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Roundtable: Farewell to Shojo Beat

Brigid Alverson

Manga fans far and wide were disappointed to hear the news that Viz will stop publishing Shojo Beat magazine in July, although the Shojo Beat book imprint will continue. Shojo Beat was one of a kind, the first manga anthology for girls, and our staff took some time to discuss the significance of both the magazine itself and its untimely demise.

Brigid: I was sorry to hear that Shojo Beat was folding, and not just because I was a freelancer for them. I think it’s important for girls, especially teen girls to have comics and entertainment that’s aimed at them. For decades, until manga came along, there were no comics at all for girls, and Shojo Beat really filled a need. Two series in particular, Nana and Vampire Knight, have gotten a lot of traction among teen girls.

Those series will continue in book form, but what I liked about Shojo Beat was the entire package. It featured incover48 Roundtable: Farewell to Shojo Beattelligent articles that allowed the reader to be enthusiastic about Japanese pop culture without being geeky. Most magazines aimed at teens and women are filled with brainless celebrity stories or service articles tied to commercial products (Five lipsticks you can’t live without! Must-have desk organizers!) Shojo Beat had a few product articles, but they also had pieces on Japanese holidays, music, cooking, etc. One of the articles I wrote for them was about the Japanese love of Marie Antoinette and French Rococo style in general. Can you imagine that running in Seventeen? I also liked the fashion articles they ran that were based on thrift-shop chic. They focused on a girl with a distinctive style, usually someone with pretty average looks who put herself together well. I think that’s incredibly healthy for teen girls to see.

Of course, it was a win for Viz that they could sell readers the same story twice, in magazine and book form, and the stories in the magazine took on a certain aura—if a reader likes one Shojo Beat story, she will be predisposed to like other Shojo Beat stories. But it was also a win for the readers, because they could sample a variety of stories in each issue. A lot of smart people are saying the web is going to take over that function, and that’s fine, but Shojo Beat was more than just a handful of comics, it was a great package, and that’s what I’m going to miss.

Snow: I became a Shojo Beat subscriber at the same time I began reading manga and can’t imagine my personal manga collection without it, much less the collection at my library. A good portion of my now-rabid love for manga can be attributed to Shojo Beat. It was always a happy day at the mailbox when my copy would arrive. The characters from Nana, Crimson Hero, Sand Chronicles, Honey and Clover, Absolute Boyfriend, and Honey Hunt, as well as all the other series, were like good friends, penpals from whom I got letters each month.

My library’s copies of Shojo Beat are well-loved and well-circulated. For my teen girls in my library it was a great alternative to Seventeen and the other fashion magazines. I loved that the fashion spreads in Shojo Beat featured girls of varying body types and races and that the clothes pictured were almost always affordable. The articles on drawing manga, crafts, cooking, Japanese culture, etc. were all right in line with what my teens were interested in. The comics were a terrific variety of realism, fantasy, romance, etc.  I know that these are hard economic times for magazines, but I wish that VIZ would reconsider their decision, maybe making Shojo Beat every other month? The U.S. manga world is going to be less pink (and not in a good way) without that colorful dose of shojo.

Lori: I didn’t think I’d enjoy Shojo Beat when my Animerica subscription was switched over, but I’m glad I stuck around. I discovered lots of great manga that wouldn’t have otherwise tried if it didn’t appear in the magazine. I hadn’t really read any shojo before getting it. That’s one of the things that was great about it. You could sample 6-7 different series for a low price.  Nana and Godchild became part of my manga collection after leaving the magazine.  And it kept surprising me with more titles I ended up falling in love with; Sand Chronicles, Honey & Clover, Haruka: Beyond the Stream of Time, and just recently, Honey Hunt.

The articles about Japanese culture were my favorites.  I especially enjoyed the ones about Japanese folklore and myths that usually showed up around halloween, and the DIY crafts. But all of the insights into Japanese life were interesting. The magazine changed a lot since it started, sometimes emulating its sibling magazine Shonen Jump too much. But I thought it had finally found its own voice in the last few years as I looked forward to its arrival every month.

I really going to miss the variety that Shojo Beat brought to me, even if I didn’t like all the titles. It was a great opportunity to at least try different things, and just plain a good read. And to the world of girls’ comics/magazines, it’s a great loss.

