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joséi comics have outgrown the rules

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The difference between shōjo and josei isn’t clear. Once, josei were the comics- manga, technically- you read when you’d grown out of reading comics for kids. But contemporarily that’s a turning point of contention not distinction. The line between what is and isn’t for children is faint. Temperamental. And pairings like shōjo and josei, comics and manga, young readers and all audiences, all have more in common than they do to the contrary. You could guess by the title of Thieves, and maybe there’s an inkling of it in Scout is Not a Band Kid too, but what the books I’m writing about here have in common is crime. So what makes them josei and not shōjo?

A shōjo story heroine would face the consequences of breaking the rules and learn from it, gain perspective, become mature. And in a josei story, I think crime is the consequence. The girl commits a crime by accident, the woman chooses crime. Just because we’re older doesn’t mean we don’t still struggle with uncertainty. But these stories lend their leading ladies more autonomy. The concern for the characters’ growth, and the readers’ with them, is rooted in a mature take on the world. With the complexity required by a version of life on the page that we can relate to comes characters for whom a hero’s journey isn’t going to be enough.

Young Frances is realist, a melodrama about a young working woman. Cannonball, also about reconciling one’s calling with their employment. They are both small press books, published in North America,  thematically analogous to (but not perceptibly influenced by) josei manga. It’s in the subjects they cover, and they write about them. Bark Bark Girl, a Peow book, treats a younger girl’s trouble concentrating on life’s demands with twee gravitas, but it is a small press release rather than YA. But what, besides the publisher, is the difference between it and the Caldecott Medal winning graphic novel This One Summer? YA is also a place for long form, deeper explorations of self, where creativity in process is fostered. The Magic Fish is ornate and stylized as anything from the alternative scene, Little Monarchs just as raw and transportive as any book for “adults.”

bryon panelsThese shared genre conventions in the indie press and YA scenes are also present in josei manga and shōjo. The distinction between the two (josei and shōjo that is) is a matter of sophistication. And publication. Who puts your book out is often what decides it, sadly. But all of these dinosaur-ancient publishing conventions, it’s wild to think they’re still structurally present in comics. Dividing up romance and action between girls and boys, simple stories for children and worthy ones for grown-ups, is just wrong. It was in the post-war era when it was established and it is ridiculous to the point of absurdity, for so many reasons, that it is still a structural issue in comics in 2022. But that’s the world we live in. Manga was divided between shonen and shōjo for boys and girls, and then seinen and josei. Josei includes many styles and genres, deconstructing or venerating the roots of the industry as each creator saw fit. What connects its stories is its creators are interested in comics where authenticity is more important than fantasy.

I stumbled into all of this when I fell hard for Osamu Tezuka’s vintage shōjo comics he intentionally wrote like his shonen stories. I really love what Tezuka did to deconstruct expectations within the rigidity of the origins of the form. Tezuka’s shōjo retro had all the action and adventure and swashbuckling of its boy’s comics contemporaries. But within the shōjo publishing world, there had to be another layer of story, a context to break out of. Astro Boy was made to start shit. The heroine of Twin Knights needed a reason to pick up the sword. It blurred the distinction between shonen and shōjo. But I guess the idea that comics had more to offer than entertainment is kind of proto-josei?

I’m guessing here, in part because the distribution of comics internationally is very different. The accent mark in joséi is a nod to indicate that I’m skipping in the story from 1955 to 2022. Comics in English dominate the countries that (only) speak English. Very little was imported and translated until recently, and the work localization teams and translators do is still overlooked despite the skyrocketing American consumption of manga. But as an American comics reader who’s crossed from the last century to this one, manga’s presence and availability for me has primarily been as a niche interest. Not a main vein from which comics are drawn. The rest of the West, on the other hand, has long been influenced by any and all comics they can get, not just local fare. The newsstand spinner rack isn’t an international foundation of sequential art, not the way it dominates nostalgia here. The world has been growing up reading manga.

