In 1941 Poland, silence is a way of life. Eighteen-year-old seminary student Koby Bruk has watched for two years as the people of his home town allowed the Germans to move in, displace homes and families, and impose their rule on the people who remain. When Koby is bullied by his classmate Irvine, he chooses to speak up against him. This doesn’t sit well with Irvine’s friend, Hitler Youth Oskar Keplar. Oskar corners Koby in an alleyway and makes a sinister promise.
Words by Tina Anderson, Illustration by Caroline Monaco
Review by Erastes
I’ll say this right here that I don’t know the vocabularly for manga/yaoi/the graphic novel genre, so whilst reviewing them, I’m going to make errors that purists will flinch at, but as I’m hoping that they get more popular in English for the English speaking world, perhaps the vocabularly and tropes won’t matter so much if I get them wrong.
I came to graphic novels with a few pre-conceptions, that the men were impossibly beautiful, effeminate – that there was always a Seme and a Uke (although I still have to check Wikipedia to work out which is which) and there are lot of staple cliches, tie-fetishes, half-clothed sex, power-play, bdsm-all that sort of stuff.
Only Words fulfills some of those fetishes but it packs a very powerful punch by not sticking to the frilly and effeminate and at times it’s not a pretty book at all. It seemed to me to take some of those cliches and turn then against themselves, but I can’t say much more without spoiling.
Koby Bruk is a Polish trainee priest, whose seminary was closed when the Germans invaded. Neither he or his nemesis/love interest, Oskar from Nazi Jugen/Hitler Youth, are pretty boys. Koby is sallow, a little malnourished with large eloquent eyes and Oskar is badly scarred, giving him a sinister appearance.
This novel covers a lot of ground; there’s a lot to take in – it’s certainly not just a tale of two young men who get together and fuck. Koby has rape fantasisies which we learn right from page one and we soon learn that although he dislikes the bullying tactics of the Jugen, and that he is brave/honest/foolish/pious enough to stand up to them, time and time again, he is harbouring a darker fantasy involving Oskar.
Actually I have to admit, I found Koby a little annoying. He had no compunction in telling tales on his class-mates, blaming his honesty on God, but doesn’t seem to have any shame or guilt about having gay rape fantasies or actually having sex with a man at all. His constant tattle-tale-ing would probably have made me find a dark alley to sort him out at some point, but then I’m not a nice person.
The artist does a really good job. If you don’t agree remember this is obviously subjective, and from someone who has had very little experience of comics since “Bunty” when she was ten years old. The landscapes are stark, and unremittingly depressing. When the Jugen are up to no good there is a preponderance of black shadows and claustrophic locations and the only time when there is any kind of light and air is in the classroom. Anatomically I have nothing to complain about either, and there are few punches pulled when it came to the sex. I don’t know the rules for explicit images in graphic novels but from an entirely personal perspective I’d have liked a little more explicitness.
However, the panel work was very impressive, and I was never in any doubt what was going on and who was saying what, even though there were a lot of dynamic shifts to the set of the panels. There’s probably vocabulary for what I’m trying to explain here.
If you are expecting a Dom/sub relationship story then you’ll probably be disappointed, because the layers here are multiple and deep and no-one is really what they seem. There’s a saying “be careful what you wish for, you might get it” and for a while this runs true, as Koby seems to be getting what he’s been fantasising about – but it gets turned around in a wonderful twist. The classic joke “Hurt me,” said the masochist, “No,” said the sadist, rings true towards the end, but it’s much much more than a classic joke and heartbreakingly so. I don’t think I need to worry that I’m spoiling you if I make clear that a story based in 1941 Poland is not going to end happily.
But for me it was full of surprises. The way an “alley-rape” turned out to be something else, a rescue of a cat is much the same, and even Oskar surprised me towards the end, not with his bully-boy tactics but the fact that he ordered Koby to strip and then offered him a cigarette and turned his back, as if in modesty. I think Oskar broke my heart from that moment on.
For me, this was a hard-to-take and very personal tale that touched on many global issues with a needful light touch. It could easily have been turned into a massive political statement but it didn’t attempt to do so. It remained for me a story of two young men caught up in circumstnces they are completely unable to change.
It has had the same visceral punch for me as films such as “Se7en” and I know for a fact that Only Words will stay with me for a long long time. I’m very pleased that this was my first foray into this genre.