Link's Inventory

Many of the games in the Legend of Zelda series of video games re-enact versions of the same story, which is centered around the heroic Link saving the princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil Ganondorf. Due to the rarely challenged repetition of these plot elements, the Zelda series has become an archetypal example of what game critic Anita Sarkeesian has called “damseling,” or using the disempowerment of female characters as a motivation for the male player-protagonist. What do female players make of this story? Is it necessary to take the plot elements at face value, or are other interpretations possible? How do the games look from Zelda’s eyes?

To answer these questions, I’d like to investigate fan work based on the Zelda games from Canada, Australia, Japan, and the United States. I’m going to demonstrate how fannish creators deconstruct the damseling narrative common to the series and recombine its elements in ways that reflect larger conversations surrounding gender, culture, and media. I also argue that the activities of these artists and writers reflect a tendency in many fan cultures to view media properties not as passively consumable content but rather as templates from which more personalized and individually meaningful stories may be created.

First I’m going to introduce the series and explain why it’s important before zooming out and justifying critical interest in video games as a relatively recent storytelling medium. I will then examine a small sample of fanworks from several global territories. I’ll conclude with a broader discussion of international, internet-based fan cultures and their potential to shape and transform high-budget mainstream media at the local and at the global levels.

It's Dangeous To Go Alone

The Legend of Zelda series began in 1985, two years after Nintendo had released its home video game console, which it called the Famicom, a portmanteau of “Family Computer” (Famirī Konpyūta). In the United States, this piece of hardware is known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES for short. Miyamoto Shigeru, the creator of Nintendo’s iconic Mario character, the current senior executive director of Nintendo Corporation, and the general producer of the Zelda series, was then working on a new Super Mario Bros. game, but a disc system periphery for the Famicom was slated to be released soon. Miyamoto was thus asked to help develop a new title that would take advantage of the new technology, which allowed, among other things, the ability to “save” a game so that the player could return to a previous moment in her playthrough, preserving her progress even after the machine had been turned off. I’m going to summarize a long and interesting story by saying that the title that ultimately came out in 1986 is the original The Legend of Zelda (Zeruda no densetsu), which Miyamoto directed. The image above this paragraph is an iconic screen from early in the game in which your avatar character, Link, is given his first sword.

A sequel, titled The Adventure of Link (Rinku no bōken), was released the following year; and, in 1991, the third title in the series, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Zeruda no densetsu: Kamigami no Toraifōsu), became one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed games in the series. Lest you think that the game’s age has consigned it to obscurity, I want to assure you that it’s still being played and appreciated by the gaming community. To offer just one example of just how popular this game continues to be, the Game Grumps, a Let’s Play webseries hosted by Arin “Egoraptor” Hanson and Daniel “Danny Sexbang” Avidan, recently concluded a playthrough of A Link to the Past, and each of their videos received more than 200,000 views within the first 24 hours of being posted.

Aonuma Eiji

Despite the broad appeal and international success of these three games, the major turning point for the Zelda franchise came in 1998, when The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Zeruda no densetsu: Toki no okarina) was released for the N64, a home console whose upgraded 64-bit processor allowed for 3D graphics. Although Miyamoto produced Ocarina of Time, the game was directed by Aonuma Eiji (the adorable nerd pictured above), who had overseen a 1996 Sgame titled Marvelous: Another Treasure Island (Māverasu: Mō hitotsu no Takarajima) that was strongly influenced by the Zelda series. Aonuma has continued to be involved with every main Zelda title, in part because Ocarina of Time immediately attained an appropriately legendary status. Not only did it break records for video game preorders and first week sales in Japan, the United States, and Europe, but it also received perfect scores from game critics in publications such as Electronic Gaming Monthly, Famitsū, and Edge, as well as gaming websites such as GameSpot and IGN.

The Zelda series has continued to move from strength to strength across subsequent Nintendo consoles; and, having sold almost 75 million units worldwide, it’s one of the top twenty bestselling video game franchises. The Legend of Zelda isn’t quite as big as some of Nintendo’s other franchises, namely Super Mario and Pokémon, but it’s still well respected and can claim widespread brand name recognition. See, for example, Nintendo’s recent partnership to promote a series of concerts featuring symphonic arrangements of the music of the Zelda series through a select number of McDonald’s in the United States.

McDonald's Symphony of the Goddesses

So the Legend of Zelda is a big deal in the world of video games, but why should we care about video games? To my fellow gamers, this is a silly question, but it’s been raised in a number of academic contexts, so I might as well address it briefly here. To begin with, games make a ton of money, and they’re only making more as the market expands. At the end of 2013, the information technology research and advisory company Gartner valued the worldwide video game industry at US $93 billion, with a projected increase of at least US $10 billion for every subsequent year based on past performance. In other words, more people have been buying more games, and more types of games, with each passing month. To give a comparison, according to the professional services network PricewaterhouseCoopers, the worldwide cinema industry generated a revenue of US $88.3 billion in 2013. Therefore, even if we consider nothing more than the revenue they pull in from eager consumers, video games are just as much of a cultural force as movies.

As with any such cultural juggernaut, video games are orbited by countless satellite media discourses and debates on the purpose, future, and validity of the medium. Many of the more recent and troubling of these discussions within the context of the English-language gaming community have been amalgamated under the moniker “Gamergate,” which has become shorthand for heated internet flamewars over the role of gender in video games and gaming cultures. It’s difficult to pinpoint the origins and spread of Gamergate, but an initial outpouring of vitriol was directed at Anita Sarkeesian, the founder of the media criticism website Feminist Frequency.

In May 2012, Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund a video webseries titled “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.” Sarkeesian was able to raise US $158,922 from 6,968 donors, but accompanying this incredible interest and support were death and rape threats from people on the internet who were angry that she was dragging her dirty feminism into the hallowed temple of their favorite video games. Such reactions, ridiculous though they seem to an outside observer, did not peter away but escalated; and, last October, Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a talk at the University of Utah after the school received an email from someone claiming that they would commit “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if she were allowed to present her lecture. This unfortunate series of events is beyond the scope of this essay, but I think it’s fair to say that the Gamergate nonsense clearly demonstrates how people take the stories told by video games seriously – and personally. Simply put, games and their stories have enormous cultural currency.

