It took me a while to key into Masashi Kishimoto's Naruto (Viz Media). The first time I read the opening chapter of his saga in the second issue of the monthly Shonen Jump magazine, I was not particularly impressed. Ninja action? A misfit young boy hero who yearns to be the best at what he does? Could there be more generic shonen manga material? I quickly started skipping Naruto's adventures in the mangazine, concentrating on "One Piece" and "Yu Yu Hakisho" instead.
Yet Uzumaki Naruto, the loudmouthed spud, refused to be ignored. Undeterred by my indifference, the character developed his own avid American fan base, bolstered by the appearance of a popular animé adaptation on The Cartoon Network. Paperback collections of his adventures started topping the Publisher's Weekly sales charts - whomping the tar out of high-profile American event comics collections.
Clearly, I needed to give the little fox a second look. Fortunately, Naruto's collected tales are in the low-priced manga collection range ($7.95 for an 192-page paperback) – and prominently displayed on the manga shelves of yer big chain bookstores to boot, so it was a snap picking up the first two volumes. Reading his adventures in graphic novel format, it didn't take me long to discover the character's appeal.
The series opens in an undefined period within a well-to-do village called Konohagakune. There, we meet our hero as he's vandalizing the Rushmore-like mountain faces of the village's four champions. "You don't have what it takes to do something this low!" he taunts the outraged villagers, and it's quickly established that orphaned Naruto is the local scapegoat (colloquialisms courtesy of onetime Marvel writer Mary Jo Duffy), the kind of kid who primarily seeks attention by either making mischief or by loudly bragging about himself.
Turns out the lad has good reason for his shaky self-esteem: his body houses the spirit of a nine-tailed fox demon that once nearly destroyed the village. (To emphasize this fact, the character's face has lines on his cheeks meant to suggest fox whiskers.) Instead of being grateful to the child for unknowingly keeping the demon trapped, the townsfolk have scorned our hero so thoroughly that he's grown accustomed to seeing that "same ugly look" from everyone.