written by Kaoru Mori
Kaoru Mori is best known in the United States for her manga Emma, a romance between a wealthy man and a maid in Victorian England. Shirley is a collection of her earlier work, and while it lacks the complexity of Emma, it has a simple charm of its own.
The first five stories revolve around a 13-year-old girl who comes to work as a maid to Bennett Cranley, a career woman who owns a café. The first three are so simple that they are almost haiku: Shirley gets the job; Bennett buys Shirley a doll; Shirley wishes she had blonde hair like Bennett, but Bennett wishes she had dark hair like Shirley. The other two hint at more complexity, as Bennett has what might be a romantic encounter and endures withering criticism from an aunt who wants her to settle down with a man. These episodes are tantalizing because we see them mostly through Shirley’s eyes. We never find out who the mysterious man is, or why Bennett sits up all night by the fire after meeting him.
The other two stories in this slim volume keep the same subject matter but bring in a new cast. In “Me and Nellie One Afternoon,” a maid plays surrogate mother to a lonely boy and helps him take care of a lost bird. Mori invests this simple story with surprising emotional depth, and the ending is unexpected but poignant. The final story, “Mary Banks,” is the most imaginative: An old man tortures his maid and house steward with practical jokes, including a complicated one that is set in motion only when he dies. That story alone is worth the price of the book.
In Emma, Mori crowds the pages with detail and often breaks up a single act into a series of tiny panels. Here, the panels are larger and her art is simpler, cleaner, and more restrained. She brings in period detail where it counts—a lamp, a corset, a teacup—but the backgrounds are vague and figures often float in white space. She also uses the conventions of sequential art to their fullest, spreading a movement across the page in a series of vertical panels or lingering on a small detail to set a scene.
Mori is definitely of the “show, don’t tell” school of storytelling. Many of her panels are wordless, and she shows the characters’ emotions through small gestures or simply a moment of stillness. Interior monologue is replaced by a sigh or a glance in a mirror. The last two stories have more dialogue, but the mood is similar: The story is told not in the conversations between the main characters but in the casual talk that goes on behind the scenes, as the maids, gardeners, and stewards go about their work.
At the end of the book, Mori adds a loosely drawn comic in which she discusses how she got the idea for some of her stories and who the characters are based on. Usually, manga creators fill these extra comics with trivia, but Mori is actually quite interesting, although she apologizes more than is necessary.-- Brigid Alverson