Chicks On Anime
Women in Comics and Manga

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, S. Pocock, Mar 10th 2009

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Casey is a freelance journalist, and also writes reviews for ANN.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.

The talk goes to comics this week, as we chat with artist Barbara Guttman about female characters in comics, and how they compare to those in manga. From Wonder Woman to Sailor Moon, just what do all those super powers mean? Once again, please join us in the forums later to continue the discussion. Thanks for reading!


Sara: Welcome, ladies, to Chicks on Anime. This week, we will talk about how women are depicted in American comics in comparison to manga. Joining us this week is comic artist Barbara Guttman. Barbara, would you like to introduce yourself and give an overview of your work?
Barb: Sure. I'm a Minneapolis based artist. I work on comics for DC's imprint line Vertigo, though I've done a few bits for Wildstorm. I'm both a penciler and an inker and a great big comic fan, so this is pretty much living the dream here.
Bamboo: What types of comics do you work on? What genre? What's the typical target audience?
Barb: Well, you have to first keep in mind that the comics I work on are pretty different from what is generally considered the visible mainstream of comics, which is superheroes. I work in an area that concerns itself with a lot of stories based around concepts of Theology, Morality, Literature, Horror, etc. Our audience is generally 18+ and more literary that what something like, say, All Star Batman and Robin would be. All the comics I've worked on have had a pretty intense literary theme, and the women in them generally tend to be very active, self-directed characters. They've never been the main characters of the story (there are very few female leads), but they've been vital and interesting characters, fully fleshed and often times more assertive than the men.
Casey: To follow up on Bamboo's question, Barb, what sort of comics and manga do you enjoy reading?
Barb: I like reading a lot of stuff across the board. I like superhero comics that are very action packed and adventuresome without getting too dark and gritty. I don't like a lot of angst in my superhero comics because I think I had enough of that in the 90s. Robin, Young Justice, Thor... I liked Catwoman for a while, though that comic was fairly well butchered these past few years. Those were my "mainstream" books. Otherwise, I like a lot of horror and mentally driven books, things like Hellblazer and Grendel, Demo and Local, which are very intense and plot driven. For manga, I get very girly. I don't like too many of the shonen manga. I tend to gravitate towards the dramas and the romances, which I really don't see in American comics very often. HanaDan, NANA, Mars, Kimi wa Pet are some examples. I do like horror manga too, I'm a fan of Junji Ito.
Bamboo: This may be a bit silly, but what do you mean by comics that have an "intense literary theme?" Can you give us an example? I'm not sure any come to mind for me.
Barb: Lucifer was the first book I ever worked on, which told the story of a very Milton-esque devil trying to break free of the shackles of pre-destination as determined by his father (god). The entire series spans through several religious mythologies and explores the concepts of free will. This was a sort of spin-off from Sandman, which is the first series that usually comes to mind when people think of literary comics. The series I'm working on now explores how fiction shapes the world around us.
Bamboo: Amusingly, the types of comics you read, and the types of manga you read are wildly different. From the characters to the atmospheres, everything. I suppose it wouldn't entirely be apropos to even compare the females in those types of genres because they serve different purposes. Can you imagine NANA trying to take down crime, with Hachi by her side? It'd be silly, though I'd probably love to see a one-shot of it. But you mentioned that you don't really see that many dramas and romances in American comics. I'm not that familiar with American comics outside of superhero comics, to be honest. Is it really that devoid of dramas?
Sara: I imagine there's more variation in the indie scene, but in terms of high school soap-opera drama, I can't recall many titles that fit that description. Scott Pilgrim is coming to mind, but even that transcends genre.
Barb: I wouldn't say it's devoid of dramas. I would say the dramas are less about romance than they are about self-discovery. Of the most recent books I've purchased, the only one that was absolutely a romance story was Oni Press' “12 Reasons Why I Love Her.” Local is definitely a drama, and it does contain romance, but the romance is not the point of the story. It's a journey of finding yourself, moving from adolescence to maturity and the bizarre mistakes you can make that help that journey.

When I'm really looking for a romance fix, with all the dramatic swooning and instant-falling-in-love, that doesn't really exist in modern American comics. Scott Pilgrim sort of skirts that sort of dramatic romance, but it's really so much more than that. It's what I've heard called the Best All Around comic, because it has everything. Romance, action, adventure, video game references.

