The next wave of heroes in the comic book business may look more like "Plain Janes" than X-Men.
Industry heavyweights including DC Comics and Marvel Entertainment Inc. are betting that girls represent a big growth opportunity for the traditionally male-dominated medium. It's part of a renewed push in recent years to court a new audience with products aimed squarely at teenage girls.
The new titles are inspired in part by the growth of translated Japanese comics called manga. While violent themes aimed at boys are staples of manga, fantasy and romantic storylines have helped manga capture female readers.
Recently, DC Comics launched a line of original books, dubbed Minx, which include "The Plain Janes," about a band of suburban outcasts who form a "secret art gang." Other Minx graphic novels include "Re-Gifters" -- about a Korean-American girl and martial arts enthusiast who falls for a surfer boy -- and "Clubbing," which follows a London girl sent to live at her grandparents' dowdy country club.
The publishers are following the lead of upstart manga publishers -- such as Los Angeles' Tokyopop and San Francisco's Viz Media -- that have managed to draw female readers with a mix of girl-friendly content and distribution to both comic book shops and bookstores.
"We were looking at the success of manga as a great sign that teenage girls were actually reading comics again," said Karen Berger, a senior vice president at DC Comics.
Reading manga can be an unusual experience. The paperback books, usually translated from Japanese, are read top right to bottom left and are priced around $10. (In some books the first pages remind readers to start at the back.) Manga also has a different pace and story-telling style than traditional comics. For instance, instead of action-driven storylines punctuated with frequent fight scenes, manga titles -- especially those aimed at girls -- often dedicate space to awkward silences, embarrassing moments and close ups of tear-filled eyes. Friendships and romance tend to figure prominently.
DC Comics has an existing manga imprint, called CMX, which is translated from Japanese. The new Minx series will mimic the general look and price-point of manga. But Berger stresses that the books are designed with American readers in mind. They read in the standard, left-to-right, manner. And they're written in English, not translated.
Meanwhile, DC's archrival, Marvel, has also been gunning for female readers, although its strategy differs. Instead of starting a separate line, the company has been hiring writers known for their established female following.