Man, I often get stuck in a reading rut and find myself pushing through books that don’t hold my attention very well, but I’ve been really lucky with my picks recently- they’ve been knocking it out of the park! My last post I reviewed The Beast Player, which is an immersive fantasy. My most recent read, however, is a more everyday sort of story, but it certainly has its share of unexpected moments.
Kamikaze Girls by Novala Takemoto is a cult classic in Japan that inspired a film adaptation. It’s a book about two Japanese teenage girls who live in a rural prefecture and become unlikely friends. Each follows her chosen lifestyle devoutly: Momoko strictly adheres to Lolita fashion and indulgent living, while Ichigo is a full-on Yanki: a member of a motorcycle gang who thinks she’s super tough despite only having a scooter.
When Momoko tries selling some of her father’s knock-off Versace pieces to make some money for buying expensive Lolita clothing, she encounters Ichigo and the two are drawn together on a fateful journey to find a legendary embroiderer.
What makes Kamikaze Girls so engaging is the humour: author Takemoto says in the afterward that Momoko is pretty much his alter-ego (p. 213), and her sarcastic narration, exasperation, and dry commentary throughout the story carry it along with tons of hilarity. You might expect an adherent of Lolita lifestyle to present herself as sweet and dainty as the fashions she wears, but Momoko is far from a delicate flower. She takes the indulgence part of Rococo style very seriously, and is quick to shut down or criticize anything that doesn’t suit her whims with a brutal retort.
The story is fun and at times a tad absurd, but it also feels genuine- the girls, especially Momoko, come alive as you are reading. I haven’t seen the movie adaptation yet, but I could practically imagine the whole thing in my head because it was portrayed so well. I wish I could be friends with Momoko and Ichigo! Their friendship brought to mind for me that of the Amars from Akiko Higashimura’s Princess Jellyfish series: girls who may seem outwardly very dissimilar and have completely different interests, but who share some important core values and can embrace their individuality while also supporting the passions of their friends.
The ending is very suiting, with things falling into place just as they feel they should. What really earns Kamikaze Girls a special place in my heart, though, is that there is an emboldening underlying message of “let’s all get along while following our own paths and doing whatever the hell we want!” (p. 215).
I’ve ordered the film based on the book through inter-library loan, and very much look forward to seeing Momoko and Ichigo come alive in a different way on the screen!
I picked up Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player because I am visiting Japan again soon and enjoying reading a bunch of Japanese literature before I go. This book blew me away unexpectedly. I came across it in the Teen room at the library where I work, and it’s an excellent read for young readers and adults alike.
Elin’s family has an important responsibility: caring for the fearsome water serpents that form the core of their kingdom’s army. So when some of the creatures mysteriously die, Elin’s mother is sentenced to death as punishment. With her last breath, she manages to send her daughter to safety.
Alone and far from home, Elin soon discovers that she can communicate with both the terrifying water serpents and the majestic flying beasts that guard her queen. This skill gives her great power, but it also involves her in deadly plots that could cost her life. Can she save herself and prevent her beloved beasts from being used as tools of war? Or is there no escaping the terrible battles to come?
(From the book jacket)
The Beast Player is an epic fantasy, a standalone story, and a philosophical musing on the futility of war. It features an inquisitive protagonist, a badass mom, a kindly father figure, and many more admirable- and not so admirable- characters, as well as some interesting creatures.
The pacing is perfect and just enough detail is given by translator Cathy Hirano to pull you into the world without becoming tedious. Even the most fantastical elements in this story are fleshed out in a thoughtful and believable way, and the actions and reactions of the characters also feel refreshingly realistic.
Elin is a clever, independent, and interesting young woman, and a keen observer of the natural world. Her story doesn’t follow many of the expected tropes one often sees- there’s no predictable romance here, just a tight and interweaving story full of adventure.
I just finished up a really awesome uni course for my MLIS, and we were recently discussing portrayals of women in comics.
This is a touchy subject for sure, and as with anything I try to keep an open mind and consider the many shades of gray. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying erotic art and comics (I do!) but I’m talking about something different here outside of the context of erotica.
To be clear before I get into it, I don’t believe in the censorship of artistic work— Neil Gaiman helped shape my perspective on this topic with his blog post Why Defend Freedom of Icky Speech?, which I totally recommend reading if you haven’t yet. I’m not interested in participating in witch hunts of particular artists because they draw or write thoughtlessly sexy women—I’m more interested in the big-picture phenomenon.
