One of the most intriguing stories in est em’s earlier collection Seduce Me After the Show was “Rockin’ In My Head,” featuring a young guitarist named Billy who drinks himself into a stupor over the death of a personal idol and the sudden disappearance of his bandmate, Nick (who took off with Billy’s cash and guitar). Billy is escorted home by another patron in the bar who turns out to be Joe Coxon, the former guitarist of Billy’s favorite band, The Rebels–the same band whose vocalist, Pete Brian, has just died. With Nick still missing, Billy convinces Joe, now in his fifties and with his last performance far in the past, to step into his band for a single show, reminding Joe what it means to be needed on stage. Age Called Blue expands on this story, focusing on the complicated relationship between Billy and Nick (introduced “onscreen” here for the first time) and how it mirrors the relationship of Pete and Joe, whose chance for reconciliation after years of estrangement is destroyed by Pete’s untimely death.
The story begins just after the events in the original short, with Nick turning up unexpectedly in the supermarket after his disappearance. Billy is initially furious, but isn’t able to hold on to his anger long in the presence of Nick’s badly beaten face. Billy takes Nick back home to get him cleaned up, and becomes enraged again when he finds out that Nick had prostituted himself for cash to their idol, Pete, the day before he died. Nick tries to kiss Billy and is forcefully rejected, but it’s obvious that the emotions between them run deep and the rest of the story explores just what that means for both of them and for the future of their band.
What’s really effective in this story is how est em weaves together the lives of all four men, retracing the days just before and after Pete died and interspersing them with present-day events. Although Joe and Pete ultimately fail to get what they need from each other, thanks to pride and the cruelty of fate, it is their music that brings Billy and Nick together in the first place and their influence that helps the two younger men realize what is most important to them and just how fragile that can be. “I don’t know complicated things well,” Joe says to Billy one night over drinks, “but I suggest you secure the things that you don’t want to lose. Maybe that’s music, or maybe it’s that boy.” Watching Joe coming to terms with his own regret enough to actually try to help someone else avoid the same mistakes is quite moving all on its own, and when Billy finally makes his choice (“Nick is my music.”) the effect is stunning. The fact that, in Joe’s mind, there can only be one choice–music or love–is a heartbreaking example of why he lost what Billy will give everything to keep.
Nothing comes easy in Age Called Blue, which is one of its greatest strengths. Even after Billy makes the decision to stick with Nick, things get harder, though this only further illustrates the truth of Billy’s choice. Though he is eventually forced to give up the band to be with Nick, the question of giving up music never even comes into play, not with Nick still in his life. Nick is a piece of work, that’s certain–childish, unreliable, and self-destructive–but he really is Billy’s music, both its source and its vessel.
With its intense emotional content and bohemian setting, Age Called Blue may be the most overtly romantic story in est em’s catalogue so far, and this is by no means a bad thing. It is beautifully crafted throughout, and though it is made richer by having read “Rockin’ In My Head,” enough of that story is included to allow this volume to stand on its own. Est em’s visual storytelling is exquisite as always, and though the adaptation lacks the clarity of Matt Thorn’s work on Red Blinds the Foolish, the real meaning shines through in the visuals even when the dialogue is somewhat oblique. The art itself is gorgeous–realistically portrayed adult men in est em’s usual style, which makes her work feel so much more real than most of the yaoi manga being published in English. It is important to note, too, that this realism is achieved without the crutch of explicit sex scenes or coy winks to the audience. Though the characters’ sexuality is a significant part of their lives and their relationships to each other, anything that happens between them is for the sake of characterization and moving the story forward which makes this manga a rarity in the genre, much like est em herself.
The volume ends in typical fashion with two unrelated stories, though the first of these, “I Saw Blue,” again hearkens back to a story from Seduce Me After the Show, which is a nice treat. Still, it’s hard not to wish for a full volume’s worth of the featured story, and seeing these characters return from earlier shorts only makes that desire burn more fiercely. Though est em’s quiet, melancholy style is very well suited to short vignettes–and in fact, even her longer arcs are actually series of short pieces that could each stand alone–to see that unique talent applied to something substantial in length would be truly incredible.
All whining about length aside, there is not a justifiable complaint to be made about this manga. Beautiful, gritty, emotionally resonant, and surprisingly romantic, Age Called Blue is a real treasure, both within its genre and in the medium as a whole.
Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally posted at PopCultureShock.