Red String Vol. 1 graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Gina Biggs
Editor: Mike Carriglitto
Publisher: Dark Horse Books
Price: $9.95 US
Though Tokyopop and Viz dominate the world of manga in the Western market, one has to acknowledge that Dark Horse Comics definitely makes itself known in that arena as well, and not just when it comes to English-language adaptations of Japanese material. Red String isn’t technically original English-language manga, since its original presentation was online. Creator Gina Biggs is clearly a fan of manga and Japanese culture, as she sets her teen romance story in the Land of the Rising Sun. Biggs boasts a soft, appealing visual style that’s in keeping with the lighter, youthful tone of her story. Unfortunately, the backgrounds are lacking, making for some repetitive and unengaging artwork at times. The story itself is fairly simple, even silly at times, but it’s also sweet. Red String is all about giggly girls and their rivals, as well as the boys they swoon over and those that torment them. Red String is bound to delight young, female readers, but its appeal seems pretty much limited to that small, niche market.
High-school student Miharu Ogawa’s world comes crashing down around her when her parents inform her they’ve set up an arranged marriage between her and the son of a successful Japanese businessman. The 10th-grade student feels she’s lost control of her life, but her spirits are lifted by a chance encounter with a young college student with whom she shares an instant connection. It turns out the young man, Kazuo, is actually the arranged groom in question, giving Miharu cause to question her own misgivings about her parents’ plan. Meanwhile, Miharu’s friends have their own romantic problems, while her manipulative and mean-spirited cousin Karen sets her sights on Kazuo herself.
Perhaps the most obvious trait that struck me about Biggs’s art is how lacking her backgrounds are, making for a frequently flat look through the book. There’s a sense that these personal stories are unfolding in a void, which is unfortunate, because a greater sense of place would have made for a more convincing sense of the story and characters. Biggs captures the characters’ youth quite adeptly, so well, in fact, that the parental characters don’t appear to be nearly as old as they should. The most appealing aspect of the artwork is the kindness and innocence that Biggs brings to so many of the characters. Miharu, her parents, her friends and her boyfriend are all instantly likeable figures. One can often find a playful glint in several characters’ eyes. Though the art boasts a dominant manga look, one can still detect hints of American influences, notably that of Terry (Strangers in Paradise) Moore.
The book derives its title from a story Miharu’s mother tells her about being linked to one’s true love by a magical red string. It’s a cute concept that reinforces the Asian cultural aspects. Another Japanese trait in this Amerimanga is the occasional incorporation of nude visions of the teen protagonist, hazy, erotic daydreams that add nothing to the story. It’s more than a little disconcerting, so I was pleased to find that it grew less frequent as the book progressed.
The coincidence that serves as the story’s catalyst is not unheard of in terms of popular fiction, but it’s not exactly the most clever or believable kind of coincidence either. Biggs’s story opens with a cliche, and the cliches keep coming fast and furiously throughout the book. We’ve got the antagonistic boy who secretly has a crush on one of the girls. We have the girl’s cruel, scheming rival. We have a friend who’s haunted by a sexual reputation she never earned. It seems like one formulaic element follows another follows another here, and it’s a bit frustrating.
Even so, the innocence of the characters and the storytelling is undeniably charming. Despite the little personal crises the characters encounter, the overall tone of the book is light, happy and encouraging. At first, the notion of a high-school sophomore being romantically involved with a college guy is a bit uncomfortable, but Kazuo is revealed to be a rather innocent, gentle and kind soul as well. The reader is therefore easily able to leave behind the disconcerting first impression of the age and social differences. Red String isn’t really my bag, and I don’t think it boasts a wide appeal. The book cute — unrelentingly so — but teen girls should be able to recognize pieces of themselves in this story and in these characters. 5/10