Boys Run the Riot, vols. 1-2

Boys Run the Riot is unique for a slice-of-live manga. It tells the story of a transgender high schooler named Ryo Watari. When we first see him, he’s switching out of his school uniform and into his gym clothes in a train station bathroom. He hates his uniform for more than the usual reasons—his uniform is a girl’s uniform and reminds him daily that he was born female.

Ryo navigates the pitfalls of high school with the added stress and complications that come with being transgender. Besides the uniforms, the social situations are fraught. The guys tell him he’s a girl and needs to hang out with girls, and the girls call him a slut for hanging out with boys all the time. He doesn’t fit in. And in Japan, “the nail that sticks out, gets hammered down.”

The only time Ryo feels like himself is in his street clothes. He’s fascinated by fashion and he can indulge himself by dressing as masculine as he likes with no judgement (besides his mother’s). Suffering from body dysphoria, lonely, and unsure of himself—how to act, whether to come out at school, at work, not to mention what changing room to use—he feels alone. 

Enter transfer student Jin. He presents himself with an air of confidence that makes Ryo jealous, with unconventional hair and piercings (a big no-no in Japanese high schools). But these two outsiders find each other in a clothing boutique seeking out the newest fashion label.

It’s an unsurprising plot that these two form an unlikely partnership and decide to make their own fashion brand in the first volume of the series. Writer and artist Keito Gaku has created charming, honest characters in a tightly paced, well plotted manga that will hook its readers. 

Rather than instant success and smooth sailing, these young entrepreneurs will face adversity. But they will not do it alone. They add to their ranks with a photographer, as well as a social media influencer. They will meet dubious adults who scoff at the idea of teens running a fashion brand, and deal with their own doubts and insecurities as well. They meet those challenges with a plan, some guts, and a little bit of luck.

Gaku is transgender himself and his heartfelt insight is all over the page. Ryo’s story is dramatic, yes, but punctuated with humor and humanity. The amazing part of the production of this manga is that the entire English translation and localization team at Kodansha Comics are transgender as well, a dream team that is creating work that will resonate with any reader.

I was blown away by the first two volumes in this series and can’t wait to see how far Ryo goes. The publisher rates this series for older teens (16+), which makes perfect sense for the age of the characters. The translation notes provide information not only on Japanese culture, but on transgender issues like binding, as well. 

This series needs to be on high school and public library shelves everywhere.

Boys Run the Riot, Vols. 1-2
By Keito Gaku
Kodansha, 2021
Vol 1 ISBN: 9781646512485
Vol 2 ISBN: 9781646511198

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18)Publisher Age Rating: 16+

Creator Representation:  Japanese,  Gender Nonconforming
Character Representation: Japanese, Gender Nonconforming,

Jo & Rus

How do you find the place where you fit in? Where do you find your people? Middle grade fiction is often preoccupied with these questions, but Jo & Rus provides answers that are a little different than the average. Upper elementary and middle school fans of the new classics of graphic novels (Roller Girl, New Kid, El Deafo) will appreciate Audra Winslow’s fresh take on the middle school story, where it’s the things we love that bring friends together, outside of the conventions of age and gender.

Jo is bullied to the point of constant misery at her middle school because she lives in a trailer park. She’s without friends and without anything to make her life joyful. She lives with her grandmother, who appears too checked out to be a comfort or guide for Jo. Jo’s only source of comfort and release is her old DVDs of the cartoon “Magic Cat,” that she watches over and over, and her prized possession is a Magic Cat keychain that hangs from her backpack. Her beloved cartoon gives Jo a needed dose of imaginary magic in her life. Soon real life provides a little bit of magic too: she saves a one-eyed stray cat (that looks remarkably like a wizard cat in the show) from a trap. The mysterious cat repays her by bringing her back to its home, a junkyard next to the highway. 

At the junkyard Jo meets Rus, a high school senior who is also dealing with bullying at school because his family owns the junkyard. Jo and Rus bond immediately over the cats who make their home at the junkyard. The ruined van teeming with cats that’s pictured on the cover is home base for Jo, Rus, and their friends, and becomes the emotional center of the story. It’s a refuge from the hostile school environment, and a safe space for them to be themselves. 

Rus is an open and kind kid, and he and his friends welcome Jo into their group without question and without a hint of romance or sex. They recognize a kindred spirit and make it a point to coach her in coping with her bullying. They encourage her musical talent and include her in their jam sessions. Rus is generous with his laid-back philosophy of life, telling Jo when she hears about the stresses of high school that, “it can be fun, too. Everyone has problems and gets stressed, it’s just life.”

