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Serial Monogamy

One of the problems with manga is that there’s just too much of it.

Now, settle down. This isn’t going to lead into of those dire predictions of a glut, and it isn’t the preface to a weary condemnation of how middlebrow many available titles are. If I’ve demonstrated anything by this point, it’s that I love middlebrow, and I’m not going to raise my fist in an angry demand for more Garo-esque art manga.

The thing is, as I stare at the bookstore manga shelves, I realize I’m never going to get caught up. Volumes of favorite titles keep coming, even as flocks of new releases join them. (I noticed in my most recent trip to the local Barnes and Noble that the manga had started encroaching on the adjacent graphic novels. Azumanga Daioh is shoving the Ultimate X-Men into a cramped corner as the Spider-Man titles watch nervously from the shelf above.)

I’ve fallen behind. Titles I love stare accusingly at me as my hand strays towards something new or to another volume of a recent fling. I want to read more of Tuxedo Gin. I really do. It’s got a penguin that dresses up in cute outfits and punches people; how could I resist that? The manic culinary absurdity of Iron Wok Jan! cries out to me. For all I know, the boys in Whistle! could have given up soccer and formed a street gang, dealing meth from the equipment room since last I looked in on them.

Okay, so being overwhelmed by appealing material isn’t exactly a crisis, except possibly in the fiscal sense. It’s probably just a matter of prioritizing, of carefully planning my manga intake so that I strike a balance between old favorites and new arrivals.

And I totally promise to start doing that sometime soon, but I’ve got to ask: Did you read Love Roma? OMG, it’s so cuuuuuute!

Minoru Toyoda’s Love Roma (Del Rey) begins with high-school boy Hoshino asking high-school girl Negishi out on a date. She’s reluctant at first, but he wins her over, and they begin seeing each other. They get to know each other better, squabble occasionally, and basically go through the motions of high-school romance.

No magical destinies, no conniving rivals, no outraged parents… just two appealing (if quirky) young people connecting in sweet, entertaining ways. It’s so weird.

It’s low-key, straightforward approach to teen romance isn’t the only thing that’s distinct about it. The things that I most commonly associate with romance manga are elegance of line, intensely focused storytelling, and deeply internalized emotion. Love Roma doesn’t possess any of those qualities, but it’s charmingly romantic all the same.

One of the driving jokes of Love Roma is Hoshino’s near-total frankness. While his shôjo brethren smolder and suffer, Hoshino blurts. He wants to date Negishi, and he asks her, in front of the entire class. He’s ready to kiss Negishi, and he tells her, in front of the entire class. Another girl sends him a love letter, and he asks her to join him and Negishi for lunch, in front of the entire class. He’s undeniably odd, but he’s a boy with a mission: to earn Negishi’s respect and affection by being completely candid with her. His approach is unconventional, but his devotion is disarming.

On her side, Negishi isn’t quite sure what to make of her admirer. If she had hopes for what being wooed would be like, it’s safe to say she never imagined someone like Hoshino. At times, she finds his directness embarrassing, particularly when all of her schoolmates are in attendance like a group of keyed-up sports fans. But Negishi has her own kind of frankness. She’s much more emotional than Hoshino, or at least more overt about it, and Hoshino’s honesty connects with her own, even as it subverts her expectations.

On the storytelling front, Love Roma veritably barrels along in comparison to other romance manga. Some manga-ka spend volumes painstakingly moving their protagonists to their first kiss, or even to admitting that they like each other. Toyoda starts things where someone like Yû Watase (Imadoki!) might end them. While Natsuki Takaya (Fruits Basket) specializes in huge emotions written with aching emotional precision and delicacy, Toyoda seems to excel at writing small emotional milestones absurdly, hilariously large. Love Roma moves with its own unexpected rhythms, turning familiar story elements into something fresh.

It’s visually disarming as well. The best way I can describe the art is to say that it has the appearance of effortlessness. The look verges on chibi, cartoonish and exaggerated, but it suits the story beautifully. It reminds me of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s work on Scott Pilgrim (Oni), though it isn’t quite as accomplished. Like O’Malley, Toyoda uses apparently simple visuals to convey a complex emotional palate. Toyoda has a nifty sense of composition, too, and he uses panel flow in surprising and funny ways.

This is one of those cases where you actually can judge a book by its cover. On it, Negishi and Hoshino stand side by side, staring resolutely out at the reader with shy, slightly mysterious smiles on their faces. They’re backed by a riot of wildflowers. The image promises something endearing and unusual, and Love Roma delivers.

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