Art and Character Design: The art is full-color and naturalistic with clean lines and plenty of detail. While very occasionally looking a little mechanical, overall the linework is quite pleasing and impressive. The coloring is well-rendered, with appealing color-choices. My one real complaint with the artwork is the use of black ink (the “K” in CMYK) to darken the skin tones — something that is best avoided in color comics as it gives a muddy, smudge-like color-cast to otherwise nice shading.
The character designs are straight from the pages of Freshmen magazine. Avoiding the usual muscular exaggeration of Western gay comics, our heroes are all mostly-hairless, athletic twinks with David-like proportions– if David had 5% bodyfat and worked out with a professional trainer three hours a day, five days a week, that is. Towards the end of the book, when some of the characters are joyfully having sex for money, we get to see characters who are older and overweight — those would of course be the johns.
As with other Bruno GmÃ¼nder books, you can view 30 (tiny but completely uncensored) preview pages of this graphic novel on their Web site. As the art is the real reason to get this book, I highly suggest you do so.
Characters: Total himbos. Wikipedia defines a twink as “‘memorable for his outer packaging’, not his ‘inner depth'” and that is definitely true of the four young gay guys we meet in these pages. What do we know about them? Well, there are two main characters — our narrator, Rick, and his ostensibly straight best friend Evan. Both play sports (basketball, gymnastics, football, swim team, wrestling and snowboarding — not respectively, the two main characters actually participate in all those athletic activities), both want to get out of their small town and both like sex — lots and lots and lots of sex. Evan leaves for the big city first and Rick can cook. That just about covers it.
In the big city, they meet two other young, perfect looking white gay guys named Bill and Charlie who enjoy going to museums (to look at the naked male statues), who earn their living as go-go boys in an exclusive gentleman’s club and who also like lots and lots and lots of sex. Oh, and we know from two caption boxes that “Charlie had intimacy issues” but that “Charlie’s not a snob. He’ll date just about anybody who can afford it” — so I suppose there is some extra depth to good old Charlie…
All four of our heroes seem good-hearted — or at least cheerful and not mean-spirited. And they like hanging out naked. A lot.
Plot: Plot? What plot?
No, really. This is a 119 page book with hardly any conflict. What starts off as a classic coming-out/yaoi conflict — “I’m in love with my best friend and he’s straight!” — is resolved by page 22 (or if you’re a total stickler who needs it all spelled out, page 52, I suppose). Another conflict — will Rick escape his domineering older brother and bitchy older sister? — lasts 8 pages (27-35). And then that’s pretty much it for conflict — after that, everyone gets what they want nearly instantaneously.
This lack of conflict was so eerie that I found myself wondering what the author’s intentions were — why were we actually still following these guys? Everyone’s got what they wanted — isn’t the story over? (Not having any plot to distract me gave me time for quiet reflection.) His note at the end is telling:
I’m lucky. I got to say, in print, that sex is great and should be fun and that real friends and (dare I say it?) love can make the hassles and disappointments of everyday life seem less significant. I got to say it in print, so I don’t forget. I got to say it in front of you, so I can’t deny it later.
So that’s the point of the book. Sex is great and fun and, I must agree, the hassles and disappointments the characters experience do not seem very significant. I suppose that does make for a feel-good story — whether that makes for compelling reading depends how much you like flipping page after page of well-drawn sex.
Romance: Rick loves Evan. SPOILER ALERT: Evan loves Rick. They’ve known each other since “grade school”. Both are young and stunningly beautiful. Both are fairly nice guys. Both are tremendously shallow. They wind up living together and having lots and lots and lots of sex. Need more than that? Look elsewhere.
Sex: Explicit, detailed, joyful and clean. There are a few shots of spurting fluids, but nothing unrealistic and certainly nothing gross. If you’ve been looking for explicitly-drawn idealized gay sex that leaves nothing to the imagination and has not a hint of mean-spiritedness or dirtiness (in any sense of that word), wait no longer — this book delivers 120%. I didn’t care enough about the characters to be turned on, but I’m strange that way — if you like to read your romance comics one-handed, have mainstream Western tastes and are turned off by the physical and sexual extremes of both yaoi and Western gay comics, this book delivers like no other.