When it comes to hypersexualized portrayals of women in comics, the thing that irks me is the ubiquitous nature of it- it’s OK for characters to be sexy, but when the default has been that women and girls in Western comics are contorted and accentuated regardless of their personality or the context of the scene, it becomes a tiresome, dehumanizing trope.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m a huge fan of comics in general, including many that feature these sorts of female characters, and I will defend any author’s right to write or draw their characters however they see fit. It’s your story, knock yourself out. Artistic freedom doesn’t mean you can’t be criticized for your choices, though, so I too have the freedom as a comic consumer to call you out and roll my eyes if you unleash yet another barely covered bombshell babe whose story takes a backseat to her… well, backseat.
So why does a female character drinking coffee at home alone in her pyjamas sit in a spine-cracking posture with her butt extended, lips pouting, and shine highlighting the curves of her inexplicably exposed underboob? Why does a powerful heroine need to bend her body in such an anatomically impossible way that we can see both her bum AND her boobs on display when she’s mid-action?
Why is this the standard way that women are portrayed? Traditionally comics were considered a masculine space, and as such these depictions aimed to appeal to the male gaze— yet, I wonder how much of that historic imbalance in demographic is because of the aforementioned ways women have been depicted in comics and other media (when they’re depicted at all)?
“My feeling was never that the industry was that vile, my feeling was that there just hadn’t been any feeling that females were interested, and so all the content skewed that way, to that imagined audience. Which becomes self-fulfilling.” (Simone, 2014).
Just go to any con nowadays and you will see that women love comics- they’re a valid format for us just as much as anyone else, albeit with a long history of objectifying us unnecessarily.
“A woman’s sexuality is one of her many facets that she is allowed to express, however she likes. The problem is that our media landscape shows, values, and celebrates women’s sex appeal more than any of their other qualities, opinions, or accomplishments… when you grow up as a girl surrounded by sexualized images of women, it changes the way you build your identity.” (Rees, 2019, p.45).
Comics have a history of hypersexualizing women that goes back many decades, and people have been discussing the phenomenon for just as long. One more recent(ish) project that has really provoked discussion about ridiculously hypersexualized poses of female characters is The Hawkeye Initiative, in which people redraw sexy female poses with Hawkeye. I gave it a quick shot below…
Drawing Hawkeye like this might seem like taking “an eye for an eye”, but his portrayal it doesn’t have the same weight- besides the fact that my awkward rendering isn’t nearly as stylistic and professionally done as the original, the sexualization of male characters is certainly not omnipresent like that of female characters, and men don’t have the troubled past of systematic and oppressive objectification tailing them. The result is a cheeky satire that points out the absurdity of how female characters are so often portrayed.
Some comic fans will point out that lots of superheroes have bulging muscles that are larger than life, aiming to equate this with sexualized femme characters, but ridiculously strong male characters are different than pointlessly sexualized female characters for a few reasons:
generally there is an arguably valid reason that the man might have huge muscles (for example, he’s a superhero); over-sized muscles are certainly an unrealistic ideal, but they usually don’t come with the baggage of being totally pointless- they’re a boon to the character and part of his superpower
these muscled male characters aren’t created for the female gaze- they’ve been included in traditionally male-focused comics and could perhaps be seen as a male wish fulfillment fantasy or an exaggerated style
even when male characters have huge muscles or accentuated features, they aren’t habitually highlighted to the same cumulative extremes that the female anatomy is often subject to: protruding, glistening, tugging at skimpy fabric, peeking through non-functional viewing holes, angled awkwardly to be shown off at every possible opportunity, etc…
Taking it to a further and more upsetting level, a female character’s assuredly ample physical assets are very often contrasted with an underdeveloped backstory, nonexistent character arc, or her being used as a throwaway plot element or means to the ends of a violent trope, as pointed out in Gail Simone’s “women in refrigerators” movement born in the late 90’s.
“At the time, you know, female readership was low, female con attendance at comic cons was low, morale for female readers was low. And I kept seeing guys ask, “Why don’t women read comics?” And for me, it felt that there was a connection between that and the fact that if you loved female superheroes, you had this endless parade of stories where the women were killed or de-powered, and they were never the focus of the story.
It felt symbolic, it felt textural. It felt like they were saying, okay, no one cares about Supergirl, no one cares about Batgirl, and so their stories rarely became about survival, they became about some dude getting revenge on their behalf.” (Simone, 2014).
