Every February, my thoughts turn to the world of romance comics, and every February, I am reminded that romance comics are a terrifying world of choking sobs and brutal heartbreak. But not this year, friends, for Cupid has landed his arrow soundly in my heart, and I am madly in love... with Kazune Kawahara and Aruko's My Love Story!!.

Not to be confused with the '60s comic of the same name (minus those crucial exclamation points), Kawahara and Aruko's amazing and hilarious romantic comedy manga tells the story of Takeo, a gigantic, super-ripped and reasonably terrifying high school student who falls in love constantly only to be turned down in favor of his beautiful pal Sunakawa, who seems to have very little interest in girls, or anything else for that matter, and how he finally found someone to like him back. And seriously, it might be the best romance story in comics.

 

I picked up the first volume of My Love Story!! based on a recommendation from David Brothers and Juliet Kahn, and if I had to guess what it was that made them think I'd enjoy it, I'd say it was probably some combination of the hilarious earnestness of the main characters and the fact that a good chunk of Volume 2 is based around Takeo getting into a judo match and slamming his arrogant opponent, who believes romance is a weakness, straight down to the mat with the power of love. That is, after all, completely my jam when it comes to comics, but it's also pretty indicative of how the book works.

The basic idea at the start of things is that Takeo and Sunakawa are best friends, and while Takeo isn't a player, he definitely crushes a lot, only to find that the girls he likes are always more interested in his pal, who could not possibly care less. When he rescues the super-cute Rinko Yamato from the creep on the train, he immediately falls for her and the three start hanging out together, and when he thinks she's in love with Sunakawa, he tries his best to help their relationship go smoothly. As it turns out, she is, of course, actually in love with him, and they get together, with the rest of the series revolving around their relationship as each other's first love.

 

 

If it sounds like a really simple setup, that's because in a lot of ways, it is. The "twist" of Yamato actually liking Takeo is about as subtle as a brick upside the head, but it all works because of how it approaches its storytelling -- in a way that pretty much earns those two exclamation points in the title.

The thing that really gets me about My Love Story!! is that it treats romance with the kind of attitude that I love in shonen manga and tokusatsu shows, where everything is accomplished by charging forward and believing in yourself. The difference is that instead of dealing with giant robots or evil pirates who have mastered fish-man karate, the obstacles in Takeo and Yamato's way are stuff like seeing each other in swimsuits for the first time, or deciding whether or not they should hold hands.

 

 

Everything that they get through is presented in these super-dramatic terms as huge victories, and it's delightful, because it's all so... well,innocent; something that Ysabet Reinhardt MacFarlane, who does the English adaptation, deserves a lot of credit for preserving as well. It makes sense that it would be, too -- these are, after all, characters in their first year of high school, even if one of them is 6'6" and looks like a pro wrestler who's pushing 40. The conflicts of the book, if you can even really call them that, are all pretty low-stakes, stuff like planning a birthday or having a fun day at the beach, but they're all treated with the kind of seriousness that you can only really get from your first love.

It plays out best in the way that Yamamoto reacts to the situations. The story mostly follows Takeo, but Kawahara and Aruko  make her an incredibly easy character to like in how she reacts to the situations with the same level of high-strung tension that Takeo does, like getting lost on a hike and having to spend the night in the woods with her new boyfriend:

 

 

And on top of that, all of the main characters are just really good people. One of the core ideas is that Takeo is he's almost superheroic in how he's driven to do good deeds -- he literally saves kittens from trees multiple times over the course of the first three volumes, which is pretty hilarious -- but because he's so terrifying and Sanakawa looks so much like a manga protagonist, all the people he helps immediately thank Sanakawa instead. But even though he's aloof and slightly pessimistic, Sanakawa is never presented as anything other than a solid friend who tries to tell people that he's not the one they should be thanking, and who rejects all the girls who fall in love with him because they've said mean things about Takeo.

If anything, he's the one who seems to care the most about keeping Takeo from being hurt, and when he takes center stage in the extremely dramatic climax of the second volume, it comes after he's earned an awful lot of sympathy.

 

 

Again, three extremely good people in a situation where their biggest problems are picking out appropriate swimsuits may not seem like an exciting and engaging story, but it has a charm to it that a few panels don't really convey, something that makes it a book that does a pretty astonishing balancing act between the slapstick comedy of just wanting these over-earnest kids to just calm down and go on a date already and a romance that's genuinely adorable and heartfelt, that moves effortlessly into drama when it needs to without ever losing that sense of fun and humor.

The first three volumes of My Love Story!!, which sadly do not add an exclamation point for every new volume, are available digitally from Viz, and they're well worth checking out if you'd like to spend Valentine's day with something sweet, charming, and downright adorable that still has a dude getting wrecked through the power of judo. And really, who doesn't want that?