Death Note is a hit manga series – and when I say hit, I mean that the various books have sold millions of copies between then – written by Tsugumi Ohba and with art by Takeshi Obata. The series was originally serialised in the pages of Shonen Jump magazine and then collected into twelve volumes, but these Black editions are slightly oversized reprints of the original books, collecting two books per volume, with mostly black covers and even black page edges – perfect for the emo kid in your family!
Our ‘hero’ is Light Yugami, a brilliant but bored student who finds a Death Note – a notebook dropped by a similarly bored Shinigami (death god) called Ryuk. This notebook has the power to kill anyone whose name is written in it, and Light quickly sets about trying to rid the world of evil by writing the names of hundreds of criminals in the book, some of them convicted (or wanted) for relatively minor crimes, as well as anyone who threatens his plans (including innocent FBI agents and even their widows). Although he plans to rid the world of evil, Light is actually a cold-hearted, callous little fascist, and rather hard to like. The real hero of the book, then, is the mysterious ‘L’, another young genius who is helping the police with their investigation.
Although I claim to be a bit of a comics expert, I have read very little Manga. I read some of the Lone Wolf & Cub reprints First Comics published in the 1980s, some of the Akira comics Epic Comics published in the 1990s, and more recently I read Osamu Tezuka’s brilliant Buddha books and Ode to Kirihito, but I think that’s pretty much it. However, I have been keen to read more – I just didn’t know where to start – and I bought these on a recommendation. These are the first Manga books I’ve read that haven’t been heavily Westernised and still read from right to left – not only do the pages need to be read from right to left, the panels on each page need to be read from right to left, and even the word balloons within each panel need to be read from right to left – which was a bit of a shock to start with, but I soon got used to it. Being a Manga novice, I thought a lot of the art looked a lot like the art in most of the other Manga I’ve seen, but then I suspect that a Japanese reader picking up a DC super-hero comic for the first time would think all the art looked the same in those (actually, that’s a bad example, as even I think the art in most DC super-hero comics looks the bloody same). There were some characters who stood out, particularly Ryuk, who looks like a Goth version of the Joker (with wings), and L, who has great hair and looks really cool but still manages to look like an antisocial genius, but to my uneducated eyes most of the other human characters were typical Manga figures. Which isn’t to say that the art isn’t good – it is – and the backgrounds in particular are incredibly detailed. Actually, they are so detailed that I found them quite distracting, because I kept wondering how they were done – were they computer generated, had the artist drawn over photographs, or had they just been lifted from an Ikea catalogue? – but I often find myself distracted trying to figure out what inking materials certain artists use, so maybe that’s just me.
This level of attention to detail can also be found in the story. The various characters spend a lot of time explaining their motives and theories, every aspect of the case is meticulously examined, we are shown a detailed diagram of Light’s complex, booby-trapped hiding place for the Death Note, and nearly every chapter (these two books contain 34 chapters between them) ends with yet another list of rules that accompany the Death Note (basically, anyone whose name is written in it dies, but there are a LOT of terms and conditions). I really like the basic idea, but I did find myself wondering how they were going to drag the story out to six volumes long before I finished the first one, particularly as Light became L’s number one suspect quite quickly. Fortunately, there were just enough twists and turns to keep me interested, and things got a lot more interesting about midway through the second volume, with the introduction of a second Death Note. That part of the story seemed to be more or less over by the end of the end of the second volume – which was disappointing, as the holder of the second Death Note (a scatty young girl) was much more entertaining than Light – but I was still keen to know what happens next, so I ordered the next two volumes as soon as I finished reading these, and I will definitely be checking out more Manga in future.
Cost: These 400 page (approx.) volumes have a cover price of £9.99 each, which seems quite reasonable to me. I bought my copies from Amazon, for nearer £7.00 each, but they are on sale more or less everywhere, even in ordinary bookshops and WHSmith – yeah, I know the Ultimate Spider-Man books and various Batman books are on sale in ordinary bookshops and WHSmith, too, but nobody actually buys them in there, do they? These things actually sell! – and are often available as part of some kind of offer (3 for 2, buy one get one half price, etc.).