From North Shore Sunday
Sunday, July 9, 2006
Away in a Manga
By BRIGID ALVERSON
Manga Reader
Christian Catalano seems to have no trouble reading the manga way, in reverse, as he checks out a recent title.
–Staff photo by Robert Branch

At Harrison’s Comics in Salem, manager Lars Grenier can’t seem to keep Naruto in stock. “It’s like Pokemon was 10 years ago,” he says. “All the kids know what Naruto is, so they come in looking for anything Naruto-related — key chains, headbands, trading cards.”

“Naruto” is a ten-volume (so far) series of manga, Japanese comics, that follows the story of a plucky orphan trying to make it through ninja academy. Like Harry Potter, Naruto is an ordinary kid who finds he has special powers, and who gets a boost from his friends (one male, one female). Unlike Harry Potter, Naruto is also the subject of an animated cartoon that runs every Saturday on Cartoon Network.

One more thing: Both Naruto and Harry make regular appearances on the USA Today bestseller list, although Harry’s numbers are considerably more impressive than Naruto’s.

There is a quiet revolution going on in America, one that most people haven’t even noticed: Manga are changing the comics industry and readers as well, creating a new model for storytelling and for doing business.

Americans of all ages are snapping up “Rurouni Kenshin,” the 28-volume story of a wandering samurai in Meiji-era Japan; “Hikaru no Go,” about a slacker middle-schooler haunted by the spirit of an ancient Go champion; and “Fruits Basket,” the tale of a plucky orphan who befriends a family of (mostly) cute guys who share an ancient curse — when hugged, they turn into animals from the Chinese zodiac.

Manga are all over the North Shore, in bookstores and comics stores, in libraries and schools, and in the hands of children and adults alike. While comics stores like Harrison’s have a bigger selection (between 500 and 600 titles), readers can also find manga in the familiar ambience of chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble.

Local libraries are also carrying more and more of the books. At the Hamilton-Wenham Library, young adult librarian Liza Craig-McCormack has stocked the young-adult section with popular titles and started a manga club that has drawn a mix of boys and girls between 11 and 17.

“It’s really fun,” explains 17-year-old Julie Woods, who will be a senior this year at Hamilton-Wenham Regional high School. “They are quick to read, which is useful when you are a high school student and don’t have time to read a normal book. Pretty much everyone in my little group of friends reads it.”

“A lot of it is serialized stories, so it’s easy to get caught up in the work,” says Scott Green, who lives in Burlington and reviews anime and manga for the Web site Ain’t It Cool News. “So, while I’m predisposed to a high-energy adventure like what is found in ‘Shonen Jump’ [an action manga magazine], I read ‘Life,’ a shoujo [girls’] work about a teenage girl who cuts herself in attempting to relieve stress, and found myself drawn into the characters and situations such that I started anticipating the next volumes as soon as I was done.”

At last, comics for girls

Manga is only a small part of the overall U.S. comics market, but it is the fastest growing sector, largely because it appeals to readers who are new to comics, especially girls. Grenier says manga is bringing new customers to his store, rather than luring away readers from other types of comics. “What it is bringing into the store is a younger audience and more women,” he says.

“It’s because it’s written for them and it’s written by women,” says Brookline librarian Robin Brenner, who studies manga and manga fans. Brenner will give a talk on the history of manga at the Hamilton-Wenham library on July 13. Male editors don’t expect women to like action or science fiction comics, she explains, while in fact they are very popular with girls.

Beyond the subject matter, Brenner says, manga tell stories in a way that appeals more to girls. “Japanese comics tend to value emotional content more than we do,” she says. “I think girls hook into it a little bit more because girls do tend to look more for character development and emotion in a story.”

And Western comics can simply be a turnoff. “The major comics that people recognize, like ‘Batman’ and ‘Spider-Man,’ occasionally have women writers and occasionally have strong female characters,” she says, “but even when you write a character well, they are drawn to be pinups for the male audience so you end up reading them despite the fact that it annoys you.”

Woods has just begun to read American comics. “I like manga better,” she says. “I like the style of drawing better. Not everyone is covered in muscles like in American comics. But they are both really fun to read.”

Forming a new community

“Teens actually have a much easier time reading manga than anyone older because they have grown up in a world that is a combination of text and images — the Internet, TV, movies,” Brenner says.

“It’s easy to for them to switch back and forth between the two, whereas anyone who did not grow up with that finds it much harder,” she says. Video games have also trained teens to pick up on visual symbols that non-gamers may never notice.

