(Steve Cummings/ Jim Zub/ John Rauch; Image Comics)
The first arc of Wayward is complete and is one of the best ongoing series out right now. It’s a story filled with magic and the supernatural perfectly blended with the familiar. It’s an alluring take on a culture that in the West is often filled with cliché, neon half-truths and generalizations. It’s not just alluring, but it’s refreshing. The creative team made up of Steve Cummings (Art), Jim Zub (Story) and John Rauch (Colors) handle the concepts within Wayward with care and authority, giving readers a genuine approach to Japanese culture.
The supernatural threads throughout the series allow for enjoyable and historical glimpses into Japanese folklore, but the greatest achievement of Wayward is the ability to portray believable and natural impressions into the life of the story’s protagonist, Rori Lane, amongst the supernatural without chalking it up to typical teenage angst. Readers have enjoyed the inclusion of supernatural elements unique to Japan since the premiere issue, which have lit up the pages with dazzling action sequences filled with monsters and spirits deeply rooted in Japanese lore, but it’s the human aspect of the characters within the series that grounds the story and breathes life into Wayward.
Dismissing the hardships that Rori is experiencing as typical teenage baggage seriously undermines the capabilities of the creative team and minimalizes the seriousness of the issues that are represented in series.
The story begins by Rori calling herself a “half-breed” because of her mixed Japanese and Irish heritage. This attitude places belonging and acceptance as primary themes in the series. She’s torn between cultures. Cummings and Rauch purposefully draw her to represent both cultures. Her bright, colorful Japanese fashion is contrasted with physical attributes akin to Northern Europe, like her flaming red hair and bright green eyes. We don’t get a view of her life in Ireland where she was able to “wow peers with her Japanese language skills,” but the differences are abundantly clear when she arrives at school in Japan. Her teacher asks her if her vibrant red hair is natural or if it is dyed and threatens that she may have to dye it black in order to fit in and “not be labeled as a troublemaker.”
The idea of fitting in is an important aspect of teenage life and deems Rori as a bit of a social pariah because of her mixed heritage. It might be easy to regard this as teenage angst, but this struggle is with identity is embedded into the core of her being. It’s something she cannot fix and eventually may come to accept, but it’s the idea of being stuck in the middle. Not truly one or the other.
These sorts of experiences are not only internally isolating, but socially as well. Cummings and Rauch highlight her loneliness by utilizing panel depth and space to show Rori alone and separated from her peers in large panels. She’s often just outside of the light source in the panels and like the supernatural, sticks in the shadows.
Amongst all of this, she starts to notice some sort of power living inside of her and it’s in the supernatural where she finds company, just not in any way readers might expect. She discovers three of her peers possess supernatural powers of all kinds and after a few scuffles, is elected the leader of the group. This is a unique, but authentic representation that Zub performs incredibly well. Rori is depicted as confident on the outside, but torn internally. She carries herself well, embracing Japanese culture as an outsider and fearlessly explores Tokyo. She’s also often fearful or uncertain, characterized by Zub’s narration of her character. She second guesses herself constantly and questions her surroundings. Despite self-doubt of being a leader, she accepts the responsibilities of carrying the title.
As I’ve previously mentioned, we don’t know much about her life in Ireland up to this point in the series, but some of her actions reveal that she struggles with stress and anxiety, stemmed from parental issues which leads to self-harm. Cummings and Rauch don’t belittle the actions nor do they condone them. They’re expressed in a way that stands true to much of what I know from friends that have struggled with self-harm. Rori isn’t socially inept and she doesn’t hate people. She doesn’t hurt herself while listening to depressing music with lit candles in a dark room. Instead, the sequence happens much like it might in real life – in the moment to distract herself from the high anxiety situation she was placed into. During the scene where the act is shown, the panels look down on Rori as she contemplates her actions, but are contrasted by juxtaposing panels that look up to expose the gravity of the struggle. It’s here where we’re let into just a small part of her life in Ireland and a recurring theme in the series – fear of being alone.
It’s a difficult sequence to read because of the lack of hope that Rori has and the lengths she’ll go to relieve pain. Rori describes it as a curse. It’s something she feels is completely out of her control, like her mixed heritage. It’s a topic that unless experienced firsthand, is impossible to fully grasp. The creators do a particularly great job at showing the complexities of the cycle of justification, guilt and pain of people who self-harm.
Wayward #5 marks the ending of the first story arc and further highlights the fear of Rori being alone. There is an extremely painful scene where everything comes crashing down, not just for Rori, but specifically for Ayane as well. There’s a sense of hopelessness, fear and aloneness that shroud the issue, but there is a glimmer of light for Rori. There’s a moment where she’s able to take a step back and realize that she isn’t alone. She has friends and they’ve been there for her and will continue to do so. It’s a lesson often learned at her age, the idea that familial ties are not entirely woven with blood.
The universal hardships represented in this book are brought out by Cummings and Rauch’s moody, electric art and the developing personalities of the characters Zub created. The use of the supernatural is bountiful and serves as a conduit to strengthen and expose the natural situations presented in Wayward. The emotionally challenging subject matter in a way that isn’t shameful or judgmental, but rather tasteful and with empathy, something that this creative team should be applauded for achieving.