Manga-ka: Est em
Publisher: Digital Manga Guild
Rating: Mature (18+)
Release Date: June 2012
Synopsis: “An avid game of love between rivals! Soccer fans are notorious, but ULTRAS like Al and Leon take it to another level! They eat, breathe, and sleep for their beloved teams and their rivalries, like the rivalry between Liberta and FC Madrid. When the Spanish national soccer team wins the European championship, fans around the country unite to celebrate. Sparks fly when Al and Leon first meet amidst the festivities, but what happens when these two ULTRAS unknowingly find themselves on opposite sides of a passionate rivalry!?”
Soccer might seem like a weird thing to get all Romeo-and-Juliet over, but under Est Em’s direction it works. She has a skill for grounding her stories while keeping them interesting and quirky. It’s her skill and unique sensibilities that keeps ULTRAS from being a standard collection of yaoi short stories.
The title story is set in Madrid and follows Al and Leon, two soccer fanatics. When Spain wins the European championship the two meet, get drunk, and end up sleeping together before they even know each others’ names. When Leon wakes up in Al’s apartment, he discovers the awful truth: Al is a fan of Liberta Madrid, the rival of Leon’s favourite team, FC Madrid. Leon and Al start going out but Leon keeps quiet about where his true loyalties lie. When the truth comes out, will the pair choose each other or their teams?
Est Em does a solid job of showing how important soccer is not just to the characters but to their whole culture. Al works as an elementary school teacher and one of the kids in his class gets picked on because he likes a different team from the other boys. As Al helps the kids resolve their differences it gives him the perspective he needs to work through his issues with Al. Though the moral of the story may seem obvious (‘trivial differences between people shouldn’t matter’) it’s still a lesson the characters struggle to learn. The manga-ka portrays their dilemma in an even-handed way, not presenting it as silly but not making it overly angsty either.
The rest of the stories in the book are an interesting mix. First up is ‘Say Hello to Mr. Smith,’ in which a con man takes in a pickpocket off the street. It’s not long before the two become lovers, but their relationship takes an unexpected turn when one of them reveals his true intentions.
If you’ve ever seen any movies featuring a con-man, you know there’s really only one way their stories can end: the conman ends up conned. Even with this in mind, ‘Say Hello to Mr. Smith’ still managed to surprise me.
‘The Onlooker’ is the weirdest story in what is otherwise a pretty-down to earth collection. In it, the (unnamed) main character loves to spy on his neighbour in the apartment across the street. The main character is a tightly-wound neat-freak who revels in the other man’s slobby lifestyle. He gets off (quite explicitly- there’s a panel taken up almost entirely by the deed) just watching the man eat potato chips off his dirty floor. The main character thinks the other man is unaware that he’s being watched, but it turns out that the ‘onlooker’ is being observed as well.
The art in this short story is really tight and neat, perhaps reflecting the neat, controlled personality of the main character. There’s very little dialogue and a few really well done completely ‘silent’ sequences. It’s a strange story but artfully done.
The next story, ‘Who Killed Oscar?,’ is about the homosexual love affair between Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Okay, not really, but I’d eat my shoes if that’s not what Est Em was going for. Tom Evans and Jim Reagan used to be a movie-making team: Tom would direct, Jim would star, and they’d write the screenplay together. But then things soured and the two broke up. When the story starts they haven’t talked in five years. Out of the blue Tom show’s up at Jim’s apartment and asks if he can stay there as he tries to write his next movie.
Naturally, it’s not long before the two fall back in bed together and back in love. I liked this story, but it seemed like their reconciliation came a little too easily.
The last story is a little more low-key and less memorable, but it’s still cute. Angel is a young Spanish guy who’s been unlucky in love his whole life. His fortunes change when he moves to Tokyo. In Tokyo the shy and awkward Angel becomes interesting and exotic and is suddenly a hit with both men and women. And yet, even with that going for him, Angel still has trouble winning over the one person he’s really interested in: his cute co-worker Taka.
‘Local y Visitante’ is a cute, down to earth story (it even has a nice call back to ‘ULTRAS‘) and a few good laughs in it as well. There’s nothing wrong with it, it just didn’t stick with me as much as the other stories in this book did.
Est Em’s art is an interesting mix of sketchy lines but solid details. It makes her characters look kinetic, like they’re actually moving around on the page rather than posing. She does a good job of slightly adjusting her style to get different effects. For example, in ‘The Onlooker’ the main character is drawn with very sharp, neat lines and looks very polished. The slob across the street however, is drawn with messy lines and looks almost like a rough draft rather than a finished version. They almost look like they belong in different manga, but the contrast between them works.
The manga-ka is also a very strong story-teller. Her layouts manage to add punch even to small moments, and there are some really nice wordless pages. I’d love to see a totally text-free story from her someday, as her art and layouts do a really good job of telling the story.
ULTRAS is a yaoi collection that you read for the story rather than the smut. That’s not to say there aren’t any sex scenes or that the boys aren’t pretty, but it’s not the focus. I’ve been a little wary of books under the Digital Manga Guide imprint, but the team on this did a really good job, making ULTRAS a pleasant surprise in more than one way.
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Digita copy provided by eManga.com for review purposes