Tropes vs Women

The Legend of Zelda is one of the video game franchises that Sarkeesian critiques in Tropes vs. Women, as the earlier games are classic examples of an easily identifiable trope that she refers to as “damseling.” Damseling, in its purest form, is the process by which a female character is rendered inert and thereby positioned as an object that will motivate the male player-character to complete his quest. The point of the game is therefore to rescue the damsel in distress, who is subordinate to the hero and is not allowed to rescue herself.

In the Zelda series, Princess Zelda is frequently such a damsel. Although there are many variations, the Zelda games all share a basic story and a common mythology. The setting of these games is the land of Hyrule, which was created by three goddesses. These goddesses departed from the land, but they left behind a representation of their demiurgical power called the Triforce. As a magical relic, the Triforce is so powerful that it can grant the wish of any person who touches it, and so it has been sealed away by various means. When threatened, the Triforce can split itself into three parts: courage, wisdom, and power. Each part is held by a chosen bearer. Link, the player-protagonist hero of the games, is the bearer of the Triforce of Courage. Zelda, the princess (or queen) of Hyrule, is the bearer of the Triforce of Wisdom. The primary bearer of the Triforce of Power is a man named Ganondorf, who is described as a thief from the desert. Although Ganondorf is not in all of the games, Zelda is in most of them, and she is variously kidnapped, imprisoned, placed into an enchanted sleep, crystalized, zombified, and turned into stone. The player’s job, as Link, is to acquire a weapon powerful enough to kill Ganondorf (or whoever happens threatening the land) and save Zelda, thus returning peace to Hyrule. Again, there are variations, but this is the eponymous “legend of Zelda.”

If you go to any anime or comics convention in the world, you’re certain to see all sorts of cosplay and art prints based on the Zelda games. Recently, self-published fan comics have started to pop up as well. Although everyone loves Link, the hero of the story, many of these comics give agency and interiority to the female characters of the series.

Zelda The Dark Mirror II Page 23

In Canadian artist Louisa Roy‘s ongoing series Zelda: The Dark Mirror, a minor female character from Ocarina of Time named Malon is instrumental in saving Hyrule. In the original game, the young farmhand serves no other purpose than to provide Link with a horse. In The Dark Mirror, which is set several years after the events in Ocarina of Time, Malon has grown into a warrior in her own right; and, when Link and Zelda vanish from Hyrule, she spurs the kingdom’s soldiers into action. Other female characters from Ocarina of Time, such as Impa, Ruto, and Nabooru, are important equally important in the fan comic, which passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. The Dark Mirror is thus a story less focused on a single male hero saving the world than it is on the concerted efforts of multiple female characters, who are only accorded a few lines in the original game.

Similarly, in Australian manga artist Queenie Chan‘s novel-length “prose manga” The Edge and the Light, Link is in grave danger, and it is Princess Zelda who must rescue him, along with the help of the three oracles from the Gameboy Zelda titles Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons (2001, Zeruda no densetsu: Fushigi no kinomi ~ Daichi no shō and Jikū no shō). In these two games, the young female oracles are kidnapped and must be rescued by Link, so it’s quite satisfying to see them team up with Princess Zelda to solve mysteries and fight evil. At the end of Chan’s manga, Zelda is forced to make a difficult choice concerning the ultimate fate of Link, who is chained to his role as the hero regardless of his own desires. This twist emphasizes the difficulties faced by the Zelda characters in the original games, who must often manipulate events in order to force Link along on his quest. Like The Dark Mirror, The Edge and the Light foregrounds the female characters of the Zelda series, allowing them to drive the plot through their action instead of their misfortune. It’s worth noting that these fan works don’t significantly alter the tone of the Zelda series or completely rewrite the canonical characters. Rather, they divide the screen time a bit more equally as they offer perspectives other than that of the male hero.

The Edge and the Light Page 177

The Zelda series is just as popular with gamers in Japan as it is overseas, and in Japan there are entire fan conventions (dōjin ibento), devoted to Zelda-themed self-published fan comics, or dōjinshi. I’m going to simplify things greatly by putting forward the generalization that dōjinshi tend to fall into two categories. The first is dansei-muke, or “directed toward men.” Dansei-muke dōjinshi tend to feature graphic heterosexual pornography; and, from what I can tell, there are very few of them based on the Legend of Zelda series (although they certainly do exist). The second category is josei-muke, or “directed toward women.” A common assumption regarding josei-muke dōjinshi is that they’re all about male/male homoerotic encounters, but the level of homoerotic content depends on the fandom, and in any case this stereotype doesn’t reflect the reality of the broad range of fan comics that female artists create for a (presumably) female audience.

When it comes to josei-muke dōjinshi based on the Zelda games, a significant number are four-panel (yon-koma) gag manga meant to poke gentle fun at the characters, while others focus on the implied romantic relationship between Link and Zelda. As in the genre of shōjo manga, which serves as an inspiration for many josei-muke dōjinshi, the relationship unfolds through the eyes of the female character – in this case, Zelda.

Zelda Smacking Ghirahim

In Sakura-kan’s 2012 dōjinshi Wake Up! (excerpted above), which is based on the Wii game The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011, Zeruda no densetsu: Sukaiwōdo sōdo), the reader is presented with several touching moments between Zelda and Link. When Ghirahim, a servant of the evil demon lord Demise and the primary antagonist of the game, shows up to kidnap Zelda, she swiftly attacks him in order to punish him for interrupting her time with Link. This is an interesting reversal that exposes both how creepy and weird the antagonist is for wanting to kidnap Zelda and how strong Zelda actually is in the original game, in which it is suggested that she undergoes a number of the trials that Link later undertakes. Although the artist plays the scenario for its humor, she seems to be suggesting that, in a world in which Zelda weren’t required to act as a motivational MacGuffin, she would have no trouble dispatching the game’s villain herself.

