Since social isolation started, I’ve had a lot more time on my hands than I expected. A friend asked me for webtoon recs a few weeks before the lockdown started, and I ended up going back to that conversation for inspiration when writing this piece. This is basically that conversation, but more refined and with 100% less keyboard smashes. 

Remember to take care of yourself too, when reading works that have chapters in the hundreds! Binge reading a manga for hours because it’s just that good is understandable, but consuming it in moderation probably bodes better for your sleep schedule, especially with school having started. 

KAGUYA-SAMA: LOVE IS WAR [MANGA]

As leaders of their prestigious academy’s student council, Kaguya and Miyuki are the elite of the elite! But it’s lonely at the top… Luckily for them, they’ve fallen in love! There’s just one problem—they both have too much pride to admit it. And so begins the daily scheming to get the object of their affection to confess their romantic feelings first… Love is a war you win by losing.

This started out as a parody of traditional romance manga (what I love) but evolved into something more complex and beautiful than it already was (what I love even more). 

“Slowly the story shed its original competition-based premise and morphed into a charming story about two characters trying to work through their feelings for one another.” – Polygon

The characters are complex, with distinctive personalities that stand out and work well with the plot too! “Love is War” is a shining example of a work that respects and values its platonic relationships and friendships as much as it does its romantic ones. This is a long review because this manga has my whole heart. I’ve never shipped anything as much as I did the main pairing. I think I laughed more the month that I binge read it than I did the whole year. 

In a tumultuous time like this, knowing what’s truly important is more necessary than ever. And K-S: LiW knows exactly what we’re here for. In no particular order: horribly intelligent students panicking over the incalculable emotions of life (and failing to outsmart each other), friendship that fosters growth and positive change, shenanigans, and a storyline that could’ve fallen prey to power creep but didn’t. K-S: LiW is a manga and anime that I’d trust with my life. With it, you’ll have no fear of let downs, disappointing climaxes, or abandonment of characterisation for the sake of plot. (Shirogane’s consistent failure at basic skills like gutting fish and sports? Yes.) 

Rating: 6/5.  K-S: LiW defies all expectations. I will never love anything as much as I loved it. This has ruined my expectations of all media for life.

GEKKAN SHOUJO NOZAKI KUN [MANGA]

High school student Chiyo Sakura has a crush on her schoolmate Umetarou Nozaki, who is secretly a shoujo manga artist known as Sakiko Yumeno. When she decides to confess her love to him, Nozaki mistakes her for a fan and gives her an autograph instead. Then, when she says that she always wants to be with him, he invites her to his house, but has her help on some drawings. Chiyo then discovers Nozaki’s secret, but agrees to be his assistant since she has good drawing skills. As they work on his manga “Let’s Fall in Love”, they encounter other schoolmates who assist them or serve as inspirations for characters in the stories!

Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki Kun is a manga in its own league. Don’t let the summary mislead you; this is very much a manga about friendships and all the variety it comes in, and I love the way it depicts friendships so much that I could honestly start weeping. 

Mainstream media has, historically, lacked good representation of friendships, whether between same-sex or male-female. Too often, friendships are sidelined to make room for a romantic plot, or considered window dressing on a story. GSNK, however, respects its in-story friendships. 

Chiyo’s crush on Nozaki is a fact. It doesn’t make her relationships with her fellow assistants any less, or prevent her from making and spending time with other friends. There’s nothing especially different about the friendships shown here. They’re all very normal and mundane. They don’t come from huge life uprooting events and no one is saved from certain death, or owes another a life debt. 

But there’s something beautiful about how normal friendship is in GSNK. It’s something that happens, through shared tasks and happenstance, through working on a manga together or meeting through school, just like real life. The friendships in GSNK are, as one review puts it, “positive, supportive, generous and mutually beneficial”.

Rating: 6/5 GSNK and K-S: LiW are on their own level of ‘Good Media That Raised My Expectations For Life’.

THE FEVER KING + THE ELECTRIC HEIR [WEBTOON]

The sole survivor of a magical plague, Noam Álvaro is accepted into an academy where he will be expected to defend Carolinia, the nation that persecuted his family. Noam decides to use everything he learns to destroy Carolinia . . . that is, until he becomes distracted by a mysterious and powerful classmate who warns him that nothing is as it seems. (Based on the YA novel by Victoria Lee.)

First off, I love the art style more than I can express in words. It’s nothing like Lore Olympus (very good webtoon by a different creator who reminded me of this one) in terms of story, but they do share common themes of abuse and victim blaming at times; it’s The Fever King’s palette that really makes me think of it. It’s brilliant – purples, greens, golds; colours that blend together in a way, that beautiful way that just bursts from the digital canvas it’s on. And honestly? I’d buy this story, just for that, if this were a graphic novel. I don’t say that about a lot of books, because I usually get bored of stories after the first read, but The Fever King has the dual power of having both an uncomfortably relevant storyline (immigration, the treatment of immigrants, people in power being awful and abusing said power, generational trauma) and the quality of art to back it up. Also I liked the main pairing, if only because I heavily projected on the frankly terrible coping mechanisms of one half of them. 

One of the things I respect about The Fever King is the way it handles its harder hitting themes. Some of which are only mentioned towards the end of the first book (The Fever King) and deconstructed in the next, but done so with care, something that you don’t see much in the media, if it ever tackles those themes at all. All the kudos to Victoria Lee for maintaining a list of content/trigger warnings for her work and making sure that people are aware of it.

