One of the things about “failure” when it comes to something like fiction is, that to a pretty significant extent, whether or not something fails is influenced by the taste of the individual. Sure, there are particular standards we set up–ways we believe we can measure skill and craft–but so much of what makes a story work (or not) really comes down to taste, no more, no less.
As a critic, it’s part of my job to evaluate things against the standards set by history, the industry, and my peers, and as a blogger, it’s my job to give readers a reason to care about my conclusions. With so many manga blogs out there, what do I have to offer that’s unique? My background, perhaps, my personality… and a slew of similar items that mainly come around to “taste.” And in a genre like boys’ love, my taste is pretty specific.
Why the long introduction? Before I begin to discuss what makes a BL manga fail for me, I want to be clear that “failure” here means “failure to satisfy my tastes.” I’m specifying this, because I’m going to be making a lot of sweeping points about failures in BL manga, and since this genre lives and breathes on its readers’ private fantasies, I want to be very clear that I’m judging these manga against my own, not passing judgement on anyone else’s.
Part of the impetus behind writing a BL edition of Failure Friday was a visit to my old post My thoughts on yaoi (no, really), written quite a long time ago, when I’d read very little BL manga and had limited vocabulary for discussing what I found problematic. I’ve read quite a bit between then and now, and my tastes have refined themselves accordingly. I’ve also found books that defied my taste, by making me love them regardless of some of their content. So, now that I’ve disclaimed, here we go!
Four common BL failures (and some manga that overcome them):
1. Non-con: Rape fantasy is probably my most common deal-breaker when it comes to BL manga, most likely because it is so common in the genre. Even as a casual BL fan, it’s pretty much impossible to escape. And though it’s obviously a popular fantasy among readers, it’s definitely not mine. While rape as a plot element is something I don’t eschew (witness my love for Akimi Yoshida’s Banana Fish), as a precursor to romance, I find it personally abhorrent and far from romantic.
Successes: Some BL manga (and manhwa) I’ve found worthwhile despite the presence of non-con include U Don’t Know Me (Rakun/NETCOMICS), Gerard & Jacques (Fumi Yoshinaga/BLU), Ludwig II (You Higuri/Juné), and the second volume of The Tyrant Falls in Love (Hinako Takanaga/Juné).
2. Split focus: As evident by the range of works we’ve seen imported to the west, sexual content in BL manga runs the gamut from sweet, chaste romance to outright pornography. Now, any reader of romance knows that a believable relationship takes time to develop, and with so many BL anthologies and one-shots out there, it’s no surprise that many of them are unable to achieve that goal. There’s nothing wrong with plain ol’ porn, after all, and it certainly has its place in any grown-up demographic. Where BL writers frequently fail, however, is with story-killing indecision. One of the complaints I find myself frequently making when I review short BL is that, within a limited number of pages, and without a clear commitment to either story or porn, many manga simply fail at both. Mangaka, please choose! Tell a great story or give us some great porn, but please don’t do either half-heartedly.
Successes: A notable exception to this rule is Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ichigenme… The First Class is Civil Law (801 Media), which in just two short volumes manages to excel at both.
3. Identity white-out: While it’s understood that BL manga has nothing at all to do with queer identity, more and more BL appearing in English is managing to at least address the concept, while keeping its fantasy space intact. Books like Future Lovers (Saika Kunieda/Deux Press) and No Touching At All have proven that you can make your gay characters actually gay without causing a riot amongst female readers. And even among the usual identity-free BL, there’s still a difference between glossing over the characters’ sexuality and actively stamping it out. Even worse, are stories that cross into real homophobia, emphasizing the “shamefulness” of the characters’ sex lives, or trivializing them altogether by making all characters gay at random, like a lusty caricature of an English boys’ school.
Successes: Among series that deftly avoid queer identity, there are some that still manage to project a sense of positivity on the subject, like Eiki Eiki & Taishi Zaou’s Color (DokiDoki) and any book by est em (Deux Press, NETCOMICS).
4. Crack overload: I love cracktastic storytelling as much as anyone (and probably more than most), but when it comes to romance, I nearly always prefer believability over hilarity, if I have to make a choice. Even in a single chapter or one-shot, if the sex isn’t moving the story forward or, at the very least, really hot, it’s difficult for me to be interested. And anything that bothers to take up an entire volume without giving me something real, is pretty much a complete failure. Outrageous antics? Sexual humor? Pretty boys romping around? All of that is pretty much lost on me as a reader, and when I encounter a manga of that kind I mainly wish I could get my twenty minutes back.
Successes: This is probably the toughest kind of story to sell me on, as I’ve discovered very few of its ilk that have managed to woo me. Notable exceptions include Blood Honey (Sakyou Yozukura/BLU) and Deeply Loving a Maniac (You Higashino/801 Media).
It’s been quite a pleasure over the past few years to discover how many BL manga don’t fail for me as a reader, quite a few of which I’ve taken the opportunity to mention above. Whether there’s more BL being released today that suits my tastes, or whether I’ve simply discovered how to find it, I can’t quite say.
So, readers, what makes a BL story fail or succeed for you?