After reading how Wal-Mart chain was now selling cost-cut manga graphic novels in its superstores’ children’s book section, I recently made an effort to check out the pickings during a weekend’s shopping. Found a smattering of volume one Tokyopop and Shonen Jump titles on the racks right next to the Captain Underpants books. Not too surprisingly, considering both the books’ placement and the conservative chain’s preference for selling edited versions of current pop CDs, the age range for the selection was pretty restrictive: all the Tokyopop titles were either labelled “All Ages” or “7+,” while the Viz/Shonen Jump graphic novels fit the same early teen category as their feeder magazine.
All the books were selling for a third less than their bookstore counterparts, though, so it was inevitable I’d sample at least one. After carefully dipping into each of the Tokyopop titles on display (been reading the Shonen Jump series in their magazine format, so I decided to pass on ‘em), I wound up selecting the premiere volume of Hiro Mashima’s Rave Master, which is rated “7+.” Perhaps it was the cover presence of a large wooden sun head giving the reader a thumb’s up that swayed me. Or maybe it was the snowball-headed creature with a carrot for a nose. . .
Reading the inside cover artist blurb, I learn that Mashima’s series has spawned more than eighteen volumes and “a hit anime series.” Which only goes to show how far out of the manga/anime loop I am. First time I caught the title, I thought it was gonna be about a party deejay, though why you need a big honkin’ sword like our cover hero is strappingly carrying to work a turntable is beyond me.
Rave Master opens “50 Years Ago,” with a bloodied teenaged boy telling us “the war” is over. “Maybe now there can finally be peace,” he notes, but before he can take this wishful thought any further, there’s a massive atomic-styled explosion, and the story jumps to presentday Garage Island, where a big-eyed teen with “Mischief” emblazoned across his tee-shirt is lazily fishin’ for dinner. Instead of a fish, however, the boy (whose name, we’re told in a simple identifying box, is “Haru”) pulls in a strange four-legged creature with an oversized round head and a large pointed nose. “What the heck kinda fish is this?” he wonders.
Haru takes his catch to his older sister Cattleya, who is sitting contemplatively before her mother’s grave (efficiently establishing a lot of background info in four sparsely dialogued pages). They bring the mysterious creature back to their home, which has a large satellite dish attached to one side and a mysterious sun head with two forearms imbedded alongside the front door. This unexplained (at least in this first volume) figure is named Nakajima, and he seems to function as both alarm system and chatty companion to the brother & sister.
Turns out this seemingly idyllic island setting is so removed from the world at large that neither Haru nor Cattleya know of the war that is on the horizon. But when our boy takes his catch into town to show his catch to Gemma, the snickery owner of Cafe Tsubomi, an elderly figure appears to bring us up to date. It’s the young boy we saw in the opening pages, now aged into your standard issue geezer with a long beard and a single pointed thatch of hair in the middle of his head. His appearance is promptly followed by the entrance of a menacing type dressed in black (“There are a lot of out-of-towners around today,” Haru observes), who attacks the old man. “You need to respect your elders,” Haru states stoutly. “My sister taught me that!” And he knocks the thug out in righteous retaliation. “I’ve been training every day,” he explains to Shiba once they’ve left the unconscious baddie. “I need to protect my sister.”
Which, of course, establishes (as if there was any doubt) that Haru is gonna be the fightin’ hero of this series. Shiba quickly fills him in on the back story, telling him and us of the war that occurred between “mysterious stones of light and dark”: a demon stone called Dark Bring and “the only thing which can oppose it,” the sacred stone Rave. Fifty years earlier, Shiba used a sword infused with the power of Rave to destroy what he thought was the last Dark Bring. But his efforts resulted in that massive explosion (or “Overdrive”) which destroyed a “tenth of the world” and allowed the last Dark Bring to escape. Now the followers of Dark Bring, an organization known as Demon Card, are planning on bringing further death ‘n’ destruction to the world.
Okay. Standard fantasy hero babble, right? We also learn that in the aftermath of the Hiroshima-type Overdrive that the Rave Stone separated into pieces and flew off in different directions. Only one who knows the whereabouts of the myriad stones is the little creature Haru fished from the ocean: Plue, who is “Rave’s bearer.”
By now we’re fifty pages into the first volume, and I should be losing patience with this second-hand nonsense. Yet Mashima’s clear-cut pen and ink style has a cartoony dynamism and attractiveness that keeps me reading. His dialog is concise and pushes the story along speedily (abetted by James Lucas Jackson’s unobtrusively colloquial English adaptation). Without shying away from the darker elements of his storyline (we learn, for instance, that bro & sis have apparently been abandoned by their father Gale, who disappeared fifteen years ago), the writer/artist also keeps things accessible for a young reader. Yet he doesn’t bother to over-explain his story either (though I know my curiosity has been piqued re: the “mysterious lifeform” Nakajima).
Later in the first volume, the agents of Dark Bring attack Garage Island, nearly killing Gemma in the process and breaking off two of Nakajima’s “feathers.” Our hero’s given a tiny Rave Stone by Shiba which fits into a humongous sword, imbuing it with a set of ten powers that will doubtless be revealed as the story progresses. Haru utilizes the sword’s first power (the ability to explode) to best the villains who’ve attacked the island. But before he can rest on his laurels, the sword shatters in his hands. Only who can fix it, Shiba explains, is the “legendary blacksmith Musica.” The book ends, after several pages of soul-searching on the part of both Haru & Cattleya, with the boy and his snowcone-headed companion rafting off in search of the smithy.
I suspect, if I first came across Rave Master as an anime series, I wouldn’t give its story much time. (Recently came across an episode of Yu-Gi-Oh – a shonen manga series I’ve enjoyed since its English language debut in Shonen Jump – on the Cartoon Network, and I barely lasted five minutes!) But after finishing volume one, I’m caught enough to look for the second at my local Barnes & Noble. On the cover to volume two, I see Haru wearing a loud shirt and headphones, hunched over a turntable with Plue scratching on a record. Now that’s just oddball, I can’t help thinking as I take the book to the checkout counter. But it ensures that I’ll be reading this series for at least two more volumes. . .