Two on friendship

Weird as it may be to say for someone who reads a fair amount of shônen manga, I think friendship is an under-examined subject in comics. There are some great ones that offer insights into unromantic bonds among unrelated people, but new examples are always welcome. I’ve recently enjoyed two relative newcomers to this genre, both of which address the shifting fortunes of friendship. They’re very different, but each is well worth a read.

Sarah Oleksyk’s Ivy (Oni Press) is about as frank an examination of emotional growing pains as you’re likely to find. Its titular heroine is suffering through the restrictions of high-school life in a small town, trying to make decisions about her future that she knows her mother would oppose, and wondering why her closest friends seem to be distancing themselves from her. Readers won’t wonder, as Ivy doesn’t seem like an easy person to be around. To be perfectly honest, she’s kind of awful, but she’s awful in achingly specific, recognizable ways.

Oleksyk doesn’t seem to be doing that thing where a creator will trick you into loving her unsympathetic protagonist. She seems more hopeful that you won’t judge Ivy too harshly and that you’ll see the bits of her that track with the bits of you that you may not care to remember. That was my experience with the book. I could identify with both the friends who find Ivy increasingly hard to take (“She makes fun of everything I say!”) and the spikes of temper and feelings of ill use and jealousy that seem to bubble out of Ivy before she even realizes it. There are tons of moments that acutely express feelings I’ve had in the past, even if I haven’t shared the identical experience that triggered them.

That kind of pungent, “I’ve felt that before” specificity informs the entire book, even when “I’ve felt that before” is accompanied by the less flattering sensation that I’ve read some of this before. While Oleksyk’s characters never feel less than uniquely alive, some of their experiences cover very well-traveled ground. Oleksyk brings freshness to Ivy’s first serious romantic relationship (which you will probably watch through spread fingers with some bad ex’s face floating unbidden in your memory), but her conflict with her mother and troubles with a teacher felt very predictable. It’s not that these threads aren’t executed well or aren’t true to the character; it’s that these specific arcs have been portrayed so often and so well that it’s hard not to feel that you’ve been there and done that.

But, though it all, Oleksyk remains true to the fact that her heroine isn’t a particularly nice person. Ivy is worthy of interest and sympathy, but she has a lot of growing up to do. That clear-eyed understanding, combined with a note-perfect facility for teen turmoil (along with splendid, expressive art), make Ivy a standout.

(Comments based on a digital review copy provided by the publisher. I haven’t seen the physical book, so I can’t comment on its production values.)

In a much lighter vein is the first volume of Yuuki Fujimoto’s The Stellar Six of Gingacho (Tokyopop), which follows six friends who are all children of various vendors in a small market street. Mike, the green grocer’s daughter, has noticed that the group has been drifting apart as they’ve gotten older and split off into different classes at school. She’s made new friends and developed new interests herself, but she doesn’t want to lose the special bond that she’s formed with this neighborhood pack. So she comes up with things they can do as a group, particularly when they’re tied to their shared identity as vendors’ kids.

The best parts of this book are tied to Market Street. Perhaps it reveals too much in the way of postmodern hippie leanings on my part, but I love stories that feature small businesses and independent entrepreneurs. Fujimoto seems to share my admiration, and the bustle of Market Street, the interactions between various shop owners and their collective efforts, play an important role beyond just giving the ensemble cast a commonality. Market Street has a warm sense of place, and it’s easy to see why Mike wants to nourish the parts of her that are spring from it.

Not unexpectedly, things tend to sag when events move away from the neighborhood. The slow-building subplot of Mike’s dawning romantic feelings for longtime friend Kuro (the fishmonger’s son) is nice enough, but it feels generic compared to the ensemble elements. When the kids are at school, the book resembles any number of competent middle-school romances. If Fujimoto figures out how to ground Mike and Kuro’s developing relationship in the atmosphere and events of Market Street, my concerns will be nullified. (I’ll also be happy if she devotes more individual attention to the other members of the ensemble.)

Fujimoto does end the volume on a wonderful high note. Its final story introduces Market Street’s curmudgeonly granny of a candy shop owner. I’ve expressed my fondness for this type of character before, and I love this specimen’s playfully combative relationship with the kids and her abiding loyalty to her neighborhood, no matter how often she carps about details. Her loyalty is returned in just the right proportion in a lovely story about neighbors doing right by each other and generations finding unexpected ways to connect.

If I were to complain about anything about the book, it would be the positively miniscule type size of the many conversational asides Fujimoto gives her characters. It’s hard to see how they could be any larger, but they’re an absolute chore to decipher, and the affection the book earns overall makes me not want to miss a word.

(The Stellar Six of Gingacho originally ran in Hakusensha’s Hana to Yume and The Hana to Yume for a total of ten volumes.)