Last month, when the teenage daughter on NBC's The Book of Daniel turned out to be a talented manga artist selling drugs to pay for her software, adults may have said, "Huh?" But their teenage daughters probably knew exactly what manga was.
These black-and-white comics, translated from Japanese best-sellers and meant to be read back to front and right to left, are a huge hit with American teens and 'tweens. They can find manga (pronounced mahn-ga, with a hard G as in "girl") in the popular teen magazine Cosmo Girl or they wait impatiently for the next book in a series to be translated and brought to the shelves of a nearby Barnes & Noble or Waldenbooks.
Once publishers persuaded chain bookstores to carry their manga (as opposed to comics shops), girls could find it easily -- in malls, where they were anyway.
Cori Kasura, a 13-year-old student at Glenwood Middle School who describes herself as "a very large fan," discovered her first manga two years ago at the public library.
"A lot of people brush them off as just a comic, and they shouldn't," she says. "They deal with real-world problems, and I guess I kind of like that. Of course, some of them have a magical spin."
The plots of manga specifically written for girls, called shojo, come in two subgenres: magical girl stories, in which a Bambi-eyed heroine with a super power saves the world, and ones with more realistic plots about unrequited love, relationships and high school angst.
But to call them realistic in the way, say, a Judy Blume novel is realistic, would be stretching it. One of Cori's current favorite series is W Juliet, a best-seller published by Viz Media about a tomboy who makes friends with a beautiful newcomer to her high school -- only to find that he's a boy disguised as a girl (to prove to his father that he has the talent to become an actor). Romance blossoms and complications ensue, and it takes 14 volumes to sort it all out.
At $10 a volume, that's a lot of babysitting money.
Of course, young fans can always get their fix at the library. The Baltimore County Public Library has been adding to its collection and now has more than 2,800 volumes in its branches, 330 different manga titles in all.
"It's definitely one of our highest circulating collections," says Jeff Doane, a librarian in the Towson branch young adult section. "The whole system is suddenly realizing [that manga isn't] a one-hit wonder. These books are read to pieces. That's pretty cool."
Unlike readers of American graphic novels and comic books, manga fans are more likely to be girls than boys. About 60 percent are female, estimates ICv2, the online trade publication that tracks pop culture products. The target demographic for Tokyopop's shojo is 13- to 17-year-old girls, says Julie Taylor, director of shojo manga for the publisher, an American company.
It's hard to get accurate numbers about manga's popularity because teenagers read the books and then pass them around. But sales in the U.S. have more than doubled from $55 million in 2002, according to ICv2. USA Today reported that its 2005 best-selling book list included a number of graphic novel titles, more than triple the number as compared to the year before, and the most popular form was manga. Harlequin Books has started publishing some of its romances in manga form.
'Girls love manga'
People think that fans must be Goth or fringe types, but that's not true, says Karen Bokram, publisher of Girl's Life magazine in Towson. "Girls across the board love manga."
"We first started hearing about manga from our readers," Bokram says. "They would send us drawings. They would redo our covers [in manga style], drawing girls with wide-set eyes and the bobble-head look."
Manga style is instantly recognizable. The girls are cute as puppies, with big sparkly eyes and elongated legs. The guys are androgynous, their hair long and spiky. Even if you haven't seen the comics, you probably recognize the look from anime (Japanese animation) on the Cartoon Network or in theaters with movies like Spirited Away, which won the Oscar in 2002 for best animated feature.
The volumes are the size and shape of a paperback book, with colorful covers. Because it is read from back to front, the front cover, of course, is on the back; if you open it the wrong way you may get a warning: "Stop! This is the back of the book." Manga tends to have intriguing, if not downright odd, titles like Boys Over Flowers and Sugar Sugar Rune.
The panels are creatively shaped, sometimes overlapping and rarely containing their characters. Action sequences have more lines to indicate motion than American comics do.