I’ve always got my eye out for promising new manga, so I like to try out all sorts of debut volumes. Viz Media released one this week that immediately grabbed my attention: Tomohito Oda’s Komi Can’t Communicate Vol. 1. I’ve read a lot of slice-of-life comics, but this one’s premise is unlike any I’ve ever seen. Tadano, a first-year high school student, befriends his classmate Komi, whose social anxiety is so bad that she can’t even say simple sentences. Other people tend to misunderstand her as a result, but she really wants to make friends. Tadano sets out to help her, and goodhearted (though disastrous) shenanigans follow. It’s a very charming concept, but does Oda utilize it effectively? Is Komi Can’t Communicate Vol. 1 good?
Visually, this manga is very cute. Oda’s style is cartoony and expressive, rendering characters relatively simply but with over-the-top facial expressions. Komi herself is the best example of this, as her wide-eyed stares are frequently reminiscent of a cat’s. These faces sometimes even veer into horror territory, which amplifies the humor during misunderstandings even more. The line-work throughout is nice and clean, and there’s some solid use of motion lines as the characters flail about nervously. I also appreciate the humorous captions which describe the characters’ emotions, since their communication problems make their true feelings impossible to tell by appearance alone. Oda also makes great use of splash pages and two-page spreads to heighten some of the story’s most pivotal emotional moments.
By and large, this volume does a great job introducing the series’ premise and characters. Komi and Tadano’s friendship is endearing, and the scene in which they first become friends (via writing back and forth on a whiteboard) is easily the book’s biggest highlight. The character beats throughout feel earnest and sincere, and Komi’s socialization difficulties are the source of much comedy without ever being the subject of ridicule. There are a number of memorable gags throughout, many of which involve Komi’s anxious silence being misinterpreted as an intimidating, almost stalker-like presence. One particularly relatable chapter involves her coffee order getting botched severely, but she’s far too anxious to actually ask for a corrected replacement.
Unfortunately, certain aspects of the book stand sharply opposed to the rest of its successful, earnest charm. Namely, things take a massive nosedive anytime the manga even vaguely approaches queerness. Komi and Tadano’s classmate Osana is at the core of this problem. She presents and identifies as female for the most part, though Tadano previously knew her as a man and Osana refers to herself as a boy on occasion. Komi Can’t Communicate may be great at many things, but handling trans issues is not one of them. Osana’s gender identity is made the butt of many a joke, with Tadano’s apparent refusal to accept her as she is being a major blight on the character. Then you have Agari, whose extreme obsession with Komi leans pretty heavily into “creepy lesbian” territory. If it weren’t for these two characters then the manga’s main con would just be that some gags land more effectively than others, but unfortunately these unsettling plot points take up quite a bit of page-time.
All in all, Komi Can’t Communicate Vol. 1 is a debut volume with a lot of heart and a great premise, but it also has some major issues holding it back. It’s difficult to reconcile all the fun and emotional earnestness in the first half or so with the fact that two of the supporting characters are basically just walking trans and creepy lesbian jokes. Whether or not I’d recommend this volume really just depends on how willing you are to deal with that in order to experience the book’s stronger suits.