September 26th, 2008

Dear Dear

My Thoughts on Minx

Last night, at about 4am I woke up and wasn't able to get back to sleep. And for some reason I kept thinking about DC's Minx line and why it's failed and how much I dread the assumptions that people will make that comics for girls are destined to fail or, worse yet, that girls don't read comics - which I know is untrue, and many other people know is untrue. But the failure of such a promising line does cast a shadow on those arguments.

When I first heard about Minx, I was really excited to read the books and see what would come of the line. I ended up reading quite a few of the books and I guess I can agree with what's been said all around: a couple were really good, but most of them were just "ok". A couple didn't grab me at all. In some cases, the art was fantastic, but the stories weren't as strong. Or the stories were entertaining, but the art looked a little rough. But overall, I'm saddened to see such a noble effort fizzle so quickly and my heart does go out to the writers and artists involved.

I could comment on the books' presentation and cover design and placement in book stores, but I don't claim to be knowledgeable enough about marketing to make any assumptions on how these might have contributed to the poor sales.

I know manga has also been in decline in recent months, but girls are still reading it, and I still see them crowding the aisles of my local Borders. And, as I lay in bed with insomnia, I began forming another theory about why American comics geared directly at girls typically do not do as well consistently as manga has.

I feel that a lot of American comics for girls feel a need to "teach a lesson", or inject some sort of important learning experience or nuggets of advice for the young, female reader. And this is all well and good in theory, but at the same time, and I can speak for myself when I say that girls don't like to be talked down to, or preached to. Sometimes one just wants to read a comic for pure enjoyment and nothing else. This is why I mostly read "boy" comics growing up, because all the "girl" comics seemed to assume that I was simple-minded and that I needed to know the difference between right and wrong. Now, obviously, comics for girls have come a long way since then and there are so many more titles that girls - and boys -can enjoy that aren't condescending. But I feel that, even though it's not as obvious nowadays, comics for girls still feel a need to impart a lesson or message.

This brings me to think about manga. Doesn't it teach lessons too? Well sure. You'll see the common themes of the importance of friendship and reaching goals etc. But I think that the manga format manages to dilute the message and make it more digestible. Over a series of several 100-page volumes, a girl can learn her lesson, but because it's so spread out it doesn't feel as preachy. By contrast, American comics typically are shorter in length - whether it's a self-contained graphic novel (as in the Minx line), or a 32 page comic which offers even less space to tell a story. But the result is that the writer feels the need to cram their message in before the end of those 32-100 pages, and it comes off a little stronger than it would in a longer, serialized work. I can freely admit that I do the same thing with Sabrina. I always feel a need to make some kind of point with each issue. Maybe it's just a cultural thing, and Americans are more prone to wanting to inject some morality or lesson into our work because of our country's Christian roots, or the backlash against "immoral" comics that followed the Seduction of the Innocent. That may be a stretch, but hey - it's something to ponder!

But I can say that reading titles like Nana or Hot Gimmick - the characters are not perfect. They often make mistakes. And I feel like the Japanese attitude is "You know what? That's ok?". Because the Japanese do not have the same "rules" that many Americans have about what is appropriate for girls, I feel that manga writers do not really "judge" their own characters. They simply allow them to experience things. Maybe they'll change because of it, maybe not. Either way, it's ok.

I remember when I first read Hot Gimmick, the lead character Hatsumi drove me nuts because she was such a pushover! I kept reading and reading, fully expecting that somewhere along the way she would learn to stand up for herself and grow into a better person, because this is what I would expect from an American comic. But by the last page of the last book I realized that Hatsumi hadn't really changed at all. And at first I was really disappointed. But then I realized "well, maybe that's ok." Some people don't change. Some people don't necessarily learn from their experiences. Some people are content to let other people take charge. And it may not be what I prefer, but who am I to judge?

It's the same thing with the super-popular Twilight series. I read the books and I'll be in the minority when I say that I did not care for them- particularly the main character, Bella. I kept waiting and waiting for her to grow a spine and to stop being so co-dependent, but it never happened. And for me, this lack of growth in her character was a bitter disappointment. But again, just like in Hot Gimmick, I was forced to realize that, despite making choices that I felt were "wrong", Bella made the choice of what she wanted in life. And maybe that choice was little more than a Vampire boyfriend and baby, but it was still her choice. Some girls want to become career women, some want to grow up to become mothers. But again, who am I to judge? At the end of the day, I feel that Twilight doesn't really try to teach anything. It's just an entertaining love story and maybe that's why girls like it so much.

Bella may be chaste and naive, but the characters of Gossip Girl are the exact opposite -- yet the series is equally appealing to girls. Why? Because the characters are flawed, they drink and sleep around and sabotage each other, and the show (and books) make no apologies for that. It may be "Every Parent's Worst Nightmare", but it's pretty damn entertaining! And as horrible as it does sound, if one actually reads or watches the series, they do learn that the characters, flawed though they may be, also have the capacity to change, they have the capacity to forgive and care for each other, and to learn from their experiences. But it's not preachy because that's not the point. It's entertainment, pure and simple.

And I feel that many popular manga series for girls, such as Nana, are similar. They feature characters that are both lovable and flawed, who make mistakes, who sometimes act needy or selfish, who sometimes do the right thing, but sometimes don't. And it's not trying to force a lesson down readers' throats, it's just telling a story about life and relationships.

As a last example which also contrasts sharply with the previous ones - take Archie comics in general. They have a huge female readership and yes, they are skewed a little younger than the girls who are watching Gossip Girl or reading Nana. Archie has always been known to be "wholesome" -- so doesn't that contradict my claim that girls don't want to be lectured in their comics? Well, not exactly. Archie, as a company, has established that their characters will never smoke or drink or do drugs or ride in a car without a seatbelt, etc etc. But the stories each month are not about those things. You won't find a story called "Betty Buckles her Seat Belt!". The "rules" exist in the background, but once they are established, it frees the writers to just focus on telling short, funny stories intended to entertain. The point of a typical Archie story is to tell a joke and they're not nearly as preachy as you might expect them to be. There are, admittedly, the occasional stories where a deliberate point is made but Veronica will always be a spoiled rich girl. She may have individual stories where she realizes that her attitude can gets her into trouble, but next issue she'll go right back to being the same, spoiled rich girl. The characters are constant... they don't change. And some may say the characters never "grow" or "learn", but that's not really the point. It's all about fun and that's why so many kids grow up reading Archie comics.

Anyway! Sorry for the rambling post (It was 4am when I was thinking all of this), but in summation I just think girls want to be entertained. Pure and simple. Because we'll get our life lessons by experiencing life. But comics, sometimes, just need to be comics.
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