Can Sailor Moon Break Up the Superhero Boys Club?

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The massively popular '90s manga series is about to be re-released in a new English translation. Will it remind comics writers and movie-makers that girls like superheroes, too?

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Kodansha Comics


We are well into the age of the second-string superhero. In the past, to get star billing and a supersize promotional budget, heroes had to actually be iconic. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, even X-Men—they're all marquee stars with decades of pop culture exposure. But Iron Man? Green Lantern? Thor? Unless you've spent the past few decades huffing the effluvia of mylar protective comic bags, you probably hadn't heard of any of those people before their big screen debuts. It makes you wonder who's next. Elongated Man? Ant Man? How long before Bouncing Boy gets his own feature film?

And yet, even as the mighty Man-Thing shuffles out of the swamp for his close-up, one of the best-known superhero properties languishes in development limbo. Thanks to what Dlisted memorably referred to as an "American Apparel latex hell" of a costume and a concomitant surge of internet guffawing, the Wonder Woman TV series followed every other Wonder Woman screen project of the last 30 years into oblivion. Male heroes, no matter how obscure and ridiculously be-tighted, are in with a chance, but the American public draws the line at red, white, and blue stripper-wear packaged as feminism.

This isn't really all that surprising. The original Wonder Woman comic was very popular in the '40s, and the Wonder Woman TV series had success for a few years in the '70s, but it's been a good long time since female superheroes had any kind of widespread success. American superhero comics are, in fact, notorious for their clannish male nerd hermeticism. The scene in Heroes' third season where Hayden Panettierre is scoped out by a comic-shop-full of creepy guys is a stereotype, but it's built on the depressing truth that American mainstream comics are written overwhelmingly for men. Demographic data on comic readers is hard to come by, but several sources suggest that women make up only about 10 percent of superhero comic book readers at best.

The logical conclusion, then, seems to be that women don't especially like superhero comics. Nerdy nothing gains great power and saves the day—that's a story that appeals to guys far more than to girls. Guys want heroism and beating people up; girls want romance and being swept off their feet. Or so you might conclude if you'd never read Sailor Moon.

Sailor Moon—which is about to be re-released in a new English translation later this month—was the '90s Japanese manga/anime that kickstarted the U.S. manga boom and ensured that that boom would be as much about female consumers as about male ones. Moreover, if you don't count Edward Cullen, Sailor Moon was probably the most successful new superhero of the last 30 years. A typical 14-year-old girl who likes sleeping late and playing video games, Bunny (whose name in a new translation is Usagi), like many a superhero before her, one day discovers she has great magical powers. Donning a distinctive costume, she races off to save the world from various bad guys, discovering inner strength she never knew she had and ... saving the day!

Again, Sailor Moon was wildly popular with girls, becoming Tokyopop's best selling series and even ranking number 1 in sales for all graphic novels sold in the United States in May 1999. It's not hard to see why it was so successful. Creator Naoko Takeuchi works the superhero tropes hard, but she mixes them with other, more traditionally girl-oriented fare. For instance, Takeuchi throws in a dark, mysterious stranger (the dashing Tuxedo Mask) for a dollop of angsty teen romance. She gives Sailor Moon a plethora of Sailor Scout friends—Sailor Mercury, the smart girl; Sailor Mars, the spiritual girl, and so forth—who seem to have stepped out of the clubby sorority-sister Nancy-Drew girl genre fiction of the '50s. She adds not one, not two, but three adorable talking cats. And, perhaps most importantly, Naoko mixes in fantasy with her superheroics. There are magic gems, dark forces, and the inevitable-but-still-genius revelation that Sailor Moon is not just a superhero—she is a princess.

The key to writing superheroes for girls, then, seems to be to write superheroes—but for girls. It's not like this is some sort of shocking, heretofore undiscovered secret formula. The early Wonder Woman comics by William Marston and Harry Peter focused on a superhero who was a princess and was surrounded by sorority-sister girlfriends and kept going to strange and wonderful fantasy lands—and, lo and behold, it was extremely popular. Buffy was about a superhero plus vampires plus romantic angst—and, again, jackpot. For that matter, the superhero-plus-magic-plus-romance equation that powered Sailor Moon wasn't an innovation, but an established, successful formula in its own right, referred to in Japan as the magical girl genre. (Another popular example translated into English is CLAMP's Cardcaptor Sakura.)

So, if it's clear that women like superheroes a lot, and it's further clear what sort of superheroes they seem to like most, why exactly is it so difficult for the large American companies that traffic in superheroes to create content that would appeal to what is, after all, half the population? Why are all the superhero movies about boys when there's so much evidence that girls would like a superhero movie about them, too?

The answers are fairly obvious, albeit depressing. You don't have to look much further than DC Comics' recent relaunch of its entire line of comics—a relaunch in which the company went from 12 percent female creators down to just 1 percent. DC did have the decency to apologize, but still, the point is clear enough. Mainstream comics is a boys' club, with no interest in reaching out to women and no clue how to do so even if they wanted to.

But if they're baffled, others are not. The new Sailor Moon translation comes out on September 13th, along with the first-ever English edition of the Sailor Moon prequel, Sailor V. Later this year, we'll get the film version of Breaking Dawn, the Twilight chapter in which Bella becomes a super-powered vampire and saves the day. And, in the meantime, DC and Marvel will no doubt continue to revive obscure, decades-old, corporate-owned flotsam. Go away, girlie—don't bother me while I'm working on my Man-Thing.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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