The Bride Was A Boy, and Empathy Through Comics

I want to start off this post by acknowledging that this week has been a deeply ambivalent one in the comics world. The two-thirds of my Twitter feed that aren’t dedicated to anime memes and cute animals were split with coverage of recent Comicsg*te abuses and coverage of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival — namely, the worst and the best that the comics world has to offer, respectively.

I don’t want to dedicate too much time to discussion of the former issue for various reasons, but not least of all because in light of efforts to push certain people out of comics, I find my desire to uplift the voices of those people becomes stronger. And so, I’m going to have a go at my first official review here, of The Bride Was A Boy, by a woman who goes simply by the name of “Chii.”

When Seven Seas Entertainment published My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, they struck gold; I’ve discussed before in various venues the great pull of that book, among manga readers and non-manga readers alike. There was a great need for this — an autobiographical manga about queerness and depression that allowed readers to either relate, or to empathize and find common ground. It was very smart, then, for Seven Seas to pick up The Bride Was A Boy, because I feel that autobiographical trans narratives are even more necessary in many ways.

Though the manga is billed as being about preparation for Chii’s wedding, in reality it is the discussion of Chii’s journey through womanhood, from her discovery of being trans to her decision to go through with sex reassignment surgery and becoming legally “female.” Throughout this journey, she has a great deal of support from her family and her soon-to-be-husband (whom she alternately refers to as “Boyfriend-kun” and “Husband-kun”). Between chapters, Chii takes the time to break down some terms and laws that people outside of the LGBT+ community might not be familiar with. They are simple explanations, but they are a good basic primer for anyone who is just starting their journey into trans issues.

I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d like this manga — not because of the subject matter, but because of its presentation. It’s laid out in 4-koma style, which doesn’t typically appeal to me, and the artwork is simple, adorable chibi-style characters. It hardly seems like it has the same underground, confessional feeling of MLEWL. Though I was excited that a trans story was being published, I worried that it was Seven Seas scrambling to ride the high of MLEWL‘s success without regard for the subject matter itself. I found, however, that I truly loved it.

There has allegedly been some criticism that The Bride Was A Boy is too positive; again, Chii is very lucky to have a very supportive and loving family and partner, which may seem like a distant reality to many trans folks. But I think that a positive, autobiographical trans narrative is very important. It is not the job of trans people to constantly struggle for the benefit (and entertainment) of others. Presenting trans womanhood in this way offers it very simply as just another kind of lived reality. It is my fondest wish that cisgender people will pick up this book and maybe come to learn new things about trans people, or come to understand the feelings of trans people better. And I also hope that readers then continue to demand more trans stories, both fictional and non-fictional, that are earnest, entertaining, and which ultimately help to cultivate a culture of empathy. (For this reason, I’m particularly fond of the intermittent breakdowns of terminology and law, and want to acknowledge Beni Axia Conrad for the extra work they must have done to translate these pieces to reflect both Japanese society and relate them to what English-speaking readers might expect in their own societies.)

I’m idealistic, I know. The comics community has more excellent content from queer creators, creators of color, and women creators than ever before, yet we’re seeing an incredible amount of backlash from the unhappy few who continue to do harm, verbally or otherwise, to those already marginalized. I spent much of this week feeling helpless in light of that reality. But reading The Bride Was A Boy reminded me that it has always been my philosophy to use my relative privilege, and my position as someone who reads and recommends comics professionally, to keep people engaged with good work from deserving creators. There will always be people who stand obstinately in the path of progress and understanding, who want their position on the top of the heap to remain unchallenged. But the fact remains that, for many, comics have always been about challenging the status quo, about saying things that the privileged don’t want to hear. It is my hope that comics continue to shake things up and push that status quo even further into oblivion.

With all that said, I happily recommend The Bride Was A Boy to people of all genders as a warm, joyous, informative story about one woman’s journey to manifesting her best life. I would like to see it getting just as much lip service as My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness. May these manga pave the way for the translation of more excellent queer stories!

