Claudine (Seven Seas)

106 pgs. B&W | $13.99 | W / A: Riyoko Ikeda

Society’s understanding and acceptance of transsexuality has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, but it is still all too rare to find fictional works starring a transsexual character. That a graphic novel like Claudine that focuses exclusively on a trans protagonist can be published (as this one was late last year, for the first time in English courtesy of Seven Seas) is an exciting development, but what makes Claudine’s existence all the more surprising is its four-decade vintage. Yes, Claudine was published way back in 1978, a one-volume manga created by Riyoko Ikeda, author of The Rose of Versailles (a foundational shojo manga and a defining work in the yuri, or lesbian romance, genre) and a member of the infamous Year 24 Group who busted down the norms of shojo manga in the 1970s by broadening beyond mere love stories to deeply explore the collision of romance and sexuality. Even in the context of her Year 24 Group peers, Claudine is a bold statement.

Set in turn of the 20th century France, Claudine tells of the tragic life and loves of Claudine de Montesse, born in a female-assigned body but sure since the age of eight that he is a man. We meet Claudine when he is taken to a psychiatrist by his worried parents. The psychiatrist, who narrates the story, befriends Claudine. Following his diagnoses his parents quickly become accepting of Claudine’s true nature, though less so when they catch a teenaged Claudine kissing Maura, the family’s young maid. Claudine is heartbroken, but soon finds himself falling hard for Cécilia, a tutor who doesn’t return his affections and whose entanglements with the de Montesse family have tragic consequences. At university, Claudine’s desires are finally fulfilled in a star-crossed love affair with Sirène where at last his sexual and romantic desires can be fulfilled without judgment. Claudine’s love for Sirène is deep, intense, and pure (“I can say with absolute certainty,” the doctor shares in a very one-hundred-years-ago turn of phrase, “even a true man could not love a woman so utterly”), but no amount of desire can prevent the scales of drama from ultimately being weighed down by tragedy.

Going through three relationships and roughly fifteen years of Claudine’s life in barely over a hundred pages, Claudine can sometimes feel more like a CliffsNotes version of a life than a fully formed narrative. Still, Ikeda is able to draw you into Claudine’s journey by amping up the emotions close to their breaking point—in this book’s world, no one has ever fallen in love this deeply, no one has ever been as heartbroken. Ikeda expertly treads the line between dramatic and melodramatic (and even a bit of the soap operatic) without ever quite teetering over the edge.

Ikeda’s art is of a piece with her Year 24 Group peers like Moto Hagio (The Heart of Thomas, A Drunken Dream and Other Stories) and Keiko Takemiya (To Terra…). Her characters are long-limbed and feminine, their faces capable of capturing the full range of human emotion in exquisite detail. Her pages eschew simple grids in favor of expressionistic layouts with characters frequently bursting out of the panel borders to dance across the page, all without sacrificing storytelling clarity. Ikeda’s linework makes excellent use of black and white to steer the reader’s response using negative space. Particularly adept is her panels featuring sudden anger or betrayal, where multiple pages of white give way to a stunned character face over a burst of white surprise that is framed by a much larger pool of inky black fury. Shojo manga has largely moved away from the style pioneered by the Year 24 Group, but it’s still easy to see the throughline from Ikeda’s lithe characters and bold page layouts to the work of modern artists like CLAMP (Tsubasa, xxxHOLiC).

Given its vintage, there are some elements of Claudine that may turn away some modern readers. Its use of pronouns is hardly progressive: Claudine is referred to exclusively as “she” throughout the book, though given the book is set a century in the past and narrated by his psychiatrist rather than by Claudine himself, that is almost certainly historically accurate. Also, without spoiling it, the book’s ending could be seen both as triggering for some readers and as an overdone trope of stories involving trans characters, although that too is understandable given the book’s vintage and groundbreaking-for-its-time nature. Claudine is a compelling story for today’s readers, but still a product of its time.

But when it all comes down to it, Claudine is just good comics, plain and simple. Ikeda’s art is bold, experimental, yet a joy to look at and easy to read. Her characters are wonderfully drawn and attractive, with some big story moments captured in single images with the grandeur and romance of a Renaissance painting. The story is a compelling emotional rollercoaster that encourages the reader to fly right through its hundred pages yet still stands up to multiple re-reads. This is one worth checking out. | Jason Green

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