Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
If you've read any shojo manga published in the last twenty years, you've probably read (or, just as likely, skimmed) the little side notes and end notes from the artist sprinkled throughout the book. These extras became a common feature sometime in the 1990s (some earlier manga have them, but most don't) and are now practically de rigueur
. For some reason, the practice has only caught on in shojo manga, although some shonen manga do it too; Eiichiro Oda's One Piece
, for example, often includes Q&As with fans, notes from Oda's research on pirates, and whatever else pops into his head. It's easy to see why editors encourage their artists to bare their souls to the limited extent acceptable in an all-ages magazine: it adds a human face to the story, gives readers someone to identify with and aspire to be. A friend.
Read enough of these notes, however, and you get the impression that shojo manga artists are both incredibly boring and completely insane.
What follows is a sampler of some of my favorite shojo manga side notes. This is by no means intended as a complete survey of the field of strange messages from shojo artists. There isn't enough space in a single column for that.
CLAMP, a four-woman manga team that came out of the doujinshi
(fancomics) scene in the 1980s, pioneered the art of the manga side note. Having cut their teeth in the chummy, nerdy world of doujinshi
circles, the members of CLAMP saw nothing unusual about drawing themselves into their work. CLAMP's end-of-volume omake
(extras) typically feature the members as chibi anthropomorphic animals discussing the manga, chatting about their personal lives, and sometimes interacting with their characters. The omake
are drawn by Tsubaki Nekoi, the group's secondary artist (most of CLAMP's art is by lead artist Mokona), who specializes in cute super-deformed characters.
, one of my favorite CLAMP manga (and one of the titles with Nekoi on lead art chores), is basically a homoerotic Jojo's Bizarre Adventure
fancomic rewritten to make the characters into angels so CLAMP doesn't get sued. Really. In the omake
at the end of each volume, the artists' chibi avatars get drunk and hang out with the characters. (Sexy demon Koryu: "I'm going to eat all of you." Manager Satsuki Igarashi: "Oh you can sooo eat me." Nekoi: "I'm wasted.") And thus Wish
evolves, Pokemon-like, from fanfiction to even more powerful self-insert fanfiction
. Cartoonists take note: you can try to be as cute as CLAMP, you can try to be as sexually dysfunctional as CLAMP, but you will never, ever be as girl-nerdy as CLAMP. Give up.
As far as contemporary omake
go, I enjoy the elaborate commentary-track comics Ai Yazawa draws for the end of each volume of Nana
, her epic soap opera set in the rock industry. A mixed cast of characters from Yazawa's three manga series hangs out at a bar discussing Nana
, reading fan mail, and, of course, updating readers on new Nana
anime/movies/soundtrack albums they can buy. Eventually some of the characters break off on a side journey and get stranded on a desert island. It only sporadically makes sense, especially if you're not familiar with the casts of Nana
, Paradise Kiss
, and the untranslated Neighborhood Story
, but Yazawa puts a lot more effort into her commentary than most artists and doesn't just cheapen out and draw a bunch of chibis.
My Darling Miss Bancho
One of the last titles CMX launched before its untimely demise, My Darling Miss Bancho
deserves to be rescued from the gutter by some kindly old manga publisher. A chipper comedy about a girl who accidentally becomes the leader of an all-male delinquent gang (but, you know, nice
delinquents), it's the only manga I've encountered set at a vocational school. Most of Fujikata's side notes are the usual snoozefests about talking to her editor and rushing to meet deadlines, but they get interesting when she discusses the inspiration for the manga: her younger brother, who attended a J.V. on the wrong side of the tracks. It's a side of Japanese life you almost never see in manga; yes, Virginia, Japan has teenagers who aren't cram-schooled exam machines, and who plan to look for blue-collar jobs right after high school (if not earlier) rather than apply to Tokyo University. "To all the technical school students in the country," writes Fujikata, "please become fine engineers!"
Portrait of M & N
For a manga about the relationship between a masochistic girl and a narcissistic boy, Portrait of M & N
is curiously vanilla. And so it is with Higuchi's side notes, which, occasional bizarre childhood memories of crushing mice to death with her head aside, are mostly dry little strips about talking on the phone with her editor, getting scolded for drawing illegible thumbnails, and her stamp collection. I'm only including them on this list because she draws herself with a friggin' pig head. I've seen a lot of strange artist avatars in my day (Saki Hiwatari of Please Save My Earth
fame draws herself as a particularly freakish and deranged scribble, especially when discussing her passion for Knights of the Zodiac
), but something about that cartoon pig head on a normally-proportioned, non-chibi woman's body unsettles me. I saw something like this at an Of Montreal concert recently. It was not healthy.
And for the diametric opposite of vanilla, there's Black Bird
, which is basically Twilight
with crow demons instead of vampires, although they still drink blood so what the hell, this is manga Twilight
. Inasmuch as roughly 60% of the art consists of pictures of the heroine sobbing while being pinned down and/or having her clothes ripped off by incredibly hot superpowered dudes, Black Bird
is the thinnest of thinly-veiled porn for teenage girls. The veil drops even lower in the bonus "illustration request" sketches, which tend to be composed like the first shot in a movie you pay for at the hotel: the male characters as sexy doctors, the male characters as sexy cops, the male characters as sexy teachers. "Sexual harassment" scenarios crop up on a regular basis, and a sketch in an as-yet-untranslated volume shows the male lead directing the female lead in a cheesecake shoot: she scrunches her boobs together while he tells her to spread her legs. Then again, at other times Sakurakoji just draws the characters as happy chibi Olympic athletes. You know manga.
