Blank Slate, by Aya Kanno
published in English in October 2008 by Viz Media
There’s a second (and final) volume, which was published in December 2008.

Welcome to “Gluey Tart: Adventures in Manporn.” I’m writing this column because manporn is an extremely important subject. Well, not really. I’m writing this because I’m obsessed, and, more important, because someone asked me.

There are a lot of people reading manporn in the U.S. (I’m going to use the terms “manporn” and “yaoi” more or less interchangeably. I define “yaoi” loosely – and I mean that in every sense of the word – as romantic stories written by and for women about beautiful men having sex.) If you go to Borders and scan the shelves, you’ll see lots of titles from June, Blu, and Deux. There are others, but those three are pretty reliable. There are lots of other sources as well, but my point is, it’s easily accessible. Borders, people. Why does that matter? Well, there’s a lot of us. We’re not as crazy and marginal as we looked even five years ago. Maybe I’m just trying to have a self-esteem moment.

Or maybe we’re talking about a big market for a largely marginalized group in U.S. comics: women. I invite you to draw your own conclusions about how much that matters. I’m mostly going to talk about yaoi and shonen-ai manga that have caught my eye, and natter happily about them. (Quick note: people disagree about everything, including the meaning and proper usage of “yaoi” and “shonen ai.” I use “yaoi” to mean “there’s sex!” and “shonen-ai” to mean “no sex, but sigh, look at the meaningful eye contact!”)

Oh, about the pseudonym. I use it because it’s only polite. I write porn on the Internet, and while I am proud of this endeavor, I am not eager to have my employers, coworkers, acquaintances, and family members casually Google me and wind up reading something that has the word “cock” seven times in the first paragraph. Because is this something they want to know about me? It is not.

Which leads us (more or less) to the first review. I use this word almost carelessly, albeit with gusto. There are sites that do proper reviews of yaoi manga and novels. My favorite is “Boys Next Door,” where they make a proper attempt at summarizing the plot and that sort of thing. What am I going to write about, then? We’ll see. No sex in my first selection, because there isn’t any. Not even any of those longing looks, because there aren’t any of those, either. What we do have is pretty boy overload, and a certain unmistakable vibe.

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The boy on the cover is pretty. So pretty. All the major characters are pretty. Cool, angsty-looking pretty boys with big guns. Did I mention that they’re pretty? They really are. I’m not sure who’s who all the time. I’m not always sure what’s happening. Don’t misunderstand – we’re not talking about confusion that rips space and time. We’re talking about a series of brow-furrowing, minor WTF moments that end with a quiet snort of “Oh, I don’t care anyway.” My willingness to accept this kind of thing is not infinite; far from it. I will put the book down and move on to the next shiny object, no matter how pretty the boys are. Blank Slate is well within my tolerances for not making sense. And, not to belabor the point, the boys are so pretty.

It isn’t just the pretty. I was going to say there isn’t enough pretty in the world to make up for some messes, but that might be a lie. In this case, though, the story is entertaining enough, in a thug-style James Bond meets the Matrix sort of way. The exceedingly pretty protagonist of Blank Slate, Zen (isn’t that deep?), is an amnesiac master assassin – and I don’t mind admitting that it makes me sigh happily just to write those words. I could summarize the plot, such as it is, but it doesn’t really matter. There are three casually related stories that you really wish were more closely related, but they aren’t. Zen is the constant – cool and almost supernaturally competent. The story is atmospheric and stylish. You’ve heard that before? You’ve heard everything in this manga before. It’s OK.

Zen. Is he bad? You know it. But deep down, underneath it all, does he have a heart of gold? Well, no, thank God. And is he hot? So, so hot. Hot, beautiful, mystery assassin boy. It works, despite being a big old cliché fest. The art is lovely, and the story is basically satisfying in a vague but solidly cool, noir sort of way. This book made me want to go out and buy a pair of spy sunglasses, and maybe one of those ’70s navy blue sniper trench coats. Possibly a t-shirt that says “Assassins do it from behind.” And I don’t know about you, but I call that satisfaction.

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