San Diego Comic-Con International 2009
Women in Manga

by Evan Miller, Jul 27th 2009

Panelists: JuYoun Lee, Lillian Diaz-Przybyl, Becky Cloonan, Leyla Aker, Deb Aoki, Robin Brenner, Eva Volin (moderator)

After a brief introduction of the panelists, panel moderator Eva Volin started the Saturday morning discussion of women in the manga industry by talking about the dramatic impact that girls and teens have had on the manga market. "The comics industry is a boys club, but manga has changed that," remarked Volin. "The question is: what happens when women who have been reading manga for years want to be included in the comic/manga creation process?"

The first question went to Aker, who is a senior editor at Viz with a background in book publishing, which is seen as a more "gender equal" field. When asked how a job in the manga industry differs from the book industry, Aker stressed that the staffers at book companies are women, but the positions of power are still held by men. "I don't think the manga industry is any worse, but in Japan that is an entirely different matter," said Aker, referencing the lack of opportunities for women in Japan's bigger, more "traditional" publishing firms. Aker also talked about genre related stereotypes. "People assume you work with shojo manga," said Aker, who has recently been working on seinen titles for Viz.

Tokyopop senior editor Lillian Diaz-Przybyl was asked if her experiences have been similar to Aker's, and how have things changed since she first began working at Tokyopop. Diaz-Przybyl said that she felt like she was treated like a token fangirl upon entering a company with staff from other parts of the publishing world and American comics. "Just because I come from a fan background doesn't mean that I don't want to progress beyond it," said Diaz-Przybyl, echoing the feeling that women in the industry work out of a desire to help it develop and grow.

Yen Press senior editor JuYoun Lee was asked how her experiences at Yen Press compare with her experiences in Korea's publishing industry. "You have more opportunities to advance in Korea, since the publishing houses are so small - so it isn't too much trouble," said Lee. Discussing the Korean market, Lee talked a bit about the history of comics in Korea. "20 years ago, we started making our own comics, and many comic creators were female. So now, the editorial staff are heavily female and have a bit more of a background in their own market." Lee also mentioned the prevalence of labels in the North American comics market, which typically labels comics and manga based on their country of origin (i.e. Korea = manhwa, Japan = manga, and so forth). "Those distinctions don't exist in Japan or Korea - comics are comics, no matter where they come from" said Lee.

The next question went to Becky Cloonan (Demo), who has published work that has been labeled as "American Comics" and "OEL." Cloonan is also preparing to sell an original work in Japan. Asked how manga played a part in her comics upbringing, Cloonan talked about the inaccessibility of American comics after a certain age. "In the early 90s, I never thought I could draw in an American comic style," said Cloonan. "Then I picked up Ranma 1/2 in mid-90s, and I found out that the author was a Japanese woman author. That impressed me, and showed me just how diverse the world can be in terms of art." She admitted that Takahashi's success was a huge influence on her own work, and suggested that it is highly likely that other girls and women in the western world have been inspired in a similar fashion.

About.com manga columnist and artist Deb Aoki was asked about the potential for manga companies marketing titles to adult females - particularly women who read manga when they were teenagers. "There is josei manga for older women in Japan," said Aoki, referring to titles aimed at Japanese housewives, "but the genre hasn't made it to the US so far, mainly because some of it is really trashy, harlequin romance-esque adult material." Aoki mentioned that the themes of shojo manga, replete with high school girls and impossibly beautiful men, can feel more cliched as women move beyond college age, saying: "I fear that girls in manga will fall out of it when they start having lives."

Robin Brenner, an author of literature about the manga boom who also works in the library system, was asked if her research detected whether the reception of manga is slanted towards one gender or not. "I find it facinating to see what people will or won't admit to reading," said Brenner, in reference to the circulation of manga titles in the library system. Her findings indicate that more women have been asking about manga series that other libraries don't have ever since Brenner added more manga to the shelves at her library. However, she admitted that many women who aren't familiar with manga are confused by certain elements of shojo manga. For examle, many women were confused as to why the shojo title Antique Bakery had no women in it, even though the story was written for women. "Women are diverse, vocal readers," said Brenner, adding, "Men check out books and leave, but women check out books and talk to you."

Brenner's comments spurred a discussion of the ways that women can be brought into the world of manga. "There's a hope that manga market is maturing to the point that it can sustain books for older female readers," said Aker, who also mentioned that women are more open minded readers. She cited the data showing that the Viz magazine Shonen Jump has a 40% female readership, but only 5% of Shojo Beat readers were men. The trend for female Japanese manga authors that draw shonen titles to use pen names that are unisex in nature was also mentioned as a sign of how women are viewed in the manga fan community.

Diaz-Przybyl talked about her work with josei titles like Tokyopop's Tramps Like Us, where cultural boundaries are the common. "In fantasy works, more can be forgiven," said Diaz-Przybyl. "I lent a Sex and the City fan Tramps, and they loved it - but they couldn't understand the relationship politics and dynamics." The question is that publishers may not be willing to experiment in the hope of bringing in a new audience. Aker mentioned that an experiment with a hollywood firm to do focus group showed that women like the stories in manga, but they still have a negative view of reading that story in comic form, reflecting the prevailing stereotype that comics are just for kids and social outcasts.

Becky Cloonan echoed this concern with an anecdote about her own mother "not understanding" how to read her work. "She'll ask me to 'show' her what happens," said Cloonan, who said that a larger group of casual fans might serve the manga industry better than the narrow stereotype people associate it with. Lee also touched upon the signifigance of cultural boundaries in manga, reminding the audience that knowing what another culture's rules are doesn't mean that they will empathize with characters in the same way as the intended audience. "A lot of female readers want something they can empathize with," said Lee. "When people start realizing there's more to manga than the common genres on store shelves, it'll make a big difference."

One recurring theme near the end of the panel was the role of female manga fans in the industry in years to come. Diaz-Przybyl mentioned that manga became more accessible to women when it moved out of the dark, unwelcoming corners of comic shops and into well-lighted bookstores. More can be done to bring more women to manga, but as Diaz-Przybyl put it, existing fans shouldn't be picky. "I don't understand the fan rage over Twilight," she said, referring to the popular vampire book series. "Those fans represent a huge potential for women in this industry." Aker mentioned that another sign for hope would be the arrival of a few more "breakout" titles that drive women towards manga. All the panelists did agree on one thing: if the industry is to survive and prosper, the female fans of today will have to play a role in that industry's continued development - as administrators, artists, or otherwise - in the future.


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