flood of anim hitting America now. While POKMON, DRAGONBALL Z and SAILOR MOON have all hit network or cable TV (the less said of DIGIMON the better), anim has also been a regular feature on the Sci-Fi Channel, the Encore Action channel, and even the Independent Film Channel. While most are still just cartoons, many movies apparently edited together from series by the blind - the US Manga stuff tends to be particularly incomprehensible - some are clearly cartoons of the future: IRIA, BLUE SEED, GHOST IN THE SHELL, AKIRA. I don't know how anyone who sees this stuff, whether kid or adult, could ever find Saturday morning cartoons bearable again.

"I don't know how anyone who sees this stuff, whether kid or adult, could ever find Saturday morning cartoons bearable again."

Sure, there's a coolness factor to Japanese stuff, but if there's an invasion, we did it to ourselves. As far as the young are concerned, manga is the comics market at the moment. If you look at enough Japanese material, you realize there's a marketing structure over there geared to start readers young and move them through material by stages. (BLUE SEED, for example, is essentially SAILOR MOON for teenagers; girls who grew up on SAILOR MOON can get much of the same kick in new, more adult material.) This is the sort of thinking our comics companies have simply abandoned.

As I've said before, I don't think it's necessary to grab readers while they're young. You can grab them anytime. However, if there's a hunger out there - and while common logic says kids are spending their money on video games etc. instead of comics, the recent success of Viz says that's not true - we should be feeding it, and we should be feeding it in such a way that we not only cash in on an available audience but we coax them along so we can keep them as an audience. If boys are buying comics, do comics aimed at boys. Girls are willing to buy comics, given a chance, so where are the comics for girls?

"If boys are buying comics, do comics aimed at boys. Girls are willing to buy comics, given a chance, so where are the comics for girls?"

Companies can't keep trying to tell the readers what they want to buy. At some point, they have to look at what potential readers are willing to buy. Then they have to find someone who's doing that sort of material. I'm not talking about running a cheap Pokmon or Dragonball Z knockoff because that's what's selling, but producing unique products that might appeal to those audiences. If all we're only willing to steal surface elements, we're already dead. Then we have to find some way to let those audiences know the material is there, because if we just do it the way we have been doing it, pumping out material at random then leaving it to Diamond's tender mercies to publicize, we're just slitting our own throats.

And if we can't even recognize audiences and serve them, what the hell are we in business for?

Still sorting out the artwork, sorry. It's been an extremely busy couple of weeks.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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