Posted by: Brian Hibbs on March 3, 2008
I’m not the biggest fan of most Japanese manga; largely this is down to the common tropes that comprise the majority of what’s been brought over — the big round eyes and so on.
But there’s a handful of pieces of manga work that I think are utterly terrific.
My number one favorite series is after the jump!
I love me some DEATH NOTE.
Part of it is that it is largely unlike any other manga that I’ve ever read, the other part is is it unlike any Western comics that I have ever read, either.
First of all: there’s very little action of any kind. There’s plenty of suspense, and plenty of twists and turns, but almost none of it is resolved with “action” — you’re not going to find a lot of car chases or shoot outs or fighting or any of the things that most comics tend to revolve around.
Second: there’s a whole lot of interior dialog. I haven’t counted or anything, but there are certainly entire chapters which are exclusively, or almost exclusively, told in thought balloons; and, at a guess, nearly half of the comic is just people thinking stuff.
Because DEATH NOTE is about mind games… it is about trying to out-think your opposite number, like a delicate dance on a chessboard, trying to stay three and five moves ahead. There are rules. Lots and lots and lots of rules, and new ones get added each chapter, but never in a way that invalidates the previous ones. Instead they build and spread and grow with the story.
DEATH NOTE is an incredibly tight, thoughtful and suspenseful piece of comics work, and is very much like a bag of potato chips: once you start, you don’t want to stop, you want to keep eating and eating and eating, seeing what new twist and turn is coming up next.
Western comics have larger eschewed the notion of thought balloons over the last decade or so (here is an excellent essay by Steven Grant from a few weeks ago [Edit: heh, no that one was from 2005, THIS ONE is from a few weeks ago that I was thinking of. Read both!] on the subject) There’s been some small movement to retake the tool, lately, probably most notably Bendis’ somewhat strange usage in MIGHTY AVENGERS, so to see a work not only use them extensively, but to utterly rely on them to move the narrative forward is an utter treat.
Above all else DEATH NOTE is smart and clever, and Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata really do an amazing job of keeping both the characters as well as the audience on it’s toes. What’s nice is that, even though the book is really about murder and death, there’s really very little violence and gore to it. While the books are rated 16+, almost every bit of that is for thoughtcrime (as it were)
There’s bits of it which are better and worse than others: the first three volumes are pure comics wonderfulness, it lags out a bit in 4 and 5 (that’s the section with the evil corporation, right? I didn’t like those parts), and roars back in six, but, even at its worst, the mind games on display are intelligent and utterly clever.
Just because I’ve wanted to say something about it for weeks, and haven’t found a space, let me briefly mention the anime of the same that’s airing on Cartoon Network. Do you remember those old Marvel cartoons from the late 60s which were like straight swipes out of Kirby Komics, but they’d animate one arm, or a mouth talking. The DEATH NOTE anime is very much like that — it’s only slightly animated, but it is always moving because they’ve got the camera moving around the drawing (and it is much better scored) The anime does a reasonably good job of adaptation, but if you’ve only seen the cartoon, and not read the books, the comparison might be LEAGUE OF EXTRA-ORDINARY GENTLEMEN versus, um, LXG (or as the ads called it: ELL! ECHS! GEE!) — they’re just not the same thing at all.
Anyway, even if you “don’t like manga”, this might be a series for you — it is smarter in plot and scope than virtually anything else on the stands.