It occurred to me recently that I’m reading a number of awesome webcomics that include massively enjoyable lesbian characters, so in honor of Valentine’s Day, that upcoming celebration of patriarchal heteronormativity, I thought I’d do a mini-series on lesbian love in webcomics. I know for sure that I’ll be talking about Penny and Aggie, Fans! and YU+ME — if you guys have any other recommendations, let me know!
First up: Red String!
The title is a reference to the “red string of fate,” which is an idea from Chinese legend, basically saying that men and women who are destined to fall in love are connected by a red string. So, Red String is a webcomic that explores the concept of love.
At first glance is looks like a very typical manga– soap-opera-y relationship drama, cute girls in short uniforms, and so on. However, the more I read it, the more I am amazed by its depth, and by it’s un-manga-ness. (As a note, I know I am making gross generalizations about manga here, and that it’s a hugely broad category of story-telling. I am referring here to the non-magical, shoujo romance-type stories that form a large subsection of manga. Also, for the record, I adore all the manga I’ve read. If you find yourself offended by any generalizations that I make, please, I don’t mean your favourite manga. I’m just trying to identify trends.)
Now, when I check the F.A.Q., I see that the author outright denies any claim that her comic is manga–
As an American I create comics, not manga. Red String does not claim to be anything else. My art is influenced by many different artists and writers, both American and Japanese. My work reflects those influences. As for why I set my story in Japan, as an author, I find that if something interests me, I want to write about it. I am interested in Japanese culture. I have tried my best to write a tale as accurate as possible to the traditions and nuances of the culture. However, this story was primarily written for an American audience by an American author, so pacing and style will obviously be different from Japanese manga stories.
I find that the interplay between manga conventions and the American writing produces something that I haven’t seen anywhere else. A Japanese high school is an excellent setting to explore ideas of romance, self-identity, and social politics; although the people are very much the same deep down– i.e., awkward teenagers with all the accompanying problems– the stricter societal norms can really highlight the conflicts inherent in that time of life. There can be drama in just who is speaking to whom, or where one sits, and so on. Some of these were topics of conversation in my own high school, but not all of them, and certainly not to the extent which they seem to be here.
But Red String does something unusual, in taking that setting and then doing something with it that actual manga rarely does, in exploring constantly-changing plots. At least in my experiences with manga, a series tends to be defined by its “pitch,” and so a story about three high school students dealing with will-they/won’t-they relationships is always going to be a story about those three students dealing with their relationships, until everything gets resolved at the very end, or until the series just fizzles out and stops. In Red String, on the other hand, the author is not at all afraid to change things, even extremely important things. People actually get past the flirting and indecision, and date each other. And they break up. “Friends forever” who in traditional manga really would be friends forever move away or drift apart. And then they make new friends. Sworn enemies soften and learn to understand each other. The story is always changing, always focused on the same themes of love in all its forms, but always fresh and interesting.
And then there’s The Gay. Same-sex relationships are not uncommon in manga, but they are almost always implied, rather than acknowleged, especially female ones. Part of this is the way that all romantic relationships in manga spend long periods of time in that will-they/won’t-they stage, but there’s something extra going on with the gay relationships. The characters will rarely state sincerely that they would like to have a relationship. It’s all joking innuendo; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lesbian couple in a manga that could’t be interpreted as “just close friends.” Even those who are probably intended to be seen as “more than friends”– Tomoyo’s feelings for Sakura in Cardcaptor Sakura, or Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune– never quite go out and say it. Which is why I am thrilled to say that Red String continued to be very un-manga-like.
Quoth the author:
This comic’s main theme is LOVE. It is not confined to just heterosexual love. It deals with all forms of love; romantic, parental, platonic, heterosexual, homosexual, unrequited, etc. I believe if you have love, you are a very lucky person. I believe in not discriminating against people who have love in their hearts. Love is better than hate or prejudice. Also, some people have brought up the religious aspect. I am writing a story set in Japan and most Japanese are Buddhist or Shintoist. Less than 2.5% of Japanese are Christian. It would be grossly inaccurate to push Christian beliefs on characters that obviously were not raised in that religion.
Later I will probably talk about the specific gay characters and how fantastic and refreshing I’m finding their storylines to be, but for now I just want to say: AWESOME. Especially because there’s no way to pretend that we’re just talking about “admiration” or “close friendship.” The gay characters talk to their friends, and to each other, and they are honest, and they kiss. That’s the best part! KISSES! Right there! On the page! Unambiguously romantic! AWESOME!
This is not, by any means, the only reason I enjoy this comic; Red String, does, after all, deal with all forms of love, and it deals with them all in fascinating and refreshing ways. It’s just particularly refreshing to see a comic that talks about love without shying away from homosexual love.
To those who are just joining the blog from Red String, welcome! If you want to read some more of what we’ve got here (and I know you do!), why don’t you check out my other “lesbian love in webcomics” articles here? Or you can check out some of my old favourites! I’ve always loved “More Xena; also, thoughts on pregnant heroes“, as well as my critiques of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kiki’s Delivery Service. I hope to see you again– and please share your thoughts in the comments!