On the surface, romance can seem like a very simple and straightforward literary genre. Characters meet, spend time together, and eventually (or quickly) fall in love. Romance novels are both the source of great affection and great ridicule for readers, and the romantic comedy has become a movie powerhouse of its own right. However, many of these stories are often criticized for following similar patterns, and can be maligned for focusing on unrealistic character pairings or even pairing the main character with someone who feels bland or boring. However, when a good romance story comes along, it feels like a breath of fresh air. Stories that push the characters’ emotional growth to the forefront and really allow them to examine why they are attracted to another person, and why it is alright to be a littler selfish. Good romance does not involved complete and total dedication, but putting your own happiness first, and finding someone to share in that happiness.
Mira Ong Chau is an artist I have read and reviewed many times on this site, and their stories never fail to pull me in. From ROADQUEEN: Eternal Roadtrip to Love, to Goodbye, Battle Princes Peony, to Vampire Blood Drive, to their previous comic The Cosmic Ballad of Layla and Airy, Chua has proven to be a master of all facets of romance storytelling. Their art is endlessly expressive and creative, using simpler lines and designers to truly emphasize the emotion or beauty on the page. They have also succeeded as an independent artist, selling their comics primarily through their own online shop, in an industry where finding a paying audience outside of a large publisher is both difficult and easier than ever. Their stories have always focused on romance, albeit through different lenses. ROADQUEEN: Eternal Road Trip to Love centered the main character learning to be more emotionally mature, while Goodbye, Battle Princess Peony was about overcoming prejudices to truly see other people. Meanwhile, The Cosmic Ballad of Layla and Airy played around with comedy to great effect. This time, it feels like Chua has approached the subject with a slightly more mature and bittersweet take, crafting a truly beautiful story.
I Want to be Your Doll is Chua’s latest long-form comic after the shorter bop that was The Cosmic Ballad of Layla and Airy. In their own words, it is a story about first love and a story about characters who struggle while trying to do right by one another. After the comedy of their previous comic, I Want to be Your Doll feels much more bittersweet. The main characters this time around are Éclair, a life-size realistic looking enchanted doll, and Kirsche, the student who find Éclair in a box outside their apartment. From the first page, the two are full of life, as Éclair tries their best to follow the voice that resonates in their heart: “A doll’s purpose is to bring happiness to humans until they are cast aside. Therefore, you must never fall in love. All it will bring you is tragedy.” From the jump, we already know what the main conflict of the story is going to be, and cannot help but read with a sense of growing anxiety as Éclair and Kirsche come to understand one another. Chua also introduces a mystery in the form of Éclair’s origin, but never forgets the true centerpiece of the story: Éclair and Kirsche falling in love and struggling to navigate these new emotions.
Like many of Chua’s other stories, there are very few named characters in I Want to be Your Doll. They understand that in order to build a relatable and believable romance, the two characters must spend a great deal of time together. We have to see them interacting, getting to know each other, finding out what they like about the other and what annoys them. To that end, aside from Éclair and Kirsche, there is only one member of the supporting cast: Opera. This is also the first time that Chua is really branching from lesbian relationships, although fans should rest assured that it is still very much queer. Kirsche is a young man around late high school or early college, who seems to spend a great deal of time alone. At one point, he mentions that his family lives on the other side of the world, and we rarely see him interact with anyone other than Éclair over the course of the story. He is a lonely and sensitive boy, trying to find a place he feels like he can belong. While initially skeptical and embarrassed by Éclair’s presence, he learns to open up to them as the story progresses.
So far, I’ve used they/them pronouns for Éclair as, while they present very feminine in both body presentation and clothing, it is more accurate to say that the enchanted doll is genderless. Or maybe “enchanted doll” is their gender. There are even a few moments where Éclair corrects people who try to call them a girl. Éclair is also nigh-indistinguishable from a human, aside from the anachronistic looking cloths and a magical glass heart embedded in their chest. While we see at first that Éclair is dedicated to Kirsche and believes it is their job to make him happy above all else, Chua very quickly shows that there is more to Éclair than that. It is not that Éclair does not possess emotions or wishes of their own. Rather, as an enchanted doll, Éclair dos not believe that their personal happiness is worth pursuing at all. Like Kirsche, Éclair also wishes to find a place where they truly belong and part of the story follows Éclair’s efforts to track down their origin, hoping to return. Éclair is a joy to read and see on the page as they slowly learn to embrace their own happiness and accept Kirsche as someone who cares about them, not just their owner.
I Want to be Your Doll is both a romance and a mystery, although the mystery is really there in service to the romance as a way for the characters to grow and further understand each other. With Éclair being an enchanted doll, there are also some light supernatural elements that Chua plays around with, but the mechanics of Éclair’s flight or magical glass heart are not important. The story here is tighter because Chua knows exactly what is important. Everything that appears in the story is in service to Éclair and Kirsche’s relationship and emotional growth. Like their other works, I Want to be Your Doll is also gloriously, unabashedly queer. While they are known for primarily focusing on lesbian relationships, their books have been moving towards more encompassing queer identities. In Vampire Blood Drive, for instance, Velvet, the titular vampire, undergoes top surgery between chapters. The Cosmic Ballad of Layla and Airy sees Layla turned into a man after a poorly worded wish. And here, in I Want to be Your Doll, Kirsche identifies as male but leans towards gender nonconforming, while Éclair is most accurately described as agender. While queer relationships in the real world can be subjected to discrimination and face many struggles just to be accepted, Chua understands that is also important to show the world how it should be. The queer relationships in their stories are full of love and joy, and any struggles the characters may face having nothing to do with their genders or sexualities.
Mira Ong Chua’s comics are always great reads with the right balance of fun and drama, and I Want to be Your Doll proves to be another success story from the artist. Centering the struggles of a first love between two people who only want to do the right thing, every page of this comic is beautiful to behold, with a bittersweet tone that only enhances the story and characters. Chua’s branching out into different types of relationships and queer identifies continues to be a joy, with each new story better than the last. If there is a lesson to be learned from the story of Éclair and Kirsche, it is that everyone deserves a place where they belong and people to share their happiness.
I Want to be Your Doll can be found on Mira Ong Chua’s online shop, miraongchua.shop
Total Read Time: 3 days
Next on the List: Daughters of Oduma, by Moses Ose Utomi