Likewise, a one-page short manga Shiroyui Hiromi‘s 2004 dōjinshi Kaze dorobō (which might be translated as “Thief of the Winds”) plays on a scene from the The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002, Zeruda no densetsu: Kaze no takuto) in which Link finds Ganondorf hovering over Zelda, who is lying in an enchanted sleep. Wind Waker‘s incarnation of Zelda has spent her life as a strong and hyper-competent pirate queen named Tetra, and so it is strange that she would be so incapacitated. Kaze dorobō offers symbolic resistance to this strangeness by mocking it, showing the brash and outspoken Tetra arguing with Ganondorf and refusing to sleep on his bed. In the process, she calls him an ossan, a derogative term for a middle aged man. When the two see that Link has arrived, they grudgingly assume their positions as villain and kidnapped princess, as if they are only staging a show for Link’s benefit. By highlighting the illogical artificiality of Tetra’s damseling in her role as Princess Zelda, the artist offers her readers a veiled critique of a game that refuses to acknowledge the full complexity of its characters and themes, which it subsumes under highly gendered tropes.

Nemuri Hime

As many media producers are fans themselves, what happens in fandom spaces is of obvious interest to entertainment industry professionals, and a surge in feminist consciousness (regardless of whether it is explicitly identified as such) is now fully capable of influencing the development of media properties. One of the more interesting responses to fan discussions of the Zelda series in particular is the 2015 graphic novel Second Quest, which is titled after a feature in the original 1986 Legend of Zelda that allowed the player to start a remixed and more challenging game after she had mastered the first.

Second Quest, which was funded by a Kickstarter campaign and published by Fangamer, was written by game critic Tevis Thompson and drawn by David Hellman, whose most well-known project is the award-winning 2008 puzzle platformer Braid, which is famous particularly for how it upends many video game conventions. Specifically, as the player progresses through the story, she learns that the male-player protagonist is the monster whom the female quest-object is attempting to escape, a cogent deconstruction of the “damsel in distress” trope.

Second Quest is narrated from the perspective of its Zelda character, who is torn between her desire to be a useful member of her society and her strident rejection of the hero-and-princess narrative that this society has imposed on her. In one particularly moving scene, she tosses her own treasure chest full of hero’s tools off of a cliff and into a void, signifying that she doesn’t want to be a damsel or the sort of hero who runs through the world killing things for fun and profit.

Second Quest Page 073

The graphic novel’s website states that it was inspired by a painting of Hellman’s that depicted a Hyrule that was open to the player, allowing her to create her own narratives as she moves through the world. In an interview with the feminist geek media website The Mary Sue, Thompson added that he was motivated to explore the fate of the “missing woman” prevalent in so many games. He says, “It’s not so much a question of whether a princess – or anyone – needs to be saved or protected. It’s that no one ever asks the princess what she wants to begin with. It’s really a question of agency and subjectivity.” What we’re seeing here, then, is how feminist discourse within fandom has shaped the viewpoints and ideas of creators who have pushed their fannish interests into the realm of professional production.

And what about the games themselves? Has any of this fanwork acted as a catalyst for a transformation of the actual Legend of Zelda series?

Video games, as a medium, are well on their way to becoming the same sort of big-budget, focus-group-oriented affairs with which Hollywood has made us familiar; but, as is the case with both live-action cinema and animation, there are also many independent creators using open-source technology to create their own low-budget but high-creative artistic experiments, some of which later become commercial products. A number of career and aspiring game designers communicate through online gatherings called “game jams,” many of which are organized around a common theme. One of the most outspoken and prolific advocates of game jams, Anna Anthropy, wrote the following in her 2012 book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: “Every game that you and I make right now – every five-minute story, every weird experiment, every dinky little game about the experience of putting down your dog – makes the boundaries of our art form (and it is ours) larger. Every new game is a voice in the darkness.” Game jams are amazing and deserve their own essay, but suffice it to say that there have been many interesting voices finding each other in the darkness and then sending up sparks with their games, which, because of the magic of the internet, are more widely shared and distributed than any printed zine could have been.

One of my favorite new voices is Alice Maz, whose contribution to the 2014 session of the apocalypse-themed Ruin Jam was a play on Super Mario Bros. titled Average Maria Individual, which cuts to the core of the physical and emotional violence that many of us take for granted when we play video games (see Jess Joho’s wonderful essay in independent gaming web magazine Kill Screen Daily).

Average Maria Individual

Feminist critique through media development is far from uncommon in the international gaming community. For instance, this April saw an enthusiastic set of contributions to the Female Link Game Jam, which was organized in response to Aonuma Eiji’s comment that the protagonist of the Legend of Zelda game currently in development was definitely not female. When large game development studios continue to offer only tired tropes, then, creative game fans respond with feminism, offering interesting and viable alternatives to dominant video game narratives that marginalize women both real and fictional.

This is not saying, however, that Nintendo hasn’t been paying attention to its legions of fans. In the 2014 Zelda spin-off game Hyrule Warriors (Zeruda musō), the player can hack and slash her way across large battlefields teeming with enemies as Princess Zelda herself, as well as several other female (and nonbinary) characters. These characters proved so popular with players that developer Koei Tecmo recently announced that it would include Tetra (Zelda’s pirate queen incarnation from The Wind Waker) in the lineup of the game’s handheld release. Also, earlier this month, at the gaming trade convention E3, Nintendo released a promotional video of an upcoming game called The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes (Zeruda no Densetsu: Toraifōsu san-jūshi), in which Link can gain various abilities by wearing different outfits, including Zelda’s dress.

Tri Force Heroes Zelda Dress

I could happily go on and on, giving endless examples of how media production companies in North America, Japan, and Europe have pushed back against and responded to fan demands for more female representation in video games, but I’d like to conclude here by emphasizing that the active and creative fans who thrive in social mediascapes do have voices that are heard not just by their peers but also by the senior producers whose positions they will one day inherit. Video game fan communities hold respect for the texts that they engage with and critique. After all, it requires a high level of passion and dedication to attain the skills not only to fully appreciate the games but to express one’s reaction through art and design. Despite their strong admiration for the source texts, however, fans have demonstrated that they understand these digital texts as open-access narrative platforms to be challenged and reconfigured to better reflect social and political concerns and their own personal identities.

