Critiquing Impressions of Feminine Storytelling: In Defense of Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas
Part One: Feminine Media & A Girls’ Comics World

This article is part one of a two-part series reviewing the reception to the English translation of Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas and its English-language reviews in Western comics culture. Part One of this series concerns the cross-cultural influences of Japan’s shoujo industry, while Part 2 discusses reviews to the  Heart of Thomas translation and what this reception reflects as a barrier to a Western girls’ comics industry.


While Moto Hagio’s classic shoujo manga (girls’ comic) The Heart of Thomas was released originally in Japan in 1974 and has long been heralded a classic shoujo story, the English-language translation, released on January 2nd of 2013, drew criticism from popular reviewers for the very stylistic and narrative elements that drew Thomas’ original audience of Japanese girls and women and lack insight and context into the depths of the story that Hagio built. The very issues that reviewers critiqued Thomas for, namely, the dramatic plots, the delicate, overtly feminine visual touches, and the complex mechanisms of gender within the story, are all cornerstones of shoujo storytelling and are all very obviously coded as feminine storytelling elements. While Thomas depicts male characters, Hagio codes femininity into every element of the story, with every effort towards drawing in her assumedly female audience.


Thomas’ translation occupies a unique space in English-language comics as a beloved, popular work created by a woman for an explicitly female audience. The western-comics popular culture sphere has been crowded by male creators and stories for so long that a work as explicitly feminine as Thomas struggles to find a wide readership in English-language comics, as readers lack the tools to conceptualize such a feminine work. However, reception to Thomas illustrates the ways the explicitly feminine is undervalued and unappreciated in the mainstream Western comics world. By examining Thomas and its English-language reviews alongside literary and cultural motivations for Hagio’s storytelling styles, we can not only trace the greater significance of this landmark story, but we can also understand the barriers to bringing explicitly feminine comics to the mainstream comics world.


What is feminine media and why does it matter in respect to comics?


For the purposes of this essay, I will borrow from Sue Thornham’s description of media oriented towards women and define feminine media as “mainstream narratives which claim to speak to and about women, to inhabit a ‘women’s world’ and to offer positions of identification for their female consumers….across a number of media forms.” While femininity is a varied identity and experienced differently from individual to individual, “feminine” media is that which is obviously visually and stylistically geared towards women and girls. While gender is a purely constructed identity, women’s acceptance or preferences for overtly “feminine” media is not a biological result of their gender, but, as Lana Rakow explains in Rethinking Gender Research in Communication, due to “our gender system, which locates some people as women in a particular organization of social life, making that location appear natural and the result of biology and psychology rather than culture and politics.”



 

Not all women enjoy or consume this targeted feminine media, and outlets such as women’s magazines, romance novels, and soap operas face considerable criticism from feminist media scholars for their emphasis on consumerism, their reinforcement of traditional gender roles, their heterosexism and their racism. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes that triggered advertising in women’s magazines keeps women “in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry, and sexually insecure state of being aspiring ‘beauties.’” Contemporary analysis of “empowering” girl-oriented magazines finds that even when their emphasis on beauty remains about self-expression in healthy ways, “girls’ agency is often presented as explicitly tied to buying things with the promise that these goods will give them social power and independence.” Romance novels, an especially gendered genre of fiction, face considerable criticism for promoting conservative and outdated views on women in the world.



However, as Thornham writes, they also provide “pleasures of self-recognition, of finding women placed centre-stage in a ‘woman’s genre,’ of participation in a shared women’s culture.” Such fiction empowers readers through independence and identification. Similarly, soap opera, another female-targeted genre,  “provides space for the creation and expression of a specific women’s culture, constructed in the spaces between, but also in opposition to, dominant or official culture.” Media created for women specifically has a reputation for having little aesthetic or intellectual value. In her discussion about soap operas, Thornham writes, “like in romance fiction, [soap operas are] regarded as trash by the dominant value system. Its fans, however, choose it in defiance of these values—as their cultural capital, and in doing so, constitute themselves as a site of opposition to dominant and official culture.” Even Wolf, in her criticism of women’s magazines, acknowledges that they have the power to bring feminist messages to ordinary women who may not be steeped in academic feminism. She states that “women’s media are the only products of popular culture that…change with women’s reality, are mostly written by women for women about women’s issues, and take women’s concerns seriously.” Women’s media provides a space for women to tell their own stories and voice their own desires in their own voices.




