Did I really just voluntarily read 31 chapters of Gina Biggs' manga-influenced romance comic Red String? If I had any shred of hip kid cred (which I don't), this would definitively snuff it out.
In my defense, though, Red String is immensely engrossing and surprisingly rich.
Miharu Ogawa is high school student with a fierce independent streak and a strong sense of justice that tends to land her in trouble. Her life is a fairly unremarkable one, spent hanging out with her best friends Reika and Fuuko, dodging her rival Morita, and sparring with the cynical Hayashihara. But one day, Miharu comes home to learn that her parents long ago arranged her marriage to the son of her mother's childhood friend. At first, Miharu is horrified, both at the prospect of marrying someone she does not love and that her parents are forcing her to submit to such an outdated tradition. But her nascent love life takes a sudden and surprising turn when she realizes her fiance might just be her soulmate.
It sounds cheesey, but rest assured Red String is more than just your typical high school soap opera. In addition to following the primary relationship between Miharu and Kazuo, it also focuses on a rich cast of characters. Reika lives under the specter of an ugly rumor and pines after a playboy classmate, but finds friends willing to help build her underdeveloped sense of self. Fuuko realizes she has feelings for a female upperclassman, a relationship that could cause enormous social fallout. Miharu's cousing Karen also finds herself the victim of an arranged marriage, and is willing to go to extremes to change her fate. Hayashihara masks his soft heart and parents' crumbling marriage by acting judgmentally aloof. We aren't just looking at a thread that connects two lovers, but the entire tapestry that surrounds them.
A central theme ties together all these concurrent storylines: love. It's not just romantic love, although that certainly plays a role. Red String is also about the love of family and friends and about finding your passions in life. One character feels no greater bliss when she's on the volleyball court, but is unsure how to process her own romantic feelings. Another wants nothing more than for her crush to notice her, but eventually finds a hobby that's more rewarding than the reality of dating him. Biggs knows that there's a big, wide world for her characters beyond high school and first dates, and realizes that they're all the richer when they have a chance to explore it.
Of course, pursuing our bliss is not always easy. Rumors of a same sex relationship scandalize not only the students at Miharu's school, but some of the teachers as well. Kazuo submits to his father's rigid life plan -- studying pharmacology and taking over the family business -- even as he dreams of working in a restaurant. And Miharu must resolve her affection for Kazuo with her belief that arranged marriages are wrong.
Although the manga influence is apparent in Biggs' art and the Japanese setting, Red String is not a manga and, as Biggs herself notes, employs a much more American comics style of storytelling. Characters evolve and grow. Best friends move away. Couples get together and they break up. And, though we are asked to suspend our disbelief regarding certain unlikely coincidences, her characters are, though deliberately exaggerated, believable, their actions understandable as their motives are gradually revealed. As a protagonist, Miharu herself is a delight to watch. Tough and yet vulnerable in all the right places, she is rebellious, but not gratuitously so. Her temper is portrayed as both a a handicap and a righteous fire, and she suffers very real consequences from her actions. Ultimately, she manages to be interesting despite having few interests of her own, and proves a handy foil to straight-laced, obedient Kazuo, whom she has a great deal to teach about finding happiness.
This mix of fluffy manga base and richly plotted topping makes Red String a tastier treat than most romance-themed fare, and Biggs' talents have not gone unnoticed. The first three volumes of Red String were published in print by Dark Horse, and she is currently taking preorders for a self-published fourth volume. Red String updates online Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
[Buy Red String Volume 1]