Comics didn't interest me much until a few years ago: long Indian summers spent reading Archie digests out of utter boredom had convinced me that there wasn't much to the form. It was only when a friend introduced me to Japanese comics (or manga) three years ago that I began to realize that the synthesis of image and text could produce complex layers of meaning, which shifted from reading to reading. In Japan, manga has "spread and diversified as a dominant (almost the dominant) medium in mass culture" The huge audience for manga in Japan has allowed artists to diversify into many different types, the two primary classifications being shonen - boys' manga - and shoujo - girls' manga. Shonen manga are usually heavy on action and light on character development and romance. Shoujo manga tend to focus on relationships and characters. They are also visually different: shonen manga is generally laid out clearly in rectangular panels, whereas shoujo artists take pains to present the story in creative ways, for example, by using unusual panel shapes or configurations, or by using symbolic images to represent emotions or events.
Frequently, the most interesting works are those that appropriate techniques from both types of manga to tell stories in novel ways. One example is Ranma ½, the first manga I ever read, in which the male protagonist turns into a girl whenever splashed with cold water. This premise is stretched to its limit in twenty-plus volumes of riotous fighting and skullduggery, with the fights interspersed with scenes developing the relationships between Ranma and his friends. I had never read anything like it before and was soon addicted. Once I had begun with Ranma ½, I continued to collect both shoujo and shonen manga, as well as multigenre titles like Wild Adapter.
Although I don't read Japanese, the vast number of translations, reviews and synopses online, not to mention the large number of titles published in French and English editions have allowed me to read a fairly wide selection of manga. I generally research a title on the Internet extensively before I buy it, so that I can check whether there is a translated edition in a language I know, or the availability of an online translation. The huge demand for manga in France has made me particularly happy: I have been able to read several titles, such as New York, New York and Fruits Basket, without having to resort to the tedious option of matching speech bubbles to script translations. Additionally, in the last two years, the American market for translated manga has grown significantly, prompting several publishing houses to launch new titles, and severely depleting my bank account.
The last two years have also seen me gravitate more toward shoujo manga. Shoujo manga range from incredibly cute and fluffy stories to tragic romantic melodramas to sensitive explorations of female identity. Frequently, a series can be several things at once! I found myself drawn to shoujo because of the complexity of the storylines, the intense emotions depicted and the bizarre and beautiful aesthetic that characterizes shoujo manga at its best. You can go back to a volume you've read countless times and consider how the arch of a character's eyebrow on page ninety-two changes the meaning of what they are about to say - it is the perfect marriage of words and pictures. One particularly interesting subgenre of shoujo manga is the boys' love genre. This covers a whole range of stories that involve gay romance in some form and are targeted at a female audience. These titles often provide an interesting glimpse of gender relations in Japan. Some are sweetly romantic analogs to standard shoujo romances, only with two boys holding hands in place of a girl and a boy. Others are explicit enough to qualify as pornography. Still others, like Banana Fish, transcend the peculiar conventions of the boys' love genre - the bizarrely refined depictions of men and the stereotypical...
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