What happens when you take one hacky BL mangaka and pair her up with a boring one? In today's case, you get something unexpectedly wonderful.
LOVE STAGE!! (Rabu Suteji), written by Eiki Eiki with art by Taishi Zaou. First published in 2010 and first published in North America in 2015.
Izumi Sena comes from a family of actors, but he has no interest in taking up the family trade. He has much more interest in becoming a mangaka in spite of his complete lack of artistic skill. The only exception to this was a commercial he did as a child where he posed as a girl, and this commercial become so beloved that it merited a sequel. That's where Izumi meets once more with popular actor Ryoma Ichijo. Ryoma has spent the last decade pining for the cute little girl he met making the original commercial. How will he handle it when his dream girl turns out to be a cute otaku boy?
The creative duo behind this series should inspire anything but confidence. Eiki Eiki was something of a big name in BL in the 90s, but she's also kind of notorious for making some really exploitative works. Even her shoujo works aren't much better. Meanwhile, Taishi Zaou (a.k.a. Mikiyo Tsuda) is best known for being kind of boring, with her best known solo work being Princess Princess. How then can these two come together to produce a story that's so very funny and charming?
I think what I like most about Love Stage!! is that while Izumi and Ryoma do fit somewhat broadly into the uke and seme dynamic, they do get to show some character beyond those points. As the protagonist, Izumi gets the most opportunity to build up his personality between his otaku interests and his interaction with his family and the manager (who might as well be family). These moments are almost always played for comedy, but it never crosses the line into mean-spiritedness. As for Ryoma, he's generally quite good-natured and affable for a seme. His interactions with Izumi are friendly and supportive, even after he learns that his dream girl is a dude. He only crosses the line once, and even then Eiki Eiki does two things right to diffuse this. First, she has Ryoma knocked out before things can get too hot and heavy and plays this off as slapstick. Secondly, she makes Ryoma genuinely sorry for going too far. A seme with a sense of decency? How novel!
That broadness and good nature extends into the plot at large, which only makes the proceedings all the more delightful. I don't know who was more amusing: Izumi's older brother Shogo, who fawns over Izumi when he's not fawning over himself or trying to tease Ryoma, or Rei the long-suffering manager who is always caught between trying to appease Izumi's family and to serve as something of a (rather blunt) father figure to Izumi. Again, the comedy comes naturally from the characters' personalities and relationships and not at their expense (well...maybe not quite so much for Rei) so the jokes land often and land well. I actually care about all of these characters and enjoy reading about their exploits instead of waiting and hoping for the next bit of groping. Love Stage!! is entertaining and well-written in a way that few BL works can aspire to be. It truly is amazing what a decade or two can do to hone a writer's skills.
I also have to give credit to Zaou for her artwork. Her style was always somewhat close to Eiki Eiki's stylistically, particularly around the eyes, but she's got a far better grasp on expression, movement, and fashion than the former ever did. It's hard to believe that from the cover art, which makes Ryoma look way more aggressive than he gets in the book. The only thing she's a bit shaky on are the noses, as they have a tendency to disappear when not in profile. She clearly likes to show off those attractive faces and lively expressions by keeping the panels close to them, but that just helps with the jokes and emotional moments more than anything. She also clearly LOVES drawing the moments where Izumi tries his hands at manga art, and every crude, blocky attempt at drawing Lala Lulu is always a delight. Finally, I love the few bits of color art we do get, including the cover. The bright, almost neon colors catch the eye and fit the tone of the story well. It gives Love Stage!! a style all its one, one that helps it stand out from the rest of SuBLime's books.
Love Stage!! is charming, pretty, and fun in a way that makes it a standout title in modern BL. It's easy to see why this series was picked up for television and it's absolutely one that BL fans should pick up for themselves.
This series is published by Viz under their SuBLime imprint. This series is ongoing with 6 volumes available. 5 volumes have been published and all are currently in print.