Royal Commander Zelda by Alex Chiu

Royal Commander Zelda by Alex Chiu

Natasha Allegri Madoka PuppyCat

On January 18 of 2015, Ed Chavez, the Marketing Director at manga publisher Vertical, replied to a Twitter user’s question on regarding whether manga is becoming a niche entertainment industry outside of Japan. Chavez’s response was a definite “maybe.” After stating that shōnen manga is selling just as well – if not better – than it always has, Chavez added the caveat that, “Unlike the 00’s, where a shojo boom introduced a whole new demographic to manga, there hasn’t been a culture shifting movement recently.” Johanna Draper Carlson, one of the most well-respected and prolific manga critics writing in English, responded to Chavez’s assessment on her blog Comics Worth Reading. She agreed with him, adding, “I find myself working harder to find series I want to follow. Many new releases seem to fall into pre-existing categories that have already demonstrated success: vampire romance, harem fantasy, adventure quests, and so on. It’s harder to find the kind of female-oriented story that [has always appealed] to me.” Meanwhile, the manga that stood at the top of the New York Times’s “Best Sellers” list for manga that week was the seventh volume of a series called Finder, a boys’ love story targeted at an over-18 female audience.

What we’re seeing here, from Chavez’s reference to a former boom in shōjo manga sales to evidence that even a title from a niche category for women can sell just as well as the latest volume of the shōnen juggernaut One Piece, is that girls and women in North America do care about manga, and that they are active participants in manga fandom cultures. What I’d like to do today is to provide a bit of background on how female readers were courted by manga publishers – specifically Tokyopop – and then to demonstrate how manga has influenced the women who grew up with it to reshape North American comics and animation with a shōjo flair.

I’d like to argue that, despite periods of relatively low sales in the United States, shōjo manga (and the animated adaptations of these manga) have had a strong cultural impact on recent generations of fans. During the past fifteen years, fan discussions and fannish artistic production have nourished diverse interests in Japanese cultural products, which are in turn beginning to exert a stronger influence on mainstream geek media. Using M. Alice LeGrow‘s graphic novel series Bizenghast and Natasha Allegri‘s animated webseries Bee and PuppyCat as case studies, I want to demonstrate how it is not only the visual styles and narrative tropes of shōjo manga that have increasingly begun to influence North American media, but the creative consumption patterns of shōjo fandom communities as well.

Tokyopop Smile Magazine July 2001

Before I talk about American interpretations of shōjo cultures, however, I’d like to skim through a bit of publishing history. In the mid-1990s, there was a Barnes-and-Noble-style big suburban box store called Media Play, which had an entire section devoted to manga and Japanese culture magazines. One of the most prominent of these magazines was fledgling publisher Tokyopop’s manga anthology MixxZine, which began serialization in 1997 and ran the manga version of Sailor Moon as well as the similarly themed fantasy shōjo series Magic Knight Rayearth and Card Captor Sakura. In 1999, the magazine changed its name to “Tokyopop” and began to target an older male audience by dropping its shōjo manga and focusing on shōnen and seinen titles. Tokyopop the magazine folded in 2000 but was survived by a publication called Smile, which was a bulky, 160-page monthly magazine that serialized only shōjo manga. In 2001, Media Play’s parent company was bought out by Best Buy. When Media Play stores were closed, Tokyopop lost a major venue for its magazines, and Smile folded in 2002.

Now that a large fanbase had been created, however, Tokyopop was able to launch a program it called “Global Manga,” which was kicked off by the 2002 “Rising Stars of Manga” talent competition. The winning entries were published in a volume of the same size and length of the publisher’s Japanese manga titles. There were eventually eight volumes of The Rising Stars of Manga, with the last appearing in the summer of 2008. During this time, certain winners were encouraged to submit proposals to Tokyopop, which published their work as OEL, or “original English language,” manga. By my count, about half of Tokyopop’s OEL manga were shōjo series. Examples include Peach Fuzz, Shutter Box, Fool’s Gold, and Sorcerers & Secretaries. Tokyopop promoted these titles with free “sampler” publications distributed by mail and at anime conventions, which were exploding in number and attendance in the United States and Canada during the 2000s. Although users of anime-related message boards and fannish social media sites debated the company’s use of the term “manga” to describe these graphic novels, Tokyopop was able to attract well-known American entertainment franchises to the medium, such as Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, World of Warcraft, and for the girls, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, featuring David Bowie’s Goblin King in all his spandex-clad glory.

Return to Labyrinth OEL Manga

One of the Tokyopop’s most popular OEL manga titles was M. Alice LeGrow’s eight-volume series Bizenghast, which, like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, is a shōjo story with shōnen elements. LeGrow’s story takes the adorable mascot creatures, monsters-of-the-week, cute costumes, adoring and beautiful young men, and powerful female villains of Japanese manga for girls and transplants them to the small Massachusetts community of Bizenghast, which becomes an Edgar Allan Poe-ified Gothic wonderland after dark. The art style combines the huge eyes and wide panels of fan-favorite shōjo manga like Fruits Basket and Fushigi Yûgi with steampunk Art Deco motifs and Edward Gorey-style line etchings. The artistic and narrative conventions of manga and the stylizations of Western fantasy are so delicately blended and intermixed that it’s impossible to tell whether Bizenghast is a manga with American influences or a graphic novel with Japanese influences.

Bizenghast Volume 1 Page 075

What I want to highlight is the way that the Tokyopop publications of each volume in the Bizenghast series included a section at the end for fan art and cosplay photos, thus encouraging and legitimizing reader participation in the way that shōjo magazines have done since the early twentieth century in Japan.