Kate: I agree, Lori! One of the things Shojo Beat did well was educating fans about Japanese culture and history, especially the rituals that are depicted in and alluded to in shojo manga. SB also did a terrific job of introducing girls to seminal manga-ka such as Osamu Tezuka and Keiko Takemiya. The special Princess Knight issue, for example, didn’t just feature a chapter from Tezuka’s work; it described what was ground-breaking about Princess Knight without being dry or pedantic. SB has also profiled several trailblazing female artists, again teaching readers about manga history in a conversational, accessible way that respected their intelligence. cover01 Roundtable: Farewell to Shojo Beat

What bothers me most about SB‘s cancellation is that it was the only magazine of its kind here in the US. Yes, Shonen Jump and Yen+ both serialize stories that interest me, but both also contain stories that, as a female reader, don’t appeal; in fact, several Shonen Jump and Yen+ titles push my feminist buttons for their fan service and less-than-enlightened depictions of female characters. (The same was true for the now defunct Super Manga Blast, which featured some terrific material—Club 9, What’s Michael—and some positively awful stuff—Seraphic Feather, Shadow Star.) Not every story in Shojo Beat was a winner, but these were stories created by and for young women; girls were front and center, dealing with a host of real problems—relationships, crushes, broken families, underfunded sports teams, poor grades—that teen readers could appreciate, even when the settings were fantastic.

Robin: Rather than repeat what everyone else has said very well about the greatness of Shojo Beat, and how much it will be missed by its readers (my teens here at my library were very sad when I broke the news), I will instead echo the question and/or rant this raises for me: while I understand that Shojo Beat had a smaller audience, that is a function of society at large, and I’d hoped VIZ was aware of that from the get go.  Girls crossover and read Shonen Jump, guys will not in the same way. I would hope that was obvious going in.

So, where are the female comics fans supposed to go now, and how much of a slap in the face is this (however unwitting on VIZ’s part) in reflecting the state of the industry at large? Given the recent demise of Minx, it feels like publishers are not giving girls and women the chance to prove their fandom, or perhaps they’re attempting to fit them into fandom boxes that aren’t accurate or profitable. Does it show that girls prefer buying bound manga to reading it in magazine form? Perhaps. Does it show that there aren’t enough girls reading manga? Doubtful. Also, how much will this move, like the demise of Minx, cause commentators and industry folks alike to chime in with, "well, this proves there’s no real teen girl audience for comics, anyway"?

Now yes, I understand it most likely comes down to money, and that’s something that’s hard to argue with. My question is, what were the expectations, and how did those expectations conflict with how the fans used/bought the magazine?

Sabrina: I died inside when I heard about this. I’m a proud member of the age group that this magazine targeted, and I loved it so much. Echoing what Lori said, I found some of my very favorite series in this anthology (Honey and Clover, Sand Chronicles, Honey Hunt). It’s so sad that the only for-girls manga magazine in the States is folding after 3 years of great stories and characters. I hope this isn’t the death knell for the rest of the manga industry.

Esther: I’m probably the only one who didn’t really care that much when I heard of Shojo Beat‘s demise, partly because I’m not an avid manga reader and I’ve never enjoyed short stories or serialized stories. In addition, the 16+ rating on Shojo Beat meant I couldn’t add it to my (middle school) library’s collection.  Furthermore, the reason I originally embraced comics—at the time I didn’t enjoy reading the comics formats, but I was glad to see kids reading and using the library like they hadn’t before. Especially the boys. In my mind, while there was an audience of girls reading comics, I was more interested in drawing the boys into the library with the comics. So it’s been frustrating for me when I see so much focus on girls and comics, when I’m still struggling to find great reading material for boys—whether it’s prose, nonfiction or comics.

So yes, Shojo Beat had a role in the comics world, because they catered to a female audience, but if it means that Viz will concentrate on more great comics for boys, I’m okay with it. Sadly, I think this was just a money and numbers decision and had nothing to do with a new editorial focus.

Kate: I have to disagree with you about boys and comics, Esther—the American comics market caters primarily to a male audience. It may seem like there’s been more attention paid to female readers, but that’s a very new phenomenon; as Dirk Deppey pointed out in the shojo issue of The Comics Journal (July 2005, No. 269), the sudden popularity of Card Captor Sakura and Sailor Moon "caught the American comic scene flat-footed." Publishers were eager to capitalize on what they perceived to be an untapped market: girls. Hence the creation of DC’s Minx imprint and the proliferation of news stories in the "Girls read comics—who’d have thunk it?" vein. Shojo Beat gave girls a place to be comics fans on their own terms. The vibe was utterly different than most comic-oriented publications (e.g. Wizard, Anime Insider) and recognized that girls’ interest in fashion, music, movies, and crafts dovetailed with their interest in comics. Put more bluntly, it allowed female manga readers to construct a fan identity that wasn’t just "Nerd with Breasts." That’s why so many of us mourn its loss, even as we recognize that Viz is a business and needs to make smart decisions about where to invest its resources.

