Manga-ka: Est Em
Rating: Older Teen (16+)
Release Date: October 2009
Synopsis: “Forbidden love has a way of intertwining itself with destiny. Nick and Billy share a dream to become rock stars, but the dream comes crashing down the night Nick steals Billy’s guitar and life savings to pay off a debt. The crime breaks down the barrier of friendship between the two boys, revealing a far deeper level of connection than either was willing to admit. However, other members of the band grow tired of Nick’s free-thinking and careless ways. They want the “hippie” out of the band, leaving Billy faced with a heart-wrenching decision. He can either sacrifice his music, a career into which he’s invested countless hours of sweat and blood. Or he can sacrifice the boy who stole his heart long ago…”
Age Called Blue doesn’t feel like a yaoi manga. Instead it feels like a comic that happens to have gay leads. While the focus is on the main characters’ relationship, it’s more complicated than them just being boyfriends. For Nick, Billy is all he has in the world, while for Billy, Nick is the only thing holding him back. The way the characters act is sadly realistic, making this a believable and interesting drama.
This manga really hits the right notes not only with the art but with the words. Most manga hook you with an initial image or sequence, but Age Called Blue uses text to draw you into the world: “On Wednesday Pete Brian died. On that same day, my roommate Nick ran away with my guitar and cash. I felt like dying.” Needless to say, Billy’s having a bad week. As the story unfolds, we find out that Pete Brian was the lead singer of Billy’s favourite rock band, The Rebels. We also meet Billy’s renegade roommate Nick and figure out that this isn’t the first time he’s pulled a stunt like this. I like how quickly the story starts. Instead of showing how Billy and Nick meet (though we see that later) it starts out at a point where their histories are already tangled up together.
While Nick may be a pain, he is also undeniably talented. As he and Billy start to get more involved with each other, their band also starts to take off. They catch the eye of Joe Coxon, former guitarist for The Rebels, and he offers them a contract. Billy is ecstatic. While he might not have Nick’s flair for the dramatic, he’s been practicing and working for this dream for a long time. But with Nick’s behaviour growing more and more wild there’s a very real risk that the dream might slip away. Billy loves both Nick and music, but he seems to be the only one. His fellow band mates want Nick out, and even Joe warns Billy that he’ll to decide what matters more to him, music or ‘the boy.’
I always like it in yaoi when the relationships are more complicated than uke/seme. Nick and Billy definitely don’t fit the yaoi stereotypes. They are musicians, punks, rock stars. In short, they are a lot more than just the roles they play in bed.
One thing I did have a problem with was the flow of the story. The manga does a couple of chapters of linear storytelling, then flashes back to the day Pete Brian died and fills in some of the blanks. After that is a chapter showing Billy and Nick meeting as teenagers. I didn’t really find the last part necessary. Sure it’s nice to see Billy and Nick when they still had some baby fat, but the main storyline was so compelling that I didn’t really care how these two first started going out. The chapters that flash back to the day Pete died are interesting though. In one chapter we see Nick approach a depressed Pete and offer his body in exchange for money. In the other chapter Billy happens to run into Joe, his very own personal guitar hero, and brings him back to the apartment (though unlike Nick and Pete, they don’t have sex). At first I rolled my eyes at the coincidence: what are the chances of these two both running into an ex-member of The Rebels, and on the same day? But once I got past how contrived it seemed, it actually works really well in the story as we get to compare Nick and Billy’s relationship to Joe and Pete’s.
Age Called Blue is a nice addition to the subgenre of band manga (i.e. Nana, Dragon Voice). Age Called Blue is a bit different from some of the better-known titles in the genre in that it focuses more on rock and punk than pop. It’s a little less slick, which suits it. It’s not about pretty pop stars singing in massive stadiums, but about up-and-comers happy to get a gig in a dive bar or shady club. There’s a joyful desperation in not just the characters but the art. It’s slightly sketchy but always clear. Everything (people included) seems to have just the right amount of grime. The manga looks dirty, and that’s a good thing.
The character designs are really nice, reminding me slightly of Becky Cloonan’s art. Once again there’s a sketchy look to everyone, but after a second glance you can see the detail around the eyes and the noses (I love Est Em’s noses. She’s one of the few manga-ka I’ve seen who can actually somehow make this an expressive feature). A complaint I have with her character designs is that they’re not varied enough. There are a couple of short stories at the end of the volume, and in one of them the main character looked so much like Billy I thought he was actually the main character for awhile.
The extra stories at the end are good, though not as good as the main story. In one an art student falls for his professor only to find that they are linked in more ways than he thought. In another, an old man reminisces about his days in the Soviet space program and his friend who managed to reach the stars. Both of these are very well done and interesting stories, but just weren’t as memorable for me.
Net Comics does a good job with the adaptation, though in one part they seem to veer into Dick Van Dyke territory with the extreme British accents. The fonts used for the texts are ugly, but in way fit the mood of the manga: they look like the kind of fonts a cheap zine might use.
This is a yaoi that I can see appealing not just to manga fans, but to open-minded comic book readers as well. The characters seem like they could exist in real life, but that’s only half of it. Not only are their actions realistic but how the world reacts to their actions rings true as well. In this manga there is cause and effect, and things don’t always work out the way the characters want them too. Age Called Blue is still not as much of a downer as it sounds though, as the characters show that they are capable of getting back on their feet if they really want too. It’s an ending that manages to be open-ended but still hopeful.