Illustrated by Shimura Takako
Shuichi is a young man with a big problem. Despite his best efforts, he is not like the other boys around him. While they move on to standard adolescent things, he has a deep secret: He'd rather be a girl.
Yoshino is a young woman with a problem similar to Shuichi. She's a young woman who would rather be a young man.
This is their story. It's painful, it's heartbreaking, and it's full of cruelty both intentional and otherwise. It's a journey of exploration that is different from most, because the world doesn't like it when people deviate from the norm. This is the story of Wandering Son.
The idea of gender swapping and queer issue is not new to comics or to manga. However, a lot of times the idea of a boy dressing as a girl is used for comic effect, or the queer characters are treated like plot point punching bags, always ready to be as stereotypical as they can so that the reader can feel better about themselves by laughing at them. It is not often that we see transgender issues taken seriously. I admit when I first heard about this manga, I was concerned. Would the author be respectful? The answer is a resounding "Yes!"
Takako sets this series during a big turning point in the life of any child--as they are going through puberty. It's a time of questioning and changing for any young man or woman, even if they have no sexual identity issues. Adding the possibility/probability of being queer--and the most easily discriminated against kind of queer to boot--really brings the characters into emotional conflict that makes for good storytelling. Rather than trying to go for an exaggerated accounting, Takako just plays the story straight (no pun intended) and lets genuine pain and realistic examples show the reader how hard it is going to be for Shuichi and Yoshino.
This is a very sensitive topic, and I think part of why this works so well is that Takako does not try to rush things. The story builds slowly, and at first, we don't even really get much in the way of identity issues. As things progress, however, incidents are created that put the characters into conflict and make them face decisions that have severe repercussions. I like that Shuichi and Yoshino are fleshed out a bit, rather than just thrown at the reader, "Hey, here's two transgendered kids!" Every person is so much more than just their sexuality, and Takako sees that and values it. We read Wandering Son because of the conflict of identity, but that doesn't mean it's the only thing that can happen in the story or that their gender questioning is the only kind of problems they may have.
I think the key scene in this volume takes place during the school play scenes, where Shuichi is teased and tormented into playing a female character in the drama. You can see the pain as he tries to get out of the situation but is trapped, and the inevitable conclusion of this set piece really shows just how hard his/her life is going to be.
Takako's illustrations are simple, as with a lot of manga-ka, but they do get the job done. I wish the characters had a bit more definition to them, but I think the ambiguities are on purpose and demonstrate that the two genders have more similarities than differences. I don't read manga for the art as a rule anyway, so it's not a problem for me, but readers should be aware that Takako's linework is serviceable but not earth-shattering. For most people who are used to reading Japanese high school dramas, it probably won't even be all that noticeable.
Fantagraphics does not publish a lot of manga, but the volumes they select are amazing. Wandering Son is a great series that I am looking forward to following in the years to come. Sensitive, heartbreaking, and very queer-positive, Wandering Son was one of my best manga of 2011, and I have no doubt that if volume three is released in 2012, that it will make my list again this year. Anyone who likes serious approaches to important topics that affect many people really need to check this series out. They won't be disappointed.