Overall: A full-color, nearly plot-free, 119-page graphic novel with very beautiful and very shallow young, white twinks having explicit, clean, joyful and idealized sex for love and money. If you need actual plot and compelling characters to enjoy a romance comic, this book will disappoint. If, however, you like the kind of guys depicted in Freshmen magazine and your needs can be satisfied mostly visually, you should run, not walk, to pick up this book.
Not age-rated by the publisher on the outside of the book or on the publisher’s website — however if you read the fineprint on the copyright page inside, it says “You must be of legal age in your area to buy this” and “It is for mature readers only”, so there. (Oh, and this page also says in boldface that “All models or characters portrayed are 21 years of age or older.” which is just not true, unless as “high school seniors” we’re supposed to assume Rick and Evan were held back several years. I’m not sure if the publisher believes that this disingenuous disclaimer will actually offer some legal protection or if it’s just boilerplate they forgot to amend.)
Plot summary from the publisher’s website:
Side by Side is the story of Evan and Rick. Fast and close friends since their kindergarten days in a small town, their friendship evolves into the love of their lives. They move to the big city where they meet Billy and Charlie and these four friends are soon inseparable. Mioki presents a moving portrait of gay life with all its highs and lows.
Drawn in a sure style and masterfully incisive, Mioki’s comic is a joy to read, is moving and the sex also doesn’t get short shrift. A charming comic for the young and the young-at-heart.
This description, much like the cake, is a lie. This book is not “a moving portrait of gay life”, it is not “masterfully incisive” and it does not even begin to glance at all the “highs and lows” of being gay. It is what the author says he set out to create — a well-drawn, feel-good book about the joys of sex and friendship and sex with friends. Expect more than that and you will be tremendously disappointed.
Now, I have often wondered, if I were straight, whether I would find Playboy Bunnies (or their equivalent) to be, well, hot. Obviously, right now they leave me frosty cold, but is that just because girls just don’t do it for me? Books like this give me my answer as the young men in these pages are the closest male equivalent to a Bunny as you can get. And my personal verdict? Meh! I might have a cup of coffee with them if I had nothing more interesting to attend to (like, say, alphabetizing my soup cans), but if I’m going to swim, I want deep waters and a distinctive look and this type of guy doesn’t do a whole lot for me.
I say this as a way of giving you some context into what I need to really engage with a gay romance. But as I’ve said again and again on this blog, I realize that my tastes are very much in the minority. And so I would imagine that the vast majority of those who find guy-on-guy sex hot will be very pleased with what they see in these pages. So what if all the bodies of our heroes are essentially interchangeable — they’re perfect! So what if the dialogue seems fairly insipid — “Will you love me when I’m old, ugly, and hairy in all the wrong places?” “Probably not… I’ll just keep on loving you in all the right places.” “That was SO the right thing to say, but do me again while I’m still hot…” — we’re not going to hang out with these boys for the conversation! Jeez, Alex — get a grip!
(And I think we all know to what kind of grip my worthy counterpart is referring… To which I say, fair enough.)
In terms of production quality, the book is hardcover with nice, thick paper stock. The color art within these hard covers would have been better served with glossy or matte-finished pages, but it’s a workable compromise and consistent with other European color comics. The one black mark in terms of overall finish would be the lettering that uses cookie-cutter-like rectangular word balloons with too much “air”, a rather inexpensive-looking digital font and a consistent misspelling of the word “separated” (what? no spell-check?). On the plus side, there is a very cute disclaimer in the fine print on the copyright page which (much more cleverly than the bold-faced [and bald-faced] boilerplate age-disclaimer below it and along with other humorous statements) assures us that “All the cartoons in this fictional story were twenty-one years or older when they were drawn for this artwork” — this is something I’ve been tempted to add to my own books and I suspect the author’s hand in its writing. Overall, the quality of this graphic novel is worth the twenty bucks you’ll pay for it on Amazon.
What you get in this book are four beautiful white guys having beautiful sex — nothing more, nothing less. The author is on a personal mission to brighten our worlds with these images and if that’s what you’re looking for, you will not be disappointed. If, after reading this review and reviewing the preview pages, you are at all tempted to buy this book, then you should.
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