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In 'My Brother's Husband Vol. 2,' Family Values (And The Value Of Family)

Feel free to judge this book by its cover, anyway. Or, at least, rest easy in the knowledge that its cover offers an unambiguous glimpse of exactly what you're in for.

The sequel to 2017's My Brother's Husband Volume One, which translated and collected the first half of Gengoroh Tagame's popular manga series, first published monthly in Japan between 2014-17, concludes the tale that the first book left so tantalizingly unfinished.

On the cover of volume one, the series' three main characters stared out at the reader, standing in front of the front gate of a modest suburban house: Stay-at-home single dad Yaichi, his young daughter Kana, and Mike, their big, beefy, beardy Canadian houseguest. Mike stood awkwardly, his hands at his sides, wearing a friendly expression. Little Kana stood with her arms akimbo, proudly defiant. Yaichi, however, was a portrait of acute discomfort: hands shoved into his pockets, his face a mask of worry.

The source of Yaichi's anxiety, we learn, was the unannounced arrival of Mike, the husband of Yaichi's recently deceased twin brother. Deeply unsettled by this turn of events, Yaichi nonetheless adheres to cultural dictates on hospitality and invites Mike to stay with them during what will prove a three-week visit.

Volume Two, translated by Anne Ishii, picks up roughly half-way through Mike's stay, and its cover clearly (and literally) illustrates how much things have changed. Mike and Kana look relatively the same — Mike still affable, Kana still happy, proud, self-possessed.

Yaichi, however, is subtly but fundamentally changed. He's relaxed, here, and brimming with excitement as he joins the other in staring up at the sky at ... not to make too fine a point on it ... a rainbow. On his face, an open-mouthed smile.

For those who read volume one, that newfound openness, and in particular that smile, are huge developments. Because the Yaichi we came to know in that book was a creature of brooding self-recrimination and doubt — a straight man who didn't realize how much he'd internalized his culture's attitudes towards homosexuality in general, and gay marriage in particular. Mike's presence caused him to fall into a two-stroke feedback loop: first, a reflexively homophobic response to something Mike said or did, followed by a well-intentioned questioning of that response.

As volume two opens, that cycle continues apace, but it's been steadily colored and shaped by those around him. He sees Kana's generous, childlike enthusiasm to accept Mike as he is, and he begins to take his ex-wife's gentle chiding of his inflexibility and self-consciousness to heart. Meanwhile, Mike's presence begins to alter Yaichi's world — a young man of his acquaintance seeks Mike out as a mentor and confidant, while representatives of Kana's school express misgivings about Mike's influence on Kana.

Tagame has an agenda, obviously — Yaichi's character arc is one of acceptance and enlightenment — but the obstacles he faces along the way are fully imagined and very real. Making Yaichi so uptight and inwardly oriented means Tagame is forced to do more than pay lip-service to the forces that marginalize LGBTQ people in Japan and around the world. Again and again, Yaichi faces his own preconceived notions about gay people; again and again, he doesn't just airily reject those beliefs, he examines them, dissects them and attempts to uncover their roots. The result sends Yaichi, and the reader, through a process of fits and starts, advancements and reversals. Which is to say: one that feels achingly true.

Again and again, Yaichi faces his own preconceived notions about gay people; again and again, he doesn't just airily reject those beliefs, he examines them, dissects them and attempts to uncover their roots.

And there's something else — something that adds still another dimension, another level of nuance. My Brother's Husband is a strictly all-ages book, which makes it unusual in Tagame's oeuvre. He's made a career producing charged, explicit male-on-male erotica, so readers may find it difficult not to perceive the (sexy, sexy) ghost of Tagame's previous output hovering over the book.

There's the basic plot, for one thing, which is the stuff of many a spicy queer narrative: Gay man lives in close quarters with the straight twin(!) brother of his ex-lover. And there's the art — Tagame keeps it resolutely clean, but he doesn't shy away from depicting the male form with loving attention.

You can sense Tagame smirking at the tension he creates in several scenes in which the two men exchange charged glances, or extended silences. Readers will be forgiven for finding themselves aching, in such instances, for Yaichi and Mike to just kiss already, because the creator is using his command of facial expression, body language, mood and framing to play with our expectations. Yet those awkward moments turn out to be just that — instances of Yaichi questioning not his own sexuality, but his feelings about Mike's.

Or at least, that's what he says. One of the unique joys of the comics medium is its ability to let image (Yaichi and Mike at a Japanese bath, say) and text (Yaichi's inner monologue about how he doesn't feel self-conscious being naked with Mike) co-exist, and comment on one another, surrendering meanings that may line up with, or contradict, either — or both. At its heart, My Brother's Husband is the story of a a man coming to terms with the unquestioned cultural assumptions he's harbored all his life. But the genius of Tagame's art lies in its ability to slyly suggest — but by no means insist — that Yaichi's real journey of discovery may have just begun.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
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