Friday, May 22, 2009

Goodbye Shojo Beat, Hello Ikki

The demise of Viz’s Shojo Beat magazine fills me with great sadness. I’ve been a loyal Shojo Beat reader since the very start. I have every issue, including the initial preview issue. I never subscribed, though, not because I couldn’t afford it, but because I heard so many horror stories from SB subscribers having problems with their subscriptions. For me, it was just easier to pick up the new issue at the newsstand.

Even from the start, the magazine surprised me. I expected to fall for Nana with its rock n roll aesthetic. After all it was intended for “older” girls. But instead I fell hard for Crimson Hero and its scrappy heroine Nobara. I loved reading about the volleyball tournaments and watching the matches unfold. There was something refreshing about how Mitsuba Takanashi showed raw female athleticism. Ironically the romantic subplot bored me to tears.

Then the changes started coming. Series were rotated in and out with alarming alacrity. Shojo Beat became more of a preview ground for upcoming trade releases than continuing serials, so it was hard to get too attached to a series you liked. The theory was you’d buy the trades, which was good for sales of the trade line, but not so helpful for a magazine struggling to find and keep an audience. I always wondered what would happen if Viz decided to take Crimson Hero out of the lineup. I never had to make that decision. Crimson Hero was the only one of the initial series to stay in the magazine throughout SB’s run.

There were external changes too. The magazine switched to colored pages similar to ones seen in the Japanese manga phonebooks. With densely inked artwork, that sometimes provided a challenge to reading the magazine, but maybe that was older eyes. The content became more and more girl-friendly, focusing heavier on fashion and makeup and crafts. They even acquired a cover model, affectionately known as the Beat Girl, drawn by different artists.

Not all fans were too happy with these changes. From my small sampling of the lj community for the magazine, some fans disliked the shift away from what mattered – the manga. That was why they read the magazine. Part of me wonders if Viz, in trying to find new ways to appeal to this new readership, got a little lost along the way.

Not that Viz wasted any time mourning Shojo Beat. They’ve already opened their newest venture online: Ikki magazine online. In Japan, Ikki is a seinen magazine, geared towards young men aged in late teens to college and beyond. The American version will feature similar content as its Japanese counterpart, if cherry-picked by the Viz editors to find the best series for American audiences.

I’m of two minds about the whole thing. For some reason, I do read quite a lot of seinen. David Welsh summed up some of my theories of why in his plea to Kodansha in his “Unflipped” column. The seinen I’ve read seems to cut across the gender/age barriers and focus on providing an interesting and sometimes provocative story. Even my favorite Victorian romance “Emma” is actually seinen. So was the adaptation of “Voices of a Distant Star”.

That said it still leaves shojo fans feeling extremely left out of the fun. The Shojo Beat line will continue to appear as trades only. Why not shift some of the shojo content online if Viz is so willing to dip into that pond? Shojo Beat was already an established brand and they had the website already set up. If nothing else, they could have made their website more community-oriented to draw in those young girls already chatting online.

Shojo isn’t as marketable as Shonen. That’s what they keep telling us. Shonen has all the big guns -- the anime, the video games, the trading cards, the action figures, etc. Let’s face it, little boys love their toys. Circulation figures certainly back some of that. Shonen Jump has a circulation of 200,000 and Shojo Beat around 38,000. From a financial perspective, it’s unfortunately easy to see why SB had to go.

But I’ve got to play devil’s advocate and wonder how hard they tried. Shojo spawns its fare of anime series and soundtracks and drama cds. It also has its share of miscellaneous merchandise – the pencil boards and keychains and cellphone charms. The closest Viz has to shojo juggernaut is the after-mentioned Nana, but it is all and all, a rock and roll romance. Tokyopop has Fruits Basket which is getting a couple of fun Macy’s events. Which begs an interesting question: is shojo merchandising limited because it’s intended for girls or because of the stories themselves?

I know I'm not a typical fan. Sometimes I felt like an old lady reading over the cool kids' shoulders, just to see what all the fuss is about. Sometimes I felt like a younger me reading YM/Sassy looking at the fashion and makeup ideas. And sometimes I enjoyed having some mindless entertainment I could read every month.

I just feel for those teen girls who did follow the magazine and wish I didn’t feel like Viz had given up on them.

Prove me wrong, Viz.

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

Free Comic Book Day

For sports fans, the first weekend in May usually means the Kentucky Derby.

Ask a comics fan and it’s Free Comic Book Day. This event was set up as a way to lure potential new customers or entice old ones back into the comic shops. Comic book publishers create special editions or samplers of their books for the participating stores to carry that day. The Gold level sponsors are usually the heavy hitters, while the Silver level includes the lesser known stuff.

The books are all intended to be "family-friendly". There's usually a good lineup of kids title that appeal to all ages. Two years ago I saw the cutest thing at my local comic store. A little girl came in with her parents to ask for a free comic book. No one said "Oh, you're a girl, you shouldn't be reading those." They just pointed to the all ages selection and let her look. They pored over the table for something she'd like, along with one for someone else, possibly a brother or sister. At one point, she picked a black and white title and her father commented how there weren't any colors in that one. She said matter of factly she could always color it herself. Although the comics collectors might wince at that prospect, I smiled at a budding colorist in the works... we can always dream, right?

FCBD provides a great opportunity for those independent publishers to be exposed to new people that might not find their series otherwise. I’ll use two big examples: Owly and Love and Capes. Owly is an adorable kids comics about an owl and his friends. Love and Capes is a superhero romantic comedy. I would never have heard of either of these books without Free Comic Book Day.

As a comics fan, I’ll admit it – it’s really easy to get complacent. We all have our favorite characters. We all like to stick to what we know, rather than try out new things. So it’s kinda fun to have a chance to stray from the beaten path. Instead of picking up that usual title, you can try something else. If you don’t like it, there’s no harm. If you love it, hopefully there’s more to find.

So how did I spend my first weekend in May?

Well, I went over to the Big Planet in Vienna for my FCBD festivities. They had most of the better known titles available. In retrospect, I should have practiced what I preached and tried something new. But I stayed with the tried and true by getting the Blackest Night #0 and the DC Kids Mega Sampler. I also downloaded three of TwoMorrows Publishing magazines (Alter Ego, Rough Stuff and Write Now) in pdf format. (A friend scored me a copy of the Love and Capes FCBD issue, which absolutely made my day.)

I also bought a few other things. My haul included: Agents of Atlas #2, Mysterius the Unfathomable #3 & 4, Queen & Country definitive edition v4, an Appleseed trade and two volumes of the Pluto manga. This was more than I expected to buy truthfully, but I’m very happy with my purchases all the same.

Later I saw the X-men Origins: Wolverine with a couple of friends. So it was definitely a day to celebrate comic books.

And not a mint julep in sight.

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