The manga Sailor Moon is the series that demonstrated, once and for all, that American girls will read about super-heroes with great enthusiasm. It features a young-looking aggressively typical school girl named Bunny. But then, one day, Bunny meets a talking cat, who turns her into… a super-hero Princess! With long hair! Nifty jewelr! Lots of deferential friends, and a handsome, dashing, mysterious true love! And, of course, she gets to keep the talking cat.

Needless to say, this abject wish fulfillment went over quite well with the target demographic; Sailor Moon manga and anime were huge in Japan, and were one of the early big manga successes in the U.S. as well. Thanks to its influence, Marvel and DC quickly leaped at the chance to reach the heretofore untapped female audience. Marvel released a Spider Girl title where the protagonist improbably turns out to be a Princess and seeks for magical jewels with companions like Grasshopper Girl and Ladybug Girl, while DC devoted its entire Minx line to sugary SF adventures in the Sailor Moon vein.

Or, you know, possibly it didn’t happen quite that way. But be that as it may…as somebody whose been incessantly blogging about at least one female super-hero, I’ve been thinking that I should read Sailor Moon for awhile. I finally managed to get to it this week, and….

Well, I wish I could say that I liked it. Obviously, it’s not intended for middle-aged guys, so my disapprobation isn’t all that surprising. Still, just because something is aimed at teen girls doesn’t mean I’ll hate it. I appreciated the naked wish fulfillment in Twilight. I adore the sugary glop that is contemporary R&B. I even enjoyed, with reservations, the manga series Cardcaptor Sakura, which is a fairly naked Sailor Moon rip-off.

Sailor Moon itself though, or at least the three volumes I managed to get through, is just not very good. In the first place, Naoko Tekeuchi’s art just doesn’t do a whole lot for me. It’s not horrible, or anything…the drawing is certainly more consistent than is often the case in American comics, and while the cartoony stylization can be a little cloying, it’s at least done professionally. Her pages, though, can get really cluttered and messy.

Clamp’s work for Cardcaptor Sakura, as a comparison, is a lot better.

As with Sailor Moon, Clamp breaks panel borders and works with different size images all jammed into one space. But they balance that by not using extraneous background detail; by using lovely, controlled patterns (the tree branches with blossoms are especially nice), and by using the panel breaks to move you thorough the story (you follow the girl’s body down to oversized legs and into the next panel of the narrative.) It’s just much more deftly done; the difference between artists with an aesthetic sense and one without.

The wriitng in Sailor Moon is similarly muddled. Bunny, or Sailor Moon, couldn’t be a much more generic or less interesting character. She’s really more a collection of traits than a person; we learn she likes video games and sleeping, that she’s terrible at school, and that she whines a lot…but cutely (at least in theory.) Her personality, as such, never takes shape beyond these not-especially-appealing tidbits — and, moreover, even these vague delineations are quickly abandoned. By the third volume, we learn that Bunny is actually Princess Serenity reincarnated (or something), and her returning memories more or less obliterate the Bunny we (barely) knew. This would be, perhaps, an improvement, except that Serenity’s only character trait seems to be mooning after her crush object, Prince Endymion.

As for the narrative itself…it’s really less a plot than a series of disconnected cliches, drawn about equally from video games and mid-drawer fantasy. There’s an eldritch evil, there’s a crystal that needs to be protected, there’s an ever escalating series of helpful sailor scouts who must be awakened, each with their own sailor power; there are battles which inevitably end in victory…etc. etc. etc. There’s some vaguely kinky mind-control too, but it’s hard to much care as fractured scene after fractured scene rushes by. Is Endymion in thrall to the evil overlord forever? I’ll never find out, since I can’t stand to read the fourth volume…but, still, I’m guessing not.

So yeah; not good — though it could be worse, certainly. There are certainly appealing moments; the gratuitously cute totem cat, for example, is in fact cute. Sailor Moon’s battle cry (“On behalf of the moon, you’re punished!”) is charmingly corny; the sort of thing you could imagine a little girl actually yelling in battle. And, though the plot is an incoherent mess, it’s a welcoming, open incoherent mess. American super-hero comics are often involuted and incomprehensible because they draw on a mass of useless continuity trivia that’s (A) stupid and (B) of no interest to anyone who hasn’t read American super-hero comics for the last twenty years. Sailor Moon, on the other hand, makes no sense not because it’s insular, but because it’s so extraneous. Sailor Moon has no background…even from volume to volume, anyone can pretty much start anywhere on any page and you’ll be as at home as you would be anywhere else. You’ve got cute girls fighting evil; you’ve got crushes; you’ve got nifty special effects; you’ve got cute cat; you’ve got gratuitous wish fulfillment. That’s it. There’s really nothing else going on — not character, not plot, not themes, nothing. In some sense, I wonder if that’s part of the reason for the series’ success. If you’re a girl, it might be easy to imagine yourself as Sailor Moon, since Sailor Moon is barely there. It might be easy to imagine your own adventures, since the adventures on offer barely exist either.

Sailor Moon gets the pander right, and given that, additional specificity might well get in the way. The books, in short, remind me a little of McDonald’s — they aren’t good in the usual sense, but you have to admire the way they identify a need and fill it with maximum efficiency and minimal frills.