It’s in this view of teenage friendship that author Winslow (they, their) differs from other authors of middle grade stories. There is never a question of Jo developing a crush on Rus. Although his impending departure for college causes anxiety and stress for Jo, it is only because she’s afraid of losing her friend. The book is dedicated to “the Rus to my Jo,” supporting the strong sense of autobiography in the story. It’s heartening to see stories of adolescence that highlight different experiences of gender and sexuality. 

The art in Jo & Rus is full of rich natural colors and loving views of Rus’s home junk yard. A scene of the kids watching a rocket launch from behind their Florida high school shows the lyricism in Winslow’s view of a well-worn Southern suburbia. 

Jo & Rus is a great purchase for most collections of middle grade graphic novels, as it rounds out more conventional tales of middle school social life like Shannon Hale’s Real Friends.

Jo & Rus
By Audra Winslow
Kaboom, 2021
ISBN: 9781684156108
Publisher Age Rating:  9-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation: Gender Nonconforming,
Character Representation: Latinx

Be Gay, Do Comics

The Nib compiles approximately fifty webcomics (many of which were previously published on from forty creators on a wide variety of LGBTQ+-related topics into this Kickstarter-backed anthology. The comics run the gamut from one-page funnies to ten-plus-page detailed glimpses into queer history. Associate Editor Matt Lubchansky’s introduction explains the origin of the title’s source, the phrase “Be Gay, Do Crime.” Lubchansky also discusses the significance of comics as a means to express queer identity in a singularly accessible manner.

Some of the most interesting comics in the anthology serve to educate readers about various aspects of the queer experience. These include histories, cultural and national disparities in treatments of queer people, and procedures like embryo adoption and securing birth control as an asexual person. One historical highlight is The Life of Gad Beck, written by Dorian Alexander, which details gay Jewish Beck’s resistance under Nazi Germany. Levi Hastings’ gorgeous illustrations are rendered in black, white, and pale blue, with thick outlines (there is no art tool information in the book, but it looks like Hastings used oil pastels). Another particularly informative contribution is Sam Wallman’s A Covert Gaze at Conservative Gays, an illuminating piece about historical and contemporary right-wing activism among queer people. At first glance, Wallman’s panelless comic closely resembles a infographic by a Mad Magazine artist; Al Jaffee comes to mind. But this black, white, and pink comic strikes a perfect balance between discussing “gay supervillains” like Milo Yiannopolous and more sympathetic conservatives like gun advocates in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. Kazimir Lee’s What’s It Like to Raise Kids in Malaysia When You’re LGBT? is another interesting piece which details political perspectives and individual experiences of queer people in Malaysia. The standout art is reminiscent of a mid-20th century picture book; the full-color illustrations are predominantly in earthy reds, pinks, yellows, and browns, and there are minimal outlines in the characters’ block-like head and body shapes.

The anthology balances its drier informational pieces with funny one-page strips and relatable memoirs. A memoir highlight is Dancing with Pride by Maia Kobabe (Gender Queer) and is about eir experience in a folk dancing class where dancers are assigned different roles based on their perceived genders. The simple illustrations appear to be in pencil and watercolor, and feature a page where the dancers are lined up in order so their shirts make a rainbow, a very subtle and sweet nod to queerness in non-queer spaces. Another moving piece is written by Sarah Mirk and details activist Pidgeon Pagonis’s experience as an intersex child. The piece, Gender Isn’t Binary and Neither Is Anatomy, is illustrated by Archie Bongiovanni (A Quick & Easy Guide to Pronouns, Grease Bats).  A couple laugh-out-loud funny highlights include Joey Alison Sayers’s The Final Reveal, in which the extremes of gender reveal parties are spoofed, and Shelby Criswell’s Astrological Signs as Classic Queer Haircuts

As is always the case when I read comic anthologies, there were pieces that didn’t resonate as well with me as those I’ve named above. Rather than specify them, I will argue that it is because this book features something for every reader. If a piece didn’t resonate with me, it is sure to resonate with someone else. The queer representation is so varied, with gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, nonbinary, intersex, and ace representation, and with countless intersectional queer identities, that I am confident every queer reader will find something to relate to in this book. Due to its array of art styles and queer representations, I would particularly recommend Be Gay, Do Comics for fans of Iron Circus’s anthologies, like FTL, Y’all, Smut Peddler, and The Sleep of Reason.

Be Gay, Do Comics
Edited by Matt Bors
ISBN: 9781684057771
IDW, 2020

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits: Asexual, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Queer Gender Nonconforming, Genderqueer, Intersex, Nonbinary, Trans
Creator Highlights: Black, Filipino-American, Puerto Rican Asexual, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Queer Gender Nonconforming, Genderqueer, Nonbinary, Trans