The lack of a visible women’s culture in mainstream comics misses an opportunity to draw a large female readership to our medium. While comics created specifically for girls in the early period of the medium’s history tried to reflect the desires and fantasies of young women, as time went by, mainstream comics presented a dominant ideology that reinforced stereotypes about women told by men. As romance comics dwindled in the 1970s, publishers told stories that, “no matter how well-drawn, read as though they were written by clueless forty-five-year-old-men—which they were.” While the bold underground wimmin’s comix creators told overtly feminist stories, a lack of mainstream stories told in the sequential form targeted towards young women and girls led to the incredibly gendered medium we know today.





The popularity of manga, and of shoujo titles in particular, amongst young people in the late 90s and early 2000s inspired many young artists who may not have been interested in the dominant comics culture to start writing and drawing within the medium. While comics like Womanthology, the revolutionary crowd-funded comics project that drew over $105,000 dollars to produce an anthology of female-created works, help galvanize a base of female creators, they are still the outlier. In fact, in a reader survey that accompanied the launch of DC’s New 52, a reboot of their comics continuity, only 7% of readers identified themselves as female. In 2012, the highest selling comic distributed by Diamond, the main publisher to all comic book stores, that was created by a women for a specifically female audience was the new reprinting of volume three of Kondansha’s shoujo Sailor Moon series as the 145th bestselling graphic novel of the year (by contrast, in 2011, the first volume of Kodansha’s Sailor Moon rerelease ranked 91st for its year). Fortunately, on Amazon, a number of English-language comics created by women for girls rank between the 40s-50s on Amazon’s list of bestselling comics, though the lack of visibility or promotional news about these titles is still a problem. While comics created with both genders in mind have risen in recent years, and while many if not most comics by independent publishers like Oni, Fantagraphics, and Top Shelf create works that take both genders in mind, few comics created for a specifically female audience, let alone an audience of young girls, exist in Western comics. The influence of shoujo and manga in general has in turn shaped the western comics world. Renowned contemporary American and Canadian comics and cartoon artists draw inspiration from shoujo titles. Brian Lee O’Malley, Hope Larson, and Adventure Time artist Natasha Allegri all cite shoujo series Sailor Moon as an influence on their art. Other creators, like Josh Tierney, the writer behind Archaia Press’ Spera, or Faith Erin Hicks of Friends with Boys, have cited other shoujo series’ as influences on their love of comics.



Shoujo stories have the advantage of a large, female-driven comics industry backed by the most powerful publishing companies in Japan, where deciphering the interests and desires of girls shapes the entire industry. Publishers, editors, and artists rely on the concept of ningen kankei (human relations) to construct comics for young women. Ningen kankei, as defined by Jennifer Prough in Straight from the Heart: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shoujo Manga, is concerned with “person-to-person association or interaction with society” as well as “Relations between individuals including correspondence of emotions.” These relationships not only shape characters within girls’ stories, but also “holds fast the structures of economics, relativity, authenticity, and ideology within the shoujo manga industry.” These definitions rely on gendered assumptions about what women want, but they also are a powerful tool for introducing young women to comics. In 2008, the Mainichi Newspaper in Japan conducted a survey about reading practices, and of the 4800 men and women polled, 47% of late teenage women reported reading manga magazines, with 42% of women in their twenties reporting in. Seventy-three percent (73%) of teenaged women reported reading at least one manga book per month, while 53% of women in their twenties reported reading manga. Shoujo stories, once drawn by men and concerned with romance and perpetuating a male-formed feminine ideal, shifted thanks to a group of revolutionary group that decided to reclaim girls’ comics. These creators in turn inspired a host of creators that expanded the genre’s popularity both in Japan and abroad. Hagio, a member of this group, is inextricably tied to the popularity of shoujo in her role as an iconic visionary in girl’s comics.


