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Summer Reading Challenge: Biker Girl and Rock & Roll Love

Misako Rocks!, a.k.a. Misako Takashima, has a biography that would make swell grounds for a shojo manga. Raised in Japan by a family of law-enforcement officers, she came to the US as a teenager, working an assortment of odd jobs – puppeteer, art teacher, Onion cartoonist – before publishing her first graphic novel, Biker Girl. Her artwork and storylines owe a clear debt to Japanese girls’ comics, celebrating fashion, rock-and-roll, and first crushes while addressing more serious issues: standing up to bullies, learning how to navigate a new culture. Older girls will find Biker Girl and Rock and Roll Love too naïve for their tastes, but grade and middle school students will appreciate the books’ mix of fantasy and G-rated romance.

Biker Girl
By Misako Rocks!
No rating (Recommended for ages 8 – 10)
Hyperion Paperbacks, 2006, ISBN: 978-078683676-5
160 pp., $7.99

Biker Girl centers on Aki, a studious girl who finds her cousin’s bike while cleaning out the garage. Toru’s bike is no ordinary ten-speed, however; it’s a living organism capable of flying, attacking enemies, and transforming its owner into a superhero. (The bike resembles something out of Greek mythology, a hybrid of snake, elephant, and bird parts fused to a Schwinn frame.) Aki is initially reluctant to embrace the bike’s powers, but when a local gang robs a jewelry store and terrorizes her classmates, Aki realizes that she’s only person capable of standing up to them.

As one might expect from a debut work, Biker Girl is uneven. Takashima demonstrates a genuine talent for pacing and mood, but not dialogue; too often, her characters say (or think) things that are readily obvious from context, a problem that surfaces most frequently in Aki’s conversations with Kai, her handsome next-door neighbor. The character designs are cute and appealing, with expressive faces that convey a range of moods. Takashima struggles with consistency, however; in some panels, Aki looks short and squat, while in others she appears tall and slender. Manga purists may find Takashima’s artwork too rough for their tastes, as her characters designs have a sketchy, unfinished quality that’s more reminiscent of indie American comics than the slickly polished work of Arina Tanemura or Matsuri Hino.

For readers just beginning to explore the world of shojo, however, Biker Girl is a charming, fast-paced fantasy with an appealing heroine, a nifty premise, and just enough romance to make younger girls feel like they’re “reading up.”

Rock and Roll Love
By Misako Rocks!
No rating (Recommended for ages 9-12)
Hyperion Paperbacks, 2007, ISBN: 978-078683685-7
112 pp., $7.99

Billed as an autobiographical story, Rock and Roll Love follows the adventures of sixteen-year-old Misako, a Japanese teen who enrolls in a foreign exchange program after the boy of her dreams rejects her. Misako arrives in Kirksville, MO, expecting to find tall buildings and fashionable people. Instead, she discovers a warm, welcoming community of teenagers who share her love of music. Misako soon meets Zac, a handsome singer-songwriter with a commanding stage presence and a sweet, friendly demeanor. Misako is instantly smitten, but recognizes Zac for what he is: a shameless flirt. Determined to make the best of a difficult situation, Misako tries to be Zac’s friend, a strategy that backfires when Zac seems to reciprocate her feelings.

Not surprisingly, Rock and Roll Love is a more polished book than Biker Girl. Takashima’s artwork shows greater refinement, with considerable attention devoted to small but important details such as clothing, hairstyles, and interiors. The script, too, is an improvement over Biker Girl; Misako’s voice-overs have an authentic, immediate quality that will resonate with tweens mooning over a first crush. Though the story covers familiar territory, Takashima isn’t afraid to disappoint her readers by witholding the happy ending they’re hoping for; Takashima deserves praise for honoring the intensity of her heroine’s feelings while showing readers that rejection and misunderstanding are a natural part of dating.

Older teens will find Rock and Roll Love too tame and earnest, especially if they’ve developed a taste for racier material such as Hot Gimmick! and NANA. Middle school students make a better audience for this chaste but appealing, honest story about the ups and downs of first love.

Katherine Dacey About Katherine Dacey

Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.

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