Free Comic Book Day, and the Plight of the Local Comic Shop

Last week was extremely busy for me. On Tuesday after work, I went to Nick Cave’s Q&A show; on Wednesday I scrambled to go see Avengers: Infinity War after work because I didn’t want someone to spoil me on FCBD; and Thursday and Friday were, of course, all prep for said FCBD.

There has been a lot of discussion about how Free Comic Book Day is not free for comic shops. This is true, we buy tons of comics for slightly less than our usual cost with the sole purpose of giving them away with our sticker or stamp on them in the hopes that people might pick up something they really like, remember where they got it, and come back to get more. It’s part goodwill gesture, part advertising — and it can be an awful lot of work.

I’m not here to suggest alternative solutions to the current FCBD model, though I welcome such discussions. What I want to talk about is a conversation I had with a gentleman who just knew, somehow, that comics readership was up because of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After we went back and forth for a while, he apologized and recognized that his information was anecdotal, and honestly I don’t want to spend too much time talking about him in particular because he was actually very nice and clearly did care about comics.

But prior to our conversation, there were two things that he believed: that the MCU got people into comics, and that perhaps a lot of those people were getting their comics from libraries instead of buying them in shops.

I can tell you all, without hyperbole, that just about every single comic shop, even if they’re doing fairly well at the moment, feels the grip of Amazon closing in on the throat of their business. Every retailer I’ve talked to is finding ways to add alternative merchandise to their stores, or lean really hard into a niche they already have (I’m always going for “gay manga store,” myself). The only comic book films that have sparked any small interest in comics, that we’ve seen at my shop, have been Wonder Woman and Black Panther, and I think that speaks a lot more to people finally seeing themselves reflected in media and being hungry for more of that, than to any specific interest in superheroes or comics specifically.

I can also tell you that last I checked (which admittedly may have been some time ago), the best-selling Marvel trade paperback collections were Ms. Marvel, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s run on Black Panther. That’s two YA titles starring characters that haven’t yet been in a Marvel movie, and a comic run written by a well-known author who made his name outside of comics. These aren’t necessarily the Marvel trades that do best in our shop, but I’m willing to bet good money that they’re the ones that are getting checked out of your local library most often. (And I would absolutely LOVE some insider info from a librarian on how their graphic novels perform.)

So every year, FCBD gets to feeling more and more desperate as retailers all over the country (and indeed in other parts of the world) continue to throw money, effort, and time into giving away literal tons of free comics in the hope that they’ll gain a larger portion of the community — whether that community already reads comics elsewhere, or whether they’re completely new to the medium. I could say, too, that we’re not being helped by certain publishers who seem to be substituting quantity of titles for quality of writing, but I’m not sure that would be completely fair as I’m not a “superhero person,” and I haven’t been keeping up with a lot of current material.

I hate feeling selfish and petulant when I remind people to shop locally (and ideally, I’d love for us all to be able do all shopping locally, not just comics). I understand what it’s like to not have the means and the funds (I work retail, remember?). But as I was telling my husband last night, unless something dramatic changes in society or we finally get the Y2K we were promised twenty years ago, I don’t see brick and mortar shops — of any kind — surviving. The “frivilous” shops will go first: the comic shops, the toy stores, any niche specialty store. I honestly can’t say whether that’s good or bad on a grand scale, but it certainly does make me sad and worried for my own livelihood and the livelihood of so many wonderful, smart, dedicated people I know who put so much of themselves into their businesses because they were once a young person who just really loved comic books.

And completely appropos of nothing, I’m getting really tired of people saying “it’s backwards” every time I hand them a free manga sampler. But I reckon I could construct another whole post just about how reticent people are to try new things…though I will say, a remarkable number of people I offered free comics to yesterday said “oh, I don’t read comics.” So maybe that’s part of the problem, too, that people can’t see themselves reading comics, or don’t know all that comics have to offer, in these days where superhero action flicks are breaking records at box offices around the world.

“Yeah, I saw the Avengers, it was great! But….no, I don’t read comics.”

