I neglected comics aimed at girls when I wrote the first 25 parts of this series. I’m male, and I read few comics for girls when I was young. I have had some entertainment looking back later, from the extraordinary extremes they went to to torture their heroines, and the ludicrous contrivances. That’s not to say it’s all silly and unpleasant, but the good stuff is not easily found, and I can’t be of much help. The American market has been traditionally hopeless for girls, though in recent years it has improved.
But the Japanese comic market is completely different, and there I have found a few good comics aimed squarely at girls – and one masterpiece, actually aimed at young women rather than girls, which is what has prompted me to add to my series a year and a half later.
Ai Yazawa’s Nana is perhaps my favourite comic ever now, and I thank my friend Cis for pointing me at it. It’s about two young women who move to Tokyo for a new life, both called Nana. Nana K is sweet and rather naive – the punky Nana O calls her, in an exasperated temper, “puppy-dog-like”, and Nana K gets the happiest expression ever. Nana O is a singer, and it’s her band and that of her ex that provide most of the other characters, and the two bands are central to the developing story, which so far runs to 19 translated volumes of around 200 pages each.
I love everything about it: I could happily read another 10,000 pages about any of the major characters, and I feel for them very deeply, their joys and pains. This is partly because she creates them so superbly, with depth and multiple facets and unmistakeable feelings, capturing their speech beautifully, sometimes capturing them breathtakingly precisely with one line. She also develops their stories carefully, giving them good and bad times mostly from what they do rather than anything external happening to them, and including unusual techniques such as increasing use of flashforward sequences. I have particularly strong feelings about the relationship between the Nanas: it breaks my heart when Yazawa keeps them apart for long (sometimes she separates them for hundreds of pages), and I feel as if I could happily watch them together in their flat, at the table in the bay window, forever.
Besides the intelligence, sensitivity, maturity and honesty of the story, what turns this from a superbly written comic into an all-round masterpiece is her art. She switches styles from one panel to another: one might be gorgeously stylish, which comes partly from her fashion illustration background, and sometimes looks like Jaime Hernandez’s work with a touch of Guido Crepax; then the next might be broadly cartoony, somewhere between Osamu Tezuka and Charles Schulz. In nearly 4,000 pages, I don’t recall once thinking that she chose the wrong mode for a panel. I also don’t think any two pages have the same layout of panels: in this, she makes even Crepax look predictable. Every page seems as if it has been designed without preconceptions, to fit the needs of the story at that moment, and she never seems to put a foot wrong.
I can’t think of another comic I have ever read that is so strong in every area: character, story, dialogue, drawing, layout. It’s formally original and masterful, and a joy to read, very funny and immensely moving. I don’t think comic books get any better than this. I’ll also note that it is a huge hit in Japan: the latest book collection broke records by selling almost 800,000 copies in its first week there.
I’ll also mention the other series of hers available in English: Paradise Kiss is a 5-book story of a schoolgirl getting involved with some fashion students. It has a lot of the same qualities, though you do feel you are reading a single story rather than a serial starring some characters, and I think she has got much better in the later Nana.