“Orphan Blade is pretty gruesome,” the email warned. “You don’t have to review it if you’re not a fan of blood, gore, guts and monsters.”
Nonsense! I thought blithely, cheerful and ready to accept whatever queer YA literature might grace my inbox for review. It’s a graphic novel. How gross can it be?
As it turns out, gross enough to make me wince, flip through pages, and shiver with the kind of deep, primal disgust that comes with Jake Myler’s illustrations. Myler explore all the textural unpleasantries of skin – boils, scales, slime, and of course, what skin flaps in jagged shards when sliced by a sword.
Carnage aside, M. Nicholas Almand has the makings of a decent coming-of-age story here: young Hadashi, your average, slightly clumsy warrior-in-training, is exiled from his dojo home when his daily misadventures result in a deeply disfigured hand (cue stomach-churning illustrations and startlingly realistic depictions of pain.) Cast into the world, Hadashi finds what seems to be an abandoned sword – one even he can wield.
As readers, we recognize this to be the Orphan Blade, thanks to the first chapter which contains the bulk of the mythical backstory that drives the rest of the plot. By now, we’re aware that the Orphan Blade is one of a series of magically enhanced weapons that can destroy nearly anything. One group of mercenaries possesses all the other magical weapons and is on the hunt for the Orphan Blade. While I recognize the need for introductory backstory, I’m not a fan of the device; I prefer to learn relevant information when it’s relevant for the characters.
Hadashi continues on his way, gathering a merry band of outcasts with whom to fight various (pimply, boil-filled, rumply, somewhat witty) monsters on their way to the final showdown with the group of mercenaries who are now in hot pursuit of the Blade and its new owner.
As I fought my way through this multi-chapter monstrosity (pun intended), I never lost sight of the fact that I was supposed to be reviewing this as a queer piece, from a queer lens. I was relieved then, to find the barest hint of queer subtext at the very end of the novel; Hadashi and his best friend share a Meaningful Moment while lying next to one another on the grass.
No, seriously. That’s it.
Some manga – generally ones that feature adolescent girls as protagonists – really explore this notion of a romantic friendship, and all the wrought, angsty, rich and beautiful complexity of the idea. Orphan Blade has the potential here to flesh it out (and not even literally! They don’t have to have a sexual relationship in order for it to be delightfully queer) but keeps the story more focused on Hadashi’s coming of age and the resolution of his mythical-sword-acquisition.
Those looking for monsters, blood, gore, guts and the occasional vein-in-the-teeth with a side of epic narrative? Check out Orphan Blade.
Dane Kuttler is a poet, activist and teacher.
Her poetry is often lyrical and narrative, exploring themes of Jewish and queer identities, with a lot of love poems to her grandparents. The most common format for her work is the exploration of a relationship between two people that connects to broader political and social themes.
Dane has featured in coffee shops, living rooms, libraries, back porches and the occasional auditorium, but her favorite venue has always been her first – a dilapidated tree house with sixteen stuffed animals for an audience.
Check our her website for more info.