Eisner Blues

A few days ago, the Eisner nominees were announced. Manga has its own category (kind of), which is “Best U.S. Edition of International Material — Asia.” Of course, in the past we’ve seen that this isn’t limited strictly to manga, but typically that’s where it all gets put. To be honest, I kind of hate that there’s a separate section for manga, in much the same way/for the same reasons I hate there’s a “Best Foreign Film” category at the Oscars; instead of being pitted against series in its own genre or of its own type, a manga gets pitted against other manga it may or may not have anything in common with. (Though to be fair, all of the categories in the Eisners are multi-genre.)

This year, as with most years, I would say the nominees are certainly of a type, and that type is “appealing to people who can’t figure out manga.” The books themselves are all very deserving, I won’t argue that point. But they are all, with the exception maybe of Golden Kamuy, pretty high-brow or else packaged as prestige books, many from publishers that don’t deal exclusively with manga.

The nominees are, by the way: Furari, by Jiro Taniguchi, translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian; Golden Kamuy by Satoru Noda, translated by Eiji Yasuda; My Brother’s Husband volume 1, by Gengoroh Tagame, translated by Anne Ishii; Otherworld Barbara volume 2, by Moto Hagio, translated by Matt Thorn; and Shiver: Junji Ito Selected Stories, by Junji Ito, translated by Jocelyne Allen. Kodansha’s Akira box set was also nominated a couple times, under “Best Archival Collection/Project — Comic Books” and “Best Publication Design;” and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Hound and Other Stories, adapted by Gou Tanabe and translated by Zack Davisson, was nominated for “Best Adaptation from Another Medium.” (I own the Akira boxset, by the way. It’s gorgeous, and it absolutely, 100% deserves an award.)

As I said, I have no words against any of the manga nominated. Shiver is actually one of my favorite books to come out in the last year, though I might question whether it’s the Ito book that is most deserving of an Eisner. No, my quarrel is that the Eisner committee continually ignores what the manga-reading community cares most about, and it tries to frame the more “worthy” manga as being literary, or by a creator who is so far removed from what the majority of readers are enjoying. Jiro Taniguchi is great, but he’s dead now, and his work is almost impossible for me to sell to the kids coming in for the latest volume of My Hero Academia. There is an implication here that manga is only worthwhile if it meets certain criteria; it’s much the same attitude that people who insist on a difference between “comics” and “graphic novels” have. It’s pretension.

Beyond that, there are never enough women nominated. And once again, Moto Hagio is great, but I’ve had the same volumes of Otherworld Barbara sitting on the shelf since they came out. I just had to put aside the store’s copy of The Heart of Thomas for myself, since we haven’t been able to sell it for over a year. No one is reading her material. That’s scandalous in and of itself, but it’s the truth. What I really, really don’t understand is how on earth Nagata Kabi’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness (also translated by Jocelyne Allen) managed to not get nominated. Maybe it’s just in the social media circles I’m part of, but it got talked about a TON, and has had multiple printings. And it’s one manga that I’ve been able to sell to non-manga readers, often without prompting! To say nothing, of course, of the subject matter, which is deeply moving and needed now more than ever.

It’s not just the nominations committee that’s responsible for who wins, of course. Comics creators, journalists, shop owners and managers — all these people get to vote (yes, including me). I know lots and lots of wonderful retailers and comics journalists! I also know that the majority of them know very, very little about manga. This is not solely their fault, and part of my goals within the retail sphere has been to really push manga into other shops, to give retailers the tools to navigate a medium they didn’t grow up with and therefore have no frame of reference for. But that lack of knowledge has meant that many deserving series or titles don’t get recognition.

I know that awards shows/ceremonies are all the same, that it’s a huge popularity contest that doesn’t immediately devalue works that aren’t nominated or that don’t win. But it’s frustrating to see so much quality work go unnoticed because manga is still perceived as too foreign, or as immature, or as…whatever it is that people who refuse to read manga feel that it is. I wish there wasn’t a separate category for manga — but if there wasn’t, I wonder if any manga would get nominated?