The marginal notes also include character bios, in which Sakurakoji sometimes opines on her characters' sexual tastes: "On a previous page, Tadanobu says something that makes him sound like a masochist. But actually, it's Reiko who is the extreme masochist, and she, along with extreme sadist Tadanobu, have learned the allure of the other side…" I guess what I'm saying is, you should be reading Black Bird
Baby and Me
Baby and Me
is a strange slice-of-life manga that runs out of baby stories around Volume 3 and ends up being mostly about various neighbors, teachers, transvestites, and yakuza. It's a very uneven series, but you get the impression that creator Marimo Ragawa is an interesting person, and this is borne out by her side notes. Ragawa apparently lives with her mother, brother, and pet rabbit, and her notes are full of wry family anecdotes. At a couple of points she posts doodles by her brother that she fished out of his wastebasket, without his permission, leading to follow-up columns about how pissed he is. She also visits the U.S. and freaks out over the enormous portions of food at Disney World.
By far the high point of the side notes, and arguably of Baby and Me
itself, is a series of columns about Ragawa's love of booze. After declaring, "I want to get drunk," she devotes subsequent columns to listing her favorite brands of beer and liquor and recommending cocktails her readers should order ("But cocktails are high in alcohol, so you can't slam them"). This leads, in a subsequent volume, to a column apologizing for all columns about getting drunk, Ragawa having belatedly remembered that most of her readers are twelve years old.
On the flip side, Baby and Me
also contains my pick for Most Banal Shojo Manga Side Note Ever in History, wherein Ragawa warns readers about the importance of draining their salads.
Yoko Maki has an eating disorder. I'm not kidding. Many of her personal notes are devoted to what she's eating, which generally vacillates between "herbal health drinks of some kind" and "nothing." If the column reproduced here, in which she mentions having to exercise her jaw so it doesn't atrophy from her almost entirely liquid diet, doesn't break your heart, perhaps the columns detailing her bowel movements will. It comes as a shock when she once mentions eating a whole potato.
If nothing else, at least Maki's notes aren't boring. In a column entitled "Maki, Rescue Yourself!" she explains that she's had to stop taking public transit because she can't follow train schedules, talks about hiding "secret money" around the house, and mentions that her mother and sister constantly tell her she can't do anything. She is, of course, very upbeat about all of this. In other notes, she shares the kind of random interests all manga artists end up discussing when they run out of material; hers include Chicago Hope
, The Passion of the Christ
, and her attraction to old men. She doesn't care for Korean men, however, and scolds women who drool over Korean men rather than their own husbands. (That particular volume came out at around the time the tear-jerking Korean TV drama Winter Sonata
, and its gorgeous male lead Bae Yong Joon, unexpectedly exploded in popularity in Japan. It's been said that the joint Korea/Japan World Cup did less to improve relations between the two countries than did Winter Sonata
.) Mostly, though, she frets about what she's eating.
But, really, what else can she do? To paraphrase High Fidelity
, are manga artists insane because they draw manga, or do they draw manga because they're insane? I imagine it's a little of both, but one thing that comes through in most artist notes is how enormously stressful, but also confined and boring, the life of a career manga artist tends to be. Read enough of these notes together, and a picture develops: a life of endless sketching in a tiny Tokyo apartment, deadlines so tight there's no time to even think about what you're writing (with a few exceptions—Yuu Watase on her feminist sci-fi series Ceres: Celestial Legend
comes to mind—artists write remarkably little about the ideas or themes in their work, or about inspirations beyond "my editor told me to write this"), vacation time limited to the rare weekend research trip, and next to no direct human contact. Editors and agents call you on the phone, assistants communicate by fax, family is back in whatever town you left to move to one of the two adjoining Tokyo wards where the manga industry lives. At least the members of CLAMP get to hang out with each other.
The practice of including personal notes in shojo manga took off in the period when manga became big business. In the 1990s, the major publishers expanded into behemoths, lucrative film and TV adaptations became commonplace, popular series started to stretch out for dozens or even hundreds of volumes, and it was possible for a manga magazine to sell six million copies a week. At the same time, the West woke up and noticed manga, and publishers gradually realized that their potential audience was larger, and possessed of more disposable income, than they could ever have dreamed. A lot of good manga came out of that period. But to produce it, artists had to become manga-making machines. The shojo notes gained popularity, I think, because they made the artists seem human to their readers. But in earlier decades, it was their manga that made them seem human.
Last year I was fortunate enough to interview Moto Hagio
, one of the legendary "Year 24 Group" of 1970s-era shojo manga artists and, as a manga creator, perhaps second only to Osamu Tezuka. Many people commented with surprise that the interview was so interesting. Hagio spoke about her childhood and her struggles with strict, demanding parents, and discussed how her personal experiences and research into psychology informs her work. She talked about her comics as an expression of something vital about herself, about life, rather than as consumer product. A lot of American manga fans had never heard a manga-ka talk like that.
Manga has been in the economic doldrums since the turn of the century. It's not an easy time to be in the business. But maybe as the business shrinks, manga will shrink to human size too. It could get friendlier.
Shaenon K. Garrity is a manga editor at Viz Media and is best known for her webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse.
All the Comics in the World is © Shaenon K. Garrity, 2010