Bizenghast Fan Art Spread

Instead of eschewing or actively opposing fandom involvement, and specifically female fandom involvement, Tokyopop pursued it, allowing LeGrow to maintain her presence on the fannish artistic networking site deviantART, where she was able to interact with her fans. Due to the non-localized nature of the internet, LeGrow was able to build a fanbase that stretched around the globe, with Bizenghast being published in translation in Germany, Finland, Russia, and Hungary, as well as in several countries of the British Commonwealth, including Australia and New Zealand. In addition to assigning Bizenghast its own dedicated website, Tokyopop released a light novel adaptation, an art book, and even a coloring book based on the world of the manga. Although Tokyopop shut down its publishing operations in May 2011, it continued to offer certain titles through a print-on-demand service managed by the online anime retailer The Right Stuf. The initial line-up of these titles included the massively popular manga Hetalia Axis Powers and the eighth and concluding volume of Bizenghast. What I’d like to emphasize here is that, in its publication and promotion of Bizenghast as an OEL shōjo manga product, Tokyopop actively promoted the sort of interactive fan consumption utilized by Japanese shōjo manga publishers – and this encouragement paid off, quite literally.

Multiple market watchers have located the peak of United States manga sales in the mid-to-late 2000s. Even though Tokyopop ceased its manga magazines earlier in the decade, Viz Media stepped in with an English-language version of Shonen Jump, which was paired with a monthly sister magazine, Shojo Beat. Shojo Beat, which ran from June 2005 until July 2009, also styled itself as a lifestyle magazine, running articles about clothing, makeup, and real-life romantic concerns. Although Shojo Beat did not include OEL manga, manga publisher Yen Press’s publication Yen Plus did. From its launch in July 2008, the editors of Yen Plus solicited reader contributions, which resulted in both one-shot and continuing OEL manga appearing within the pages of the magazine.

In addition, Yen Press’s parent company Hachette began releasing manga adaptations of some of its biggest young adult properties, including Gossip Girl, Gail Carriger’s The Parasol Protectorate series, and, of course, Twilight. For our purposes, it’s interesting to note that these manga adaptations all had a strong shōjo feel, as did other franchise manga revisionings created by longstanding American comics publishers such as Marvel and Vertigo. What these publishers seemed to be jumping on was the idea that manga could reach an audience of young women (and young-at-heart women) who may have felt excluded from traditionally male-centered genres like action comics and science fiction. These female readers increasingly came equipped with access to online and in-person fandom networks, which could help ensure the longevity and profitability of any given franchise, as was famously the case with Star Trek and Harry Potter.

Twilight Manga

What we’re seeing, then, is the creation and growth of an audience for shōjo manga that began in the 1990s and has extended throughout the past two decades. So – has this changed anything? I’d like to argue that it has, and that we’re starting to see a definite shōjo influence on mainstream entertainment media in North America.

One of the most interesting incarnations of this trend is Cartoon Network’s animated television series Adventure Time, whose producers have actively scouted young talent from places like comic conventions and fannish art sharing websites such as Tumblr. A number of these artists are women from the generation that grew up reading and watching shōjo series such as Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena, and easily identifiable references to these titles occasionally pop up in the show. Rebecca Sugar, a storyboard artist for Adventure Time, ended up being given a green light by Cartoon Network to create a magical boy show, Steven Universe, that features all manner of references to anime, manga, and video game culture. Natasha Allegri, another storyboard writer and character designer for Adventure Time, launched a Kickstarter project backed by Adventure Time‘s Studio Frederator for a magical girl animated series called Bee and PuppyCat, which received an overwhelming amount of support from both Adventure Time fans and the enormous shōjo manga fanbase on Tumblr.

Lady and Peebles

What’s really cool about these three properties is that they all have separate monthly comic book incarnations published by Boom! Studios. There’s a lot to be said about these comic books, but what I want to emphasize here is that each monthly issue features shorts and variant covers by young and upcoming artists. The comic book version of Bee and PuppyCat is especially notable in that most of its contributing artists are female, and many of them include obvious stylistic and topical references to elements of Japanese popular culture such as Studio Ghibli character stylizations, magical girl henshin transformation sequences, and role-playing video games. Although Natasha Allegri has stated in multiple interviews (here’s one) that she’s a fan of manga such as Sailor Moon and Takahashi Rumiko’s supernatural romance InuYasha, and even though the influence of these titles is quite clear in her work, Bee and PuppyCat has not been promoted as a type of OEL anime but rather as just another cool new addition to the Studio Frederator lineup. In other words, the strong shōjo elements of the show and its comic book are presented as completely natural and naturalized to a North American audience.

I’m going to wrap things up by summarizing my main points. First, I think we can say that the iconography of shōjo manga and anime are entering American popular culture full force. Second, I believe that seeing better representation of diverse female characters in shōjo manga has encouraged more young women outside of Japan to seek careers in comics and animation. Third, although it’s difficult to make strong statements in the current market, I think it’s safe to say that the “reader participation” model employed by Japanese shōjo publishers has been fairly financially successful in the United States. Fourth and finally, I’m going to conclude that we will therefore see an even stronger embrace of shōjo-related narrative influences, art styles, and fandom cultures as the members of the Adventure Time and Bee and PuppyCat generation, who are currently in college, start coming out with their own work. It’s an exciting time to be a fan of shōjo manga, and I’m happy that young women and men are still as excited about shōjo-flavored comics and animation as I was when I first discovered Sailor Moon almost twenty years ago.

Bee and PuppyCat Comic Issue 06 Meredith McClaren

The above image is a scan of a page from Meredith McClaren‘s short comic in the sixth issue of the Bee and PuppyCat comic book series.

The Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past

Title: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Japanese Title: ゼルダの伝説 (Zeruda no densetsu)
Artist: Ishinomori Shōtaro (石ノ森 章太郎)
Translator: Dan Owsen
Publication Year: 2015 (America, new edition); 1993 (America and Japan, original edition)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 196

Full disclosure: I read this manga countless times as a kid, and the game it’s based on is one of the greatest loves of my life. This review is biased, because of course it is.