One good thing that has come out of the Eisner nominee announcements is that I discovered an utterly beautiful web/digital comic called The Carpet Merchant of Konstaniniyya, by Reimena Yee, which can be found here. I highly, highly recommend it, especially if you like historical romances, vampires, gorgeous patterns and colors, and a story that is likely to make you cry. I’m still so very, very impressed with it, and I can’t believe it had slipped past my radar until now!

If it were up to me, by the way, I would nominate the following, based both on my personal judgments and on what I see selling well in my particular store:

  • My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, by Nagata Kabi (Seven Seas Entertainment)
  • My Hero Academia, by Kohei Horikoshi (VIZ Media)
  • I Hear the Sunspot, by Yuki Fumino (One Peace Books)
  • Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, by Haruko Kumota (Kodansha USA)
  • The Girl From the Other Side, by Nagabe (Seven Seas Entertainment)

Bags of BL

Last week, I went to go pick up some manga that a friend was getting rid of — several bags of yaoi, all out of print at this point. There were a lot of treasures in and among them that I hadn’t read yet, plus she tossed in a few extra manga that she had found laying around (including a hardcover copy of Shirahime-Syo, by CLAMP).

I’ve only had a chance to read two of the manga so far, Same-Cell Organism, by Sumomo Yumeka, and Say Please, by Kano Miyamoto. I enjoyed the former quite a bit; it was a collection of sweet, fluffy BL stories that I would feel comfortable recommending to just about anyone. The latter…well, I’m super exhausted by the domestic abuse tropes in yaoi, and if Say Please had left those out, it might have been perfectly fine. As it was, it was hard to believe in the “five years later” happy romance when I couldn’t stop thinking about the assault that occurred earlier in the story.

I’ve been trying to keep up with yaoi as it’s coming out these days, and I have to say…there are still a lot of problems, still a lot of harmful tropes. But on the whole, it seems as though there’s a bit more vetting going on of material that could be considered offensive or harmful. It’s been nice to see titles like Yuki Fumino’s I Hear the Sunspot get their English debut; stories that aren’t centered around sex, but around creating bonds and falling in love are more gratifying for me than straight-up porn. Even some of the saucier titles have been a real treat, though! I really enjoyed Scarlet Beriko’s Jackass, which could have so easily fallen prey to any number of horrible tropes. I’ll admit, as I was reading it, I was trying to predict how long it would take before I became thoroughly disappointed in my choice of reading material. Glad to say that disappointment never came!

I know that rummaging through the backlog of out of print DMP yaoi is going to be…challenging. I suspect there was a sort of “we’ll take what we can get” mentality about licensing at the time, and fans were so hungry for whatever they could get their hands on that they were willing to overlook some of the more egregious faults of the BL genre. But North American fujoshi are pickier now, I think. I know I certainly am! But I also think there’s a certain value in me going back and reading through this material I wasn’t able to get my hands on at the time of its publication (either because the places I shopped didn’t carry it, or because I was too young at the time to legally buy it).

I’ve heard Vassalord is…a wacky time.

Even though manga and anime are more popular and accessible now than ever before, there will always be certain series or whole genres that remain under the radar of public consciousness. I think BL is one of those genres; it’s so niche, and can be difficult to navigate. Something like yuri, I think, will continue to grow in popularity because not only will lesbian readers snap it up, but ostensibly straight men will, too, and they will pass it along to their friends and talk it up on social media. (As an aside, I remain pleasantly surprised every time I sell My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness to a man. I always wonder if they know what it is ahead of time, or if they think they’re getting a fun sexybook.) BL will never get that treatment because its main reader base is women, and in my experience women’s opinions on what is sexy are treated as less important. I don’t mean to imply that gay men should feel the need to read BL; Lord knows it’s not generally a great example of actual, genuine homosexual relationships. But BL gets put through the ringer a lot in ways that other media doesn’t, and I can’t help but think that it’s mostly because it’s something that chiefly women read and talk about and bond over.

