My Favorite Reads of 2018

It’s that time of year again, where every single nerd news site tells you what the best-of-the-best comics of the year are.  I’m always wary of trying to make blanket statements about literature, but I did want to share a few of my favorites from this past year.  I’ve done a LOT of reading, and I feel as though I’ve branched out more than usual (or more like, there have been more titles in Western comics that have appealed to me than there have been in the past).

I didn’t give myself a limit to the number of books I chose, nor any kind of guideline as to theme, tone, etc.  I just picked the ones I felt strongly about!  These are listed in roughly the order I read them in, and by no means in order of quality.  They’re all top-notch, anyway!

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The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang

Prince Sebastian has a BIG secret: sometimes he likes to wear dresses and go out on the town as Lady Crystallia.  In addition to keeping this part of himself hidden from Parisian society, he has to deal with his parents determinedly seeking out a bride for him.  Enter Frances, an extremely skilled seamstress with dreams of fashion design whom Sebastian employs to outfit him for all occasions, public and secret.  The story of these two growing together and learning to be their best selves is captured incredibly in Wang’s bright, flowing artwork.  Plenty of humor helps to balance out the heart-rending moments that remind the reader to never lose sight of the things that make them unique.

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Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, by Pénélope Bagieu

I genuinely did not expect to adore this book as much as I do.  I’m not well-versed in the non-fiction graphic novel, and I’m often suspicious of cheery, pink-emblazoned “girl power” books — not because I don’t believe in girl power, but because it’s hard to encapsulate in one book what it is about womanhood that is so unique.  That said, I was truly fascinated and enthralled by the stories that Bagieu, in her whimsical style, has presented in this hefty tome of awesome and awe-inspiring women.  Women from all backgrounds, in all types of careers, with differing needs and goals, and with all sorts of romantic entanglements and personal dramas, are presented for the reader with reverence, joy, and good humor.

 

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Go For It, Nakamura!, by Syundei

I have been seriously reveling in the increased publication of good, sweet, not-super-fetishistic BL manga this past year or so.  In this exquisite example, young Nakamura knows for sure that he’s gay, and also knows for sure that he’s in love with his classmate, Hirose.  The problem is, he doesn’t even know how to become friends with Hirose, never mind try to ask him out!  Between caring for his pet octopus, perusing questionable BL for romance tips, and just generally trying not to act overly weird, will our stalwart hero ever secure Hirose’s friendship?  A familiar story for anyone who was shy in high school, Go For It, Nakamura! uses awkwardness, hilarity, and genuine heart to create a sweet and fuzzy one-shot that will make you yearn for more.  Syundei’s artwork is adorable, and very reminiscent of that of manga powerhouse Rumiko Takahashi.

 

My brain is poison

Tokyo Tarareba Girls, by Akiko Higashimura

I wrote about my initial reaction to volume one of Akiko Higashimura’s forays into 30-something woman angst back when the print version first came out.  The series is now three print volumes in (with all volumes available digitally), and it has not stopped being maybe the most anticipated title in my pull at work.  Higashimura’s ability to poke fun at the stupidity of a woman’s society-bred anxieties while treating the same character with sympathy and understanding is so incredible to me.  I often find it hard to articulate what it is that makes this series so good, because it’s really everything.  Please…I don’t often make demands, but read Tokyo Tarareba Girls.

Claudine

Claudine, by Riyoko Ikeda

I find this manga hard to recommend, even though I love it.  It is a quick read; I read it from start to finish on my half-hour bus ride home from work one day.  But it is also a dramatic and sad read, in true 70s shojo fashion.  Our protagonist Claudine is assigned female at birth, but knows in his heart that he is a man.  Even his own father embraces Claudine as more of a son than a daughter, going riding with him and treating him like his older brothers.  Society in early 20th century France, however, is not as kind.  To the rest of the world, Claudine is a girl, and the tragedy here lies in the outmoded concept that any woman he might love will never lead a fulfilled life with a “woman” partner.  So in many ways, this is a fantastic achievement, being a trans story from 70s Japan; but it is also a story about a trans man from the perspective of a cisgender woman, writing at a time when shojo manga was about deep, dramatic personal struggles and utilizing queerness as a vehicle for those struggles.  If you can go into it with the understanding that it is a sad story (and yes, I did cry on that fateful bus ride home), it is a simply gorgeous and heartbreaking work of tragedy.

makingfriendsthwoop

Making Friends, by Kristen Gudsnuk

I’ve been in love with Kristen Gudsnuk’s work ever since I read the first issue of Henchgirl, back when it was released by Scout Comics.  Her artwork is fun, her dialogue is funny, and she makes plenty of obvious anime references that I feel are speaking directly to me and my sense of humor.  So of course I was thrilled when Making Friends came out, and I was not disappointed.  Protagonist Dany is starting middle school, where she is separated from her friends and everything that was familiar to her.  She turns inward and begins to draw in the sketchbook she recently inherited from her recently deceased great-aunt.  Soon she discovers that anything she draws in the sketchbook — including the head of her favorite anime badboy — comes to life!  She quickly devises a plan to create a new, perfect best friend.  But as we all know, magic has serious consequences, and Dany is going to have to figure out how to fix the mess she’s made.  Gudsnuk does an excellent job of keeping this story about friendship and responsibility from becoming saccharine or tropey, instead treating every character with equal weight and relying on her uncanny knack for coming at a story from a slightly sideways perspective.

