MICHELLE: I looked for a dumb joke that was not utterly unfunny, but I couldn’t find one, so you are all spared this week.
MJ: … is it weird that I’m kind of disappointed?
MICHELLE: Actually, it’s kind of gratifying!
Anyway, it feels like forever since we’ve done a “normal” column. What’ve you been reading lately?
MJ: Well, this will probably come as a surprise to no one, but the truth is, I’ve spent most of this week eagerly, painfully anticipating the launch of Chromatic Press’ new online magazine Sparker Monthly, due out sometime over the next couple of days. And though I’m looking forward to delving into the publication’s promised mix of female-focused comics, illustrated prose, and audio dramas, I’ll admit that the intensity of my anticipation is fueled largely by the long-awaited revival of Off*Beat, Jen Lee Quick’s manga-influenced comic that has been in publishing limbo ever since the demise of Tokyopop’s OEL manga initiative in 2008.
I read the first two volumes of Off*Beat in 2009, when they were already officially out of print, and immediately fell in love, though as the years flew by, it seemed less and less likely that we’d ever get to see its final volume. I’ll admit to having pretty much danced with glee when Chromatic Press announced its Kickstarter campaign to continue the series. I backed that project, of course, and I’ve been fawning over my new print editions of the first two volumes ever since. But, like every fan of Off*Beat, it’s new material I’ve been dying for, so when I was offered the opportunity to review the first new chapter in advance, I leapt at it in the least dignified manner possible.
MICHELLE: I have yet to read Off*Beat, so I am going to imagine your squeeful ecstasy as akin to what happened to me, a Veronica Mars fan since 2005, when the Kickstarter campaign for the movie first started. And also there are books coming! But, I digress.
MJ: I think that is probably an apt comparison!
Off*Beat tells the story of Christopher “Tory” Blake, an exceptionally smart teenager who lives with his divorced mom in Queens. Tory’s a capable kid, but the sense of abandonment brought on by his father’s absence has manifested itself in an odd habit—meticulous record-keeping of every single thing that happens to him and those around him. And when a new kid, Colin, moves onto Tory’s block under potentially mysterious circumstances, Tory’s obsessive attention becomes focused on him, and he goes so far as to get himself transferred to Colin’s private school on Long Island, even though it takes him two hours (by subway, rail, and bus) to get there every day. Tory soon discovers that Colin and his guardian are involved in some sort of top-secret scientific project, and he’s able to convince himself that it’s the project he’s obsessed with, but it clearly all comes around to Colin.
Colin is initially cold and resistant to interaction with pretty much anyone, but thanks to Tory’s persistent (stalkerish?) approach and Colin’s failing grades, the two eventually begin to form a friendship. To the reader, it’s long been obvious that Tory’s falling in love, but just as he’s on the brink of maybe coming to terms with his sexuality (and the possibility that his feelings for Colin may even be reciprocated), his secret diaries are discovered and everything falls apart.
When we last saw Tory, he’d just been punched in the face by Colin … and that’s where Tokyopop left us hanging back in 2007. Fortunately, the new chapter picks up just where we left off, and it suddenly feels as if no time has passed at all. There’s always the danger that anticipation of a thing will turn out to be tragically superior to the thing itself, but I’m happy to report that this is not the case at all with the newest chapter of Off*Beat. The transition is seamless and Quick gratefully gets right into the meat of things, including the nature of Colin’s top-secret project, and the boys’ obvious mutual attraction, both in the same grounded, thoughtful manner in which the comic has conducted itself from the beginning.
I was thinking as I prepared for our column today about the contrast between Off*Beat and something like Loveless, which we lovingly discussed last week. Both series fall somewhere on the boys’ love spectrum (at least as far as their fans are concerned) and both succeed largely on their commitment to emotional truth. But where Loveless expresses that truth by way of the supernatural, Off*Beat feels very much like a celebration of the natural, the endless wonder of the everyday people and things that are just right in front of us, and the epic gloriousness of the most naturally human thing of all—honest connection with other human beings. Despite the whole “top-secret project” thing going on in the background of Off*Beat, the series is so deeply grounded in its environment and in Tory’s teenaged existence, its focus is really on the plain wonder of growing up and being a person. And I love it for that.
Also, there are cats, Michelle. Lots and lots of cats.
MICHELLE: That really does sound wonderful. And y’know, for all the praise I’ve heard about Off*Beat over the years, no one has ever focused on the secret project as one of the reasons why it’s so compelling.
Do you know whether there are plans for a print edition of the new material?
MJ: Indeed there are! Chromatic Press’ publishing model is based heavily on Japan’s serialization-to-tankoubon process, so once the third volume has been completed in serialization, it will be made available in full, both electronically and in print. The first two volumes are already being sold this way, with print volumes priced at $13.99 apiece (plus some extra options) or downloadable ebooks (epub, mobi, or pdf) for $6.00 each. The ebook deal in particular is pretty unbeatable, I think, when you compare it with other download-to-own manga. I’m tempted to buy them all in both formats, just for the convenience.
So what have you been reading Michelle? And were there any cats involved?
MICHELLE: No cats, but quite a few rats!
My solo read this week was the first volume of No. 6, a new shoujo series from Kodansha. Originally a series of novels by Atsuko Asano, the manga adaptation is by Hinoki Kino and ran in Kodansha’s Aria magazine. (I confess that I had to look this up to confirm its shoujo bona fides, because Kino’s art does not have that traditional shoujo look.)
