I know how it is. Â You want to enjoy the works of the great contemporary manga artists, but you don’t know how you feel about gay porn. Â This can be a problem. Â After all, no one who’s serious about enjoying awesome comics can afford to skip Fumi Yoshinaga, one of the best current manga-ka, who happens to have come up through the Boys’ Love scene. Â Not all of Yoshinaga’s work is about men making out with each other, but all of it draws from a deep well of female nerdiness. Â Hot men, neurotic women, kinky sex, dirty jokes, feminism, and chocolate eclairs: this is what the inside of a brainy girl’s head looks like.
As a comic-book artist, Yoshinaga is not without her weaknesses. Â She’s not big on drawing backgrounds, although she lavishes effort elsewhere: food, costumes, period details. Â She’s sometimes too subtle a plotter, leaving important developments between the panels, easily missed. Â And she’s wordy, crowding her panels with overinflated word balloons. Â But it’s an easily forgivable offense when the dialogue is this good. Â And her artwork is lovely, especially her strong, sensual, expressive faces. Â And those hands.
Below are my five favorite Yoshinaga manga in English translation. Â Together, they form a fair survey of one of Japan’s smartest and most entertaining current cartoonists.
1. Antique Bakery
Yoshinaga’s first big hit and still the work for which she’s best known. Â The concept is fanservice itself: four hot men work together at a patisserie, filling every panel with handsome faces and creamy cakes. Â The concept has been repeated many times since, with minor variations (okay, this time they’re wine tasters!), but never with Yoshinaga’s wit and eye for character detail. Â Or her knack for crafting plausible oddballs: one of the guys is an up-and-coming boxer, another comes from a family of butlers, the owner hates sweets, and the head baker is a “gay of demonic charm” who can seduce any man, save one, when he whips off his glasses. Â The loose background plots–finding love, recovering from childhood trauma, keeping the bakery in the black–are just barely substantial enough to sustain the story; the real meat is in the characters and their sharply funny dialogue.
2. Gerard & Jacques
Much more of a straight-up yaoi than the other manga on the list, this is some of Yoshinaga’s classiest gay porn. Â In the time of the French Revolution, a wealthy novelist (of Revolution-themed lesbian porn) hires the young scion of an impoverished noble family as his manservant. Â Naturally, this leads to sex. Â That’s great, of course, but there’s more to life than naked Frenchman, so let me just take a moment to praise Tokyopop for filling those enormous word balloons with some golden dialogue. Â Gerard on Robespierre: “That cherry boy would cream his pants in an instant if he read my novel!”
3. Flower of Life
I have a weak spot for this quiet, silly, non-gay-sex-oriented series about a group of slightly nerdy high school students, their neurotic teacher, and their mostly ordinary, occasionally shocking lives. Â There are plenty of American comics about awkward teenagers, of course, but they’re usually stories of bitter loners storing up grievances for the self-absorbed indie comics they’ll create as adults. Â Few show them hanging out with other awkward teens, throwing dorky parties, trying out for the class play, going to the after-school manga club–the things most of us nerds remember doing in the flower of our lives. Â Ariel Schrag has that going on sometimes, but who else?
4. All My Darling Daughters
Little something for the men: the short-story collection All My Darling Daughters, out any day now from Viz, includes a story about a student who forces her teacher to let her give him blowjobs every week. Â Loosely connected by a skein of overlapping characters, the stories touch on relationships sexual and otherwise: a middle-aged woman who marries a hot actor in his twenties, an agreeable young woman who politely turns down every suitor, a group of school friends reaching back to each other as their adult lives dissolve into disappointment, three generations of mothers and daughters screwing each other up in new and creative ways.
It’s an old, if oft-neglected, observation, but what goes on between the ears is much wilder, woolier, and scarier than what goes on between the legs. Â In Yoshinaga’s world, every relationship runs on kinks, tripping hidden explosives just beneath the skin of the brain. Â Getting turned on by a masochistic personality is a lot kinkier than getting turned on by a big ass, and a lot harder to survive without serious interior scars.
5. ?oku: The Inner Chambers
In an alternate version of medieval Japan, the shogunate has good reason to keep the ports closed: the outside world cannot learn that a plague has killed off most of Japan’s men and a matriarchal society has arisen to preserve order. Â After a few generations, the Japanese themselves forget that life was ever any different, until the new shogun discovers evidence that her empire was once ruled by men.
That’s the premise that won ?oku the 2009 Tezuka Cultural Prize for manga (shared with Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s wonderful autobiography A Drifting Life). Â The premise that keeps nerdgirls reading: much of the story is told from the shogun’s personal harem, stocked with scores of Japan’s most precious resource: hot men. Â I love you, Fumi Yoshinaga. Â Keep reaching out in new directions, but never, ever change.
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