Tuesday, March 3, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2012: Wandering Son

Wandering Son (Volume 1)
Written and illustrated by Takako Shimura.
Published by Fantagraphics (2011).

As a guy that owns...5 dresses, I can understand some of the uncertainty and fear of social stigma that Shuichi Nitori, the main character in Wandering Son, faces. However, if I'm wearing a dress it's at least partially because I'm trying to undermine gender stereotypes (and, yes, because a lot of boy clothing is really boring). Shuichi on the other hand actively wants to be a girl, which is a very different scenario, especially when you're ten years old.

This first volume of Wandering Son features Shuichi very slowly coming to terms with this idea. So slowly in fact that I don't think it's even explicitly mentioned until the second chapter. At the beginning he's kind of terrified by the idea, scared and embarrassed that other people might find out, and just really not sure what to do. Thankfully, he encounters other students who are either supportive, of a similar mindset, or both, and gradually begins to experiment with wearing dresses and other things.

The first volume also features an interesting comparison, as we meet one of Shuichi's friends, Yoshino Takatasuki, a girl who wants to be a boy. At one point while they've both dressed up and gone out, she starts her period (for the first time), which while it seems like it should be a horrible, awkward nightmare, somehow doesn't turn out that way. Either way, it does support the back of the book where it states that the characters are on the "threshold to puberty". I think the kids in this book are at the age where they start developing their own sense of identity, and I'm curious as to how they grow over the rest of the series. There are 14 more volumes, in which he characters age until they graduate from high school and head off to university, however, only about half of them have been translated into English.

Shimura says in the bonus manga in the back that her "characters are hard to tell apart, [her] backgrounds are too empty, and [she] has a million other flaws to overcome", but I think she's being overly self critical. Yes, there are a fair number of panels that lack backgrounds, but it never really bothered me, and sometimes the use of screentones or solid black or white as backgrounds actually manages to add to the scene by complimenting the emotions of the characters. As for the characters, they are fine, good even! It's a comic about 10 year old kids, and for the most part they seem to look like 10 year olds (I think... I don't really have much experience with them...). I'm not going to proclaim that this is my favourite art ever, but I've read many comics (this year) that have worse art than this, and apart from an awkward scene change or two, the art here generally works.

One aspect of the art that I did enjoy is the use of screentones. I guess part of this is that they are pretty common in Japanese comics, but decidedly less so in Western ones, and since I don't read as much manga I'm not as used to seeing them. However, their use on clothing is effective, giving the illusion of texture and colour.

I was just reading about the controversy surrounding the book When Everything Feels Like the Movies, a book about a young trans character, and the fact that there is controversy at all, let alone the situation surrounding the tragic events it was inspired by, kind of show why stories like that, and like Wandering Son, should exist. There are, unfortunately, still quite a few people who are homophobic or transphobic (amongst other things), and these people can make the lives of young people miserable.

There's a reason why suicide amongst LGBTQ youth is high, and thankfully there are groups who strive to improve the lives of those people and educate both them and the future. One thing that can help is providing youth, both those identifying as LGBTQ and those that don't, with material that shows queer lifestyles as normal. The last decade has seen a fairly major increase in LGBTQ characters in comics, and also an improvement from how they used to be portrayed. However, they're still underrepresented, and it never hurts to have a few more. So yes, I can see why Wandering Son was on YALSA's lists of top GNs, and I support it being there.

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