Again, drawing sexy female characters in and of itself isn’t a bad thing – a sexy woman is empowering when she’s owning it – but it’s the nonchalant routine of the industry expecting this uber-sexed up default paired with otherwise forgettable, tragic, or underdeveloped characterization that doesn’t sit well with me.
To conclude, I don’t think we should be trying to ban works or shame those who read them – let the creators create what they will, and let consumers enjoy what they want in peace- but I hope more creators and publishers are beginning to realize that mindless routine portrayals are alienating a potentially huge reader base who are rolling their eyes at yet another pointlessly and predictably titillating femme fatale.
Today, although hypersexualized female characters are still common, both indie and mainstream comics are being published with much more diverse characters and successfully appealing to more demographics, which is wonderful to see.
Claremont, C., & Buscema, J. (2005). Marvel comics presents: Wolverine. New York: Marvel Comics.
Pak, G., Parker, J., Frank, G., Kirk, L., Pagulayan, C., & Sibal, J. (2008). World War Hulk the Incredible Hercules. New York: Marvel.
Rees, A., & Esmeraldo, M. (2019). Beyond beautiful: A practical guide to being happy, confident, and you in a looks-obsessed world/ Anuschka Rees ; illustrations by Marina Esmeraldo. New York: Ten Speed Press.
It’s been a while since I read Saga Vol 1, but I’m discussing it in my comic course so I gave it a reread and remembered afresh why I love this series so much. The plentiful fantasy and sci-fi elements, plus a beautiful forbidden love story between two complex and flawed badass characters, sprinkled with startling imagery and unexpected humour, makes for a really compelling tale.
Vaughan’s dialogue throughout feels so raw and real, especially with Alana who pulls no punches beginning with the memorable first page. The world, too, feels very attached to our own despite the whimsical fantasy of it. The story takes itself seriously at its core, depicting the brutal cruelties of life and war, as well as more tender moments. There are some very messed up things happening in Saga’s universe, but these atrocities are closer to the realities of our Earth than we’d like to think.
It wasn’t until after reading a few volumes of Saga that I learned the amazing and award-winning artist Fiona Staples was Canadian. Today that I learned she was born in Calgary- so cool! Staples’ art impresses me a lot- I really appreciate it when artists show you the nitty-gritty and go all in instead of making something watered down for wider consumption.
Saga doesn’t cater to the widest possible audience, but instead presents itself authentically, unabashedly, and in-your-face, no holds barred. It’s got action, emotion, diverse characters, strange creatures, and an epic feel. It’s totally earned a spot in my top favorite comic series.
With A Pocketful of Crows, Joanne Harris has proven to me yet again why she deserves many spots on my meticulously curated bookshelves.
This is a quick read, but full to the last page with poem, prose, wild imagery, and earthy illustrations by artist Bonnie Helen Hawkins.
It has all the trappings of a classic fairy-tale, but with a protagonist who is strong-willed and true to herself even as she falls into the clutches of a deep and all-consuming infatuation (and especially as she rises out of it).
This tale is charming, witchy, gorgeously written, and sometimes as cruel as nature itself.
Not only is it lovely between the covers, but the hardback edition is sumptuously bound with golden lettering.
From the age that I can first remember feeling the pangs of infatuation and lust in my mid-teens, I found I had a taste for rogues, tricksters, baddies, and miscreants. In books, movies, manga, anime, and otome games, I rarely go for the hero of the story- my affections are generally reserved for the evil adversary, mysterious secondary character, or perhaps the dangerously playful womanizing side-kick. These characters are often sexy but would ultimately make terrible romantic partners in real life.
Recently I’ve been noticing in comment sections all over the internet well-intentioned people decrying these very sorts of characters that I am drawn to. Fans and non-fans alike are calling out reprehensible actions of characters as they see them. I think this is a positive reflection of wider discussions and movements that are happening worldwide right now regarding healthy relationships, love, affection, sex, and consent. These honest reflections on characters, from Sabrina’s Father Blackwood to the Sakamaki family of Diabolik Lovers, are valuable and worth noting. The relationships you see on TV or other media are often not good examples for real-life relationships to follow- sometimes these sorts of characters stray into cruel or even verbally and/or physically abusive behavior.
However, I do not believe that the answer is to eliminate such characters from the stories we tell and worlds we create.
