I Am Here! Vol. 1 (Del Rey/Kodansha)

Super-shy Sumino breaks out of her shell with the help of the class hunk and a couple anonymous internet posters in this excellently illustrated romance series.

410 pgs. B&W; $16.99
(W / A: Ema Toyama)
 
Lots of eighth graders are shy, but Hikage Sumino is so invisible that her classmates barely remember she’s there, and certainly can’t be bothered to remember her name. She so badly wants to be like the sunflower she tenderly cares for and bask in the sun of popularity and acceptance from her peers, but when her meekness and self-esteem prove too much to overcome, Sumino settles for a blog where she posts photos and commiserates with her only friends, the anonymous internet posters Black Rabbit and Mega Pig. The pair encourages Sumino to come out of her shell, but she’s reluctant until a chance encounter with class hunk Hinata, who reveals that, after seeing Sumino commit a selfless act when she felt she was at her most invisible, he’s fallen in love with her. But of course, stealing the heart of the most popular boy in school has its consequences, and soon Sumino finds herself on the receiving end of some mega-bullying from the class’ queen of mean, Aya.
 
Stories of teenaged bullying are a dime a dozen, but I Am Here! manages to set itself apart because of its sweet sincerity. Ema Toyama (whose manga Pixie Pop was released by Tokyopop in 2007) doesn’t go for cheap jokes at the expense of her heroine’s awkwardness, but instead tackles her shyness and vulnerability head on while keeping things as straightforward and realistic as the stringent rules of the teenage romance genre will allow. With its sweet disposition, lovably awkward protagonist, and technological twist, I Am Here! reads more than a little like the teen girl answer to Train_Man: Densha Otoko.
 
What really impressed me about I Am Here!, though, was the art and, more specifically, Toyama’s almost superhuman ability to use body language to convey her characters’ emotions and personalities. It’s all well and good to tell us Sumino is shy, but Toyama manages to capture it every time she draws her, showing her constant social discomfort in the way her head dips to push her hair in her eyes, the way her hands grip awkwardly at her clothes, the way her shoulders push forward to sink her chest in as if she just wants to fold in on herself until she disappears completely. Sumino always looks awkward and uncomfortable in her own skin, making her emotions real in a way that makes it that much easier to empathize with her as a reader. Make no mistake, the surface elements of Toyama’s style are fairly typical shojo stuff—her doe-eyed girls and wispy-haired boys wouldn’t look out of place in Yuu Watase’s Absolute Boyfriend, for example—but the familiarity of those trappings don’t detract one bit from her overall skill as an artist. Toyama’s page layouts are also delightful; while she eschews a standard grid, she also never pushes so hard that the pages plunge into unreadability.
 
This massive 400-plus-page collection contains the first two volumes in a five-volume series, with another omnibus containing the last three volumes due from Kodansha Comics in July. That brief length feels about right for this series, as I can’t imagine milking that much more out of the concept. Even this first collection runs out of steam a bit by the end: the first seven chapters—covering Sumino’s gradual “coming out into the sun” and the build-up to her confrontation with her catty classmates—are captivating from beginning to end, but the actual confrontation with mean girl Aya in chapter 8 pushes over to melodrama, and chapters 9 and 10 close out the book by introducing a new mystery (what is the real identity of Black Rabbit?) that isn’t nearly as compelling. Knowing there’s only one more book to buy to finish off Sumino’s story makes it a guarantee that I’ll ride it out to the end. | Jason Green

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