Laurianne Uy’s Polterguys is not quite manga—it’s an American graphic novel done in a manga style, a reverse harem story with some nice Japanese-style flourishes but a definitely American sensibility.
The setup is pure manga: A pleasant but nerdy girl gets an apartment in a house that turns out to be haunted—by the ghosts of five cute guys. Four are teenage hotties, while the youngest one, Simon, adds a cuddly note to the group and gives everyone someone to be protective of. The guys don’t remember how they died, and they aren’t sure why they all ended up in the same house, but they don’t get out much, so they are happy to see their new neighbor. So happy that they clean the house, fix her pancakes, and accompany her to classes. This part reminded me a bit of dating-sim manga like “Ugly Duckling’s Love Revolution,” where the guys exist mainly to please the girl. (Well, we can dream, can’t we?) A sinister note enters the story, however, when a bounty hunter shows up to claim his prey, and Bree risks her own life to keep the guys on this side of the Rubicon.
While many Japanese manga, and American imitations, rely on tired tropes (the clumsy girl, the blackmailer) and two-dimensional characters, Uy’s heroine, Bree, feels like a real person. Well, a slightly exaggerated version of a real person—in the first scene, she pays some fellow students to pose as her friends for her high school graduation pictures. This says a couple of things about Bree: She’s not very popular, but it also doesn’t bother her much (the photos were for her parents). We also quickly learn that she wants to be a doctor, and she’s the studious type, which is a big part of the reason why she doesn’t have much of a social life. But she’s not overly awkward or cripplingly insecure, either. Early on in the story, she stops an obnoxious customer who is bullying the barista in her local coffee shop. This leads to a conversation with another customer, which slowly blossoms into the beginnings of a romance. (That’s not really a spoiler, because you can see it coming a mile away.) Bree definitely has some bad moments, as when she goes to a party where she really doesn’t know anyone, but that’s the kind of thing any teenager (or adult who has been a teenager) can identify with.
The guys are the standard pick-and-mix assortment: Frankie, who must be a jock because he wears a letter sweater; Doug, a serious student in a prep-school blazer and dreadlocks; Simon, a little boy in pajamas; and the twins, Ben and Alex—Ben is the nice twin, Alex is pricklier, but he is also the leader of the group. They are an amiable group, the kinds of guys you would like to be friends with in high school (Bree is actually in college, but everyone seems younger). Their personalities are not as well defined as Bree’s, however. Perhaps in future volumes we will see more depth, although it’s clear that their group will also be diminished as we go.
The story is light, but Uy starts it with a dramatic moment: Bree kneeling in the rain, agonizing that she has only four hours to live. This is the darkest moment in the whole book; after this page, Uy flashes back to the beginning of Bree’s encounters with the ghosts and the story becomes a light comedy with a touch of romance. When the Grim Reaper’s agent shows up, he is evil in a vaudeville sort of a way, rather than being truly chilling. There’s a bit of a plot weakness here—he salivates at the idea of bringing in five souls at once, but he settles for just one for reasons that are never explained. (I know, I’m looking for logic in a reverse-harem ghost story—sorry!) Bree makes a deal with the bounty hunter to buy the boys some time, so they can figure out how they died and why they are in the house. Again, this is a bit illogical, as the boys have been there for years, and it’s not obvious why finding out this information would help them now. However, it does all start to fit together by the end of the book, which is just the first volume of a longer series.
Uy uses many of the techniques of manga to tell her story: Varied panels, pauses in the action, expressive sound effects, chibis, sweatdrops and speedlines. She steers clear of excessive exaggeration, though, and the book is very readable for manga and non-manga fans alike. My one quibble with the art is that her line seems tentative and wispy in places; I would like to see her use a firmer line to counter the large amounts of screentone she employs.
Polterguys is self-published, and Uy writes about the process of creating and publishing the book at her blog, Laurbits. The print edition was funded by a Xeric grant and partly by a Kickstarter campaign, which also provided some seed money for volume 2. The book is available in Kindle format via Amazon and in print form via Uy’s own storefront. She has also posted it online as a webcomic.