In the face of death and discrimination, a family comes together.
Originally serialized in Japan from 2014 through 2017, Gengoroh Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband received its first English translation release this year, courtesy of Pantheon Books. Volume one contains the manga’s first fourteen chapters, so it’s a hefty introduction to the series. My Brother’s Husband revolves around Yaichi, a Japanese single father, Kana, his daughter, and Mike, the husband of Yaichi’s dead brother Ryoji. The manga begins with Mike coming to Japan in order to see where Ryoji grew up, and over the course of the volume Yaichi must confront his homophobia and that of Japanese society at large. So, is it good?
This manga is about as close to flawless as a comic can get. Writing-wise, Tagame is a powerhouse. Each of the three central characters has their own unique and consistent voice, and all of them deal with the series’ conflicts in different but emotionally moving ways. Yaichi is perhaps the manga’s most conflicted character, struggling with his love for his dead brother and his growing fondness for Mike, all while still having homophobic thoughts and beliefs that he questions. Tagame renders such moments of questioning by pairing panels depicting Yaichi’s actual actions with illustrated thought balloons showing his knee-jerk, bigoted thoughts. It’s an effective strategy for conveying how Yaichi navigates his own beliefs and impulses. By displaying both the vocalized and the non-vocalized at once, Tagame impressively handles his subject matter in ways that mediums other than comics either could not do or could only do less effectively. He knows the strengths of the art form, and utilizes them well.
In addition to being a powerhouse writer, Tagame is a powerhouse artist. The rich depth of character conveyed throughout thoughts and dialogue is matched by the depth of emotion conveyed in characters’ facial expressions and body language. Some of the volume’s most moving panels are ones in which nothing is said; rather, we are allowed to feel the characters’ shifting emotions through the ways their facial expressions change, from horror to calm and from sadness to moments of joy. The world the characters inhabit is also well-drawn, with strong shading and texture work that make the backgrounds of panels every bit as emotive as the foregrounds.
Another positive aspect of the storytelling in My Brother’s Husband is its pacing. The story moves along as what feels like just the perfect speed, as characters bond and open up to each other at a believable pace. There’s a palpable tension between Yaichi and Mike at the very beginning, and Tagame’s handling of said tension (and the way it largely dissipates by the volume’s final chapters) is superb. While Yaichi has homophobic thoughts and struggles to understand Ryoji and Mike’s relationship, he makes conscious efforts not to act out on his bigotry, and not to pass on any such hatred or worries to Kana. As the volume progresses, more attention begins to be paid to homophobia in the characters’ hometown and country. Watching the characters’ shift focus from their own conflicts to those thrust upon them by other people does a lot in terms of making this volume feel like an organic and fully-realized depiction of homosexuality (and life in proximity to it) in Japan. As a result, the deeply character-focused drama feels believably immersed in its larger cultural context.
My Brother’s Husband Vol. 1 is nearly flawless, and easily one of the best comics (manga or western) I’ve read all year. Its emotional potency cannot be overstated, as it handles themes of loss, bigotry, and societal pressure honestly and movingly while still managing to be a “feel good” read. The characters’ joy and love for each other are infectious, and this volume is difficult to put down. Tagame is a natural at utilizing the comic format to its highest potential, and I can’t recommend this book enough.