My own adoration aside, Viz Media’s new publication of manga giant Ishinomori Shintarō‘s adaptation of the 1991 Super Nintendo game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past has been selling extremely well since it was released a month ago.

A Link to the Past on the NYT Bestseller List

This success makes perfect sense. Not only is The Legend of Zelda a major video game franchise with its own culture cachet, but Viz has also managed to put out a handsome publication, and manga’s story is easy to follow and immediately accessible to readers not familiar with the games.

The teenage orphan Link lives peacefully in a quiet village in “the pristine land of Hyrule” when, one stormy night, his uncle is summoned to the castle. Link is awoken by a voice claiming to be the princess Zelda, who telepathically tells him that she is being held prisoner in her own dungeons. Link, fearing shenanigans, rushes to the castle in the rain only to see his uncle put to death by a powerful wizard named Agahnim (whose dark skin and Orientalist stylings are how you know he’s a bad guy, yikes). Link manages to infiltrate the castle and rescue Zelda, only to have her immediately kidnapped once more by the wizard, who intends to use her to break the seal on an even greater evil. Before she’s spirited off to wherever princesses are stashed away in such situations, Zelda manages to tell Link that it’s his destiny to save Hyrule and that he must locate the legendary Master Sword, which is the only blade capable of defeating the powerful force controlling Agahnim. Off he goes, and adventure ensues.

Video game adaptations into other media tend to be hit or miss, but Ishinomori, genius that he is, pulls off his manga rendering of A Link to the Past flawlessly. Although Link is never really alone in the game (as he is always accompanied by you, the player), his quest is a lonely one, as he bears the sole responsibility for delivering the land from a terrible fate. Ishinomori especially excels at portraying Link’s smallness in a vast world filled with hostile creatures. The action sequences – and there are a lot of them – are nicely choreographed, with a smooth flow facilitated by expert paneling. This flow is so dependable that, when it’s interrupted, the reader is instantly made aware that Link has encountered a true threat, as he does in his final battle with Ganon, the story’s ultimate villain.

A Link to the Past Link vs Ganon

The manga is also populated by friendly characters who aid Link along his journey. The most striking of these fellow wayfarers is a bird-like “mystery knight” named Roam (a classic Ishinomori archetype in both personality and visual characterization). The inhabitants of Ganon’s dark world, a mirror reflection of Hyrule that changes the shape of people based on the truest form of their hearts, are also given small roles that help raise the stakes of Link’s battle. For example, immediately after Link is exiled to the dark world by Agahnim, he encounters a talking tree who explains to him that there are many other people who, for whatever reason, followed Ganon into the dark world only to become trapped there, doomed to wander as beasts or serve an evil master until a hero can purify the land. Such accounts add layers of depth to the story that aren’t to be found in the original game, in which the player progresses from objective to objective simply to experience the next challenge.

Despite the assistance of friends he encounters, Link is still one boy caught up in a legend much larger than his own life, a theme Ishinomori emphasizes with splash panels depicting Link as a faceless dot at one corner of a daunting landscape. In the game on which the manga is based, the enemy the player must engage most frequently is the environment itself, and the artist’s translation of this element into menacing backgrounds and elaborate framing devices is beautiful to behold. Ishinomori’s interpretation of Ganon’s castle, the revelation of which is a climactic moment, is especially awe-inspiring.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are also some fun Easter eggs for Zelda fans scattered throughout the manga. I don’t want to spoil all of them; but, to give an example, Link flies to the Desert Ruins in a winged hang glider. As the villager who provides him with this contraption recounts, “They say these miracle wings belonged to a powerful bird that carried the knights of Hyrule into battle!” In retrospect, this statement seems to refer to the events alluded to in Skyward Sword. And yet, considering that this was written more than ten years ago, one can’t help but wonder how much of the lore explored in more recent games was already in place as the earliest titles were being developed. Or, conversely, was this manga perhaps a guiding influence for subsequent world building?

This manga was originally serialized in the American gaming magazine Nintendo Power from January to December 1992. The following year, it was published as a full-color collected volume by Nintendo of America and in a black-and-white tankōbon by Shōgakukan in Japan. As such, it’s an interesting slice of both manga and video game history. Manga was still relatively unknown in the United States in 1992, and Viz Media only started publishing its groundbreaking Animerica magazine the following year. Meanwhile, Gail Tilden (the marketing manager at Nintendo of America) and the editors of Nintendo Power, the first publication of its kind, were responding to the sudden appearance of a rabid gaming public in the wake of U.S. release of Super Mario Bros. 3 in 1991. (More information about the early years of the magazine can be found in Jon Irwin‘s excellent Super Mario Bros. 2.) It’s extremely interesting that Nintendo was already attempting a manga/game media mix marketing strategy through the burgeoning medium of English-language video game journalism. It’s also interesting that Viz seems to be using a similar strategy – using the popularity of a gaming franchise to promote manga – with this new release.

Even if you don’t usually care for video games or manga, Ishinomori Shōtaro is a force of nature and a credit to the human race. Since it’s difficult to find his work in English translation, Viz’s new edition of A Link to the Past is a fantastic opportunity to see a master artist and storyteller at the top of his game.

A Link to the Past Link's Battle Against Trinexx

Second Quest

Title: Second Quest
Artist: David Hellman
Author: Tevis Thompson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Fangamer
Pages: 120

Second Quest is a beautifully drawn comic that reimagines the Zelda mythos and explores just how bizarre it is that the Hylians consider themselves to be “the chosen people” who need to be “protected” from other races. What was Ganon really trying to do? Did Zelda really need to be rescued? Why is Link valorized for running around with a sword and smashing everything he encounters? What sort of cultural legacy does this create, and who suffers when outsiders are removed from historical narratives?

Of course, The Legend of Zelda is a keystone franchise of the global game industry, and licensing it is not cheap or easy, so all of the serial numbers have been filed off in David Hellman and Tevis Thompson’s interpretation. What this means is that Second Quest is accessible to non-gamers and people largely unfamiliar with the series, and it’s of special interest to readers interested in how Japanese stories have influenced people around the world to begin their own conversations.

