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Lately, autobiographic manga has seen an increase in prominence. What was once a fairly unknown genre has exploded in recent years with greater access to the tools of creation. Social media like Twitter and sites like Pixiv have made it much easier to draw manga and have it reach a broader audience, at a much lower cost than in previous decades.
With this, there’s also been an increased focus on stories that couldn’t really get told in traditional manga magazines. Autobiographic manga have hardly been a consistent hit and stories focused on queer and other marginalized issues have a particularly hard time getting picked up for serialization. You can certainly see some queer autobiographic manga if you go back in history but there are many more of them now than there ever were in the past.
Among these is My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness. Released initially on Pixiv in 2016 to massive acclaim, it was quickly picked up for paperback publication, where it sold incredibly well and won a number of awards. In 2017, Seven Seas brought it offer to Western shores, where it did similarly well. LesRepo is easily one of the most successful manga in the last year or so and destroys the competition when it comes to autobiographic manga.
It’s not like LesRepo is unique in telling a story about queer female life. Works like Honey & Honey, The Bride was a Boy, and Our Journey to Lesbian Motherhood are well written and well-received manga which follow a similar vein, though often in different ways. But LesRepo is uniquely successful along these lines. There’s a number of reasons for this but I believe that the fundamental cause is the nature of autobiographical manga itself.
First, let’s look at the small features which make LesRepo more intriguing to the potential reader. The book immediately pops, with its heavily pink coloring, captivating title, and the striking cover with tasteful nudity. From the outset, it’s a manga which is designed to draw in readers as soon as they see it, be it on the shelf or online.
Additionally, LesRepo possesses an ability to relate beyond queer audiences. The other manga are certainly written to be palatable to any average person, but they aren’t necessarily relatable to them. LesRepo, on the other hand, focuses to such a great degree on Nagata’s depression and self-loathing that it’s easy to put yourself in her place even if you don’t identify with her sexuality. There’s stuff to connect with if you’re depressed, or just drifting through life, or an artist trying but failing at success. It’s a manga which is practically designed so that anyone under the age of 30 can relate to it, which is part of why it’s so widely liked. That’s not to erase the importance of her sexuality, as some people have, but it’s a story with more to grasp onto then the simple life tales of other examples in the genre.
But I think its popularity comes down to a more fundamental reason than that. Frankly, while the increased ability to publish your own manga has led to a number of great works including this one, it also results in people who really don’t know how to draw manga. Our Journey to Lesbian Motherhood is a great, well-written work. But it’s not particularly good as a manga. The art is mediocre at best, the art adds very little to the writing, and it really just comes across as a work which should’ve been in prose instead. The same applies to Honey & Honey, as well as many other autobiographic manga that haven’t been translated.
Bear in mind, I’m not saying people shouldn’t try. It’s great to see this increased focus on the genre even when some of the creators aren’t excellent or trained mangaka. But Nagata’s background is plain as day in LesRepo, because it’s actually well composed and drawn, using its medium to its benefit rather than simply being manga for the sake of it.
First of all, LesRepo has excellent paneling. The 4-panel wide format is an interesting one that you don’t see too often. Generally, in Japan, 4-panel formats are used for 4-koma manga, a format which is nigh-universally comedic with a clearly defined structure. Kabi ignores that, instead using the panels to tell her story in a unique way. By positioning the main text on the two sides of the wide panel, she leaves plenty of space for the drawings in the center.
In doing so, she always has drawings which emphasize the point of the text or even add new info. None of the drawings here feel pointless or unnecessary, instead contributing to a work which is more dense with details than you’d expect. Many autobiographic manga would be short stories if you removed the images, something which would be possible seeing as the images contribute relatively little to most of them. Here, the images are a vital part of the experience, an aspect which is inseparable from the story itself. The art is part of the narrative here, something that’s only possible because Nagata is a practiced mangaka. The drawings are always interesting to look at as well, making the viewer want to look at them rather than simply reading the text.
I feel the need to praise the art just a bit more. Nagata’s drawings are excellent at getting across her emotions at a given moment. Her representations of thoughts and hypothetical situations always feel fitting to the event at hand. I can safely say that, if you only took the text of the book, it would be a less coherent work, something I can’t say for all autobiographic manga.
Of course, Nagata is clearly just talented in general, more than you can expect the average person to be. Her writing is not only funny but also great at actual crafting a narrative. It doesn’t feel like events are just happening; she’s composed it such that it comes across as an actual story.
I don’t mean to belittle the works of other artists. Certainly, there are plenty of great mangaka out there who are doing this kind of thing, and even the stories I criticized are works that I like a fair bit. Overall, this democratization of manga publication is an excellent thing which allows works like this to flourish. But I do hope that more people with Nagata’s level of skill arrive so that we can see more manga on LesRepo’s caliber.