Cade is a shy, horror-movie-obsessed teen living in rural Texas. Surrounded by homophobia, he figures he’ll never be able to come out as gay, let alone find a boyfriend. Anyway, he has other things to worry about. His family is low on money, so his parents insist that Cade get a summer job at a ranch, which pays better than the more comfortable indoor jobs he would prefer. It’s hard labor, but on the plus side he gets to work with Henry, the teenaged son of the ranch owner. Henry is attractive, mysterious, and possibly interested in Cade. But there are rumors swirling around the ranch. People have died. In fact, the whole situation reminds Cade of a horror movie. Will he be the next victim?
This is a retelling of Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey, in which a young woman allows her love of Gothic novels to color her perception of the real world. Like the heroine of that novel, Cade sees and hears a few strange things and lets his imagination fill in the gaps with terrifying theories. Changing the Gothic novels to horror movies and the setting to a lonely ranch in modern-day Texas makes for a creative update. Cade’s unease and sense of being in danger are supported by encounters with racist and homophobic locals—a situation based on the author’s own experience growing up queer, closeted, and Latine in rural Texas.
Cade comes from a class background that is underrepresented in teen fiction: his blended, multiracial family is struggling financially, living in a rural area where military service and religion play a large part in many people’s lives. This adds to Cade’s isolation, as there is a lot of homophobia in the local culture. Even his generally well-meaning stepdad casually uses homophobic language. Henry, too, has struggled to reconcile his identity with his church’s condemnation of queer people.
A content note at the beginning advises that the book contains “moments of homophobia, misogyny, racism, domestic violence, animal cruelty, and confronting death.” There is a character whose past includes becoming suicidal and spending time in a mental health facility, and another character uses stigmatizing language about it. And although he is seeing a therapist and working on his anger issues, Henry can be violent, which is an alarming quality in a love interest. There are also a handful of swear words, up to and including the f-bomb. Despite all that, though, this story is not grim throughout. It is, after all, a romance, with plenty of sweet moments and—eventually—a hopeful ending.
The art is cute and expressive, with a simplified realistic style reminiscent of Faith Erin Hicks. The book is two-color, with shades of red and pink punctuated by bold black and lots of deep shadows, especially in the creepy parts. Horror movie fans may notice a few classic film posters in some of the panels.
This is a creative retelling that stands alone. Sometimes sweet and sometimes gripping, it addresses tough topics but also brings humor and smooches. Hand it to fans of Kevin Panetta’s Bloom and Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper.
Northranger By Rey Terciero Art by Bre Indigo Harper Collins Harper Alley, 2023 ISBN: 9780063007383
Publisher Age Rating: 13+ NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Hiromi Sakura is a burned-out office worker. He once dreamed of heroically helping people, but now works long, unappreciated hours for a toxic boss. He does have one friend at work, Saotome, but otherwise, Sakura’s life is pretty bleak. Then, on his way home from work one day, he sees a child being attacked by a bizarre and frightening creature. Sakura pulls off his tie and rushes to the rescue, but he’s no match for the monster—until he unexpectedly transforms into a magical girl, complete with super-strength, incredible reflexes, and fast healing. After winning the fight, Sakura changes back to his usual self, full of confusion. Aren’t magical girls the stuff of fiction? And even in fiction, isn’t it usually girls who transform into them? Why is this happening to Sakura? And what was that monster?
When Sakura’s work friend Saotome discovers his secret, he enthusiastically volunteers to help. Saotome pushes Sakura to learn more about his abilities, and also assists Sakura using his incredible wealth and influence (for Saotome, a citywide security announcement or a helicopter ride is just a phone call away). Which is good, because more monsters are turning up, and the entity responsible for them is interested in the city’s new magical girl. Sakura is going to need all the help he can get.
This manga offers an oddball spin on the magical girl trope. Most magical girl stories center on teenage girls who, when not transformed, usually attend school and live with their parents. This one follows a tired, insecure adult who lives alone and spends his days at the office. Indeed, a lot of this volume is devoted to Sakura’s work life, especially after he is assigned to mentor a new employee. Sakura is kind and welcoming, even shielding the new recruit from the ire of their abusive boss. This plotline later intersects with Sakura’s magical girl adventures, but the workplace scenes show that Sakura can be heroic in quieter, more ordinary ways.
Neither monsters nor magical girls seem to be part of the generally-accepted reality of Sakura’s world, as people are shocked and confused to see either one. However, Sakura is certainly aware of the concepts and tropes: during his first battle, he complains, “So I’ve got the costume but no weapon? Not even a helpful little mascot thing?”
Like most magical girl stories, this manga contains violence, mostly in the form of supernatural battles. The monsters Sakura faces were once human, and their transformations can be quite creepy. Sakura’s everyday, non-monster-fighting life is also decidedly more adult than that of most magical girls: he works for a jerk who mocks the notions of safe spaces and work-life balance and claims that accusations of abuse are just employees being “wimps.” There is also a little swearing and one reference to porn magazines, though no actual nudity or sexual behavior.
The art is active, with dynamic character poses even in the scenes that are set at Sakura’s corporate job. The page layouts vary, adding visual interest. Sakura’s magical girl form and the monsters he fights match the rest of the art in terms of style, but they stand out for being bizarre and different in the otherwise ordinary city setting.
The magical girl genre has inspired many spinoffs, including grim ones like the Puella Magi series and Magical Girl Raising Project. This is a more comedic take, though not without some serious elements. Its corporate-office drama and zany after-hours hijinks might appeal to fans of Aggretsuko, though obviously Magical Girl Incident has more combat and fewer cute animals.
Magical Girl Incident, Vol. 1 By Zero Akabane Yen Press, 2023 ISBN: 9781975360368
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)