It means a lot to me to see Dara’s [Dara Shirazi, significant character] ending, one where, despite all the chaotic events that filled The Fever King and its sequel The Electric Heir, is an ending full of good things, like sharing one of your interests with the person you love, and peace. Just. A lot of peace. Not just in terms of the very real and violent conflict prevalent throughout the story, but peace of mind too. It sounds boring when I say it like that, but having a boring ending with the people you love, one where you get to do horribly mundane things together – game nights with friends, recovery and healing through small improvements – feels much more powerful than ending it at the defeat of an antagonist. 

It’s one thing to conclude a chain of terrible events with a violent victory-through-death over the force that’s unrepentantly much ruined your life, and the life of the person you love. It’s another thing to carry the story a little bit longer, just long enough to show how these characters are doing. How they’re getting better. How they’re having game nights, laughing at jokes, bantering about household tasks – all the things that they didn’t really get the chance to do before. 

You shouldn’t have to earn your happy ending by going through hell, and that’s not what anyone should ever think is necessary. But sometimes said hell is already happening, or has happened. Which makes it hit all the more harder, when you get to just be good and at peace, with the knowledge that your whole life is ahead of you. Throughout The Electric Heir (sequel to The Fever King), there’s a sense of urgency and feeling of imminent doom, due to the rapid events that are taking place and the danger of the balancing act Noam is trying to keep together. 

The Electric Heir’s epilogue comes as an exhale of sorts. You feel like you’ve run out of time, that so many bad things have happened that you might as well just die doing something good, like sacrificing yourself to overthrow a corrupt ruler. But then you figure something out. And it’s that you really, really want to live. That you have this hope – that for the first time in a while, you see a future that you want to live in. One with the people you love, and filled with horrible mundanity and peace. This overwhelming sense of peace. 

The character development in this makes me want to cry, if only because of how good it all ends up being. So many terrible things have happened. But our characters and our protagonist have come out the other side, and they get all the things that they deserve. Space. Peace. Time with their loved ones, time spent recovering and healing. And that’s something that’s pretty cool to see in a story. 

Rating: 5/5

NO SCOPE [WEBTOON]

Friend versus friend. Grand Master pitted against noob. Self-confident alpha high schooler meets loner who may or may not be a gaming savant capable of defeating everyone he plays. All this and more comes together on the battlefield of PSI BOND – the hottest online game in the world played by the coolest kids in Korea. High speed connections and high school will never be the same again.

This review is going to tell you… not a lot about the actual plot itself or even the main character much, but you know what? That’s okay. Sometimes a story has such a good thing going on, that even a secondary character in the main cast commands attention and thought. 

I liked the actual protagonist of this story a lot more than I expected to. In some ways, his character is a little irritating because of how general and projectable he is – underdog, secretly talented, anxious – but to tell the truth, it works. Doyoon [protagonist] has a personality and flaws just like any other well developed character, and overall it works that he’s something of a reader insert. After all, there’s nothing like a character you can identify with to keep you reading, if only to see them succeed and feel vicariously vindicated. He’s a good character, and shouldn’t that be enough? To just have a character with solid bonds and relationships, who supports his friends, and who has struggles – even if they’re terribly unrelatable things like ‘I get ridiculous amounts of anxiety around things that my friends don’t understand’ – and that should be enough. They don’t have to be especially well written or revolutionary to be a good character. 

One of the things I love about No Scope, is how it’s tackled Juri’s [secondary character] storyline, and how it’s delved into not just the harassment that she’s faced from other gamers because of her alleged behaviour and gender, but also the consequences of trusting people who use that trust to hurt you or for their own gain. At first I was annoyed by how the plot seemed to be shaping up, and the way it looked as if Juri would be the token female character in a story about gaming and an underdog guy achieving greatness while fighting against his rival, a popular guy. A few chapters in though, I realised that the summary had undersold them hard, and that they were so much more than the few words they were reduced to on the summary. But I guess that’s the point of summaries. To make you open up the story so you can see what it’s really about. 

In conclusion, I misjudged it as another piece of trashy ‘guy is beginner but he’s secretly talented / overpowered and he has a rival / popular guy, and also there’s a girl who does gaming too and she’s pretty and fashionable and the token female’ media, but then No Scope surprised me.It all made sense, the more chapters in, the more the characters developed and the more you found out about them. No Scope not only subverted my expectations, but did it in such a casual and subtle way that I didn’t even notice, until I was explaining it to someone else. 

Rating: 4/5 but only because the standard was set too high.

If you do check out these webtoons / manga, remember to do so through legal paths. While scanlations seem like a simple and direct route to getting what you personally want – instant gratification via good writing and art – it’s a decision that costs the creator more than anyone. 

Make sure to try and support original creators when you can, whether it’s pre-ordering their work or leaving a review or telling your friends. VIZ is a great site, if you’re interested in a legal and good alternative to scanlations! The manga listed above are available on there, and on a personal note, I’ve found many gems from looking through their available works! 

Written by Elaine Cao, and edited by Annika Lee. Published on 23/04/2020. Header image courtesy Miika Laaksonen via Unsplash

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1 Comment

  1. where is unordinary

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