Hagio and the Year 24 Group
The English translation boys’ love comic The Heart of Thomas was released by indie comics publisher Fantagraphics on January 2, 2013 after months of delays. Heart of Thomas follows Fantagraphics’ 2010 release of A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, a collection compiling several of Hagio’s other notable short works. Hagio heralds from a group informally known as the Year 24 Group, one of the most successful movements of women in comics the world has ever seen. The Year 24 Group, or, to some, the Magnificent 49ers, were a group of Japanese female shoujo artists born on or around 1949 (or, the 24th year of the Showa period in Japan). The Year 24 Group included such artists as Keiko Takemiya, Moto Hagio, Riyoko Ikeda, Yasuko Aoike, and a handful or two of other female artists. Hagio and Takemiya were roommates, and many of the other creators in the group would go to their apartment to work and collaborate. At the time they were working, girl’s comics followed a lot of the same conventions as they did in the US—most were romantic, and nearly all of them were written by men and enforced severe gender roles. The women of the Year 24 Group wanted to write comics for women by women, and pioneered many of the shoujo manga conventions that are commonplace now. The creators within the group explored genres as diverse as science fiction, fantasy, romance, slice-of-life, mystery, and action comics, all aimed at capturing the imaginations of young women. The works they created, like Ikeda’s Rose of Versailles, or Hagio’s Heart of Thomas all influenced all of the manga that would come later. They infused the shoujo manga genre with a real concern for the inner lives of women and girls, as perceived by real women and girls. They also paved the way for later female creators like Rumiko Takahashi, (Inu Yasha, Ranma ½), the ladies of CLAMP (Card Captor Sakura, Chobits, X1999), or Naoko Takeuchi (Sailor Moon), among others.


Works Cited:
Thornham, Sue, “Narrating Femininity.” Women, Feminism and Media. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 55-83
Wolf, Naomi: From The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women: NY: Doubleday, 1991. Pp 58-85
Keller, Jessalynn. “Feminist Editors and the New Girl Glossies: Fashionable Feminism or Just Another Sexist Rag?” Women’s Studies International Forum 34 (2011) I-12.
Rakow, Lana F. “Rethinking Gender Research in Communication,” Journal of Communication, 36, no. 4 (August 1986), 11-26.
Wolf, Naomi: From The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women: NY: Doubleday, 1991. Pp 58-85
Keller, Jessalynn. “Feminist Editors and the New Girl Glossies: Fashionable Feminism or Just Another Sexist Rag?” Women’s Studies International Forum 34 (2011) I-12.
Rakow, Lana F. “Rethinking Gender Research in Communication,” Journal of Communication, 36, no. 4 (August 1986), 11-26.
Prough, Jennifer. Straight from the Heart: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shojo Manga. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011.
Robbins, Trina. From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines. 1999. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999.
 
Web Citations
 
Fantagraphics’ Heart of Thomas Release Information
Womanthology Sales
2012 Sailor Moon Sales via Diamond
2011 Sailor Moon Sales via Diamond
Amazon Comics Sales
New 52 Survey Results
Mainichi Newspaper survey results
Bryan Lee O’Malley Sailor Moon Fanart
Hope Larson Sailor Moon Fanart
Faith Erin Hicks Shoujo Influences
  

Critiquing Impressions of Feminine Storytelling: In Defense of Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas

Part One: Feminine Media & A Girls’ Comics World



This article is part one of a two-part series reviewing the reception to the English translation of Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas and its English-language reviews in Western comics culture. Part One of this series concerns the cross-cultural influences of Japan’s shoujo industry, while Part 2 discusses reviews to the  Heart of Thomas translation and what this reception reflects as a barrier to a Western girls’ comics industry.