One area that gets a lot of heat for these sorts of characters is otome games- perhaps because they are simulating a relationship with the player. Games like these feel more intimate than watching a movie or reading a book: usually a player uses their real first name in-game to enhance the immersion, voice-actors use dummy-head mics to record sound like they are right beside your ear whispering sweet nothings through your headphones, and choices in the game lead to consequences for the character you play as well as other characters in the game.
The first true otome game I played was Code: Realize, Guardian of Rebirth. It’s an interactive visual novel with a Victorian steampunk aesthetic, excellent Japanese voice acting, and odes to famous historical figures throughout.
A common strategy for playing otome games is play the main route with the main love interest first (often he’s featured on the cover, as with this example featuring Arsene Lupin) and then branch out to other romantic partners in subsequent play-throughs.
However, I always gravitate immediately towards the character that (you guessed it) is strange, aloof, mean, temperamental, and/or seemingly sinister. In Code: Realize, I went for Saint-Germain, an intriguing and mysterious white-haired gentleman voiced by my favorite voice actor, Daisuke Hirakawa.
*Warning: spoilers ahead!*
My interest in Saint only grew as his complex and tragic story slowly unwound, with seemingly no means of a happy end. Still, I was caught completely off-guard when my first play-through ended abruptly with that is probably considered the worst possible ending you can get in the game: he murdered me.
I was shocked, bemused, and strangely thrilled by this sudden turn of events. Retracing my steps and choosing different directions on my second play-through, I discovered that he had some solid legitimate reasons for killing my character (really!) and in the less tragic story-lines he is actually a gentle, devoted, caring partner, despite a crushingly brutal past that haunts his every step.
Aside from his bad-ending (murder…) route, Saint is actually not particularly problematic, so I’d like to present a more blatant example of the “reprehensible love interest”…
Diabolik Lovers began as an otome visual novel game franchise, but has since been turned into manga, anime, a stage musical, and tons of drama cds and merchandise in Japan. I stumbled upon the subbed anime on Crunchyroll a few years ago, starting a personal infatuation with this vampire series- a series featuring characters that are unabashedly terrible in their treatment of the female protagonist, Yui.
Yui is a Mary-Sue type character often seen in otome series- aside from some rare moments of tenacity, she is presented as an unremarkable, quiet, polite young lady. She’s a sort of vanilla stand-in for the viewer or player, one which they can easily replace with themselves.
Her potential suitors, on the other hand, are some very strong personalities. Their dispositions differ widely, ranging from hysterical and possessive to dismissive and toying. What unites all of the Sakamaki boys, though, is the way they all cruelly use and abuse Yui to sate their thirsts for blood and amusement.
Some hardcore fans will argue that by the end of the plotline their favorite boy truly loves Yui and is deeply devoted to her, but let’s be real here: that doesn’t excuse the abuse, and nobody is compelled to watch the Dialover anime or play the Dialover games because of the romance. The average viewer would be repelled by the sadistic, narcissistic, misogynistic and psychopathic actions of the Sakamaki family (some of my friends certainly are). The Sakamaki brothers each in turn physically restrain Yui, attack her verbally and physically (mainly through biting and taking her blood against her will) and deceive her naive and trusting nature unendingly. Each boy has a different demeaning nickname for Yui (Pancake, Sow, Bitch-chan, and so on…). So why are some people, like myself, drawn to these characters who are obviously toxic?
This conundrum has fascinated me for some time. Why am I attracted to characters in fantasy that would make me miserable in real life? Is this predilection linked to the dark triad of features that supposedly signal a capable mate, triggering some biological response in me? Am I simply bored by predictable good guys and their chivalry? Is it pure masochism on my part? While not everyone falls for the charms of the bad boy, i’m certainly not unique in this regard, and there are lots of potential reasons someone might be willingly pulled over to the dark side.
Whatever the reason, the truth is that I and many others enjoy these sorts of flawed, dangerous, cruel characters, even when they are at their worst. While I understand the criticisms of series like Diabolik Lovers, I believe we mustn’t equate a portrayal of an abusive or problematic fictional character with the actions of a person in real life or an endorsement of these kinds of relationships.
It’s okay to enjoy a romantic fantasy, even a dark and twisted one.
