Review: Only Words by Tina Anderson & Caroline Monaco(illus.)

 

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.

Buy:    Amazon UK   Amazon USA

8 Responses

  1. This review surprised me a lot. I wondered if this was written by Erastes in truth who always pleases me with his caustic and satirical reviews/comments/remarks. But soon I found the reason of suppressed(seemed to me) tone. Somebody spoiled the plot, but I don’t care at all.

    Very often I wonder why female writers can deal with this sensitive issue without being accused as a propaganda or a betrayal(The latter scares me much). Although, here our Erastes explains why:It remained for me a story of two young men caught up in circumstances they are completely unable to change.
    Somehow it’s admiring to me the authors could set the plot within the personal scale, such as rape fantasises. Koby’s behaviours, including his fantasy, are unacceptable in common sense due to the lack of his sense of guilty(according to this review). As far as I can suppose there is no conflict between Koby and Oskar on the ideological and historical issue. (For example, if I were Koby, surely I would accuse Oskar of their invasion, while Oskar would insist that Poland/Prussia belongs to Germany since 13th century).
    I don’t know if the authors themselves are aware of the concept between the two worlds two characters belong to. Those two mysterious and incomprehensible Orders are not only quite similar, but also managed in quite same way. I’m very curious to know why they have chosen this setting. They regarded that it’s suitable for tragical story? Please, don’t tell me it was just their fetish.

    Tell truth, I need courage to take this book in my hands :D (Note: I was brought up the birthplace of Yaoi world) I would like to know the reason of 4.5 stars.

  2. I didn’t get the feeling that this was at all at fetishised, Max. In fact I know that the author and the illustrator did their homework quite thoroughly and I saw evidence that Anderson takes it very seriously.

    If I haven’t made clear why I awarded such a high mark, then I apologise, but it’s hard to do so without really spoiling the plot and my very personal take on the deeper aspects. There are undercurrents and deep psychological aspects to this (needfully so) that make it far far more than a trainee priest with Nazi rape fantasies.

    Koby doesn’t blame Oskar (or indeed his friends) for what has happened to Poland. He’s a genuinely good young man who does his best in terrible circumstances. I feel that he sees that some of the Jugen don’t want to be in Poland any more than the Polish want them there. In fact, he sees how his countrymen and women are adapting to the new regime, some denouncing, some wanting to join in.

    Oskar however, tragically, has an enormous chip on his shoulder about eveything, huge self esteem problems, problems with the church, his parents, the war, and an omniprescent fear that he won’t live long in it.

    The sexual aspect does not lessen the greater story. It hit me hard, as you can tell, but one thing I did take away from it was that the authors didn’t treat it as “entertainment.”

    It’s certainly not for everyone, though.

  3. Hi Maxim, my name is Tina–and I wrote this book. ^_^

    I don’t know if the authors themselves are aware of the concept between the two worlds two characters belong to.

    My parents are from Poland [my father was sent out of the country when the Germans crossed the border–out of Leba as a matter of fact] and I won’t discuss my mother’s experiences, that’s not my place.
    I’m very curious to know why they have chosen this setting. They regarded that it’s suitable for tragical story? Please, don’t tell me it was just their fetish.

    In the town of Świnoujście, where the story is set, there’s always been a very strong Polish-German cross pollination. No, it hasn’t always been an easy coexistence, but it was tolerable until the Germans marched in; today it’s extremely touchy due to Russian involvement after the war [they forcibly removed all Germans from the town and resettled Poles there]. So yes, I know the history of my people, and these people, because my father lived here, before being sent away. ^_-

    Birthplace of the “yaoi world”, by this, do you mean Japan? I’m a bit surprised if you are Japanese and a fan of ‘yaoi’ since many mangaka takes historical situations like this and completely render them from an ‘entertainment’ perspective. No insult intended, but ‘yaoi’ is hardly ever realistic when it comes to depicting Western cultural history. ^_^””

    Erastes, thanks for the review, and I’m glad the book had an impact on you. I’m well aware that it isn’t for everyone, my stories rarely are, but I do appreciate that you took the time to read and review it. Most have avoided the book based solely on its cover and assumed it’s about gay romance/Nazism and have given it a pass. Its reviews like yours, and the reviews Only Words has garnished at other blog sites, which gives me hope that more readers will take a chance on it. Thanks again!

