The Beautiful & the Damned; Where Violence Meets Aesthetics in Pet Shop of Horrors

Among the extensive list of things I shamelessly love are: the occult detective genre, beautiful men, the monster-of-the-week format, and morality plays. Matsuri Akino’s Pet Shop of Horrors very neatly contains all of these things, and indeed might be the reason I’m so fond of some of them.

For those unfamiliar with this late-90s shojo series, the premise is that in LA’s Chinatown there is a mysterious pet shop whose proprietor, Count D, sells exotic “animals” to anyone who can pay the price. Each animal comes with a specific set of rules, and when those rules aren’t followed to the letter, tragedy inevitably occurs. LAPD officer Leon Orcot is assigned to investigate D and the weird phenomena linked to his shop, but in the process he is drawn into a series of Twilight Zone-esque situations that he cannot explain, let alone report to his superiors.

Right now, I can look at this premise and think to myself, “Yep, this is totally my kind of bullshit.” But when I first picked it up as a young teen, it was because I was drawn to its beautiful cover, where the androgynous D is holding a mermaid, whose back is turned to the viewer. D’s eyes are piercing and almost sad, his fingers long and delicate. I was in love with this man who moved in multiple worlds: the masculine and the feminine, reality and fantasy, beauty and horror.

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And when I bought and read this first volume, I was shocked. It wasn’t outright scary, necessarily, but it certainly was gory. In the first chapter already was there a horrific scene of evisceration, in and amongst all the trappings of a classic 90s shojo style, preoccupied with luxury and beauty. It was jarring, and it was effective. I discovered then that I didn’t dislike horror like I had previously thought, I just wanted it to be beautiful.

To this day, I find myself critical of scary or violent media that doesn’t also have a keen sense of aesthetics. I don’t necessarily enjoy being frightened; I am a naturally anxious person with vivid and violent dreams who does not react well to heightened suspense in media. I do like dark themes, though, and in recent years I have made it a point to expose myself to films especially that I know I would like if I could just get over my own hang-ups. And by being discerning, I’ve been rewarded with some of the most gorgeous horror and gore I’ve ever seen.

I think beauty and romance are natural companions to horror. All these themes pivot on an axis of drama, of amplified emotions. They all invoke visceral reactions, not logical ones. All my life I’ve surrounded myself with artwork depicting scenes and themes of witchcraft, hauntings, murders, martyrs, and mortality. It seems natural to me that scary things can pull at the same emotions I feel when I recognize something as beautiful.

And all this because way back in 2003, Tokyopop decided to take a chance on something that wasn’t very common in the comics world at the time: horror for girls. There’s plenty of it to be found in the manga world, and now there is more acknowledgement of girls and women reading outside of the romance genre. But it was new for me then, and even now Pet Shop of Horrors remains one of my favorite series, because it presented to me something I hadn’t known I was seeking out. It understood my tastes uniquely; it was able to marry my desire with my rage and prove them to be not disparate but intertwined and equally valid.

In truth, it is a somewhat silly series. It is certainly more fun than profound, but that in and of itself is not a criticism. It is pure, indulgent entertainment, and for me it is certainly laced with a nostalgic love that I will never be able to shake. How many times have I reread and referenced that first volume, gazing awestruck at the lovingly rendered intestines spilling out of a beautiful man’s body? How many times have I giggled at the flirtatious relationship between D and Orcot? How many times have I wished that modern depictions of mermaids were even half as scary as the one Akino has created?

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The series is unfortunately long out of print, and later volumes are hard to find. I imagine that it wasn’t a huge seller for Tokyopop, though I am forever grateful that they took a chance on it to begin with. The anime is available to stream on HiDive, brief as it is, if you’d like to get a glimpse into Count D’s enigmatic Chinatown pet shop.

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

Monthly Manga Mailing

I have some exciting news to share with everyone today!  Part of my job is to advise fellow comics retailers on which manga they might be interested in stocking in their stores.  Because the demand for this service has gotten so high and is causing me to cross-post in several groups, I’ve decided to create a mailing list!  While it will be geared toward comic shop retailers, certainly anyone who would like to see my monthly thoughts on upcoming titles is welcome to sign up.  I just ask that everyone bear with me as I slowly learn how to use MailChimp to its fullest potential, haha.  The link to sign up is here, and I’ll be posting it in several locations over the course of today so that it reaches everyone who might want it!

In other news, I haven’t written much lately, but I assure you all that I’ve been reading a ton.  I’ve been on a bit of a shojo romcom kick lately; I read seven volumes of Waiting For Spring the other day, and have slowly been working my way through High School Debut.  I’m not sure why, but every now and then I just feel the need to read something sweet and positive, and shojo romances really fill that requirement for me.

My last post was a review of a middle reader graphic novel that isn’t a manga.  This doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned manga (obviously), but I do want to mention that I probably will be doing more non-manga reviews in the future.  I believe that middle reader and young adult graphic novels are among the best (and best-selling) graphic works right now, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them, especially as so many of them have been influenced by manga and are being read alongside manga.  Media, after all, does not exist in a bubble.  Works for young audiences are important right now, creating many new readers and strengthening visual literacy.

And that’s all to report right now!  Just some little updates to tide you over until I post again — or until you sign up for my regular emails!