The Spring 2019 Manga Guide
Komi Can't Communicate
What's It About?Shoko Komi has a problem – she's incredibly shy and anxious, and even though she desperately wants to make friends, she can't manage to talk to anyone.
When Hitohito Tadano figure out her problem soon after attempting (and failing) to start his high school life free of the embarrassment of middle school, he decides that he'll help her make the one hundred friends she dreams of.
But in a class full of quirky weirdos and with a girl who can barely manage to make sounds come out when she opens her mouth, will they really be okay? Komi Can't Communicate is written and illustrated by Tomohito Oda. It will be released by Viz in June and sell for $9.99.
Is It Worth Reading?
I am always very leery of stories that use specific disorders as the basis for their humor, and I definitely have a few eggs in Komi's specific basket as someone who has fought crippling social anxiety with bonus panic disorder for most of my life. So I'm really, really happy to say that Tadahito Oda's Komi Can't Communicate errs on the side of good-natured, and if I didn't personally find it hysterically funny, that's because I was too busy relating to Komi's experiences. That it wasn't me be traumatized by Komi's experiences also speaks well of how Oda uses the base conceit of a girl who can't make the words she wants to speak come out of her mouth is a major point in his favor as an author.
Simply put, the series is a kind-of four-panel humorous look at the life of a guy who made an ass of himself in middle school getting involved with the girl worshipped by the whole class because they completely misunderstand her. Hitohito Tadano was so deliberately weird in middle school that he basically ostracized himself, and now he's ready to be as regular a guy as they come. This may be why he's the only person to realize that his gorgeous classmate Komi is not quite as perfect as everyone assumes her to be, and before long he's got her admitting (in writing) that she's really bad at communicating verbally but desperately wants friends. Since his friendship with Komi is already earning him the ire of everyone else in class, he decides to just go with it, forgoing his dream of normalcy for helping out his new pal. He's not trying to change her, just to make her more comfortable talking to others, which is a nice way to approach it and makes the humor good-natured instead of mean.
Meanwhile Oda absolutely nails Komi's issues. The horrible moments when you're called on in class and no words come out while everyone stares at you, the trembling urge to say something but being too scared, and the way everyone misinterprets silence as whatever they want it to mean is spot-on, whether that's in terms of Komi freaking out about what people are saying or others assuming Komi is just being coolly elegant instead of panicking. My only real problem is that Komi doesn't really have a “communication disorder” in the medical sense as I understand it – she's more anxious than suffering from a language disorder or an inability to understand social cues in a pathological sense. Right now that's not really a major issue, but it is worth noting in terms of strict correctness. Otherwise this is a nice little story with humor and a distinct lack of cruelty that doesn't break any new barriers but is definitely fun to read.
I have my reservations about Komi Can't Communicate's framing of very real, very painful mental health conditions, but for an-extremely-specific-premise-milked-for-comedy kind of gag manga, it seems to have a shocking amount of understanding and emotional insight. Though exaggerated, Komi's social anxiety does resonate with my similar experience; paralysis, a constant, irrational and yet incessantly pressing fear that robs you of the connections and life everyone else seems to take for granted. The jokes seem to be coming from a sincere place of empathy, rather than looking down and laughing at these people's very pressing problems.
But even still, the line between perpetuating negative stereotypes through inconsiderate caricature and ribbing via understanding is a thin one, indeed. Though Komi's psychology is clearly and thoroughly outlined, it's hard to parse if the story considers her anxiety an actual clinical aspect or just a simple, bizarre ‘quirk’. As such, it's difficult to tell if we are meant to be laughing at Komi for seemingly outlandish, absurd behavior or if this is meant to be a legitimate depiction of anxiety that we laugh at because we relate.
There's also a character who exists to be a transphobic punchline who I'm not a fan of. Though their role is that of a social butterfly in contrast to Komi's extreme social isolation (and as such is important as thematic antithesis and a focal point of humor), it comes packaged with a lot of jokes about their gender constantly ‘changing’ and being difficult to ‘determine’. Again, the story has a lot of trouble distinguishing between character ‘quirks’ and what are battles people fight every day. Packaging gender fluidity as just another ‘quirky’ thing at best is extremely tasteless and at worst actively undermines the book's message by making light of an already marginalized community.
Komi Can't Communicate succeeds in spite of a potentially noxious premise. I laughed a surprising amount and the manga does a good job showing that all the members of its cast are just as dysfunctional as the eponymous Komi, creating a solid base of compassion and doing a good job not casting her as a weird social outlier. And even with all the issues I have, I think there is a good time to be had here if you've ever struggled with social anxiety. If nothing else, there's some catharsis in seeing that, for however much anxiety hurts, there are people with similar struggles who will help us through it.
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