Manga Friday: Shojo (Slight Return)
Once again I’m left with a stack of books that are sequels to other books – that’s what comics is about, isn’t it? stories that never end? – and so I shoved three of them together due to some vague shojo similarities. And they are…
Nephilim, Vol. 2
By Anna Hanamaki
Aurora, July 2008, $10.95
The first volume of Nephilim – which I reviewed back in August – looked a lot like an adventure story, with daring escapes, swordfights, chase scenes, and two battling empires. But it had within it the hints of the emotion-drenched shojo romance it was destined to eventually be. By the end of that book, the dashing nobleman Guy had saved the Nephilim Abel (one of a nearly-genocided race of people who all change sex at night, which must make pregnancies interesting) and they’d seemingly shared a “we both love each other” moment before they were rudely separated.
But it’s now a year later, and Abel is searching for Guy, while swanning over the one moment when he said he wanted to be her husband. (She’s a shojo heroine, so she spends a lot of time in a romantic reverie and hardly any time noticing the world in front of her.) The background is still of a world vaguely at war, between two large powerful countries, with the poor Nephilim (what of them are left) stuck in the middle. But that’s really just for added drama: the focus here has shifted decisively to “but does he luuuuuuuve me?!” territory.
Abel does catch back up with Guy, as we knew she would. She eventually learns he has a Tragic Secret (related to a Weakness He Is Too Much Of An Honorable Man To Tell, and which Threatens His Life when he Performs Great Deeds), and, even worse, that he has what looks like another romantic entanglement. (Interestingly – since he seemingly originally was interested in Abel during the day, when she was a boy – the woman he’s canoodling with now has a short, severe haircut and an tough, commanding attitude that some might even call “manly.”)
Oh, and Guy is also part of a secret group that’s freeing Nephilim, who are mostly being kept as sex-slaves by nobles these days – since they’re ungodly beautiful, and the sex-changing thing apparently is a commonly-shared kink on this world. That group serves as a reason for Abel to throw herself into danger – to be close to Guy, and to show that she cares.
Abel is a shojo heroine, so she lurks around, lost in her own emotions, rather than marching up to Guy and saying something like, “Oi! Blondie! You said you wanted to marry me – does that offer still apply?” Of course, that would end the plot one way or another, and we can’t have that.
So Nephilim has found its groove, and is settling in. It could run for years with this set-up – Abel and Guy get a little closer, perhaps, as one rival or another is driven away…but then another one crops up (perhaps for the other one of them). And then one of them has to go on a long, dangerous mission far from the other, and then one of them is assumed dead…again, it could go on nearly forever. If you like this sort of thing, Nephilim is a decent example of the form: all of the characters are exceptionally pretty, the drawing is crisp and detailed, and Abel is remarkably likable, given everything.
Sunshine Sketch, Vol. 2
By Ume Aoki
Yen Press, November 2008, $10.99
Sunshine Sketch is a less generic shojo series than Nephilim is: it’s set in a girls’ school, yes – a deeply generic setting – but it’s a light slice-of-life comedy about four not-quite-stereotyped girls and their school life, rather than dragging aliens or panty shots or dreamy transsexual dreamboats into the mix. Yuno and her fellow students at the Hidamari Apartments are normal highschool kids, working hard at their art-focused school and, even more so, having small moments at a bath-house or throwing snowballs or competing in their school’s sports festival.
I enjoyed the first volume of Sunshine Sketch when I reviewed it during the summer, and this second book has the same kinds of pleasures. The four girls aren’t deep characters, and I can’t say that we get to know them well, but we do know them as types, and become part of their world.
Sunshine Sketch is cute and fun and sunny, entertaining without trying too hard, and funnier the more of the cultural background you know. (One possible problem with “slice-of-life” stories – as opposed to big silly genre stories – is that Japanese life is quite different, in those small slices, than American life is, and so the close observation of those small things will give lots of details that aren’t familiar to readers like me.) I don’t want to claim too much for it – it’s a small, light thing, but excellent and a joy in its way – but it is a lovely little story.
You’re So Cool, Vol. 2
By YoungHee Lee
Yen Press, September 2008, $10.99
And then we jump right back into something quite generic: a story of the gawkiest, klutziest girl in her Korean school (Nan-Woo), who fell in love with the tall, dark, handsome (and secretly dangerous) Seung-Ha, only to have him claim her as his girlfriend for his own purposes. (We saw this in the first volume, which I reviewed about six months ago.)
Nan-Woo is still very very young, and tries to get out of her situation in the thoughtless way of a teenager who will never be in the top half of her class in any task requiring sustained thought. Seung-Ha remains dark and hard to fathom, though he does get a couple of humanizing scenes here – you see, he’s the son of a powerful politician, and he rebels against that phony world like a calmer version of a James Dean hero. (He’s probably being torn apart like the best of ‘em, but he’d never say so.)
And then there’s Chan-Gyu, Nan-Woo’s childhood friend and secret admirer – he’s midway between her abject loserdom and the exalted heights of universally beloved Seung-Ha – who disappeared for most of the first volume, but comes back strong in this one. It’s not quite a love triangle yet, because Chan-Gyu will have to become much more active for that. But it’s heading in that direction.
This book also sees a subplot starting, with what will eventually be a yaoi love affair centered on Jay, who I think is Nan-Woo’s older brother. (He lives with her, and is the housekeeper – I guess he could be hired for the job, but a live-in male housekeeper in his early twenties seems weird, even for manga.) Jay meets a slightly older guy (Hyun-Ho) in the park, and seems to be utterly oblivious to the very gay vibe he’s giving off.
You’re So Cool can be very broad, particularly in the physical comedy scenes involving Nan-Woo. And Lee draws people – except for a few times when Nan-Woo looks squat and tiny – as giant, gangling figures, with limbs that stretch across the page and immense, spidery hands. There’s an element of the grotesque that creeps in, though I don’t think Lee intends it: her characters sprawl across her layouts, all gawky, awkward teenagers – even when they’re not supposed to be. Those elements – odd though the can be – do keep You’re So Cool from falling entirely into a generic rut; it’s something distinctive and different, even if the differences can be weird at times.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.