  4. Dear Ms.Tina

    I’m truly grateful to have response from the author herself.
    First of all, unfortunately I’m not Japanese(you can guess from my name) nor a fan of Yaoi. But I know very well what going on in that world without need of searching the meaning of the terms “Seme-Uke” :D

    I was surprised at your answer “Most have avoided the book based solely on its cover and assumed it’s about gay romance/Nazism and have given it a pass“.
    I was thinking quite opposite because every week new books/magazines of Nazi Germany are published in Europe. It’s a big market. I have to say I’m interested in this book clearly from men’s side since the main readers of those materials are men.

    But then I became aware of that this graphic novel/manga market is mainly for female readers. On Amazon a reviewer has mentioned and compared with some yaoi ones written just from the kind of fetish. That’s why I hoped this book is not like them. I totally agree with you about unreality of the yaoi world.(In Japan Nazism is not taboo, but Japan itself is taboo.) But actually the girls hate this subject usually.

    I’m very glad to hear that your parents are from Poland. I myself know a lot of people from there. Now I can assume the reason of choice on the subject. Two worlds I meant are SS and what Koby belongs to: is it Jesuit? I’m sorry, sometimes I go too far, and also I’m too much “in”.(The true reason I hesitated to read this book.)

    I really appreciate your work(I saw sample pages).
    it isn’t for everyone
    Can you imagine how I love suchlike books? Yes, you gave me a push–of courage– to read it :) Thank you again.
    And also thank Erastes who knows me as a freak.

    P.S.
    No, it hasn’t always been an easy coexistence, but it was tolerable until the Germans marched in; today it’s extremely touchy due to Russian involvement after the war [they forcibly removed all Germans from the town and resettled Poles there].
    It’s really a great credit if the person knows very well the background.

  5. Hi, no problem, and I’m glad to answer any questions you have. ^_^

    I was thinking quite opposite because every week new books/magazines of Nazi Germany are published in Europe.

    Want to hear something funny? My book is being translated right now into German and Polish, for two different publishers; but when I first approached German publishers [I solicited 5 of them] 3 of these publishers came back to me with the same issue: to paraphrase – ‘the Nazi symbols can be changed for print–but we feel our readers might object to the gay relationship between this Pole and a German man.’ To them, the gay cross-cultural issue was a deeper challenge, than the Nazism. I was stunned. When I was contacted by a Polish publisher, this too was something that they felt might ‘rub Polish fans’ the wrong way, but they wanted to see the book anyway.

    The social situation is a strange one; the borders between Poland and Germany were opened up this December, and there’s typical grousing from Munich and Warsaw–none of it, of course, seems to be coming from the actual border cities. ^_-

    But then I became aware of that this graphic novel/manga market is mainly for female readers.

    That might be changing. Whilst a majority of ‘Japanese yaoi’ fans are female, many gay men here in the west are buying it. It’s a refreshing change from the ‘fetish’ or ‘strictly porn’ comics that are available to gay comic’s fans. Also, GloBL [what I call Global BL] seems to have a cross-gender appeal, likely because the creator base is Western and comprised of women AND men. I personally love the western form of the genre, and I can’t wait to see more! [especially if it’s historic!]

    Thanks for commenting,
    Tina

  6. Having read the german translation of “Only words” yesterday, I wanted to know more about it and found this review.

    Let me first say: I am an obsessive manga collector with a special interest in yaoi. Despite that I think that the yaoi genre is not what it could be. I know for definite that many readers – like me – read yaoi because they are sick of the way girls are portrayed in shoujo stories (big boobs, sweet smile, innocent nature and no brain – I know there are exceptions, but not enough) So why do so many mangakas model their uke to be exactly that (minus the boobs hopefully)? I can’t understand it.

    Anyways I am always grateful when I find something that brakes the mould of overused clichés. And “Only words” really did that. I found the setting of polish priest in training and young disturbed Hitler-Jugend Oskar and the submissive, masochistic nature of Koby interesting.

  7. […] Take all that, and the promise of volume 2 to come, and you certainly have a keeper in my book.  I can’t wait to find out what happens next.  This ranks up there with the best gay historical graphic novels – the other being, of course, Only Words, by Tina Anderson and Caroline Monaco. […]

  8. […] Take all that, and the promise of volume 2 to come, and you certainly have a keeper in my book.  I can’t wait to find out what happens next.  This ranks up there with the best gay historical graphic novels – the other being, of course, Only Words, by Tina Anderson and Caroline Monaco. […]

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