By Shimura Takako
200 pages, black and white
Published by Fantagraphics
The first volume of Wandering Son, published in the middle of last year, was an intriguing look at two teenagers who both are trying to figure out their own gender identity and their place in the world around them. Fantagraphics released the second volume at the end of the year, and with a lot of the set-up completed, Shimura Takako’s story takes a stronger step forward here. Everything I liked about the first volume is still present, but any issues I’d had with it feel like they’ve been erased as her story progresses.
Wandering Son Vol. 2 picks up right where the last volume left off. Shuichi, Yoshino, and Saori are entering the 6th grade. But as the three find themselves not all in the same class, it’s the first hint that things aren’t always going to be quite so easy for Shuichi and Yoshino. What follows is a whirlwind of encounters and moments, with Shuichi and Yoshino learning more about their older transgendered friend Yuki, a class trip where Shuichi starts encountering some bullying, a potentially misplaced crush when a classmate of Shuichi’s sister sees Shuichi dressed as a girl, and even hurt feelings among the group of friends. In short, it’s life in the sixth grade, only filtered through the additional issue of being transgendered.
I love that Takako has given Shuichi and Yoshino their older friends Yuki and her boyfriend Shii; it gives the book a slightly different perspective as Yuki shows them one path that their life may eventually lead, as well as someone that they can theoretically talk to and be slightly more comfortable around. At the same time, I appreciate that Takako doesn’t take the obvious tactic of them all becoming instant best-friends simply because of the transgendered connection. There’s still a certain level of uneasiness mixed in with the admiration for Shuichi and Yoshino, and I like that Takako isn’t going for the easy out. Being part of a minority offers people an obvious introduction, but she doesn’t confuse that for a universal pass.
Then again, friendships in general aren’t taken for granted in Wandering Son Vol. 2. Saori being in a different class than Shuichi and Yoshino is already creating a rift, and Saori’s unstated jealousy of Shuichi’s relationship with Yoshino is a development that is making Saori that much more interesting. (Although, after meeting Saori’s mother, I want Saori to stick around if only because I’m dying to see her mother again, who steals an entire scene in just two pages.) At their age, friendships can start, stop, and start again at the drop of a hat, and watching something as simple as a shared journal between Shuichi and Yoshino create problems has a bite of realism that I think all readers can relate to.
It’s the school trip, though, where Wandering Son stops becoming sweet and innocent, and we start seeing the real world seep into Takako’s storytelling. Up until now, it’s been a pretty warm and innocent story for our characters; there was the occasional clash, but never anything too serious. What starts as simple childish taunting by Shuichi’s seat mate gets uglier with each interaction, with Takako completely understanding how a bully will find a weakness and continue to exploit it with larger and more powerful attacks once that vulnerability is discovered. When the phrase, "Little faggot," is spoken, in some ways the softer world of Wandering Son comes crashing down around the characters. It’s hard at that point to forget that the world is tilted against Shuichi and Yoshino, and that for every Saori, Kanako, or Yuki, there’s someone else far more unaccepting around the corner. It’s a powerful and dramatic moment, and Takako writes it pitch-perfect.
The art in Wandering Son is adorable as the first volume. Takako draws her characters with a certain air of innocence about them, with expressions of surprise and happiness bursting onto their faces in a way that makes me hope none of them ever try to become poker players. My favorite moments here, though, alongside those of unbridled joy, are when Shuichi’s sister Maho starts to figure out what’s up with her little brother. Those looks of suspicion and realization are classic, telling us everything we need to know about what’s inside of her head in one fell swoop.
Wandering Son Vol. 2 is a great sophomore collection from Takako; I feel like the slightly choppy nature from the early chapters in Vol. 1 is gone, and Takako’s starting to expand the cast and the plot in a way that provides more of a dramatic bite. Based on the class trip sequence in this volume, Takako’s just getting ready to make Wandering Son a lot more heavy and less idealized for the characters. If it goes anything like we see here, we’ve got a hell of a ride ahead of us. With beautifully designed hardcovers (and a pleasing weight and feel to the books too, with a good paper stock to boot), Wandering Son is the sort of series you’ll be proud to have on your bookshelf. I’m ready for the next volume now.