Second Quest Page 13

Second Quest is about a young woman named Azalea who lives on an island that floats high above the clouds. The island is sparsely populated and immense, and vast ruins are buried just underneath its surface. Azalea is fascinated by this uncharted territory, especially since she has the mystical ability to perceive the past history of the objects she touches. The story begins when Azalea is struck by an especially forceful vision of a young woman fleeing from a unseen pursuer when she picks up a broken key deep underground.

Unfortunately, Azalea’s interactions with underground artifacts trigger an earthquake, an event that is especially frightening to people living on a floating island. The tremors lead to mass panic, and it is decreed that a cleansing ritual must be performed. This ritual involves the re-enactment of a great battle against the evil “pig thief” who, envious of the sky island people’s prosperity, had captured the human vessel of their goddess. Azalea, whom the island’s religious leader has designated as the newest member of an order of secluded women who silently pray for the prosperity of the island and its inhabitants, must play the role of the sacrificial princess in this ritual before she retires from the world to become a symbolic reminder of the past and future glory of people other than herself.

Second Quest Page 56

David Hellman’s line work is both intricate and forceful, but what I especially appreciated was the artist’s color palette. The majority of Second Quest is warm and dark, with the twilit purples of the first half giving way to the angry reds of the second half. These colors emphasize the enclosed and suffocating nature of the floating island and its society, and the sky, when we see it, is a frightening orange or black. When the sky suddenly turns blue during the enactment of the purification ritual, presumably to emphasize the characterization of the island’s people as being “on the side of light,” the effect is disquieting. The appearance of teal and green at the very end of the book is breathtakingly dramatic, as the major theme of the story – a quest for freedom from the past – explodes onto the page through a series of textless spreads.

Second Quest was promoted and published through a Kickstarter campaign, the seed for which was planted by an essay written by Tevis Thompson about how the Zelda series has been declining in quality since the early games. While the first Zelda games forced the player to explore a boundless world, the more recent games are nothing more than an extended linear obstacle course. Tevis writes:

Players are constantly reminded that they’re shackled to a mechanistic land. There is no illusion of freedom because the gears that keep the player and Hyrule in lockstep are eminently legible. You read the landscape all too easily; you know what it’s asking of you. One of the greatest offenders occurred early on with A Link to the Past: most bomb-able walls became visible. What had been a potential site of mystery in the original Legend of Zelda (every rockface) became just another job for your trusty keyring. Insert here. Go on about your business.

Personally, I don’t think the Zelda series is broken. Even in Skyward Sword, which can indeed be frustratingly linear, there is more than ample room for exploration. My own favorite thing to do in Skyward Sword is bug catching, an activity that encourages the player to explore the world of the game both thoroughly and nonviolently while closely observing the game’s lush scenery and the behavioral patterns of the creatures that move unobtrusively within it. There are any number of different ways to play the Zelda games; and, if the huge body of Zelda fanfic is any indication, there are any number of different ways to read the games as well.

Last summer, however, there was a small backlash of fannish frustration over Aonuma Eiji’s denial that the Link character in the upcoming WiiU Zelda game might be female, a possibility that had been met with surprising enthusiasm. Furthermore, Aonuma stated that the gender of the Link character is inconsequential; instead, the important thing is that the player is able to identify with the character. The implication of this statement, of course, is that it’s easier for gamers to identify with a male player-protagonist than with a female player-protagonist. Let us never forget that the normative identity is “male,” after all. Men are subjects, so it makes sense for the player to control a male character, while women are objects, so it makes sense for them to act as McGuffins that enable the plot.

It’s important to the critique implicit in Second Quest that its protagonist is female. This is not simple fanboy pandering but rather a conscientious effort on the part of the creators to tell the “legend of Zelda” from the perspective of someone who is forced into a role that doesn’t suit her. When the reader first encounters Azalea, she is actively exploring the secret and hidden places of her world. We later learn, however, that women are not allowed entry into the knight academy that trains the elite police force that seems to govern the floating island. She’s not allowed to question authority or to develop her talents, even despite her obvious leadership qualities and intelligence. Azalea thus allows us to see the story of so many video games, a story frustratingly repeated time and again, from the perspective of someone excluded from shaping this story in any way. Azalea sees things that we usually aren’t shown, and what she sees is troubling and thought-provoking.

Second Quest is absolutely brilliant. If you’re a gamer, get this book. If you’re a comics person, get this book. If you’re into the darker side of religion and folklore, get this book. If you’re into feminism, gender politics, and the deconstruction of gendered tropes, then by all means, get this book. Second Quest is a beautifully published and a true pleasure to read and share with friends. I’ve been waiting for this book to come out for a long time, and I’m thrilled that it turned out to be so fantastic and inspiring.

For more information, be sure to check out:

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The Master Key

Title: The Master Key
Japanese Title: 大いなる幻影 (Ōinaru gen’ei)
Author: Togawa Masako (戸川 昌子)
Translator: Simon Grove
Publication Year: 1985 (United States); 1962 (Japan)
Publisher: Dodd, Mead & Company
Pages: 198

The Master Key, first published in 1962 and set in the late 1950s, is an interesting window into a period of postwar Japan that we don’t often see represented in Japanese fiction in translation. The story takes place entirely within the closed world of the K Apartments for Ladies, a large, multi-story building located in southeast Ikebukuro and registered as a charitable trust with “rents pegged at wartime levels.”

On its surface, the story is about a 1951 kidnapping of a young boy who is the son of a Japanese woman and an American military officer. Seven years later, when the K Apartments building is lifted and moved to a different location in a grand public works experiment, the body of a child is discovered buried underneath a shared bathing area in the basement. Right around the time the child disappeared, a man dressed as a woman was struck by a van in an intersection near the apartment building, and it’s revealed to the reader early in the novel that this man disguised himself as a woman to help one of the tenants dispose of the body that would later be found in the building’s basement. Who in the apartment buried the body, and what relation does this have to the kidnapping incident?

