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Drawn Together 

Why the surging popularity of yaoi — graphic boy-on-boy comics — might be the source of the genre's downfall

Wednesday, Nov 1 2006
The ponderous glass chandeliers dim in the hotel ballroom as the emcee takes the stage in front of a chattering crowd. It's past 10 on a Saturday night, and time to give the attendees what they've been waiting for since the convention began on Friday afternoon: "fanservice."

"I know you've all been having fun so far, because there's been a lot of discussion of DICK," the announcer says, with a grin for the crowd. "There's also been some discussion of COCK. But the primary topic of discussion has been about ... " — he holds the microphone out to the audience.

"BUTT SEX!" shriek almost 2,000 women, rearing up from their chairs. This isn't a convention of wild, wanton sodomites, however; these women aren't clamoring to perform the act themselves. Instead they want to see, read, and think about the man-on-man version.

The event is Yaoi-Con 6, an annual gathering of those who live for yaoi — Japanese comics that tell stories of beautiful young men falling desperately, passionately in love, and often having enthusiastic butt sex. The twist is that the comics are created almost entirely by women artists and writers for an audience that's primarily female, satisfying a craving that few knew existed. Each October, the most dedicated fans pay $60 for a weekend pass and often travel across the country to gather in a pair of bland hotels across from the San Francisco International Airport for "a celebration of male beauty and passion," as the convention's Web site explains it.

The genre bubbled up in the United States as an Internet-fueled, underground fan phenomenon over the past decade, and began seeping into the mainstream only in the last three years, when importers and publishers of manga — the umbrella term for Japanese comics — realized that the market was there. Since 2003, at least five new publishing companies or imprints have launched to bring English-language yaoi to the fans, and they say they can't publish quickly enough to keep up with demand.

The books are also becoming increasingly popular with preteens and teenagers, creating an audible split in the fan base: The word yaoi is pronounced "yah-oi" by those with some knowledge of Japanese, and "yowee" by the legions of young girls who discover it on the Internet before they've ever tasted sushi. While some older fans who've come to Yaoi-Con since its beginning in 2001 are irritated by the infusion of giggly youth, they're concerned about more than just the expansion of a previously exclusive club: Underage fans put the genre as a whole at risk. Since mainstream stores like Borders started stocking their shelves with yaoi, it's become much easier for teenagers to bring home books that look like harmless comics to their parents, but which often feature graphic sex scenes. The proliferation of young fans has already led to the shutdown of a few beloved yaoi Web sites when outraged parents figured out what their kids were looking at and started making threats.

While one should never underestimate the anger of a cultural conservative forced to confront gay sex, yaoi can also push the buttons of people who consider themselves open-minded. The broad genre encompasses a number of titles that go no further than light romance, but others deal with unsettling themes like rape, incest, and bestiality. Add in the fact that many of the boys drawn in the manga style look like they're about 12 or are identified as being under 18, and it begins to seem like yaoi is inviting lawsuits.

The genre has reached that difficult passage where many subcultures have foundered, in which surging popularity makes old fans feel uncomfortably crowded. But yaoi has an especially tricky course to chart: The source of its appeal, the touch of sexual subversion, also has the capacity to destroy it.

The American version of yaoi has two antecedents, one on each side of the Pacific Ocean. The word yaoi is a dismissive acronym from the Japanese phrase "no climax, no point, no meaning." In Japan, critics applied the term to the amateur comics created by fans in the 1970s who took two male characters from preexisting manga and threw them together. Some of those first comics may have been short on plot or depth, but as the genre proliferated and talented artists got involved, the quality quickly rose.

For many Japanese fans, yaoi was a way to escape the confining story lines of shojo, manga intended for girls. In those books, the male almost always took charge, and if the female had the bad fortune to fall in love, she quickly turned into a blathering idiot. As the first yaoi authors began to gather fans, Japanese publishers helped some of them turn pro, publishing their work in magazines and manga compilations. The new stories were angsty and romantic: Boys fell in love despite their best intentions, and, after brief struggles with their feelings, plunged into deep, soulful bliss.

Meanwhile, in the United States, women were playing with slash fiction — that is, stories in which male pop culture characters hooked up (for example, Star Trek's Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock). Yet yaoi and slash involve little casual sex. When couples couple, it's an emotional maelstrom; even after a rape scene, the two men lie tenderly in each other's arms and profess their love. It's a visual treat with an emotional payoff, a dynamite combination for the ladies.

Untranslated Japanese comics began to arrive in the U.S. in the 1980s and '90s. With the arrival of the Internet came a new labor of love — the "scanlation," for which die-hard fans scanned each page of a comic and painstakingly added translations. To avoid such toil, Americans began writing English-language slash based on their favorite characters from anime (Japan's animated TV shows and films) and manga.

"Then Gundam Wing happened," explains Eliza Cameron, whose manuscript on the history of yaoi is being considered by a Berkeley publisher. In 2000, the sci-fi anime series about a team of teenage fighter pilots began airing on the Cartoon Network, and thousands of new fans ventured online to look for pictures of the cute heroes. What they often found instead was a slash universe that dedicated yaoi fans had already created around the Gundam Wing characters. "It was the 'gateway yaoi' of my generation," Cameron says.

About The Author

Eliza Strickland


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