To this day, one of the best-known manga about growing up trans is Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son, a ground-breaking title that ran from 2002 to 2015 which followed a group of kids from grade school through graduation. Though parts of it still ring powerfully true, particularly for trans women, it’s also a somewhat outdated story written by a cisgender woman that infamously ended with its only apparently trans man character realizing she identified as a girl after all. For years and years, it was all we had, even when Fantagraphics stopped localizing it halfway through because their prohibitively expensive hardcover volumes didn’t sell well with the title’s demographic of broke trans teens. Maybe that’s why I burst into tears reading the first volume of Boys Run the Riot, a manga about a teenage fashion designer written by a trans man and translated by an entirely trans localization team.
Riot’s protagonist, Ryo, goes through the motions at school and at home, fearing the old saying that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” He’s been out to himself as trans for some time, but he’s terrified of coming out after facing years of abuse and ostracization for his butch haircut and male friends. Transfer student Jin Sato pushes him out of his comfort zone by suggesting the pair start a fashion label together, which becomes an outlet for Ryo to express the person he longs to be: not just out as a man, but a braver and more confident person. Despite sharing the message of many a teen drama about “being yourself,” Riot doesn’t shy away from how difficult that goal is in practice, and it allows its protagonists to be scared, awkward dumbasses in the process of finding themselves.
It’s a familiar coming-of-age premise, with a troubled and lonely teenager inspired by a more outré student to chase a secret or unexpected passion, but part of what makes Riot feel so special is the vein of rawness that runs through it. In an interview done specially for the English release, author Keito Gaku discusses using elements of his own life when writing Riot, and how the struggle over monetizing one’s marginalized identity subsequently became part of the book as well. His answers have a blunt, refreshing candor and quiet empathy, and it’s hard not to look for hints of the author on the page.
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While I don’t believe that authors should only write their lived identity, the way Gaku writes Ryo’s day-to-day struggles lacks the melodrama that often suffuses cis stories about trans life. Like x-gender (a Japanese term semi-equivalent to non-binary) artist Yuhki Kamatani before him, Gaku excels at conveying the terror of a slip of the tongue or the anguish of staring eyes through a single silent look or clipped response; suffocatingly small panels during the school day give way to gorgeous, detailed two-page spreads when Ryo lets loose with a can of spray paint, and it’s all the more impressive knowing this is Gaku’s first full-length series.
The well of transmasculine representation in fiction has been bone-dry for a long time, both in manga and western media, and the world becomes a scarier place for the trans community as a whole by the day. Waking up wondering who’d like to see me and my friends dead on any given day, it’s an almost shattering comfort to see a work like this come to shelves with such obvious passion and attention to detail. It’s the manga I’ve been longing to read even before I could put it into words, and I hope it finds its way into the hands of the teenagers who need to see it. In his interview, Gaku wonders how his work will be received overseas. From me, at least, it’s a heartfelt “thank you.”