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13th Boy, Volume 1

13th Boy, Vol. 1
By SangEun Lee
Published by Yen Press

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High school girl Hee-Soo is so certain that classmate Won-Jun is her “fated love” that she confesses her love for him on television in front of nine million people. Won-Jun initially accepts her feelings and agrees to go out with her, but then dumps her without explanation after just a month. Unable to accept the break-up and determined to discover its true cause, Hee-Soo resorts to unsavory measures such as going through Won-Jun’s wallet and stalking him both in and outside of school, during which she has several run-ins with Won-Jun’s friend Whie-Young, who always seems to be lurking just at the right moment. As it turns out, Whie-Young has feelings for Hee-Soo which he’s carried since they met as children, an acquaintance Hee-Soo seems not to remember. Meanwhile, Hee-Soo has a talking cactus, Whie-Young has unexplained magical powers, and both Whie-Young and Won-Jun have some kind of inexplicable bond with a female classmate named Sae-Bom, potentially supernatural in origin.

13th Boy is lively, idiosyncratic, thought-provoking, and just a wee bit confusing, at least in its first volume. The title refers to Hee-Soo’s thirteenth boyfriend (Won-Jun, incidentally, is number twelve), “…the fated 13th boy who would be my first love–and my last,” so reads the narration just a few pages in. Though I went in initially believing that the “13th boy” must refer to Whie-Young, by the end I wasn’t sure of anything anymore, least of all this. Almost nothing that is introduced in this volume is explained in a satisfactory way, yet the story’s characters and quirky sensibility are so oddly charming, I can’t help but wish for more.

Hee-Soo is a deceptively timid character–sweet and shy on the surface, she becomes downright forceful (even strident) in her aggressive pursuit of Won-Jun but her belief in their common destiny is so sincere, what might otherwise be irritating just reads as kind of cute with an undertone of pathos. If nothing else, her strong sense of purpose on the subject is at least several hundred times more palatable than the weepy clinginess she thankfully leaves behind early in the volume. Won-Jun at first appears cold and even quite cruel, but there’s a sense of longing hidden under his thick layer of resigned indifference that leaves me wanting to know more.

The character who has captured my deepest interest at this point, however, is Whie-Young–a tangled mess of mystery and contradiction with unexpected kindness on the side. At the end of the volume, when it looks like Won-Jun might actually be Hee-Soo’s fated love after all, my heart was quite broken for poor Whie-Young despite the fact that there is obviously a whole lot of story yet to be told.

Where this volume falls short is that it poses many more questions than it answers, and while mystery is obviously a great way to keep readers hooked into a story, there are just too many random elements introduced to keep things even remotely cohesive. Whie-Young’s powers, the unexplained bonds, the obsession with “destiny,” the talking cactus–each of these things is genuinely fascinating and nicely whimsical, but with not even one of them explained by the end of the volume there is a sense that the story is wandering towards nowhere. Hopefully this is not actually the case.

SangEun Lee’s art is a definite highlight, especially for those of us fond of the particular charms of manhwa. The character designs are as quirky as the characters themselves, with seriously enormous eyes that make the boys especially look rather like aliens. The cactus (Beatrice) looks like an invader from a gag comic against the flowery shojo-style backgrounds. While this might seem jarring in another comic, here it simply matches the story’s playful, otherworldly quality.

Though 13th Boy‘s first volume is scattered and undeniably uneven, its appealing characters and sense of fun provide ample incentive to lure readers into the next volume. I can definitely be counted as one of them!

Volume one of 13th Boy will be available on June 9, 2009. Review copy provided by Yen Press

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