COMICS GRIDLOCK 1/23: Afternoon Affair

Image: still from Shinjuku Midnight Story: Man and Woman (Koyu Ohara, 1972)

It’s New Year’s Eve. I wander into a local comics store that has visibly fallen on hard times and walk out with some brand-new manga releases. I spend my afternoon reading adventurously, flirting with some titles that had never crossed my eyes before and have seemingly garnered little to no fanfare upon their release. Two of those trashy tomes will be the focus of today’s column, connected by the slender thread of their category: LGBT manga. 

“LGBT Manga” is not a genre. It is a bookstore category. Saying a manga is LGBT says less about its contents than hearing someone say “I am LGBT” tells you about a person. You might be getting porn, you might be getting a rom-com for teens, you might be reading a memoir. You might be reading the work of a proud homosexual, you may be reading the work of a straight woman who thinks man-on-man is hot (nothing wrong with that), you might be reading a homophobic screed, you might be reading the work of some creepy otaku who read the wikipedia article about “non-binary” and decided that would be a good premise for a harem manga. Not much differentiation from publishers aside from maybe BL/yuri/other. Gay interest is generally a hotter topic than gay people and what they might feel or want. But hey, whatever, labels don’t matter, as a non-binary bi lesbian trans woman who uses she/her pronouns I am proud to say I have never cared about labels at all (riotous laughter and applause, cue Seinfeld intro slap bass). 

Last Gender is definitely LGBT Manga, pejorative. Kodansha’s putting out this one, it’s packaged all fancy, you won’t be able to tell from the cover or ad copy but it’s smut. Credit to Kodansha for including a crisis line number under the table of contents, I’ve never seen that before and I hope I’ll see it again, especially since I don’t think reading a comic this facile and tawdry is gonna make things better for any sad gay kid that might come across it. I don’t know much about the author Rei Taki, but the work definitely has the feel of a wikipedia binge brought to life, down to a character referencing how many gender identities are offered on Facebook. Just a casual conversation topic.

 Last Gender: We Are Nameless takes place at BAR California, a bar and sex club that could only exist in a manga created by someone who does not know much about real sex clubs, where queer people of all genders and sexualities get to be themselves. Each chapter introduces a new protagonist who gets erm loosened up by an encounter with someone with a different gender or sexual identity. The next chapter starts with that person meeting and/or fucking someone else who is then the protagonist of the next chapter. We rotate through introductions to characters and their gender/sexuality with the precision of Golgo 13’s aim – a closeted lesbian, a bi trans woman, a pansexual cis guy, a bi gender person, an aromantic cis woman, and – in a verrry compelling cliffhanger – a depressed guy who is into pain or something. It’s all fairly accurate to these diverse queer experiences but is cheapened by the speed at which it rattles through them all, and, given that the premise revolves around the novelty and shock for presumed cishet readers of seeing how people with marginalized genders and sexualities fuck each other, it gets gross fast. It’s kind of like if Oh Joy Sex Toy had a plot?

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Last Gender. I had a blast, really. My tweets did numbers. We all love numbers. Initially, I got something of a trashy thrill because the first two chapters gave me the impression the series would be about a trans woman getting her dick wet – that would be fun! Sadly, the trans woman’s story ends when the pan guy tells her that her gender and genitals don’t matter to him at all (What every girl dreams of hearing of course!), and we get more stories of gender people to cycle through. It’s fine… a little offensive, a little well-intentioned, a little bit compelling as a melodrama. But I don’t think I’ll be back for volume 2.

Kazuki Minamoto’s The Gay Who Turned Kaiju was, on the other hand, a bit more of a pleasant surprise. With its cutely provocative title and cover image depicting a young man embraced by a monster guy that vaguely resembles Pigmon (both in school uniforms, of course), I was expecting this to be one of those mainstream-ish gay manga titles that folks who don’t read too widely often cite as the craziest thing ever. Instead, the manga I read was a heartfelt and emotionally honest exploration of “coming out” built ever so gently on a clever and funny albeit unsubtle metaphor. Takashi, a bullied, shy gay teenager, overhears his hunky homeroom teacher who he had always looked up to making a casually homophobic comment to a coworker. Crying alone in the boy’s washroom, the lad wishes he could be something, anything that “is not gay.” Takashi’s wish is granted as, to the horror of his peers, his head suddenly morphs into the form of a regular-sized kaiju head, complete with fangs, a tough skin, and eerie lizard-like eyes. Some learn to accept the monster boy as a terrifying creature, but not, of course, as a homosexual. Eventually, Takashi learns that this development is the result of his accumulated shame and will come to an end when someone important to him accepts that he is gay. Obviously, the person Takashi needs acceptance from is his teacher, but simply hearing a stuttered, embarrassed word of support isn’t enough. Takashi wants a lot more than tolerance, and he might need to find a way to deal if he can’t get more than that.

With this silly yet surprisingly effective genre mashup of BL and kaiju manga, Kazuki Minamoto deftly weaves together humor and honesty to tell a story about experiences that might not always be so pleasant to recall. So many stories about coming out set up acceptance by family or loved ones as a triumphant climax to an earnest struggle to defeat their intolerance, but sometimes acceptance never comes, or it doesn’t come the way we hoped it would. The Gay Who Turned Kaiju asks readers to seriously consider – how would it feel if someone accepted you but didn’t understand you, or didn’t love you? What is it like for us when coming out is disappointing or anticlimactic? How does it feel for us to lose respect for someone we wanted for years to know us how we really are? This is a parody manga with a brave, commendable emotional backbone. It’s fantastic, and I could not recommend it more highly for an afternoon of reading.

And so, a manga that appeared middlebrow at best turned out to be delightful and incisive, while another promising book with at least a modicum of surface respectability turned out to be exploitation rubbish only slightly elevated by its rampant horniness. 

When browsing stacks of manga, “LGBT” can mean anything. Buyer beware, be informed, or perhaps, be excited, because following your instincts while combing the shelves can lead to wonderful surprises, good enough for an afternoon’s entertainment.

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