Beyond Betty and Veronica: Girls Embracing Comic Books

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By Jared Peterson

Up until recently it was received knowledge that comics weren’t for girls and girls weren’t for comics. Decades of male-dominated stories and characters, with women objectified on the page and shunned behind the scenes, kept many potential female readers at arm’s length. But a new century has ushered in a renaissance. The gates have been opened, and women and girls are streaming in with an enthusiasm especially that underappreciated and untapped half of society. “We’re living in the future that I could never have dreamed we’d get to,” says Johanna Draper Carlson, creator of Comics Worth Reading, a Web site devoted to exploring and celebrating comics’ vast new landscape. “With the rise of the graphic novel as the dominant format for a lot of comics, with the wide range of genres and topics that are being covered… the industry has really just gone in all kinds of fascinating directions. Comics, manga and graphic novels are all attracting young, female readers in droves.

“They used to say, in the case of boys’ superhero comics, that you lost readers when the boys discovered girls.” Now, at long last, comics have discovered girls, too.

“Comics” is a clumsy but useful catch-all term for a diverse and broad-based form. In the simplest possible terms, comic art uses panels and bubbles to tell stories. From there, the limits fall away. Comics encompass every subject—science fiction, history, journalism, memoir. It can be found anywhere an image will stick—papers and pamphlets, hardbound volumes, hand-drawn and photocopied books, the Internet.

So now that they’re through the gate, what are girls looking for? Broadly, what any of us looks for when we read. “Girls are like anyone when it comes to graphic novels,” says Allyson Lyga, a former library media specialist and author of Graphic Novels in your Media Center: A Definitive Guide. “They appreciate a great story and beautiful artwork.” But in practice, patterns emerge. In Lyga’s experience, girls tend to prefer stories about friendship rather than action heroes. Draper Carlson concurs, adding that they may respond more to groups and teams more than to a hero flying solo. Also important is a positive reflection of themselves. “It’s really important that girls have a chance to read comic books about girls—as leaders, as decision makers, as central to the story.” This was missing for previous generations.

Child’s play

The Owly series, by Andy Runton, is simplicity itself. Owly is a sweet and eager owl who embarks on poignant adventures with other woodland creatures. His adorable exploits unfold through the drawings alone; the speech bubbles have no words, only a symbol or simple sketch. According to Lyga, reading Owly takes a little more concentration than traditional reading. By guiding children with questions and hints, though, it can help nudge pre-readers in the right direction.CF_AUG_COMICS_3

The idea of using comics as an educational tool has come to prominence in the last decade or so. The joining of pictures with words can build and reinforce basic reading skills and coax reluctant readers out from behind self-imposed walls. The children’s section of your local library or bookstore will likely stock a variety of books for early readers that use the graphic novel format. If your daughter loves Hannah Montana (and the odds are good she does) she’s featured in a book series dubbed Cine-Manga. Comics-style speech bubbles are added to still photos of the TV shows. If they’ve seen the show, they know the words and can follow along to reinforce basic skills. Parents mourning the good old days may be reassured to see graphic novel updates of the Nancy Drew and Baby-Sitters Club stories.

The comic book store can be a valuable resource. Steve Anderson is the owner of Third Eye Comics in Annapolis and a self-proclaimed “comics missionary” who is ready and willing to bring girls into the comics fold. Third Eye has a Kids’ Corner stocked with books hand-selected to appeal to younger readers, but not pander or condescend to them. Boys, he says, sometimes have a one-track mind. “A five- or six-year-old boy—when he wants Hulk, he wants Hulk,” Girls who come in with their parents are eager to look beyond the superhero status quo. “Young girls really don’t care if it’s got a recognizable character or not.” If they do fancy superstories, he recommends “Spider-man Loves Mary Jane.” It’s an all-ages comic drawn in a broader cartoony style, with a high-school-aged Spidey.

Manga is not a tropical fruit

Arguably, the biggest phenomenon in comics in the last ten to fifteen years is the rise of the Japanese manga comics in America. Manga are sold as pocket–sized paperbacks comics and feature several chapters of an ongoing story. Many Japanese animated shows (known as anime) are based on manga series, a fact that fueled their popularity stateside. Several categories of manga have emerged to target specific age groups and interests. Shonen manga are aimed at boys 8 and above (though the boundaries are hard to pin down precisely); Shojo manga are aimed at girls of the same age. Shonen are action-heavy and feature giant robots, martial arts and other male-oriented themes. The large percentage of shojo stories take place in middle and high schools and concern complex social interactions and hapless romantic entanglements. Both shonen and shojo are extremely popular with school-aged girls.

Anna Eckart, a rising sophomore from Westminster, has been reading manga since the fourth grade. She says she enjoys comics for what the visuals add to the narrative. In written literature “oftentimes the point-of-view is limited. But in comics, with the thought bubbles, you can pretty much tell.” Her current favorite is called School Rumble, which she describes it as a romantic comedy. “A lot of mistakes and people liking the wrong person.” She adds, “It’s kind of Shakespearean, in a way.”

In addition to providing Anna with an escape, it’s also helped her hone her own skills. She wrote a superhero spoof called Idiotman and credits manga for inspiring the project.

CF_AUG_COMICS_2Allyson Lyga likens some manga to “a dramatic soap-opera. Everything is over the top—the characters and their powers, the crazy situations they get into.” They often feature a strong supernatural element. The title characters of Naruto and Inuyasha, two best-selling shonen series, are both possessed by demons (this is more inconvenient than it is horrific). It’s no easier for the girls: the female high-school-aged protagonist in the shojo sensation Fruits Basket is an orphan who is taken in by a large family, each member cursed to transform into a Chinese zodiac animal whenever hugged by a member of the opposite sex.

What makes this format a publishing juggernaut is the serial nature of the stories. To date, Naruto runs to 422 chapters in 45 volumes (each sold separately). “Manga is an expensive hobby,” Anna admits, though she still prefers owning the books to borrowing them from the library.

Seeking out stories

One of the more daunting tasks awaiting involved or concerned parents is wading through the reams of material available to today’s readers. Bookstores have sections devoted to mainstream comics, the better known independent titles, and row upon row of manga. Libraries have smaller collections formed by the media specialists there. Anna Eckart finds the manga selection at the chain stores just fine and she watches her favorites anime on Hulu.com.

Fans, educators, and retailers all agree that the best way to get to know comics is to read. Bressler recommends that parents and potential fans flip through the first volume of the series to get an idea of it’s content. Anna Eckart says that the ratings used by the major publishers are fairly accurate.

Anderson thinks Marvel Comics’ self-imposed ratings system is the best one going, though he adds, “no ratings system is ever going to replace a well-trained and well-informed staff that can advise people on the content.” So, in short, don’t fear your local Comic Book Guy.

However, some manga — even those targeted for teenage girls — contains sexual themes which, since there are pictures, might seem more explicit than the copy of Judy Blume’s Forever she has stashed somewhere in her room. Just like any material, the best way to understand what’s going on with comics is to read them. Manga are probably the most difficult to crack because of their serial nature. Draper Carlson says that it’s frustrating for readers to enter a graphic story midway through. Steve Anderson at Third Eye Comics usually suggests new readers start with books that fall outside established continuity.

Your daughter might not be curling up with the latest Archie coming—chances are she’s more into Mars #1 or Fake. But the complex plotlines, developed characters and sweeping action of modern comics means that every girl can see herself in a hero — and a hero in herself.