Obviously, boys' love deals a lot with homosexuality, but it's very very rare to see any of them even consider the other parts of the LGBTQ spectrum. Today's review is one of those very very rare expections.
CROQUIS, by Hinako Takanaga. First published in 2004 and first published in North America in 2010.
Ever since he was a preteen, Nagi wanted to become a girl. He thought it was the only way he could become normal. So, he spends his days modeling at an art school and his nights working at a gay bar so he can someday afford the surgery he needs. Then he starts getting close to art school student Shinji, and Nagi starts to question if he needs to change his sex to be worthy of love. Meanwhile, the quiet and reserved Kamota comes to terms over time with his crush on his best friend Tori and Sei tries to find the courage to confess his feelings to his starry-eyed friend Daiki.
You almost never see trans individuals in manga, BL or otherwise. There are a fair share of transvestites in manga, but even then they are rarely treated as anything more than a joke, as a bunch of hairy buff guys unconvincingly wearing drag. That's why it's nice to see someone treating a trans kid like a person, even if the trans part doesn't really stick.
That's the big caveat with the main story: Nagi thinks he's trans, but it stems not from a real issue with his gender but as an overreaction to his homosexuality. He's so paranoid about being outed and mocked that he feels like a sex change is the only way to make his desires socially acceptable. Still, Takanaga takes his struggle seriously and it's hard to not feel for the poor kid. She also surrounds Nagi with a lot of transwomen as part of his night job. They do tend to be rather catty about Nagi's love troubles and none of them are truly distinct enough to be characters in their own right, but again she treats them like people and not like gags. If anything, they are Nagi's mentors in love, bringing a more jaded and snarky counterpoint to his giddy heights and hysterical lows as well as stressing that becoming a transwoman won't solve all of Nagi's romantic problems.
It's good that we have characters like that because on his own, Nagi's emotions are so extreme that it starts to get exhausting after a while. Even after he and Shinji become a couple, he freaks out over everything: how androgynous Shinji's painting of him is, why they aren't having sex, Shinji spending all of his money on art supplies, etc. It's a good thing then that Shinji is so mellow in comparison. He's the one that usually initiating the explanations instead of jumping to conclusions. He's the one who is able to talk Nagi down from his hysterics and to demonstrate that his affections are true. He's precisely the sort of chill pill that someone like Nagi needs and in that sense they're a perfect pair. That being said, I also like that he's also not completely perfect. It would be all too easy to make Shinji the perfect boyfriend, but instead she makes him a flake when it comes to money and conflicted between his love of rough sex and his desire to not affect Nagi's part-time modeling. There's some decent characterization here in what is a relatively short amount of space, and it's a credit to Takanaga that she makes it work so well.
It doesn't stop there, though. The next story, "My First Love" is a very down-to-earth take on one teenage boy's first crush on his outgoing best friend. It's an unrequited sort of love, but it's not played for melodrama. Instead, there's a lot of humor, mostly because Kamota's friend Tori is such a gregarious goofball to begin with. Despite that, she manages to end it on a really great, bittersweet note. The two meet up again as adults, having drifted apart after high school. A lot of BL would have this lead to a sudden but mutual confession of love and the two getting together. Instead, Tori is happily married, the two are able to reconnect as friends, and Kamota is able to give himself a sense of closure to his crush. It's a very mature take on unrequited love, one that's so good that not even a frankly unnecessary side story from Tori's point of view can completely taint it.
The only story that didn't work for me at all in this collection was "Wish Upon a Star." In some ways it felt like a retread of the title story, with one boy being simultaneous very repressed yet very emotional and the other being so caught up in their particular interest that they don't always notice something wrong. Here, though, Sei's reluctance doesn't have any real cause so his inability to just say "I love you" is just frustrating, especially since the story keeps dragging things out. The resolution is sweet enough, and I like the fact that for once the main couple stops in the middle of the post-confession foreplay and takes that action to a more private place like sensible people.
Croquis is a pretty solid anthology of BL when taken as a whole. Takanaga manages to get a lot of character into these short stories and even explores some ideas that I've not seen done elsewhere. This may be one of the few anthology-style BL manga that I would recommend to others.
While I do like Takanaga's art overall, I do wish she would change things up when it came to her character designs. She's got a preference for pairing up tiny, boyish, light-haired boys with taller, dark-haired ones, and she tends to recycle designs a lot from one work to another. As a fan of her works, it's hard for me to look at Nagi or Sei and not see Tatsumi from Challengers or how much Shinji looks like Morinaga from The Tyrant Falls in Love. Even if you've never read any of her other works, it's not hard to spot that the pairings in this book do all bear a bit of resemblance to one another.
It's a shame because there are some great things about them as well. While her faces are pretty conventional for BL art, they're wonderfully expressive and she actually has a grasp on how to draw bodies and decent-looking hands. On the other hand, I wish she didn't feel the need to always cover up so much of her faces with messy bangs and big, hatchy blush marks. She's also kind of messy when it comes to her paneling and composition, especially here when there's simply so many inner monologues to fit on the page. At times it can obscure those good parts and make things feel more frantic than what the story would suggest. The short story format makes those flaws a little more obvious than normal, but overall it's still a notch above average.
The translation is not bad for the most part. It can get a little slang-laden in place, but it's not frequent or weird enough to distract the reader from the text. What I do have a problem with is that in the early chapters there are some random German words in said text that is very distracting. It's clearly a mistake whenever it happens and it makes me wonder if this wasn't translated by Tokyopop's German branch first or if the same translator was working on both translations. Since no translator is credited anywhere, it's hard to say for certain.
Croquis is not without its flaws, but Takanaga does a lot more good here than not. You might come to this work for the sympathetic take on transgendered characters, but it's worth sticking around for the generally good character writing and above-average art.
This book was published by Tokyopop under their Blu imprint. It is currently out of print.