Small-Minded Schoolgirls 1-2 by toma: A-

small-minded1What do you get when you combine some admittedly funky art with excellent characterization and a slice-of-life story about the romantic woes of a pair of professional women? Small-Minded Schoolgirls, the josei-ish, online-exclusive manhwa from NETCOMICS.

The series focuses on two women: Miru Na, a successful novelist, and Somi Han, a thwarted writer whose job is to secure talent for a literary magazine. Miru, 30, is prickly and fussy, and I honestly could probably go on for three paragraphs about her various quirks and flaws. She was popular with guys in her twenties, and always wearied of their attention and wished they’d leave her alone until one day, they did. Somi is younger and aloof, adept at hiding her real feelings, and unsure about what she really wants. She has a boyfriend, whom she claims to adore, but gets caught up in illicit flirtations with a married coworker.

The two women are acquainted, since Miru is going to be writing something for the magazine Somi works for, and though they interact occasionally (and, awesomely, do not like each other at all), the narrative mostly switches back and forth between them as they go to work, ponder existential questions, and deal with the men in their lives. Miru starts off looking for a passionate love, the kind where her mere presence is something very precious to another person, but loneliness compels her to entertain the advances of a former classmate, Dongsoon. His long-term adoration of her is flattering at first, but soon turns creepy. Somi, meanwhile, eventually realizes that she’s actually a pretty crappy girlfriend and is incapable of truly supporting her boyfriend’s dream of becoming an animator. Though declaring her eye would never rove again after the first coworker incident, the pattern’s already begun to repeat itself.

Of increasing importance is Miru’s brother, Migook, who is a resolutely apathetic slacker. He left his job over a misunderstanding he couldn’t be bothered to explain, and spends most of his time loafing around the house, reading tons of manhwa and maintaining a review blog (hee!). Slowly, we learn more details about the incident at work, and he gains more confidence about dealing with it and life in general. After long feeling like a man with nothing to offer, effectively threatening his sister’s stalker seems somehow to empower him and by the end of the second volume, he’s seeing someone and actually considering going back to work.

There are a few more characters who show up from time to time—the most important of these is Jingwan, Migook’s friend, who is looking like the perfect match for Miru—but they’re significant only in the way they impact our lead characters. Small-Minded Schoolgirls is definitely a character-centric tale that hinges more on the subtleties of interaction and personal foibles than big dramatic moments. The one time it goes there—when Dongsoon briefly kidnaps Miru—it feels wrong somehow. The series is full of keen observations on human nature and achieves poignancy and humor in equal measure. One storytelling aspect I particularly adore is the way toma uses boxes of omniscient narration to comment on what’s going on in a panel or to provide further insight into a character’s state of mind at that moment. My favorite occurs when Migook has just told Miru about his girlfriend. Before she can be truly happy for him, she unconsciously begins dialing the phone to call the new man she’s begun seeing. The narration in this panel reads, “Note: People are only able to congratulate others when they have their own peace of mind.”

While I recommend the series without reservation, the one area where it could prove a disappointment to some is in the art. The most obvious deviation from traditional manhwa is the fact that it’s in color. There’s no shading in the illustrations and backgrounds are apt to be solid fields of color, almost as if they were filled in using the bucket tool in Microsoft Paint. The drawing style itself takes some getting used to, as well. At first, I was reminded of the heta uma (bad, but good) style employed by Yusaku Hanakuma in Tokyo Zombie (Last Gasp). Eventually, though, I came to appreciate toma’s skill in depicting body language, and though close-ups are few and the scribbled black eyes inexpressive, the strength of the storytelling ensures that emotions are communicated without incident.

I’d be sad if the eccentric art kept anyone from giving Small-Minded Schoolgirls a try. After a while, it honestly becomes hard to imagine the series drawn in any other way and really, can josei lovers afford to be picky?

Review copies provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

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