armstrong panelTherein lies the distinction between referencing/paying tribute to a genre or category and being a part of one. When I first read Mathilde Kitteh’s Brush Paradise, I thought wow, I’d never seen a shonen story model used to move an indie comic narrative before. But then I immersed myself in more work from those circles, the arc of the Peow catalog from Internal Affairs (office manga joke, satire of serious) to Brush Paradise (office joke manga, serious satire) to No Love Lost (joke office manga, serious). It wasn’t reference; it was. US direct market comics are full of earnest postmodern revisions of vintage narratives, iconic or at least historic characters modernized as an extension of the genre. The French-speaking countries that have the same kind of book sales as the US are just more tapped into manga (what’s good, Dandadan), and have been for long enough that it is a soil for the sewing of contemporary scenes. These cartoonists grew up from it.

Growing up is the distinction between shōjo and josei. Josei is to shōjo what seinen is to shonen. The audience moves from the younger book to the older book as they desire stories not suitable for readers of all-ages. A distinction between seinen and josei is that seinen is a more refined approach to shonen storytelling: the stories are for men, not boys. Josei on the other hand isn’t elevated shōjo because, well, women are pursuing fundamentally different goals than girls. They are books about lives that don’t fit a predetermined category. How could a real life fit inside only one genre?

Here, in 2022, a transcontinental multigenerational branch of manga comes from two publishers that could not be less alike and neither one of them is from Japan. Their books are josei. Joséi. Though they are in English! Stories about girls breaking the rules (for the better). Yes, they learn shit. No, it does not involve changing their ways. Well, yes it does. One girl’s crime is theft. If you hurt her, she’ll take your stuff. One girl runs a scam. The only bus out of town is members only, so just fake it. There are rules and there are rules.

thieves by lucie bryonThieves
Written and illustrated by Lucie Bryon
Published by Nobrow

To read Lucie Bryon’s graphic novel Thieves is to be smitten. No escaping what a joyous and rewarding read it is. Fun. Funny. Gorgeously illustrated. Bryon is an exceptional colorist, a cartoonist who is thinking about their pages on several levels before they’re even drawn, and stuff that doesn’t exist at the beginning of the process fits perfectly into place by the time we’re reading it. Using colors to describe shapes and shadows that fall across inked in character contour lines, or to fill the slim pieces absent from a blacked out sky with the feeling of nighttime. The story is of matching indulgence. It delivers every character moment you could wish for, down to the last punch.

The laughs are large but it really rules because it presents such an engaging and empathetic approach to its title. There’s a reason why this girl steals. Thieves isn’t about need, or injustice structural and systemic. Like a lot of crime, it’s personal. Taking something from someone who took from you. It’s a compassionate treatment of crime in context. The journey is of personal fulfillment, where theft is a part of the process, mistakes intentionally repeated so that a kind of personal atonement is achieved. Everything about stealing in Thieves that (in another book) could be about how messed up the world is, is instead focuses on personal choice. It’s not wrong! It’s just complicated.

Another breath of fresh air is how the two girls- lovers- are treated. They contrast, a planner and a doer, organization and chaos, that good opposites attract rom com screwball energy. But they don’t compliment each other in a way that cancels their individuality out in a “working” whole. She doesn’t learn to loosen up and there’s no lessons about responsibility to change her tune, either. They each bring something different to the table and that’s cool. I just enjoyed seeing them together, where they got to go with each other’s help.

joséi by bryonI enjoyed seeing it altogether. What. A. Swank. Art style. This book showcases a lot of great techniques, all mixed together. The amount of detail- how simple and cute it gets- shifts from page to page, panel to panel. Little black dot eyes sparkle when they see what they want. Based in wordy zine aesthetics that make the storytelling more casual and familiar. But the art execution, particularly the colors, are breathtaking. Night bike read dips more into offset printing than Xerox vibes. The spreads are even like little shōjo moments. Romantic splash pages bathed  in shimmer. Speaking to josei (directly), the attention to fashion details, and the penchant for squeezing high comedy out of depictions of the mundane, reminds me of Akiko Higashimura.

scout is not a band kid by jade armstrongScout Is Not A Band Kid
Written and illustrated by Jade Armstrong
Color flatting by Natalie Mark and Kristen Cooper
Published by RH Graphic

It’s kind of Jade Amstrong’s fault you’re reading all this. Before reading Scout, I read their ShortBox Comics Fair digital release, Food School. Which was described as josei. I’d just read another anthology that I would have thought was small press comix that turned out to be josei as well (the first issue of Datura Magazine). The small press being tied to the YA scene, but for some reason fighting the classification as much as embracing it, was something I saw in the genesis of the shōjo/josei dynamic. And here we are. Don’t hold that against Scout is Not a Band Kid, which is marvelous. Definitely a josei manga. But also an indie comic. But also YA, as it’s published by RH Graphic.

