Phantom Paradise: Not a BL

Nov. 24, 2019, 3:15 p.m.

EDIT: After this review was posted, the comic updated with new information that make this review partially inaccurate. Note the date and proceed with caution!


Main character Hayate and his demon companion, Lucius. Image credit goes to Rurisen and Webtoon.

Note: I'm going to make my reviews as spoiler-free as possible.

When Phantom Paradise was published as a Featured Webtoon in December 2017, the author, known as Rurisen, had conspicuously written "NOT A BL" in the description of the comic, presumably because the first episode contained a misleading kiss between two attractive anime males. The kiss has since been retconned out, and other clues littered around the comic and the creator's social media hint at a pressuring relationship between Webtoon and Rurisen regarding the story and direction of the comic. After reading the comic, this doesn't come as a surprise. The comic starts out as what some people might mistake to be "crack"--crack is a term I used to hear people use to describe comics and stories that aren't intended to be taken seriously due to their absurd and often humorous themes. Phantom Paradise begins as a story about male concubines trying to survive the palace in hell they've found themselves in, and needless to say there's a ton of fan-service (true fact: you can buy a body pillow cover of the main character off of the creator). But the comic is way too dark to be crack; as the story proceeds, drama ensues between characters, backstories get uncovered, and the comic quickly evolves into... a historical fiction?

This technically shouldn't be that surprising considering that from the very beginning the characters are dressed in traditional Asian garb and the comic takes place in a palace that's clearly inspired by ancient Eastern architecture. The creator even takes time to explain ancient Chinese concepts like yin and yang (ep. 64), but those just serve to be footnotes for westerners not acquainted with the Xianxia genre. All the Oriental elements end up coming off as an aesthetic. After all, it's a pretty common theme for adoptables on Deviantart to wear ancient Asian-inspired clothing, and I don't see people calling out adoptables for alluding to controversial history. And there's no reason to, since one's attention is usually drawn to flashier elements such as cat ears or underboobs (which some of the characters of Phantom Paradise have).

So it's a bit jarring when the main character Hayate and his friends engage in fantasy antics for 37 chapters and then it's revealed that Phantom Paradise takes place in... our world. People from our world die, and if they're deemed sinners, they end up in Phantom Paradise. We learn that Hayate was a kamikaze soldier, carrying the inevitable implication that World War II is part of the comic canon. This paves the way for multiple arcs of historical and political drama which manage to cover events from several different time periods, from the fall of the Qing Empire to the end of World War II and possibly even the famines of the Great Leap Forward, if I've interpreted episode 63 correctly.

That's not to say the comic is all "true." The comic hints at the existence of multiple timelines of history, which resolves the fact that the characters in Phantom Paradise (perhaps thankfully) are not based off of real historical figures. However, those timelines are believably written, to say the least. For example, readers have begun to point out that Empress Dowager Yi bears a close resemblance to Empress Dowager Cixi, the real-life Chinese empress dowager who was influential from around the 1860s to her death in 1908. This signifies two things: one, that the author has done their thorough research, and two, the comic is believable enough that it motivates readers (including me) to search up real world history and compare it to the comic canon.

I love that the comic doesn't advocate for any one viewpoint--things could get really messy if it did. Instead, it contains several layers of deception that make the reader question the motives and ethics of each character. I read that historians still debate the effects of Empress Dowager Cixi's policies on China, and this comic basically reflects that ambiguity of history. If the comic advocates anything, it's really straightforward about it: imperial China was incredibly sexist, Japanese soldiers were excessively cruel to Chinese prisoners, and western influence on China in many ways did more harm than good. These are all things that (hopefully) people know, but the comic revisits them in a way that strikes an emotional chord.

Oh, I guess I haven't really talked much about the characters, art, or technique/format etc etc. I'll figure out the tone I want to use with these reviews as I go, but I really do like Hayate, the main character. He's kind of a no-nonsense guy who has a great sense of justice, trying to do what's best for those around him. As for the art, the art style has an ink-on-scroll look which is really neat because it manages to complement the ancient China themes, and the action scenes and splash sequences are impressive in my opinion.

Final thoughts on the comic: this comic has good writing and interesting concepts, but it's not for everyone. I would be lying if I said everyone could enjoy it. It appeals to a very niche audience--you have to have the guts to stomach both edgy anime fan-service and violent, abusive history (if you're only in it for the history lessons, you have to plow through dozens of chapters of anime boys in submissive situations first). I'm not even sure why it's on Webtoon, which has an audience of mostly young teenagers (rest assured the comic is rated mature and has a parental guidance warning). But the more I thought about it, I couldn't imagine it being published anywhere else. It doesn't quite belong on an obscure internet platform like, I don't know, comic forums or maybe Smackjeeves--it's got higher production value than that, but it doesn't belong in mainstream media either. In the end, its attempt to combine anime elements with serious historical subject matter lends to a disadvantage. I should mention it's not the first story to do that, and such a feat has been historically (no pun intended) difficult to pull off (Full Metal Alchemist, Attack on Titan). But honestly, I can't say this comic does the job badly, and it demonstrates that the internet continues to produce talented indie creators and stories that push boundaries. In the future, there may be more stories like Phantom Paradise, and maybe such stories will be acknowledged better. I'm looking forward to seeing what other insane, artistic ideas people have!

Oh, and as Phantom Paradise is ongoing, it still has the potential to take wildly different directions from here on out. I'll be keeping up to date. You can read Phantom Paradise on Webtoon.

About

Hello there! This is a blog dedicated to reviewing and discussing comics (especially online ones). All views are my own and from the perspective of a person who reads a lot of comics by indie creators. I also write my own comic, which can be found on Webtoon. I may slightly rebrand this blog soon. I hope you enjoy reading these posts!

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Phantom Paradise: Not a BL Nov. 24, 2019