You know, I don't cover a lot of Dark Horse comics here. I need to change that, so let's start with a quiet little gem from their library of titles.
TRANSLUCENT (Toransurusento: Kanojo wa Hantomei), by Kazuhiro Okamoto. First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2007.
Shizuka Shiroyama would be, under any other circumstances, a shy but otherwise normal schoolgirl. She has a few friends, she has an interest in theater, and a lot of the usual teen girl insecurities. She has one very big, very unique problem, though - she is literally disappearing. She has Translucent Syndrome, a mysterious condition that appears during puberty. It can cause random body parts to partially or fully disappear, and over time the translucence can become permanent. At least Shizuka has the support of her friends like dorky little Mamoru or pretty, popular Okouchi. Still, she must come to terms with her body and her condition, as well as how she and other people perceive herself in both a figurative and literal sense of the word.
Don't worry yourself with asking questions about why and how Translucent Syndrome exists, as the story isn't interested in explaining and quite frankly it's not concerned with the science behind it. No, what Translucent is interested in is using Shizuka's condition as a rather on-the-nose metaphor for teenaged insecurity. In lesser hands this concept could become incredibly melodramatic, but Okamoto wisely takes a low-key approach to things and the end result is a very touching manga.
Shizuka may disappear from time to time, but her biggest problem is that as a person, she's kind of flat. She can't entirely help it, as Shizuka tends to be introverted by nature; she would be the kind of kid who would fade into the background even if she didn't have this condition. She does try to get better, though. She tries to act, against the wishes of her father who simply wants to keep her safe and sound at home. She talks with her doctors about her future and her condition, and she gets some perspective from Keiko, a glass blower who has gone entirely invisible. Her snarky pessimism is a stark contrast to Shizuka's timid optimism, but she can give Shizuka some perspective on living one's adult life with this condition.
What really helps to bring her out of her shell are her new friends, and Mamoru in particular stands out for his efforts. He's such an endearing little dork, and as much as he's clearly crushing on her he really does try to support her and make her happy. He even takes up an interest in stage makeup to help her out. He's balanced out by Okouchi, who starts out envying Shizuka for being able to go unnoticed but comes around quickly to becoming her friend. She's mostly there to help give Mamoru a smack when he's being especially oblivious or losing himself too deeply in his geekiness. They help to give Shizuka a sense of stability and positivity, both of which go a long way towards making her a happier and more frequently visible girl.
The approach Okamoto takes towards her story is one that's closer to a slice-of-life story than it a more tradionally structured drama. She's simply content to let Shizuka meander through her everyday life and conversations, and while there are misunderstandings and arguments, she doesn't play them too hard for melodrama. The only time she indulges in that is a tonally weird moment near the end where Mamoru literally has a fistfight with Shizuka's dad in the rain. This moment does serve its purpose story-wise but it comes out of nowhere and feels ridiculously over-the-top compared to everything else. Otherwise, this is just a quiet, somber story about a young girl slowly and gradually reaching out to the world before she might literally disappear from it. Okamoto takes great care with the characters and she doesn't hammer in the morals or the metaphors, however obvious they may seem. It's that delicate approach that makes Translucent such a fine work in the first place, and it's kind of criminal that such a story has been so overlooked by so many.
Okamoto's artwork isn't the sort that impresses you at first glance. The character designs are plain and very realistic. The panels and pages alike are equally plain - there are no dramatic angles, no splash pages, no layers, just a lot of mid-level shots that are set in a lot of ordinary homes, streets, and school rooms. What does impress you is Okamoto's skill for body language and expression. Everyone moves and acts in a very nuanced manner and he can get across a lot of mood just through body language. This is doubly important in a work where some characters are not always completely visible, so even getting things across through the shift in someone's clothing or an object they carry is crucial. He also handles the varying degrees of translucence well. Sometimes Shizuka appears in vague outlines, and other times her limbs will simply fade into blank space. Ultimately his art is quiet but highly skilled, and it's a good fit for the story.
Translucent is a sadly ironic, considering how little-seen it is by most manga readers. That's really quite a shame, as it's a lovely and quietly dramatic slice-of-life story about a girl coming to terms with a chronic condition and learning to find some happiness in life in spite of it. It's got enough direction to keep it from feeling aimless and it's restrained enough to give the bittersweet story substance.
This series was published by Dark Horse Comics. This series is complete in Japan with 5 volumes available. 3 volumes have been published and are currently out of print.