This one will get you on the premise alone: Scout absolutely must meet her favorite author, at an out-of-town special event that (coincidentally) only members of the school band will be able to attend. Her dream goal is obtainable but for one small problem. Armstrong, however, is definitely a band kid. Scout serves not only as an engrossingly funny story about a maybe-faking-it trombone player, but also as a lesson for the reader on how to be a trombone player. Total immersion into their world, the theory and practice of Being A Band Kid reminds me of the bees’ knees love letter to animation manga, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! One kid goes honk honk bwaap into a brass instrument and the other is grinning ear to ear saying “Yes! Yes!” like the sickos window fella. You get all the hijinx of the story and all the trivia of the hobby, sewn together into something real and relatable and hilarious.

High comedy reaction artwork. Drawn in a versatile, fluctuating amount of detail, the humor gets thrown into overdrive at the drop of a panel. The more intense the embarrassment, the simpler and cuter the character gets. All the detail of their being recedes into holding it together, til they are little more than a violently shaking smiley face. The story plays out at an excited but normal pace, just the reactions are Looney Tunes slam cuts. The whole book is full of sweat drops and little noticing lines of shock or interest appearing in the air above a band kid’s head. Gesticulations and wiggle lines. Scout and company are lively! How far do you think she could launch her slide into the auditorium? Far.

joséi by armstrongUnderlying all the goofy is a serious story. Scout is dealing with not knowing who she is (if only that stopped with being a kid). Not in the typical before-and-after transformative journey one might expect from a book for all ages. Scout is and will always be Scout. She finds that the big climactic choice isn’t what makes her change. When her moment comes, the path she took and the work she did to get there, what we have been witnessing the whole time, has left her already changed. We’re all always transforming into a new self. Before being a band kid, after the book is closed, Scout is always growing and blooming and being Scout. This story was one of many changes. One worth telling.

So.

If all the rules are made to be broken, why reference them at all? The binary division of gender that separates seinen from josei exists largely in theory, in archaic extremes, in irrelevant terms. Yet at the same time, the publishing structure exists. To ignore the history of josei that lead to comics like these because of the structural issues the genre comes from doesn’t really get anyone anywhere. I mean, the whole discussion is centered around the idea of what little boys want to read, how things contrast with those expectations. Maybe a path to the destruction of that aspect of the industry can be found in extending its presence as a cultural entity, recognizing josei’s global influence. Writing about manga that is, in many ways, severed from Japan is delicate territory. The corners of the comics industry that are prone to exploitation have long mined Asia for art, ideas, and labor without accreditation or compensation. But, if there even is such a thing as joséi, it isn’t that.

Rather than a polarity with opposite ends divided, as an example of the contemporary cultural convergence of sophisticated storytelling and comics made accessible to readers of all walks of life, joséi defies contradiction for duality. it’s a reflection of being alive. That’s what these books are about! Some shit you steal and you keep because it’s what’s right. The work you put into breaking the rules is still work you did. Life is full of contradictions. Whether or not they damage or sustain depends on the context that brought them into being.

joséi is chillI really loved both of these books. Both cut straight to the heart, without compromise. But they are both filled with humor. Black humor of the moment but also rip snortin’ goofiness that dire circumstances require to be overcome. Be they indie or young reader or manga, josei, joséi, or just call them comics, these two books occupy a contested and contradictory space. But who doesn’t? To survive in this world, you need both the adult’s mind and the child’s wonder. The bridge between the two is where I want art to plant my feet, and I aim to walk towards the future. This is what I’m reading.

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