Don’t be fooled by the cute cover: A Polar Bear in Love is neither gag strip nor conventional rom-com about an improbable couple overcoming their differences. It’s a fitfully amusing, sometimes melancholy reflection on what it’s like to fall in love for the first time, filled with the awkward moments and misunderstandings that all dating newbies experience.
The set-up is simple: Polar Bear falls head-over-paws for Lil’ Seal. Lil’ Seal, for his part, is understandably terrified by Polar Bear’s declaration of love and suffers violent tremors and visions of his imminent demise. Author Koromo complicates this one-joke premise, however, by revealing that both Polar Bear and Lil’ Seal are male, and that neither of them are old enough to understand what it means to be in an adult relationship. Polar Bear, for example, labors under the impression that it’s normal for people to eat their loved ones. While that sounds like a cutesy, kids-believe-the-darndest-things punchline, Polar Bear’s belief is rooted in a fundamental law of the Arctic: the strong eat the weak. His own experiences with love, loss, and scavenging tug — OK, yank — on the heartstrings in an unexpected way, revealing the extent to which his carnivorous instincts are complicated by his desire for friendship.
The art, too, is deceptively minimalist. Both Polar Bear and Lil’ Seal are rendered as thick outlines against a wintery landscape, an artistic decision that allows Koromo to deform her characters for maximum humorous effect, but also underscores the fact that their white fur coats are intended to camouflage them from one another. Though the characters’ conversations are distinctively human, their physical movements are not; even when Polar Bear clasps Lil’ Seal to his chest in a tender embrace — a seemingly anthropomorphic moment — Koromo poses Polar Bear firmly on his haunches, capturing the muscular weight of his enormous hind quarters, and emphasizing the disparity between his size and Lil’ Seal’s.
But is it good, you ask? I’m not sure. There’s a brisk efficiency in Koromo’s artwork and a few delightfully absurd moments that illustrate the major gap between what Polar Bear says and what Lil’ Seal hears — an apt metaphor for what happens when two people try sorting out their feelings for one another. The story never finds a consistent rhythm or tone, however, lurching between somber reflections on arctic survival and antic scenes of Polar Bear glomping Lil’ Seal. The same is true of the characters; in some scenes, their chatter pegs them as worldly seven- or eight-year-olds, while other conversations make them seem like jejune high schoolers.
What I can say, however, is that I was genuinely surprised by A Polar Bear in Love. The manga didn’t follow any obvious formula, and wasn’t afraid to explore dark or weird emotional terrain in the service of character development. I wish I’d laughed more, or found the narrative less circular, but I won’t lie: a few scenes made me sniffle and feel protective of Polar Bear, despite his penchant for over-the-top pronouncements and bone-crushing hugs. His sincerity carried me past volume one’s weaker moments, and made me curious about what’s next for him and his harp seal pal.
A POLAR BEAR IN LOVE, VOL. 1 • STORY AND ART BY KOROMO • TRANSLATED BY TAYLOR ENGEL • YEN PRESS • 160 pp. • RATED A, FOR ALL AGES