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Satoko and Nada, by Yupechika and Marie Nishimori

This was absolutely one of my most anticipated titles of the year, and man oh man did it hit a home run for me.  Upon initially receiving it I was uncertain, as it is laid out in 4-koma format, which I usually find cute but not particularly compelling.  And yet in this easy gag style, with simple illustrations, Satoko and Nada manages to be a profoundly intimate story of friendship between women and across cultures.  Nada is a college student from Saudi Arabia who is looking for a roommate.  Satoko, a student in the same school, has recently arrived from Japan and chooses to become that needed roommate.  Thus begins this tale of two people from very different backgrounds as they live together and learn all about each other and about their multicultural friends.  Warm-hearted, informative, and full of meme references, this manga really surprised me in the best possible way.  I want everyone to read it!

(Just an honorable mention here: I reread two of my absolute favorite series this year: Pet Shop of Horrors, by Matsuri Akino, and The Wallflower, by Tomoko Hayakawa.  One day, I’d like to write at length about both of these series, but as they’re old and hard to find, I opted against adding them to this list.  Look forward to an analysis of them one day, because I am very attached to them both!)

As you can see, I read a lot of very heartwarming stories by or about women this year.  I have been immensely impressed by the range in stories and creators I’ve had access to, and that’s something I want to see continue to grow year by year.  My reading list has been a bright spot in what has been a very tumultuous year otherwise (personally and in the world at large), and it gives me hope that more differing voices are being tapped to tell more and varied stories.

Looking forward to reading more in 2019!

 

Eisner Follow-Up & Podcast Announcement

As I’m sure amny of you remember, when voting for the Eisner Awards opened up, I had some complaints about the manga nominees — not because they weren’t worthy, but because I didn’t think they really reflected what manga readers cared most about. I stand by everything I said in that post; I think a lot of improvements need to be made in regards to manga’s position in the Western comics world. However, on the whole I have to say that I’m very pleased with the results of the award ceremony.

Gengoroh Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband won the “Best Adaptation of International Material – Asia” category…and while all the nominees were outstanding in their own ways, I think this is the book I most wanted to win. (I didn’t vote for it; I wrote in Nagata Kabi’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, but I knew that winning would have been a long shot.) It’s not necessarily my favorite manga in the nominee lineup (I’m an enormous Junji Ito fan, so Shiver would probably claim that role), but I do think it is the most important, and the most indicative of a shift in the comics-reading demographic. Which is to say, queer folks have always been reading and making comics, and it’s nice to see that acknowledged.

In fact, many queer folks, women, and creators of color were acknowledged at this year’s award ceremony. I won”t go too deep into the non-manga awards here, but I was extremely pleased to see a lot of my favorite creators and books given the acknowledgement I never dreamed the comics industry would provide. I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong.

The Akira boxset won two awards, as well! Readers will probably note from my last post that I have a boxset of my very own, and I can’t possibly overstate how incredibly beautiful its presentation is. I don’t always agree with Kodansha’s printing choices (about half of their titles are oversize right now, which makes them hell to shelve), but this is one notable time where they did no wrong. I’m glad to see that it’s been in high enough demand that it’s gone to second print!

I think, though, that the highlight for me was to see Rumiko Takahashi, the most successful and one of the most influential women in comics, finally inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame. As Deb Aoki, comics critic extraordinaire (@debaoki on Twitter!), mentioned: having some random American award probably isn’t that big a deal to Takahashi, a woman already festooned with awards, accolades, and a great deal of ongoing market value. But it is an important step for the often very Euro-centric or otherwise cloistered Western comics community to honor a mangaka — and a woman mangaka, at that. That she was a write-in winner warms my heart immensely. It’s exciting to note that Viz Media just announced they’ll be reprinting Urusei Yatsura, as well, so now a new generaton of fans can be similarly inspired by some of Takahashi’s early work!

Eisner stuff aside, I also wanted to mention that later today I’ll be recording content for the 200th episode of the Manga Machinations podcast! They approached me a couple months ago asking if I’d be willing to join them, and it’s been a lot of fun chatting back and forth and listening to some of their past work. They have had the opportunity to host translator Jocelyne Allen twice, and I highly recommend listening to those episodes if you haven’t already. You can find Manga Machinations on Twitter (@MangaMacPodcast) and on Tumblr (mangamachinations.tumblr.com). The 200th episode goes up tomorrow, Monday, July 23rd. I hope you’ll give it a listen; you’ll get a little bit of background about me, my job, and my feelings about josei and LGBTQ+ manga!

