Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 22

Wandering Son

by Shimura Takako
Genre notes: school, cross-dressing, gender, sexuality, coming of age
16 vols (8 released in the US)
ISBN: 1606994166 (Amazon)

Story time. Late '80s. In a gathering of high school kids for some event or other, there was a game in which people would have to perform some stunt of the leader’s choosing. One of them was to speak in a gay lisp. Five-sixths of the guys involved wouldn’t participate—not because it was insensitive or anything—but because it was too gross. A friend of mine took a trip to Africa and this tribe’s chief took his hand, wanting to show him the village. My friend shook off that man’s hand. Fifteen years later he, a pastor, is still pretty pleased with that decision and occasionally (from what I hear) brings it up in sermons. In high school, at a school in the center of the second gayest town (per capita at the time) in California, there was a boy who tried out for the cheerleading squad. He was immediately deemed gay (and therefore gross). I don’t even know if he ever wore a cheer skirt or if he wanted to. And of course that wouldn’t have had anything to do with his sexual preferences—we wouldn’t have known that—but at least within the scope of our warped cultural pericope, that would have been justification enough for our prejudice. Because at that time, gayness was still considered something kind of a little bit awful. The mere hint of peculiarity in terms of sex or gender presumptions was enough to send us all into a whirlwind of confusion and antipathy.

I’m not sure that having read Wandering Son would have helped, but it very well may have. Anything that humanizes the targets of othering is worthwhile because empathizing with those who are Not You and Not Like You is essential to loving them as you do yourself. And above everything else that it does so well, Wandering Son humanizes its characters—regardless of how much they deviate from the cultural norms their societies dictate.

(Which should be easy, right? Because these characters are human. Really, we shouldn’t even need a book to make the effort, but even my own very narrow personal history demonstrates with force that we do need books to make the effort.)

On the cusp of junior high, Shuichi and Yoshino struggle with gender expression. Shuichi, a boy, finds himself increasingly wishing to dress as a girl, while Yoshino, a tomboy who already dresses in a nonfeminine manner, pushes against her culture’s proposal that she ought to be more ladylike. While Shuichi himself thus far in the series only expresses through transvestitism and remains heterosexual (eventually pursuing a girlfriend), the book eventually and additionally treats discussion of transsexuality, gender identity, and what the experience of coming of age in such turmoil might entail.

When I first approached Wandering Son I was concerned that, like so many works that have lessons to impart, it would come off as didactic and proselytizing. Instead, we have this warm-hearted, gentle story about a collection of kids growing up. Wandering Son doesn’t lay out any argument for the humanity of its characters who diverge from social expectation. It doesn’t need to.

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