Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

my solo exchange diary vol. 1 by nagata kabi 


unnatural #1 by mirka andolfo

reviewed by jim hepplewhite

Both works are about the constant, slowly obliterating expectations of misogyny on women.

In My Solo Exchange Diary v1's case, it's in the context of a confessional comic. Ms. Kabi's collection (the sequel to the surprisingly successful My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness) is about her experience living with her family, scared they'll shun her for being lesbian. The trick here is that Ms. Kabi's sadly under-socialized, suicidally depressed, and unable to make a living on her own. She's "supposed" to be married by now. She's "supposed" to earn a living on her own by now. She's "supposed" to lie about her upbringing. Those expectations eat her alive.

It's a one color comic, in this case, the color's pink. The last time I saw this idea deployed was by the now dead Darwyn Cooke on his Parker adaptations. The process, and I imagine Ms. Kabi's is a similar one, was that Cooke trusted in his own talent enough to produce the volume of work by cutting out unnecessary steps. There's not a lot of backgrounds in My Solo Exchange Diary v1, and most of the action is internal. There's a looseness and a rawness to My Solo Exchange Diary v1 that comes from a combination of experience in the medium and spilling your guts.

Her father's directly emotionally abusive and almost Calvin and Hobbes-level absent from the work so that when he does appear, you feel the weight of his judgment on Ms. Kabi. In what is my absolute favorite panel of the book, there's a text box that says, and I quote, "I hired an escort with my childhood New Year's money." It's a testament to Ms. Kabi and translator Jocelyne Allen that the moment doesn't feel like a joke, but a liberating moment of realization that Ms. Kabi needed warm human contact and she did not require the imprimatur of her frigid family to seek it out.

What makes My Solo Exchange Diary v1 compelling is:

  • a) fine work from the author 
  • b) a strong translation that makes me feel like I'm reading the Ms. Kabi when I'm reading Ms. Allen negotiating technical accuracy and written inflection, not to mention two completely different alphabets
  • c) the absolute chilliness of Japanese society with regards to displaying affection or any kind of emotion, period

I will not type that this genre of visually exaggerated autobiographical comic is new, but instead that I haven't seen it expressed this way before. The scale is a single family and Ms. Kabi uses that claustrophobic scale to show how devastating the disapproval of the family unit can be.

Unnatural's first issue (by Italian penciller Mirka Andolfo) goes in the other direction. The contrast is where Japan's society is cold, Italy's society has the exact opposite problem: Everyone's tremendously familiar with each other, especially men yelling ciao bella at women they don't know. Berlusconi's bunga bunga parties are an extreme example.

Unnatural's version of the misogyny takes the form of a totalitarian government that suggests women be in committed "natural" heterosexual relationships before 25, and on their 25th birthday will require the still single woman meet her male soul mate. Combine that with a demeaning service industry job that requires main character Leslie to regularly endure sexual assault, and Unnatural is clearly a work of science fiction so outlandish that it won't come true until at least 2020.

In Unnatural, I think of Ms. Andolfo's pencils in the same spirit as Babs Tarr, though Ms. Andolfo's colors invoke a luxuriousness that reminds me of Alessandro Barbucci and Barbara Canepa's comic, Sky Doll. There are a couple details I like, particularly that the job requires Leslie's male co-workers to wear three bow ties and that her male co-worker cannot see a character I'm guessing is Leslie's stalker.

The Italian warmth also has upsides. Leslie's roommate Trish walks in on Leslie twice during wet dreams. The second time, the very next panel is the two female characters eating dinner. There's an obvious comfort between the two characters that comes from Italian openness and trust. And while the outside forces acting upon Leslie are far more powerful than the ones acting upon Ms. Kabi, there's a safety net of friends Leslie can rely on. Ms. Kabi is not so lucky.

For most readers, the sticking point will be that Unnatural's cast are anthropomorphized animals and Unnatural is a work with openly erotic elements. Originally published in Italy, I can't imagine the European market had a tremendous problem with anthropomorphized but obviously human based erotica. It wasn't like anyone yelled "furry shit" when Blacksad indulged in a noir trope or two. Then again, Blacksad didn't open with the main character happily au naturale in the hands of a gigantic white wolf.

Given that Unnatural #1 appears to be early writing work from Ms. Andolfo, there's a couple hammy moments (the cliffhanger may as well have an unenthusiastic dun dun dun next to it) and an unfortunate typo on page 12. Other than that, I feel like I'm reading Ms. Andolfo, so the translators at Arancia Studio did well. If it wasn't for the anthropomorphized elements, I'd say that Unnatural looks like it'll be an easy to recommend romance comic for fans of Bitch Planet.

I didn't expect to enjoy Unnatural's first issue as much as I did. There's no dramatically new elements, but the blend feels uniquely Ms. Andolfo's. It's a bizarre, sexy comic that weaves together disparate elements. It shouldn't work, but it does, and that's the magic.