Pride and the Manga Market

Happy Pride! I spent yesterday dolled up as Loki, marching with various other Avengers as a part of Boston’s Pride Parade. It’s something we’ve been doing at Comicopia for the last decade now, though this is only my second time going, personally.

Marching in Pride is pretty tiring, but being there reminds me of why this kind of visibility is important for the queer community — of Boston, and of the world as a whole. I marched and screamed and smiled while hoisting the bisexual pride flag high, and I locked eyes with a small child wrapped in their very own bi pride flag. Another little one ran right out and gave me a hug, and countless people cheered as they saw me: visible and queer and there to celebrate myself and them.

But queerness isn’t visible everywhere, or at all times. It’s not allowed to be part of so much of mainstream culture, even now in 2018. In the comics world, however, it’s steadily on the rise. I have kind of accidentally read a lot of gay material this year; and while the content and quality vary greatly, that’s not something I could have said a scant five years ago.

I feel as though I can hardly scroll through my Twitter feed without someone bringing up My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, and I’m glad of it! It’s sequel recently came out, the first part of My Solo Exchange Diary. And Seven Seas has also released The Bride Was A Boy, which I have already covered; soon, they will also have released Riyoko Ikeda’s Claudine, about a transman living in 19th century France.

The yuri market seems to be expanding as well, and though Seven Seas has often taken the lead in that genre, we’re seeing Viz Media throwing their hat in the ring with titles like After Hours and Sweet Blue Flowers. And they’re going to be publishing some BL too (or perhaps the term shonen ai would be more appropriate in this context), under their normal Viz moniker, not their SuBLime imprint: That Blue Sky Feeling, coming out in August.

Volume one of Gengoroh Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband came out last year, and we’re expecting its sequel in the early fall. Fantagraphics recently reprinted the Massive bara anthology, which is excellent for us because…honestly, we sell a ton of Tagame and bara in general! I know that’s probably not typical, I can’t completely fathom why we’re able to move it the way that we do.

I haven’t even gotten to talking about non-manga comics, with publishers like Boom Studios and Oni Press taking the lead in queer material, especially queer material for young audiences. And a lot of those gay young people books? It’s clear that they’ve been influenced by anime and manga.

So. What does this all mean? I would surmise that someone somewhere has realized that queer content is marketable. For a long time, that market seemed to be fujoshi scrambling for yaoi, but the tides are turning a little bit. A lot of those fujoshi have explored their own sexuality or identity and found themselves identifying as something other than straight or cisgender. They’ve been joined by fudanshi, perhaps. Or maybe the strange nature of animanga has made readers flexible to ideas outside of their norm.

I can’t say, of course, that that’s how things have progressed. But I can say that for me, the animanga community has always been very…well, gay. I had a conversation with someone about the local Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE) recently, and when I said I loved it because it felt like one big artist’s alley, he responded that it seemed much queerer than any artist’s alley at any con he had ever been to. And that’s when it hit me — the comic book conventions cater to a completely different crowd than the anime conventions. I mean, obviously, right? But not just in content; in age and economic standing and social status…in every way imaginable.

We’ve graduated from the yaoi paddles of my adolescence, thank God, but I can’t spit at Anime Boston without hitting a kid wearing a YAOI-emblazoned snapback. I sell out of My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness and I Hear the Sunspot on a regular basis at the store, and still sell them with lightning speed at shows. I see pronoun pins on shoppers almost as often as I see character goods.

And some enterprising person (or people), perhaps queer themselves, has discovered that there is a whole group of people out there whose media is under-serving them on a daily basis. And so they’re filling that niche. That sounds cynical, and clinical, I guess, but it’s really a wonderful thing.

The first Pride march was a riot; the current Pride parades have corporate sponsorship. The nature of achieving progress in our society, as it currently stands, seems to necessitate becoming a “commercial success,” so to speak. I don’t love the coupling of business and marketing with identity; I hate the fact that my Pride marshal badge both this year and last proudly proclaimed the name of a bank sponsor. I don’t trust corporations to do better just because they choose to align themselves with a hot topic like feminism or gay rights or whatever.

But…I feel differently about the world of publishing. It’s naiive, perhaps, and maybe it’s because I know people who work in publishing that I’m able to hold on to this hope. Comics as an industry is a mess, but I want to see myself and my queer siblings as the heroes of our own stories. I want to trust that these license agreements are coming not solely from a sales point of view, but from a desire to help bolster visibility.

And while the queer stories themselves are a boon, I want to see a growing trend of stories by queer creators. I think that’s the most important way to show support — to give a voice to those who for so long have been voiceless. To allow those creators to feel safe, and listened to, and proud.

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!

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!