It is my hope that in the coming years, we’ll see a lot more BL translated into English that appeals to a variety of readers. I get men in the store frequently who want BL but don’t like the painful stereotypes, or who aren’t really interested in porn as much as in gay romance. I’d like to be able to give them more recommendations than just I Hear the Sunspot and His Favorite. And I’d like to see the Western comics world tackle gay male stories, too! There have been a couple good ones lately — Taproot and Generations, both published by Lion Forge, come to mind. Let’s keep the trend rolling!

In the meantime, I’m going to try to wade through all these old books that I had to carry back to the store via the train. Anyone have any remedies for an achy shoulder..?

The resemblance is uncanny!

Anime Boston, My Birthday, and Live Chats — Oh My!

The last couple weeks have been incredibly hectic, but for all good reasons!  As many of you know, Anime Boston was last weekend.  The store I work for, Comicopia, has a large booth at the show, and part of my responsibilities is helping with ordering and organizing what we bring, who our volunteers are, and how things get displayed.  The month leading up to AB is honestly a lot more work than being at the show and selling the books!  That’s the fun part — getting to interact with customers, helping people find what they’re looking for, figuring out new ways to showcase books on the fly.  And we have a really great host of volunteers who help make the experience extra fun.

As is often the case, my birthday was immediately after Anime Boston — this past Wednesday, in fact.  I spent the day…well, going to work and unpacking manga, honestly, haha.  It wasn’t so bad, and my husband and I went out for Japanese barbecue afterwards which was great.

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And now, all the manga is unpacked and counted, I’ve figured out what needs reordering, and we can get back to business as usual at work for a little while!  I’ve been pleased to note that some more obscure titles have been selling lately in the store, and I hope that we can continue to fill that niche for customers!

Bit of an announcement before I pop off: at 4pm today I’m taking part in the third installment of The Black Manga Critic’s “Women Talk About Anime & Manga” series!  We’re going to be discussing Nagata Kabi’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, published in English by Seven Seas Entertainment.  Joining us on the panel tonight will be the manga’s translator, Jocelyne Allen, whose insights I’m really looking forward to hearing!  I hope some of you will have a chance to watch that, whether it be live as it airs or after the fact.

I promise that since life has settled down a bit more, I’ll actually get to posting some manga-specific content, not just “day in the life of a Manga Maven” stuff, haha.  I’m especially excited about the new GeGeGe no  Kitaro anime that’s airing right now, so I’m sure I won’t be able to resist sounding off on that!

Keep it real, kids!

 

An Introduction: Who I Am and Why I’m Here

This website has been a long time coming, honestly.  I’ve been reading manga since childhood, I’ve written reviews for other sites, and now I am the manga buyer and manager at a comic book store in Boston.  As part of my duties, I often advise a couple groups of comics retailers on their manga buying, and I keep feeling like I want to be able to dispense that advice on a somewhat  larger scale.

I can’t claim that I know all there is to know about manga, but I am confident in the knowledge that I have, and I know it is specialized enough to be of use to others.  So at least in part, I hope that my reviews and ramblings are helpful for retailers, but also to publishers and consumers.

Beyond that, I just really love manga.  I am deeply interested in its history and its production, both within and outside of Japan.  I was lucky enough to be a young teenager in the early aughts, so my pop cultural experience was very much embroiled in the Cool Japan zeitgeist.  Basically, I never had a chance!

So what will you see here?  My reviews will mostly skew toward less-popular titles, partially because I like and read a broad and strange array of manga, and partially because a series like One Piece will never need my help getting sales.  I will also focus a lot on work by women, because again, the men don’t need my help.  In terms of genre, you can expect a little bit of everything, save perhaps hardcore hentai (though I will review adult works).  The manga will be a mix of old and new works, because there will always be a soft spot in my heart for anything that came out while I was a teen — and besides, there’s some good vintage work out there!

Outside of the reviews, I will try to pop by with interesting little manga-related tidbits from my life, or my opinions on current goings-on in the manga and anime world.  I may also occasionally bring up non-manga graphic novels and maybe even some prose fiction or non-fiction that I think is relevant to manga in some way. My intention is for this site, like all projects, to grow and change as I do, and as I gain more readers who want certain content.

So thank you all for being here, and for starting on me with this adventure!