I also take issue with the idea that Viz should "concentrate on more good comics for boys." Shojo Beat‘s circulation was a fraction of Shonen Jump‘s: 35,000 vs. 200,000, suggesting that Viz has already done a great job of cultivating a male audience. Many of the series that run in Shonen Jump are suitable for and/or popular with middle-schoolers. And the lion’s share of titles in the VizKids line are aimed at a male audience. Of the All-Ages titles in their catalog, only four—Chocco Mimi, Happy Happy Clover, St. Dragon Girl, and Sugar Princess—are explicitly marketed to girls; the rest fall into what I’d call the "shonen lite" category, featuring lots of G-rated battle scenes, monster slaying, and that sort of thing. Girls certainly will read—and love—COWA! and Pokemon, but even at a young age, many of them want stories that reflect their interests and personalities, too.

Esther: I didn’t say that the comics caters to one gender or another, though I see why you may have thought I implied it. But what I was trying to say is that there has been a tremendous focus on girls and comics in the last few years, when this is one format that will draw in an audience to reading that is difficult to reach. I’ve been working in libraries for more than 10 years now, and it’s much easier to convince a girl to read a book or comic than it is to convince a boy to read a book or comic. When I first developed my comics collection, it was in the hope that I would draw more boys into the library. I was already drawing in the girls. Slowly, the collection became a very "female" oriented collection, and I had to stop and assess what I wanted out of the collection and how it had happened. In part the focus shifted because I am female and I read like a stereotypical female (when I’m not reading like a librarian who needs to taste a little bit of everything). In part it happened because much of the literature pointed me to titles that were aimed at girls. 

Viz chose to end Shojo Beat, in my opinion, because it’s a tough economy and they needed to make a cut back. They’re not going to cut back on their "milk & honey" title like Shonen Jump. Instead, they’re going to cut back on the title that will hurt the least. Like you said, Shojo Beat‘s circulation was a fraction of Shonen Jump. I’m sure Shojo Beat will be missed, just not in my library.  And I’m curious to hear from the male perspective. I hope Scott has the opportunity to weigh in on the demise of Shojo Beat.

Robin: The whole discussion reminds me of a shorter one I had over on Twitter amongst the manga twitter crowd a few weeks back. We were discussing the fact the many of the bloggers, commentators, journalists, and visible fans of manga online are women, and in fact are currently dominating the scene, at least online. Some folks were questioning whether this was a good or bad thing, and there was as part of me that had the reaction of, how can it be a bad thing when comics as a whole has been dominated by men for, well, ever? It should be about time for women to tip the balance a bit. The men feel like their territory is being invaded and their medium of choice being commented on by a majority that doesn’t include them. (I actually don’t think is the case, as the head honchos in terms of editors and publishers in manga, from what I gather, are still mostly men). Welcome to being a female fan of comics, or science fiction, or action movies. Women have always been in this position, and tend to have to carve out a place for themselves as fans.

This, to me, is what Shojo Beat did: created a space that was defined by the female fans, as Kate said, on their own terms. I agree with what you’ve said, Esther, that this whole decision is money-driven rather than a statement on not supporting girls. However, with Tokyopop, a traditionally girl-centric manga publisher, dwindling away as we watch, VIZ becomes one of the only games in town. They have always focused more on shonen, and it remains to be seen how much they will cater to a female audience now that the magazine has hit the skids. Truly, this is not meant to badmouth VIZ. They take an impressive number of risks (Ooku anyone?) for a company that could just rest on their mainstream laurels. I’m just concerned about where female fans will now turn as an outlet and representation of their own fandom.

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

Comments

  1. Rena says:

    Very interesting to read, though I’m sorry I did laugh out loud at the comment of comics not being targeted at gender. Maybe not quite as much in the US, but in Japan you very clearly on the box have labels saying “This is for boys! This is for adult women!” and so on.

    I’m unsure what my feelings are about this, I never bought an issue since beyond Nana and perhaps Honey & Clover none of the titles interested me too much. I do think something for female fans was good, since I personally like the magazine format and it does offer a different blend.

    At the end, you do have things like taste. I like certain types of shojo, and go through periods when I seek it out. But overall I do prefer shonen and certain josei, they offer more of what I’m interested in.

  2. Katherine Dacey says:

    All of us write about manga, and are very aware of the gender-based marketing categories that Japanese publishers use. I don’t think anyone who participated in this discussion would argue that comics are gender-neutral in their appeal. In fact, the whole point of this discussion is that Shojo Beat’s demise leaves a gaping hole in the market for girls’ comics here in US.

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