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.
Naruto has dreams of overcoming that hostility, of course, by becoming the next village Hokage (or champion/leader). An indifferent student at the village's Ninja Academy, he struggles to master basic techniques — and when he succeeds in doing so, it’s frequently in comic fashion. When asked to conjure up human form in front of the class, the body he creates is of a voluptuous female pin-up (the "Ninja Centerfold") who so dazzles the male instructor, Iruka, that he gets a nosebleed. (Kishimoto and his assistants don't do anything in half measures here — when Iruka bleeds, it's a spurting geyser – a joke that's used twice in the first volume.)
Ninja mastery, we're told in the second volume (Kishimoto keeps a lot of background info back until book two, counting on his basic set-up to hold us), involves controlling the energies within the trillions of cells that comprised the human body, allowing skilled ninjas to perform amazing physical feats, to create doppelgangers and other illusions — in short, to do anything that the writer decides he wants his ninjas to do in a fight because they're just that amazing. Thus, we get several moments when a stunned adult is surprised by Naruto's abilities, but we readers have to be told just why it's so astounding.
Much of volume one is devoted to our hero's rocky path to graduation from Ninja Academy – his struggle to master the doppelganger technique and attempts at quickly cramming by swiping a scroll filled with ninja secrets – but it's not giving away much to note that Naruto makes it to Junior Ninja status. Teamed with two other Juniors – dreamboat super-student Sasuke and star-struck girl student Sakura – he undergoes the next level of training under the single uncovered eye of Elite Ninja master Kakashi, a teacher so strict that we're told he's never passed a student. Of course, we know that the Juniors won't fail (not with 11 volumes and counting in this series) even if the first volume concludes with Kakashi solemnly telling the trio that they'll "never be Shinobi." By the middle of volume two, our three students and their teacher are already caught in a fight-to-the-death against bad guy ninjas trying to kill a crotchety bridge builder.
Kishimoto plays much of this for slapstick comedy (Naruto getting pulled upside-down in a trap, for instance, flapping his arms in impotent frustration), though he's careful to keep us mindful of each character’s emotional underpinnings: Naruto's need to be prove himself, Sakura's unrequited crush on Sasuke, dead-serious Sasuke's oath to develop his skills so he can challenge and kill an unnamed opponent. The results are more affecting than you might initially expect, as when our hero, caught off guard in the second volume by a poison-wielding opponent, defiantly stabs his hand to get rid of the poison, swearing by the pain in his hand that he will not be outdone by his fellow students. It's a histrionic gesture purely in keeping with his character, and though we know he's inevitably going to fail by his own strict standards, we still can't help rooting for the little loudmouth.
Naruto's art is finely lined and detailed, particularly in those scenes showing off the village or Naruto's living quarters, though many of the fight sequences are your usual whirl of who's-doing-what-where? panels. (Even if we don't always catch what's happening, the results of each move are clearly established.) Kishimoto and his assistants are especially skilled when it comes to character stances, which I suspect has been one of the factors for this "Teen"-rated series' popularity with even younger readers (that and the cartoon series): even if a pre-teen reader doesn't catch all the plot nuances – the s-f gobbledegook surrounding chakras and DNA, for example – the character dynamics are clear-cut.
A panel showing teacher Kakashi dramatically pulling out a copy of Make-Out Paradise magazine (complete with a large "Ta-Daa!" emblazoned in the background) as he challenges his students to try and take him, is as funny as one of those panels where Eisner's "spirit" nonchalantly thrashes an out-of-his-league opponent. You don't need to know much about either character's background to immediately grasp that they're Masters of their Domain. (Yes, the Seinfeld ref is intentional.) Our volatile center Naruto is especially well-rendered: his immature determination and distractibility are both amusingly and consistently captured throughout.
Okay, I succumb; this is unabashedly fun stuff. Unabashedly fun comic book stuff.