Bamboo: Why is it that there aren't a lot of romances? Marketability? The prevalence of higih school soap-opera dramas on cable TV?
Casey: And what about Blankets for romance-driven comics? Well, that's indie. Almost literary.
Barb: I can't really say why I don't think there's that much romance in American comics, except that a lot of it is very cheesy, and most of indie market doesn't like cheesy unless is executed with very pristine and beautiful panache. I love HanaDan, I think it's great, but wow. Laying it on really thick there. Blankets, I think, works well as a more grounded young romance. It's got a lot of aspects to it that I remember from high school and even a little in college, the long distance affair, finding each other and hiding away under a....what was it? Like a hoop shooting game thing. But it's not really the sort of Happy Ending Romance I get in manga.
Sara: So do you think there's a market for American romance comics, or has that void been sufficiently filled by manga?
Casey: Perhaps there isn't that much romance in American comics because there aren't that many women comics readers and buyers? Of course, it's a stereotype that guys don't like love stories, but those sorts of stereotypes can be self-fulfilling... Manga seems to have made comics acceptable to girls and women in the US. I think there's a market, but that people aren't very keen on trying to publish it.
Barb: DC put out a line of books under the Minx imprints, which has sadly since been canceled. These were books aimed at teenage girls or thereabouts, which were about romance and friendship. The sales were alright, so I don't know what happened there. I know the books it put out were popular enough that most of the people who published books under the imprint will continue to make sequels to them outside of DC. I think the advertising might have failed. They didn't quite know how to market them. There are a LOT of women readers and buyers; a hefty bulk of the Vertigo readers are women. I think they'd be interested in romance, there have been romance books that have done well. My Faith in Frankie was popular and was at its core an (unusual) romantic story. I think the difficulty is in pitching the concepts to publishers, for whom the bottom line is the first thought.
Casey: Content aside, could it be that a part of what was happening there was that the line was called "Minx"? I don't know about the rest of you, but I cringed when I saw that.
Barb: I didn't mind the name. I sort of rolled my eyes, but it was a little clever and sort of cute. I can't imagine what else they'd have called it. Girl Books is too obvious.
Sara: Casey's question brings up a good point. The publishers seem a little tone-deaf when marketing comics for girls. Do you feel that affects the creators themselves, whose goal is ultimately to get published?
Barb: Well, it's hard to say. I can't say the creators really think about it that much. But I know that comics are not created in a vacuum. They're influenced by what is getting published right now. If zombie stories are popular, they'll pitch zombie stories. Stories about apes, they'll do that. To the extent that there aren't many independent female characters in comics, I think that effects what people pitch. When people pitch books with female leads now, I think of Top Cow or Image, where the books are very sexed up and they're obviously for a male readership. And since sexy women are what's profitable because it's what's out there, it's sort of self-fulfilling. There was a period during the Wonder Woman revamp about ten years ago where everyone had a bad Wonder Woman knock off.
Bamboo: I was thinking of that earlier—many lead female roles in comics tend to be the super sexy vixen. You do see a fair amount of sexy women in manga (especially those targeted towards men), but you also see a lot of "cute." And there isn't a whole lot of "cute" in American comics.
Barb: There are a lot that are supposed to be cute, and there are some that really were. But they don't fall into the same sort of cute. Stargirl was a very cute sort of superhero book, and there was something Image put out that was brilliant and cute. Leave it to Chance and these are very sort of cute girl characters, but they're cute little adventurers, not innocent little girls. There are cute girls in comics, but they tend to be role models for other girls. They're independent, spirited characters. Polly is like that, I think.
Bamboo: But when you talk about cute superhero girls, you have that parallel in manga, with the magical girl. They kind of fulfill the same role.
Barb: I never thought of magical girls as "cute" characters. I think of "cute" characters and I think of that girl from Fruits Basket.
Bamboo: Not even Tokyo Mew Mew?
Sara: Or Cardcaptor Sakura?
Barb: Magical girls are adventurous characters who are cute. When I hear "cute girl characters," I think of the cute as the defining aspect of the character. Which for magical girls, I don't think it is. I would still put Sakura above just being Cute.
Casey: Well, actually, I think it's an interesting distinction. Is the way you're using "cute" actually a comment on how the characters are in the context of the work? Whether they are supporting characters or the protagonists?
Sara: That raises a fair point. In Japanese manga, there are tons of cute girl characters that are cute just for the sake of it. It's part of the appeal to the target audience. This almost irks me more than the busty vixens of American comics.
Barb: To some extent or another, all girl characters are cute. Much like in American comics, most of the female characters are some degree or another of attractive. Wonder Woman is a sexy female character, but it doesn't define her the way it does for, say, Witchblade. When I hear someone define a character right off the bat as "sexy," or "cute," that says to me that this is the most important thing about her. It's not that she's smart, assertive, intellectual, powerful, good, evil; it's that she looks good and paper and don't you love staring at her. Whether for lascivious reasons or because you've got a big brother complex, it doesn't matter. How she looks is far more important and says more about her than anything other adjective.

I can't say what irks me more, manga eye-candy or comic eye-candy. With manga, at least they're pretty upfront. "She's not important except to look at," whereas there are some people in comics who will defend Witchblade as being a feminist icon. No shit, I've heard people try that.

Bamboo: I think I'd rather a character be "cute" than "irritating," "whiny," "clingy," which is what a decent number of female characters in comics are initially described as.

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