Beyond that, readers of all ages tend to get more involved with manga than with other kinds of books. It doesn’t stop with reading. Many join communities on the blogging site LiveJournal to discuss their favorite books. Others write fan fiction, making up new adventures for their favorite characters, or draw their own manga. Some learn Japanese so they can read books that haven’t reached the U.S. yet. And there is an enthusiastic community of cosplayers, fans who dress as their favorite characters, often creating elaborate costumes from scratch.

Woods says she does role-playing online and writes fan fiction about the characters from “Fruits Basket” and “Naruto.” It’s easy to write fan fiction about Naruto, she says. “The characters are easy to write, and you can change it a lot and it doesn’t affect the storyline too much. When a manga is really, really good I’ll refuse to write or read fan fiction on it, because I’m afraid it will ruin it, but ‘Naruto’ is not very good.”

“It changes the way you read,” Brenner says. “They read a book but there is no longer this immediate sense that the author has final authority over what the story can be. They read the book and they can admire and appreciate the author for what they do, but they have it in their heads that they can change it. They are not dismissing the origins — they like the book, they like the author — but they see it as a free folklore tradition. They don’t think as much about copyright as we do.”

The manga world also includes a lot of give-and-take between fans and publishers. Fans scan Japanese manga onto their computers translate them, then post the resulting “scanlation” on the Internet for all to enjoy, usually for free. While this violates the Japanese copyright, the law is seldom enforced, and some American publishers actually look at scanlations to help them decide which books to license next. (Many scanlators won’t post images of books once they are published in English.)

Publishers also maintain Web sites with sample pages, blogs and forums. Manga editors are a regular presence on fan forums in the Internet, where they drop in to make announcements and answer questions.

Hanging out in the library

One group that has a vested interest in manga is librarians. When Craig-McCormack took over the young adult section of the Hamilton-Wenham Library, she bought a handful of graphic novels, but they didn’t seem to move off the shelves. So she went directly to the audience.

“I got an advisory group together and I had teens tell me what titles they would like,” she says. She also checked the wish lists teen post on Amazon.com. And she looked at the hold shelves of other libraries to see what titles were in demand. “It’s a very fun collection to develop because I get so much instant feedback from the kids,” she says. “When I buy fiction, sometimes a book will just sit there even if it got fantastic reviews.”

Woods says she likes to get her manga at the library because her parents won’t buy it for her. Most books retail for between $8 and $12 per volume, so for a series like “Ranma 1/2,” which is up to 34 volumes, fandom can be expensive.

Questionable content

While many manga are enjoyable for readers of all ages, some contain violence, nudity, and sexual situations, while others may have story lines that are not what Americans expect from comics, such as suicide, attempted rape and self-mutilation.

While these topics also occur in young adult novels, they can be disconcerting in manga, where they are represented visually and in a style that appears to be geared for younger children. Furthermore, libraries often put all their manga in the young adult section, and bookstores also tend to lump them together in a single area. That means a title for young children may sit on the shelf next to one aimed at older readers.Manga publishers in the U.S. rate their books by age group to avoid misunderstandings and usually shrink-wrap mature titles. At Harrison Comics, Grenier says he shelves manga by genre but puts mature titles up high, out of children’s reach. Most chain bookstores won’t carry mature-rated books.

“I haven’t had any complaints from parents yet,” says Craig-McKenzie, who adds that the ratings are helpful. She did decide not to shelve one lesbian-themed graphic novel in her section.

“I thought it would have to wait until the adult collection was developed for graphic novels,” she says. When young children come to her section to look at manga, she usually checks that a parent is nearby.

And teens may be able to handle more than their parents give them credit for. Brenner points to “Death Note,” a psychological thriller about a young man named Light who finds a notebook belonging to a shinigami, or demon of death. Anyone whose name is written in the notebook will die. Light decides to use the notebook to rid Japan of criminals, but his actions attract the attention of the police, and much of the series is a cat-and-mouse game.

“It’s a very, very dark story,” says Brenner. “A lot of people feel it belongs in the adult section. Yes, it talks about big issues, but teens love it for that reason, and they love the battle of wits. In the end, it’s a dark story but there’s not that much gore.”

And in the end, manga are, like any other book, about good stories, well told.

“What I like most are the creators who bring together something interesting to say with a new way of saying it,” says Green. “Something like the works of Taiyo Matsumoto that caricatures society, or Takehiko Inoue, who will take a familiar story, and mines, invents and illustrates all the minor, human details. All manga offers pieces of different perspectives in their hints at the mindsets of their creators and the culture that spawned them, but when you explore some of these more offbeat works, there’s more to find.”