While Moto Hagio’s classic shoujo manga (girls’ comic) The Heart of Thomas was released originally in Japan in 1974 and has long been heralded a classic shoujo story, the English-language translation, released on January 2nd of 2013, drew criticism from popular reviewers for the very stylistic and narrative elements that drew Thomas’ original audience of Japanese girls and women and lack insight and context into the depths of the story that Hagio built. The very issues that reviewers critiqued Thomas for, namely, the dramatic plots, the delicate, overtly feminine visual touches, and the complex mechanisms of gender within the story, are all cornerstones of shoujo storytelling and are all very obviously coded as feminine storytelling elements. While Thomas depicts male characters, Hagio codes femininity into every element of the story, with every effort towards drawing in her assumedly female audience.



Thomas’ translation occupies a unique space in English-language comics as a beloved, popular work created by a woman for an explicitly female audience. The western-comics popular culture sphere has been crowded by male creators and stories for so long that a work as explicitly feminine as Thomas struggles to find a wide readership in English-language comics, as readers lack the tools to conceptualize such a feminine work. However, reception to Thomas illustrates the ways the explicitly feminine is undervalued and unappreciated in the mainstream Western comics world. By examining Thomas and its English-language reviews alongside literary and cultural motivations for Hagio’s storytelling styles, we can not only trace the greater significance of this landmark story, but we can also understand the barriers to bringing explicitly feminine comics to the mainstream comics world.



What is feminine media and why does it matter in respect to comics?



For the purposes of this essay, I will borrow from Sue Thornham’s description of media oriented towards women and define feminine media as “mainstream narratives which claim to speak to and about women, to inhabit a ‘women’s world’ and to offer positions of identification for their female consumers….across a number of media forms.” While femininity is a varied identity and experienced differently from individual to individual, “feminine” media is that which is obviously visually and stylistically geared towards women and girls. While gender is a purely constructed identity, women’s acceptance or preferences for overtly “feminine” media is not a biological result of their gender, but, as Lana Rakow explains in Rethinking Gender Research in Communication, due to “our gender system, which locates some people as women in a particular organization of social life, making that location appear natural and the result of biology and psychology rather than culture and politics.”



Sassy Magazine

Don't pretend you don't know what this is. 



Not all women enjoy or consume this targeted feminine media, and outlets such as women’s magazines, romance novels, and soap operas face considerable criticism from feminist media scholars for their emphasis on consumerism, their reinforcement of traditional gender roles, their heterosexism and their racism. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes that triggered advertising in women’s magazines keeps women “in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry, and sexually insecure state of being aspiring ‘beauties.’” Contemporary analysis of “empowering” girl-oriented magazines finds that even when their emphasis on beauty remains about self-expression in healthy ways, “girls’ agency is often presented as explicitly tied to buying things with the promise that these goods will give them social power and independence.” Romance novels, an especially gendered genre of fiction, face considerable criticism for promoting conservative and outdated views on women in the world.



A confrontation between Edward and Bella



However, as Thornham writes, they also provide “pleasures of self-recognition, of finding women placed centre-stage in a ‘woman’s genre,’ of participation in a shared women’s culture.” Such fiction empowers readers through independence and identification. Similarly, soap opera, another female-targeted genre,  “provides space for the creation and expression of a specific women’s culture, constructed in the spaces between, but also in opposition to, dominant or official culture.” Media created for women specifically has a reputation for having little aesthetic or intellectual value. In her discussion about soap operas, Thornham writes, “like in romance fiction, [soap operas are] regarded as trash by the dominant value system. Its fans, however, choose it in defiance of these values—as their cultural capital, and in doing so, constitute themselves as a site of opposition to dominant and official culture.” Even Wolf, in her criticism of women’s magazines, acknowledges that they have the power to bring feminist messages to ordinary women who may not be steeped in academic feminism. She states that “women’s media are the only products of popular culture that…change with women’s reality, are mostly written by women for women about women’s issues, and take women’s concerns seriously.” Women’s media provides a space for women to tell their own stories and voice their own desires in their own voices.