About twenty pages into The Master Key, however, it becomes clear that the mystery portion of the story is going to take a backseat to an extended exploration of the inner worlds contained within the K Apartments for Ladies and the psychological dysfunctions of its aging tenants.

Ishiyama Noriko, who has been diagnosed with “nervous pains,” has removed herself from the rest of the world and lives in a dark apartment stuffed with other people’s trash, which she occasionally boils and eats to sustain herself. Yatabe Suwa, a former concert violinist who now gives music lessons to children, is haunted by the loss of potential represented by the theft of a violin from her own teacher, even though it’s possible that she herself may have more to do with this incident than she likes to admit. Kimura Yoneko retired from her position as a schoolteacher years ago and spends her days writing letters to her former students, and she is not above checking into the affairs of the other tenants as well. Santo Haru is obsessed with a religious cult, and she is in the palm of its leader, who frequents her apartment to hold prayer meetings centered around the trances of its vestal priestess.

The plot is complicated and circuitous but is centered around the use and whereabouts of the master key of the title, which various tenants use to sneak into one another’s rooms in order to discover the secrets of others while concealing their own. At the end of the novel, it’s revealed that there is a mastermind orchestrating all of their movements, someone who has been spying on everyone for years and has manipulated the women around her for her own amusement. As someone who had essentially done the same thing to these characters through the process of reading this novel, I felt somewhat guilty, but not enough to lessen my enjoyment of how neatly all of the different plot threads are eventually tied together.

I will openly admit that I love stories about women being unpleasant and irrational and absolutely human. All of the female characters in this story are a little pathetic and a little demonic in that they have no power outside the K Apartments but all manner of strange little powers within their closed world. I’m sure this can be read as a metaphor for something, but it need not be, as the haunted and uncanny environment the characters shape through their bizarre actions is absolutely fascinating in and of itself.

For people with more background on Japanese history and urban space, the story’s setting in Ikebukuro is of special interest. In the immediate postwar period, Ikebukuro famously functioned as a heterotopia in which diverse groups of people came together and the norms of mainstream society didn’t necessarily apply. There is all manner of hidden “national polity” history in Ikebukuro, where the family-state of Japan has buried countless failed narratives under highways and skyscrapers. The Master Key thus serves as an excellent example of postwar Tokyo gothic (as similarly exemplified by Kyōgoku Natsuhiko’s The Summer of the Ubume). A reader doesn’t need historical knowledge to appreciate the story, but a bit of research into the setting has the potential to deepen the experience of reading this novel, which has sub-basements under sub-basements under sub-basements.

The Master Key is long out of print but still cheaply available through a number of online used book services. If you have access to your local or university library’s Interlibrary Loan program, it’s well worth requesting this book. It’s a quick read, and it packs a huge impact. To my fellow horror and mystery lovers especially, I highly recommend tracking down a copy of this short, satisfying, and creepy little novel.

Koyamori Translation Banner

I have some fantastic news! The editors of the manga/anime/cinema/fiction review and commentary blog Gagging on Sexism are launching a web magazine devoted to translation and cultural engagement.

Here is their call for submissions:

Abalone Ink is a new online literary magazine interested in promoting conversation between cultures through writing and visual art, and exploring how interactions between cultures enrich our perspectives. We are looking for translated fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. We will also accept original English-language submissions if the work demonstrates a connection to culture. For poetry submissions, please submit 5-10 poems at a time. If the submission includes poems in the original language as well as the translations, sending 10-20 poems at a time is acceptable. For fiction and nonfiction, send no more than 5,000 words in total. All works must be previously unpublished. The deadline is April 8, 2015. Send inquiries and submissions to:

I can’t wait for the first issue. Good luck to everyone who submits!

Banner illustration by maruti-bitamin.

Cool Japan Guide

Title: Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats and Ramen
Artist: Abby Denson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 127

Abby Denson is a comics writer who has worked on a number of high-profile and kid-friendly titles, such as the comic adaptations of Powerpuff Girls and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. She’s also drawn two graphic novels of her own, Dolltopia and Tough Love: High School Confidential, both of which I love beyond all reason. She has a quirky style all her own, and her charm shines from everything she creates.

I should probably get this out of the way first – Denson is a wonderful writer, but her art can sometimes be a little uneven. In Cool Japan Guide, the continuity between panels is inconsistent, and her characters all tend to have the same の∇の facial expression. The coloring is absolutely flat, and the bright primary colors can occasionally clash against each other violently.

Even if Denson’s art style isn’t to your taste, is Cool Japan Guide still worth reading?

It definitely is!

As you progress through the book, the art will grow on you, I promise. Denson has a special talent for depicting places and objects, and the details of each panel are fun and creatively stylized.

All of Denson’s travel advice is spot-on. Seriously, this woman has excellent taste – if she recommends something, then it’s definitely worth doing. By all means, check out the train-themed socks for sale at Tokyo Station! Try the sweet potato soft serve ice cream in Kamakura! Enjoy a cocktail at the 8bit Café in Shinjuku! Make plans to attend the Kaigai Manga Festa! Soak in the warm water and kitschy atmosphere of Oedo Onsen Monogatari!

Cool Japan Guide also offers a fair bit of reference material, such as websites with travel resources and smartphone apps convenient for tasks like train scheduling and quickly finding phrases in Japanese. Each chapter is preceded by eight or nine useful words or expressions, and the hand-drawn map of Japan at the end of the book is a treasure, especially for people planning longer journeys.

Cool Japan Guide is definitely not for the type of thirty-something hipsters who are into the Wallpaper* city guides or the type of forty-something yuppies who are into Fodor’s, but I can imagine a younger person smiling with joy while reading through the book. Since Denson takes care to ensure that the content is family-friendly, the book would make a great gift for a child or teenager. The gentle silliness and positivity of the guide succeed in making it enjoyable for older readers as well.

For more pictures, stories, and news, Abby Denson has her own website, and Cool Japan Guide has its own Tumblr.

Review copy provided by Tuttle.

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