I am an advocate for the freedom to read, write, and create without restrictions. No work will be pleasing to everyone, and some may find certain works distasteful, but we must remember that these stories are fictional. When I immerse myself in an otome game, it is my choice, and I can withdraw my consent from the experience at any time by pressing the “power off” button on my Vita. I don’t confuse the tangled relationships in the fictional stories I enjoy with my real life relationships, which are thankfully much less dramatic than the ones I read, watch, and play.
Abuse is wrong. Verbal, physical, and sexual abuse have no place in a healthy relationship. Consent is vital. I don’t condone abuse in real life.
The fantasy world of books, movies, and video games are a space where the dangerous sides of love and lust can be explored safely- the cat and mouse game, which is exciting in theory but potentially devastating in real life, can be enjoyed in a make-believe format in which the consumer controls (while enjoying being “controlled” artificially).
We can and should continue to reflect on characters, and each person can determine for themselves what they enjoy or do not enjoy reading, watching, or playing, but there should be no shame for enjoying reprehensible love interests in fiction!
If, like me, you find that this cosy season lends itself well to curling up on the couch with a frightfully fascinating read, or hosting a Netflix Noel binge that will haunt your holiday memories for years to come, I have some recommendations for you to consider!
The following are some spooky and recent(ish) seasonal titles that I’ve enjoyed:
I am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley
Boasting two lovely cover variants, this book is part of my favorite mystery series, featuring young sleuth/chemist Flavia de Luce. While it’s the fourth in the series, this title holds its own as a standalone story as well (but I bet if you read it you will be swiftly enticed to tag along on Flavia’s other adventures!)
This is a quintessential cosy Christmas mystery set in England in the 50’s- the de Luce estate is being used as the setting for a film, and the entire town becomes trapped inside because of a terrible storm. Flavia is determined to catch Father Christmas, but she ends up stumbling upon the body of a famous young actress… DUN DUN DUNNNNNNN
Krampus, directed by Michael Dougherty
Krampus is worth a watch; it’s creepy, campy, and fun for the whole family! Well, depends on the family I guess… at least, my husband (who is a bit of a wimp when it comes to horror movies) had no problem with this freaky and fantastical black comedy. We watched it with a friend a couple of Christmases ago and found it to be a pretty solid, well paced, and satisfying story — if you don’t mind a few cheesy over-the-top monsters sprinkled here and there.
Some of the baddies in this movie are impressive feats of puppetry- check out the bonus materials for the film if you can to see some of the behind-the-scenes creativity that went into Krampus.
Hark! The Herald Angels Scream: An Anthology edited by Christopher Golden
This was a seriously fun read. Each story is short and unique- like most anthologies there were some that I enjoyed more than others, but overall it’s a great mix that moves along at a swift pace. A lot of the stories start out with everyday family drama and escalate into true horror, while several go in a more sci-fi or fantasy direction. Some of these tales will give me chills for a while to come!
A Christmas Horror Story, directed by Steve Hoban, Grant Harvey, and Brett Sullivan
This movie reminds me of Krampus in some ways (aside from the obvious connection visible on the cover)- it’s got some camp for sure, and some moments that prompted my husband and I to make “SKKNKKTCHH” noises of disbelief. At the same time, the intertwining stories balance action sequences, horrific and humorous themes, and moments both bleak and bright, plus lots of twists and turns.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: A Midwinter’s Tale (TV series Holiday Special)
Hail Satan, it’s here! Dusty and I watched the CAOS holiday special episode last night.
If you haven’t watched season 1 of CAOS yet, here’s your excuse!
While it wasn’t everything i’d hoped for (my fave character didn’t make an appearance *COfatherblackwoodUGH*) and Dustin was concerned about the implications to the plot from what we thought would be a one-off isolated episode, we still enjoyed the para-normally festive atmosphere, the introduction of a cool new character, and the softer side of Zelda that is explored.
Seth’s Christmas Ghost Stories (Series, various authors)
Ok, I had to edit this blog post to add these because I just came across them at an Indigo bookstore yesterday and I am so in love. The full set of these classic Christmas ghost stories includes 11 titles, although I was only able to find a few scattered throughout the store when I visited. These would make excellent gifts or stocking stuffers because they are tiny and unique, designed and illustrated by celebrated Canadian comic artist Seth. The publisher, Biblioasis, states on their site:
Reading a ghost story on Christmas Eve was once as much a part of traditional Christmas celebrations as turkey, eggnog, and Santa Claus…Trimmed to fit the coziest stocking, they’re perfect gifts for those who want a bit of extra Christmas chill.