Rory and Lorelei from Gilmore Girls



The lack of a visible women’s culture in mainstream comics misses an opportunity to draw a large female readership to our medium. While comics created specifically for girls in the early period of the medium’s history tried to reflect the desires and fantasies of young women, as time went by, mainstream comics presented a dominant ideology that reinforced stereotypes about women told by men. As romance comics dwindled in the 1970s, publishers told stories that, “no matter how well-drawn, read as though they were written by clueless forty-five-year-old-men—which they were.” While the bold underground wimmin’s comix creators told overtly feminist stories, a lack of mainstream stories told in the sequential form targeted towards young women and girls led to the incredibly gendered medium we know today.



It was too perfect not to use it again.



The popularity of manga, and of shoujo titles in particular, amongst young people in the late 90s and early 2000s inspired many young artists who may not have been interested in the dominant comics culture to start writing and drawing within the medium. While comics like Womanthology, the revolutionary crowd-funded comics project that drew over $105,000 dollars to produce an anthology of female-created works, help galvanize a base of female creators, they are still the outlier. In fact, in a reader survey that accompanied the launch of DC’s New 52, a reboot of their comics continuity, only 7% of readers identified themselves as female. In 2012, the highest selling comic distributed by Diamond, the main publisher to all comic book stores, that was created by a women for a specifically female audience was the new reprinting of volume three of Kondansha’s shoujo Sailor Moon series as the 145th bestselling graphic novel of the year (by contrast, in 2011, the first volume of Kodansha’s Sailor Moon rerelease ranked 91st for its year). Fortunately, on Amazon, a number of English-language comics created by women for girls rank between the 40s-50s on Amazon’s list of bestselling comics, though the lack of visibility or promotional news about these titles is still a problem. While comics created with both genders in mind have risen in recent years, and while many if not most comics by independent publishers like Oni, Fantagraphics, and Top Shelf create works that take both genders in mind, few comics created for a specifically female audience, let alone an audience of young girls, exist in Western comics. The influence of shoujo and manga in general has in turn shaped the western comics world. Renowned contemporary American and Canadian comics and cartoon artists draw inspiration from shoujo titles. Brian Lee O’Malley, Hope Larson, and Adventure Time artist Natasha Allegri all cite shoujo series Sailor Moon as an influence on their art. Other creators, like Josh Tierney, the writer behind Archaia Press’ Spera, or Faith Erin Hicks of Friends with Boys, have cited other shoujo series’ as influences on their love of comics.



Fiona from Adventure Time as Princess Serenity from Sailor Moon.



Shoujo stories have the advantage of a large, female-driven comics industry backed by the most powerful publishing companies in Japan, where deciphering the interests and desires of girls shapes the entire industry. Publishers, editors, and artists rely on the concept of ningen kankei (human relations) to construct comics for young women. Ningen kankei, as defined by Jennifer Prough in Straight from the Heart: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shoujo Manga, is concerned with “person-to-person association or interaction with society” as well as “Relations between individuals including correspondence of emotions.” These relationships not only shape characters within girls’ stories, but also “holds fast the structures of economics, relativity, authenticity, and ideology within the shoujo manga industry.” These definitions rely on gendered assumptions about what women want, but they also are a powerful tool for introducing young women to comics. In 2008, the Mainichi Newspaper in Japan conducted a survey about reading practices, and of the 4800 men and women polled, 47% of late teenage women reported reading manga magazines, with 42% of women in their twenties reporting in. Seventy-three percent (73%) of teenaged women reported reading at least one manga book per month, while 53% of women in their twenties reported reading manga. Shoujo stories, once drawn by men and concerned with romance and perpetuating a male-formed feminine ideal, shifted thanks to a group of revolutionary group that decided to reclaim girls’ comics. These creators in turn inspired a host of creators that expanded the genre’s popularity both in Japan and abroad. Hagio, a member of this group, is inextricably tied to the popularity of shoujo in her role as an iconic visionary in girl’s comics.



