At its manga core, Gengoroh Tagame’s two-volume graphic novel series My Brother’s Husband is a study in connections: ones that are broken, repaired, cultural, social, and unexpected. Framed within the narrative is single dad Yaichi, who has always perceived himself as accepting of his deceased twin brother’s sexuality. When his brother Ryoji’s white Canadian husband, Mike, unexpectedly knocks on the door, Yaichi is circumstantially nudged into confronting and combating his own homophobia. In tandem with his gradual affinity for Mike (an affection that Yaichi’s outspoken young daughter, Kana, exudes immediately), Yaichi grapples with both his insecurities as a father and his frustration with Japan’s cultural wall when it comes to LGBTQ acceptance.
The books were born from openly gay Tagame’s desire to create a series that would encourage a straight audience to engage in LGBTQ material. And an all-ages manga could be just the digestif needed to process the meaty concepts of gay marriage and nontraditional family ties—no matter the geography or language.
"I started thinking about how I could make a straight audience more personally invested in a story about marriage equality, and I thought, Nothing could be more personal to a straight person than having a family member marry someone of the same gender,” Tagame told our “Queeries” columnist Karen Schechner last fall. “By staging a marriage with a family member of a straight character, I wanted the straight character to realize marriage equality doesn’t just affect gay or lesbian couples (i.e., the special circumstances by which marriage “equality” is defined), but that it’s an issue that affects all of society, including straight people.”
By their very nature, graphic novels enable an author to put into pictures what can’t easily be put into words. “Complicated feelings that can’t be rendered into simple words can be expressed as a matter of fact through visual imagery (provided you have the artistic skills, of course),” Tagame said. “For that reason, I pay particular attention to the details of my characters’ moods.”
Tagame has that skill, exemplified by the prestigious Japan Media Arts Award he’s received for the series. His illustrated realizations and nuanced expressions can help a finicky audience process the material better. They also give a more holistic view of a character who outwardly claims a semblance of neutrality while an internal war of conflicting feelings wages. In one virtually wordless spread, for example, after Mike has been welcomed into the home, Yaichi is crippled by the simple act of walking out of the bathroom post-shower. Though it’s his quotidian habit, he’s irrationally afraid to be nude in the hallway of his home for fear that Mike will (gasp!) be attracted to him. Emotional seesaws like this are peppered throughout and, if the series were text alone, could detract from the organic evolution of Yaichi’s compassion and understanding. Additionally, in stark contrast to the popular image in Japan of gentle, mild-mannered “herbivore men” or the slender, beautiful gay boys of yaoi (manga and anime featuring gay romances popular with young women, in particular), Yaichi is depicted as a buff, traditionally masculine-appearing man who is also introspective, a nurturing father, and close to his ex-wife.
There’s a certain two-part value to this two-volume narrative. Like a reluctant reader for closed minds, it encourages a heteronormative, straight, or culturally homophobic audience to look at homosexuality and gay marriage through the lens of love, family, and normalcy. It conversely helps encourage compassion, understanding, and optimism from an LGBTQ readership who might otherwise not understand the misgivings of people who are opposed to gay marriage.
Homosexuality is an otherness as natural as skin tone, hair texture, and height. Mike embodies this naturalness, a label-free organic level of existence. He’s not a homosexual Canadian widower; he’s just lovable, self-confident Mike. And Yaichi, over the course of conversation, internal dialogue, reflection, expressions, and the endearing reprimands of his daughter, realizes his own discomfort is, frankly, ridiculous. A graphic novel shows where it doesn’t tell. Can people who are ignorant of or even dislike homosexuality be persuaded to be more tolerant if they’re shown compassion in My Brother’s Husband instead of told how to impart it? I’m telling you, I hope so.
Gordon West is a writer, illustrator, and shark enthusiast living in historical and ridiculously adorable Salem, Massachusetts.