You’re So Cool, vols. 1-6
By YoungHee Lee
Rated T, for Teens
Yen Press $10.99
Review by Melinda Beasi
Tomboyish Nan-Woo is the class klutz. Impulsive, accident-prone, and chronically late, she provides a daily dose of schadenfreude for her eager classmates. Seung-Ha is the class prince. Gorgeous, mature, and kind to everyone, he is admired by students and faculty alike. After Nan-Woo pays accidental witness to Seung-Ha’s rejection of a pretty upperclassman, Seung-Ha explains to her that he’s looking for someone who will accept all of him, “even the dark and selfish parts,” at which point Nan-Woo naïvely proclaims, “If I had the chance, I wouldn’t care. I would love you completely and without regret.”
These prove to be fateful words indeed, for though Nan-Woo is granted her dream boyfriend faster than even most fairy godmothers could reasonably manage, she quickly discovers that the boy she so admires is nothing more than an elaborately constructed fantasy. Though his model-student act is impressively well-practiced, out of uniform Seung-Ha is a bona fide thug who belittles Nan-Woo, bullies her into buying his meals, and gleefully sends her off to be tortured by his ruthless fan club.
Now that she’s met the real Seung-Ha, can Nan-Woo possibly live up to her own rash promise?
Yes, yes, your groans are audible from here, and with a premise like that it’s difficult to protest. Even by the end of the second volume, there’s not much grounds for defense. Though Nan-Woo displays more genuine spunk and idiosyncratic charm than her typical Japanese counterpart, it’s hard to invest in even the spunkiest heroine when she’s willing to be pushed around by her sneering, bad-boy love interest for more than a panel or two. Even as Seung-Ha’s growing attachment to Nan-Woo begins to erode his class president persona, it’s unsatisfying as long as Nan-Woo remains in his control.
Fortunately, midway through the series’ third volume, Lee forgets that she’s writing a hopelessly clichéd, emotionally-backwards romance and gets caught up in the real heart of the story: how people (especially families) shape each other, for better or worse.
This begins with an affectionate look at Nan-Woo’s unconventional (but loving) parental figures. Nan-Woo’s mother, Jae-Young, a badass guitarist with a decidely masculine frame, is objectively terrifying and fiercely protective of her daughter. Though Nan-Woo’s father is absent (and apparently unknown), their household is rounded out by Nan-Woo’s uncle, Jay, an unselfconsciously feminine homemaker who acts as the nurturer of the family. Though this familial grouping is clearly presented as a happy one, as individuals they each have their own issues. Jae-Young is habitually inconsiderate and prone to violence, and Jay will do almost anything to avoid being alone. Interestingly, though their weaknesses factor heavily into the person Nan-Woo will one day be, they are perhaps more responsible for her strengths than anything else.
In contrast, the weaknesses and failures of Seung-Ha’s family have contributed mainly to warping his personality. As the illegitimate child of a wealthy businessman, Seung-Ha was abandoned by his self-involved mother as a middle-schooler and taken into his father’s household. There, an environment of cold antipathy taught him to mask his true existence just to survive. Though this could easily be played as a “poor little rich boy” scenario in order to gain sympathy for the misunderstood bad-boy, it is actually in studying Nan-Woo’s family that Seung-Ha is humanized rather than through his own sad circumstances.
Though she herself fights with Nan-Woo on a daily basis, it is the attitude of Nan-Woo’s mom that is key in influencing reader concern. Her ability to see through Seung-Ha’s façade and her outrage over his unprecedented control of her free-spirited daughter implies a harsh authorial judgement unusual for this type of story. Instead of preaching the coolness of her bad-boy love interest, through the eyes of Jae-Young, Lee calls Seung-Ha out on every move from his pathetically manipulative playbook, assuring readers that there is no way this guy is going to make time with Nan-Woo unless he figures out how to shape up. This assurance makes it easier to let go of our deeply ingrained feminist reflexes and view Seung-Ha (and by extension, everyone else) as an individual rather than an archetype. Suddenly, all of Lee’s characters are relatable, even in their worst moments, and it’s hard to write off anyone as just another (insert your cliché here).
It is this move, more than anything, that frees You’re So Cool from its origins in bad-boy romanticism. By viewing her characters through sharp, honest eyes, Lee gives them the context they need to shed their relationship’s worst clichés, or at least diminish their meaning. Though the story continues to follow the basic structure of teen romance, at its core it’s a examination of friendship between two fumbling teenagers who, despite a foundation of false pretense, become important influences in each other’s lives, mainly for the better. That the story’s secondary romance (between Jay and a quiet loner he meets at the grocery store) ends up stealing most of the series’ romantic thunder is likely no mistake, leaving room for Nan-Woo and Seung-Ha’s relationship to take a more ambiguous path.
The series’ transformation does have its share of stumbles. Lee’s ambition occasionally exceeds her skill, especially when she’s trying too hard to dig deep. A sequence in the final volume, for instance, featuring Seung-Ha in a drawn-out mental showdown with his pre-teen self, reads as contrived and convoluted rather than insightful. Through most of the series’ later volumes, however, Lee maintains a solid thread of lighthearted humor that keeps her from sinking too far into depths she’s not quite ready to tackle.
The series’ character designs are typical of Yen Press’ girls’ manhwa line, with its characters’ thickly-lined eyes, full lips, and delicate, pointed chins. And though even Lee’s most beautiful characters can’t quite achieve the delectable pout mastered by Goong‘s Park SoHee, Lee more than makes up for it with her heroine’s pug-nosed, tomboy glower, which is just as expressive and miles more fun. Her visual storytelling is energetic and easy to follow, and her use of dramatic imagery for humorous effect is key in establishing the series’ breezy, lighthearted tone.
Though it would be difficult to recommend the series’ early volumes on their own, for those willing to commit to the not-so-long haul, You’re So Cool offers a lot to enjoy.
This review is based on review copies supplied by the publisher.
Read more from Melinda Beasi at her blog, Manga Bookshelf