Youngran Lee
Click 1-2
NetComics
B&W/softcover
ISBN# 978-1-60009-202-2

Click is a comic about a transexual and his/her heartache. If it were American, that would make it an alternative comic, probably with some sort of feminist agenda. Instead, it’s a Korean comic in shoujo style — which means its romance for girls, with its eyes on a mass market audience and its heart in a soap opera narrative.

Gender-bending is standard in shoujo. Still — and especially for an American audience — *Click* takes the trope to a bizarre extreme. Our hero, Joonha Lee, is a dreamboat guy — until one day he turns into a dreamboat girl. His comically detached parents explain that a chromosome shift runs in the family, and, after several desperate trips to the bathroom, Joonha accepts his fate.

And yes, that’s all the explanation we get. The rest is all unrequited love and teen angst. Oh, and did I mention the unrequited love? Everyone, male or female, falls for Joonha, including deceptively deep playboy Taehyun, Taehyun’s ex-girlfriend Yoomi, and all the girls in two separate high schools. Meanwhile, Joonha herself pines romantically for Heewon, a girl he once had a crush on, and for Jinhoo, his best (male) friend growing up. His tragic transformation separates him from both of them, resulting in many longing looks from dewy, close-up eyes. Forget love triangles, we’re talking love tesseracts here.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with the experience of actual transsexuals. Nor does it have much to do with the series’ ostensible message of gender-blind empowerment for all (“What does it matter whether you’re a girl or a guy? What’s important is how you live your life.”) Instead, Lee, like many shoujo creators, is simply (or not-so-simply) fascinated and, indeed, titillated by gender slippage. It’s not just Joonha whose sex is ambiguous; virtually all the characters are drawn as glamorously languorous ectomorphs, posed angularly beneath their seductively swirling hair.

And yet, the more androgynous the trappings, the more decidedly female the core. The story is a haze of floating crushes which obscure and then obliterate genital reality. It evokes the hot-house emotional atmosphere of a stereotypically feminine pre-adolescence — the powerful affections involved with, but not quite synonymous with, gender identity — and presents it as gay utopia. The whole thing is completely ridiculous, and more than a little brilliant. I’d recommend it for girls, of course, but also for boys — and, indeed, for everyone else as well.

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M. Alice LeGrow
Bizenghast vols 1-2
Tokyopop
B&W/softcover
$9.99 each

Western efforts to imitate manga tend to range from middling to execrable, so when I first saw Bizenghast, I was thrilled. Others have figured out the psychic connection between shoujo and goth, but creator M. Alice Legrow actually has the chops to render the detailed filigree and sumptuous outfits which are crucial to both genres. Moreover, she’s a smart writer, with a quick sense of humor and a knack for character interaction. Dinah and Vincent are types we’ve seen before — young, earnest, beautiful, and burdened with melodramatic backstory and Victorian wardrobes. But they’re rendered with enough love that they can occasionally surprise you — as when Vincent glances up Dinah’s skirt and blushes for all he’s worth, or when Dinah traps a human-headed spider under a glass and then coldly and unconcernedly watches it asphyxiate.

Alas, for all its virtues, the series doesn’t bear up under close inspection. LeGrow has a good feel for horror tropes, and I could see Bizenghast really working as a psychological chiller. But instead of exploring the inside of Dinah’s head or the interior of her ghost-infested house, LeGrow gets enmeshed in a truly tedious plot. Dinah and Vincent discover an old graveyard and must come back every night to free various trapped spirits, for reasons which are about as unconvincing as you might imagine. After releasing a certain number of these ghosts, the pair are rewarded with a “cute” mascot named Edaniel, who appears, hideously enough, to be voiced by Billy Crystal.

Both the video-game narrative and the totem animal are staples of shoujo fantasy series like Cardcaptor Sakura. But LeGrow’s imitations lack the breathless conviction and intricacy of the originals. In fact, the free-one-spirit-a-night routine becomes so, well, routine that LeGrow appears to be boring herself — some adventures are shown only in truncated form, and some are skipped over altogether . LeGrow does manage a few creepy moments by playing against shoujo expectations: my favorite is probably the scene in which the cuddly Edaniel takes human form and aggressively attempts to make out with a disgusted and freaked-out Dinah. But more often LeGrow’s efforts to add psychological weight and urgency are undermined by the repetitive structure. For instance, LeGrow, like many fantasy writers, is fascinated by the breaking of taboos. In well-told stories (like the movie Pan’s Labyrinth) breaking a taboo is the terrifying emotional center of the tale — a moment that encapsulates the arbitrary relationship between magic and death. But when Vincent gives the guardian silver instead of gold, nothing happens except that he has to go on yet another brief, lame quest.

These failings aren’t the fault of the shoujo genre itself, which is perfectly capable of producing moving, complicated narratives. The problem instead is that LeGrow’s hand with the shoujo is a lot less sure than her hand with the goth. I have no doubt that in a few years, we will see many, many excellent shoujo titles produced by Western writers. Bizenghast is a harbinger of a glorious future — but it’s also a sign that we haven’t quite gotten there yet.

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Hiroki Endo
Tanpenshu
Dark Horse
230 pages/B&W
ISBN 10:1-59307-637-1
ISBN 13: 978-1-59307-637-5

This collection of three short stories is my first exposure to Hiroki Endo’s work…but reading it, I had a sinking sense of familiarity. I mean, philosophizing gangster spiritually saved by innocent girl; sexually conflicted high-school student revealed as violent powder-keg; teen ensemble reveling in bittersweet profundity — haven’t I seen these movies somewhere?

It would be one thing if the genre exercises were rendered with insight, or even enthusiasm. But Endo’s story-telling style is flat almost to the exclusion of affect; characterization is reduced to perfunctory, Freudian backstory and the mouthing of quasi-Buddhist aphorisms. The exception is“For Those of Us Who Don’t Believe in God,” in which a group of university drama students engage in witty sit-com banter. The inevitable tragic revelations are delivered with clunky ineptitude, but at least a couple of the interactions here do seem sweet and unforced — one male-male kiss, punctuated by bystanders chanting “yaoi, yaoi, yaoi”, made me laugh out loud. Unfortunately, the serial-killer-behind-bars-confronts-victim dialogue in the play the students perform is such unconscionably derivative piffle that it rather ruins the whole. Here’s a breaking bulletin from Dark Adolescent Pessimism 101: “…words like ‘God’ don’t save us from anything. When we die, that’s it.” Maybe this sort of thing is all the translator’s fault, but I kind of doubt it.

Though I’ve had enough of Endo’s writing to last me for the duration, I’d be happy to see more of his art. His layout and composition skills are strictly okay, but his drafting is first rate, and when he gives himself something interesting to draw — like the alternately silhouetted and subtly-detailed crows in “The Crows, The Girl, and the Yakuza,”,— the results are gorgeous. The shoujo set-pieces in “Because You’re Definitely a Cute Girl” are less involving —aping full-bore romanticism, even ironically, probably isn’t a good idea for a creator this detached. On the other hand, the play the students perform in the third story allows for some nice uses of space and pattern — a two-page spread of a spot-lit chain-link fence is especially arresting. To be fair, if I saw this level of skill and professionalism in a mainstream — or even alternative — American comic, I’d be pretty thrilled. But I expect more from manga.

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All of these reviews ran at one point or another in the Comics Journal.