What Girls Want | Art Review | Chicago Reader

What Girls Want 

Well, for starters, fewer boundaries, candy-coated romance, and lots of gender ambiguity.

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Shojo Manga! Girl Power!

C33 Gallery at Columbia College

Even in queer culture, being femme is rarely associated with strength or freedom. Girliness always seems to imply impotence, overconsumption, and passivity, expressed in gossip and tacky melodrama. That may explain why the hyperfeminized scenes and characters of Japanese comics (manga) for adolescent girls (shojo) have had so little appeal to American fans of superhero comics, fine art, literary fiction, and their unholy offspring, alternative comics. Yet the group show "Shojo Manga! Girl Power!" at Columbia College's modest C33 Gallery has more to say about the future of comics than the work in the all-star "Masters of American Comics" survey, recently on display in Los Angeles and coming soon to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Including 23 artists from the last 50 years, "Shojo Manga!" features Japanese masters Osamu Tezuka, Riyoko Ikeda, Moto Hagio, Masako Watanabe, and the female art-and-writing collective CLAMP and illuminates what's missing from Western comics.

Unlike in the ice-cube-tray images of American comics, the panels in "Shojo Manga!" merge the elegant, startling shapes and juxtapositions of Russian constructivism with the flat Eurotrash fashion illustrations of Patrick Nagel, the enormous sparkling eyes of soulful orphans in thrift-store paintings, and the occasional unexplained floral blizzard. The same giddy sense of boundlessness also informs the storytelling. Distinctions blur between inner and outer states, waking and dreaming, past and future, male and female, gay and straight. Characters and situations swim in a candy-coated vision of romantic glory that should not be stigmatized as disposable or superficial, especially given how long the American art scene has been cluttered with vapid, macho skater and graffiti art.

Writers in the "Shojo Manga!" catalog and in a 2005 edition of the Comics Journal devoted to the form obsessively reiterate its immense popularity in east Asia and growing popularity here. In Japan, shojo conventions can pack in more than 500,000 people--most of them women and girls. Thousands of fans create their own comics, doujinshi, based on their favorite titles and characters. In the USA and Canada the sales figures for manga, most of it shojo manga, recently reached between $110 and $140 million yearly, roughly half of all comic-book sales in the two countries. Part of the appeal could be the controversial subjects: the artists deal with abuse, suicide, and sex in a combined operatic and soap-operatic style.

Perhaps the most provocative aspect of shojo manga is the way it explores highly unstable gender roles, beginning with the unchallenged master of manga and anime, Osamu Tezuka. His 1953-'56 series Ribbon no Kishi ("The Knight of the Ribbon, or Princess Knight") features a princess, Sapphire, who has both the heart of a man and the heart of a woman. Since as a girl she'll never ascend the throne, she's raised as a boy. But then she falls in love with a prince from a neighboring kingdom and is inspired to refeminize herself with a wig of flowing, flaxen locks. Another major series, the early-70s The Rose of Versailles--by a woman, Riyoko Ikeda--focuses on the daughter of a noble family, Oscar, who's raised as a boy and serves as a military commander under Marie Antoinette, then falls in love with the son of her wet nurse. Cross-dressing was just the beginning. Nowadays one of the central features of top-selling comics for girls and women is the well-established genre of yaoi--explicit excursions into male homosexuality aimed at female readers. Though this exhibit doesn't include graphic examples, it does include yaoi's tame younger brother, shonen-ai, or "boy love," and yaoi is discussed in the show catalog.

With so many artists crowded into one show, their pieces matted and displayed under Plexiglas, the exhibit is difficult to navigate and see well. The titles and explanatory labels are confusingly organized and mounted, and numerous pieces are hung facing the windows, probably to lure in passersby. But once you're inside, you have to climb into the window display to get a good look at some of the images. Though it's impressive that someone figured out how to get all the art to fit, the work's detail and vivid colors suffer under the cramped conditions: at first glance the show looks like a high-end airbrush studio specializing in sadomasochistic sci-fi wedding portraits.

Still, the art is often beautiful, the historical sweep is enlightening, and the plot synopses can be fun. The one for CLAMP's 2003 Cardcaptor Sakura series Tsubasa ("Wings") includes the line "One day, when Sakura touches some old ruins, she falls down, and her memory flies beyond time and space. To help Sakura, Xiao Lion visits a witch and begins the journey to find Sakura's memory." Also, there's a stack of free Shojo Beat magazines (Japan's premiere shojo publication, translated and sold here) in the gallery. These allow viewers to see mainstream shojo manga in its natural habitat--black-and-white narratives on newsprint--as opposed to the painted images, which rarely appear in print but dominate the exhibit. Their soft watercolor washes, collaged textures, and immaculate lines are dazzling up close: the aggressive search for perfection and macabre sexual energy subtly undermine superficial Western notions of the feminine. Instead they touch on a different aspect of femininity: these comics' idealized internality and open-ended imaginings evoke what psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called jouissance, a state of bliss outside language, accessible only to the female mind.

When: Through 4/26: Mon-Thu 9-7, Fri 9-5

Where: 33 E. Congress, first floor

Info: 312-344-7663

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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