Hagio and the Year 24 Group

The English translation boys’ love comic The Heart of Thomas was released by indie comics publisher Fantagraphics on January 2, 2013 after months of delays. Heart of Thomas follows Fantagraphics’ 2010 release of A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, a collection compiling several of Hagio’s other notable short works. Hagio heralds from a group informally known as the Year 24 Group, one of the most successful movements of women in comics the world has ever seen. The Year 24 Group, or, to some, the Magnificent 49ers, were a group of Japanese female shoujo artists born on or around 1949 (or, the 24th year of the Showa period in Japan). The Year 24 Group included such artists as Keiko Takemiya, Moto Hagio, Riyoko Ikeda, Yasuko Aoike, and a handful or two of other female artists. Hagio and Takemiya were roommates, and many of the other creators in the group would go to their apartment to work and collaborate. At the time they were working, girl’s comics followed a lot of the same conventions as they did in the US—most were romantic, and nearly all of them were written by men and enforced severe gender roles. The women of the Year 24 Group wanted to write comics for women by women, and pioneered many of the shoujo manga conventions that are commonplace now. The creators within the group explored genres as diverse as science fiction, fantasy, romance, slice-of-life, mystery, and action comics, all aimed at capturing the imaginations of young women. The works they created, like Ikeda’s Rose of Versailles, or Hagio’s Heart of Thomas all influenced all of the manga that would come later. They infused the shoujo manga genre with a real concern for the inner lives of women and girls, as perceived by real women and girls. They also paved the way for later female creators like Rumiko Takahashi, (Inu Yasha, Ranma ½), the ladies of CLAMP (Card Captor Sakura, Chobits, X1999), or Naoko Takeuchi (Sailor Moon), among others.



Works Cited:

Thornham, Sue, “Narrating Femininity.” Women, Feminism and Media. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 55-83

Wolf, Naomi: From The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women: NY: Doubleday, 1991. Pp 58-85

Keller, Jessalynn. “Feminist Editors and the New Girl Glossies: Fashionable Feminism or Just Another Sexist Rag?” Women’s Studies International Forum 34 (2011) I-12.

Rakow, Lana F. “Rethinking Gender Research in Communication,” Journal of Communication, 36, no. 4 (August 1986), 11-26.

Wolf, Naomi: From The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women: NY: Doubleday, 1991. Pp 58-85

Keller, Jessalynn. “Feminist Editors and the New Girl Glossies: Fashionable Feminism or Just Another Sexist Rag?” Women’s Studies International Forum 34 (2011) I-12.

Rakow, Lana F. “Rethinking Gender Research in Communication,” Journal of Communication, 36, no. 4 (August 1986), 11-26.

Prough, Jennifer. Straight from the Heart: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shojo Manga. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011.

Robbins, Trina. From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines. 1999. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999.

 

Web Citations

 

Fantagraphics’ Heart of Thomas Release Information

Womanthology Sales

2012 Sailor Moon Sales via Diamond

2011 Sailor Moon Sales via Diamond

Amazon Comics Sales

New 52 Survey Results

Mainichi Newspaper survey results

Bryan Lee O’Malley Sailor Moon Fanart

Hope Larson Sailor Moon Fanart

Faith Erin Hicks Shoujo Influences

  

cc novi magazine novi comics Year 24 Group Heart of Thomas Moto Hagio Women in Comics Girl's comics shoujo shoujo manga
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    A++++ would post againNot original content, but this is a brilliant read. The author articulates exactly how Moto Hagio...
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    A wonderful panel that was held at my school today. I highly recommend the read!
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    I can’t wait for part 2 of this essay ^__^
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