I’ve been aware of Fangirl, a popular novel by Rainbow Rowell, for quite some time but, despite being more then a little interested in it, I never got around to reading it. Then Viz Media announced that they were releasing an OEL manga version, adapted by Sam Maggs and illustrated by Gabi Nam, and I decided that this would be the perfect way for me to finally experience this story.
And now I’m kicking myself for not picking up the novel too because Fangirl is seriously good!
Cath has just started College and already all of the changes in her life are becoming overwhelming. Sharing a dorm room with a stranger makes her nervous, she hates it when her roommate has visitors in their room, she can’t figure out how to get meals at the dining hall and, worst of all, her twin sister, Wren, has been pulling away from her. Up until now, Cath and Wren had done everything together, but Wren sees College as an opportunity to meet new people, cut-loose and party. She doesn’t want to share a room with Cath anymore and she isn’t interested in talking about the Simon Snow books or writing fanfiction together either – she’s ready to move on from that time in her life. But writing fanfiction has been a vital escape for Cath and an important source of joy and validation. She isn’t ready to give it up. Will Cath be able to adapt and find a way to thrive in college? Or will all of these painful changes prove to be too much? And what’s she going to do when it turns out that the professor of her writing class doesn’t look too kindly on fanfiction?!
I knew going in that Fangirl was about fandom and how some people feel pressure to leave it behind as they get older, but I was delighted to discover that it’s about so much more then just that! This is a coming-of-age story about an awkward nerd trying to cope with anxiety, family drama and growing up, all while trying to hang on to her love of a particular work of fiction and the magical world of her imagination that it inspired.
Cath is a relatable heroine who I always found sympathetic, even when she was being a bit of a jerk. She can sometimes be judgmental or rigid in her way of thinking, especially when it comes to Wren’s newfound desire to party. With Cath acting so sullen, it was no surprise to me that Wren wasn’t that eager to hang out with her all of the time anymore, but I also understood where Cath was coming from. She worries about Wren’s safety when she’s drinking and it’s clear that most of her snide comments are masking how hurt she is that Wren is putting distance between them right when she wants to depend on her the most.
Mental health issues seem to run in the family and Cath is clearly struggling with more then just a bit of nervousness over being in a new environment. It makes sense that she was counting on being able to rely on her sister to help her through this, since that seems to be how she’s coped with her anxiety up until now. Having ones usual support system unexpectedly yanked away during a stressful time would send anyone reeling, so I completely empathize with how Cath flounders and initially retreats inward and into her writing to cope. I’ve struggled with some social anxiety in the past as well, so I get wanting to just be left alone with the comfort of fantasy. It’s not a great way of dealing with things, but I understand why she does it.
But, despite how much the manga led me to sympathize with Cath’s predicament, I appreciated that Wren wasn’t painted as a villain or an unfeeling monster who abandoned her sister in her time of need. Instead, I could easily see things from Wren’s perspective as well and I understood why she might be annoyed with her sister’s clinginess and why she was eager to establish some new boundaries between them. Her attempts to redefine herself also struck me as a pretty normal thing for someone her age to be doing, especially considering that she’s always been regarded as a part of a pair. It’s also clear that the girls’ father suffers from a mental illness (likely Bipolar Disorder) and, while he is receiving treatment for it, the twins likely spent a lot of their youth worrying about him and having to deal with some stuff that most kids their age didn’t have to be concerned with. So, now that she has the opportunity to relax and just have fun for a change, why wouldn’t Wren jump at the chance to do just that?
Wren isn’t a terrible sister, she simply wants to be more independent and sees college as a chance to spread her wings. She also doesn’t cut Cath entirely out of her life. They text and call each other and meet up for lunch and stuff like that. She also invites Cath to go with her to parties and, while it makes sense that Cath doesn’t want to participate in an activity where she knows she’ll feel uncomfortable, her refusal to try any new things or to make a real effort to get along with Wren’s new, admittedly kind of vapid but still perfectly friendly, friend/roommate, is as much to blame for the two sisters not spending as much time together as Wren’s refusal to share a room is. They both share some responsibility for the current tensions between then and I loved that they were both portrayed as nuanced characters with understandable points of view.
As much as I enjoyed the complex relationship between the sisters, I think my favourite part of Fangirl was Cath’s blunt and sarcastic roommate, Reagan. Reagan isn’t a particularly warm person, but she’s the one who steps in and helps Cath out when it’s clear that she’s struggling, despite the fact that Cath is too embarrassed to ask for help. She helps Cath to figure out the dining hall, goes with her in order to make sure that she eats regularly and is a friend to her for no other reason then because it’s obvious that she needs one. Reagan can be brutally honest at times, but that seems to be what Cath needs and the fact that Reagan took it upon herself to look out for her roomie, even though she really didn’t have to, shows that she’s a truly kind and responsible person, even if this fact seems to annoy her.
There are several young men in the manga who act as possible love interests for Cath, but, thus far, the comic has focused more on Cath’s relationship with her sister and her love of writing then on a potential romance, though I am certain that one is brewing and that we’ll probably see more of that in the next volume. If you’re eager to see some passion, however, don’t worry. We are treated to snippets of scenes from the Simon Snow fanfiction that Cath is writing and these little vignettes were enough to set my Boys-Love-fangirl heart aflutter. I’m now very eager to read Carry On, a novel by Rainbow Rowell which is a spinoff that’s basically a print version of Cath’s fanfiction about the romance between Simon and his vampire roommate and nemesis, Baz. Hopefully, that will receive a manga adaptation someday too!
Whether you’re a fan of Fangirl or, like me, are new to the story, the Fangirl manga has a lot to offer. Gabi Nam’s art is beautiful and the main character is complex, imperfect and compelling. I’m rooting for her to grow more confident and to find a way to establish a more healthy, less co-dependent, relationship with her sister. I also hope she continues to write and enjoy fanfiction, after all, growing up shouldn’t mean having to give up the things that bring you joy!
Final Score: 9 out of 10
What did you think of this graphic novel? How do you think it compares to the novel? Let me know in the comments!
For more information on this series, visit Viz Media’s website.