Shion is an elite student in a futuristic city called No. 6, which is lauded for its low crime rate, excellent medical care, etc. In this “ideal” city, everything is managed, from the weather to the people, and testing at the age of two put Shion on his current academic path. He has just been accepted into the advanced ecology program when his world is forever changed when Rat, a prison escapee from the wrong side of the tracks, slips through his open window. Seeing that Rat is wounded (and around his age), Shion stitches him up and shelters him for the night, which costs him his placement in society. But Shion doesn’t seem to mind, because he never held with all the conformist attitudes anyway. He regrets nothing.
Fast forward four years when mysterious insects are draining the life out of human victims. Shion has the bad luck to be nearby a couple of the resulting corpses and the government, attempting to bury the news, attempts to pin it all on him. Rat reappears just in time to repay his debt by rescuing Shion, and urges him to abandon all connection to his former life if he wants to survive.
If this summary seems very plot-driven and light on character, then that’s because No. 6 is the same. Despite attempts to depict a restrictive future society—which succeed about as well as those in Library Wars for a frame of reference—the setting feels generic and the characters flat. I couldn’t connect with any of them at all. There’s a particularly weird scene in which Shion is bidding farewell to his childhood friend Safu as she heads off to study abroad. Out of nowhere, and with barely any interaction between them (that readers have been privy to, at least), she blurts, “I want to have sex with you.”
In the end, I can’t label this “a mess,” because it flows coherently enough, but it’s rather blah. I’ll probably give it another volume to see if it improves, though.
MJ: I feel quite disappointed, not so much because I’d eagerly anticipated this release (though I was interested, for sure) but because all the way through your summary here, I was thinking that it really should be interesting. I mean, the story sounds like something I’d enjoy, but in my head, it magically contained awesome characterization, despite the lack of such in your description. I’m so disappointed. I’d rather it be “a mess,” as long as the characters were compelling. So sad. I hope the second volume is an improvement!
MICHELLE: The first volume ends with Shion on the verge of discovering the world that exists beyond No. 6, so hopefully that should be interesting. We shall see.
Anyhoo, want to take a stab at introducing this week’s mutual read?
MJ: Sure! So, we’ve been delving into quite a number of Viz’s digital re-releases of older shoujo series—particularly those from their now-defunct “shōjo” imprint. So far, we’ve been focusing on supernatural and schoolgirl-in-another-world series such as From Far Away, Red River, and Angel Sanctuary, but this week we went for regular ol’ high school romance with the first two volumes of Kaho Miyasaka’s Kare First Love, originally released in North America between 2004 and 2006.
Karin is a quiet, bespectacled high school student who has never had a date with a boy, and whose school friendships revolve around Yuka, a vapid, popular girl who mainly uses Karin to get out of doing her own homework. On the bus to school one day, Karin overhears a group of boys making snide comments about her looks, but when one of them sees that she’s reading a particular photography book, he comes over to talk to her. The encounter ends in embarrassment for both of them, as the boy, Kiriya, accidentally lifts up the back of Karin’s skirt while trying to return the book to her. Kiriya turns up later at Karin’s school, again in an attempt to return her book, and the two are swept up in plans for a group date, spearheaded by Yuka.
In true shoujo manga form, Yuka sets her sights on Kiriya (who only has eyes for Karin), and tries to bully Karin into supporting her efforts. Fortunately, another girl from their class, mature, independent-minded Nanri, sticks up for Karin and even lets Kiriya in on what’s going on so that he can step up and become Karin’s knight in shining armor. Which he does. And they’re in love, whee! First love! Next: the group trip to the beach!
If my summary sounds a little jaded, I suppose it is, as there is truly nothing original to be found in Kare First Love. Its premise, its conflicts, even its artwork are so closely painted by the shoujo manga numbers, it’s maddening, truly. Yet, perhaps more maddening is the fact that, as a reader, I still care. These tropes endure because they mostly work, and they work on me here, despite myself. Even though I know what comes next, I still want to watch it play out. And though that may be sad on a number of levels, it’s undeniably the truth.
MICHELLE: I didn’t like Kare First Love as much as I expected to, either, which was disappointing. I do lay some of the blame for this on the back cover copy, though. Consider this excerpt from volume two:
The age-old dilemma of choosing between your friend and the one you love is the lesson for the day for these bubbly high-schoolers.
Okay, number one, none of them is bubbly. But more importantly, and established immediately… Yuka is not really Karin’s friend!
I was lead to expect exquisitely poignant angst, with Karin knowing how much her friend truly loves Kiriya, but still deciding that she’s not willing to sacrifice a chance at love and happiness for her friend’s sake. Something like Yano and Takeuchi in We Were There, for example. But that’s not what we get. Instead, Yuka is a “shallow skank,” to quote one of Kiriya’s friends, and completely unsympathetic. When things don’t go as she plans, she engages in tiresome mean girl shenanigans for a volume and a half, until Karin finally declares “You were never my friend,” at which point Yuka disappears from the story and we move on to more traditional couple drama.
Now, granted, I thought the story improved from this point, as I liked the increased presence of Nanri (my favorite character) and the depiction of Karin’s pressure to succeed in school, but it’s not really what the blurb originally promised.
MJ: Agreed on all points. And honestly, it’s Nanri who will probably keep me going through subsequent volumes, assuming she sticks around. Well, Nanri and the annoying fact that, in spite of everything, I still want to find out what happens. I would bet all my money and meager possessions that they get married. They totally get married in the end. Am I right?
MICHELLE: You’re right. And possibly in a few volumes there’ll be some focus on Nanri and her older (possibly married) boyfriend, and then perhaps she’ll end up forming a couple with Kiriya’s friend, or something.
MJ: And don’t forget the inevitable parental disapproval! Surely that is yet to come. Also, what dark secret lurks in Kiriya’s past??
*Sigh* I’ll probably read it all.
MICHELLE: Hee. Me, too. We are shoujo’s bitches.