Though they may be a bargain in comparison to most American comic purchases these days, manga graphic novels can still take a chunk of change if you're following any series to the end. Take a limited mini-series like Battle Royale: 15 volumes long – by no means an unreasonable length considering the amount of story in the series – and, at $9.95 a volume, you've spent $150 just to get the full work. A not inconsiderable entertainment expense.
Which is this writer's way of explaining why he hasn't been doing as much new manga exploration in the past half-year as he’d like. Just keeping up with the series I'm already following has required some thoughtful budgeting. I haven't stopped my exploring entirely, but I have been much less profligate. I did latch onto one of Viz/Shonen Jump's Advanced manga series, Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata's Death Note, and have read the first three translated volumes.
Rated "T+," for the "Older Teen" reader, the series is a dark fantasy about a teen-ager named Light Yagami who is the recipient of a notebook that’s been dropped outside his school by a grinning, fanged creature called a Shinigami death god. The death god, Ryuk, has deliberately deposited the notebook on Earth just to see what'll happen: he's bored with his usual routine, so he tags along with Light, visible only to those humans who've also handled the notebook. ("Humans are a riot!" the demon thinks.)
With Light, he's definitely lucked(?) onto someone who will make things happen. Smart, athletic and more than a little smugly judgmental, the high school brain sees his possession of the Death Note as his opportunity to remake the world into a better place.
Ryuk's notebook, we quickly learn, has profound properties: writing the name of anyone whose face you can visualize, you can change both the time and manner of their death. After testing it on a killer holding hostages in a nursery school (talk about stacking the deck!), Light decides to use the book on a full sweep of criminals who have gotten away with serious crimes. "I'll make this a world inhabited only by people I decide are good!" he asserts, but it isn't long before our would-be world savior steps outside this noble declaration.
As the number of known criminals perishing under suspicious circumstances grows, our hero attracts the attention of Interpol and a mysterious criminal investigator named "L." Soon Light, calling himself "Kira," is using the Death Note against his police pursuers as well as those criminals he deems worthy of his judgment. Before the first volume is over, our protagonist is in a battle of wits with the equally formidable L.
As our story center, Kira/Light isn't a particularly likeable figure, nor is he meant to be. From the very start, his arrogant pronouncements about using the notebook to build a better world aren't quite convincing (at least as translated), while it doesn't take long for him to become as monstrous as the criminals he's destroying. In the first volume, he thinks nothing of using the Death Note on a person he thinks is L, while in the second, he systematically mows down a group of American F.B.I. agents investigating the Kira killings.
This sweeping mercilessness is enough to scare off most of the Japanese police, though not the detective heading the small task force, Soichiro Yagami, who also (but, of course!) turns out to be Light's father. By volume three, however, Kira/Light is already considering the possibility that he may have to do away with Dad and the rest of his family.
Grim stuff, in other words, though scripter Ohba somehow manages to slip elements of alternately mordant and lighthearted comedy (much of the latter coming from the grinningly amoral Ryuk) in his criminal mastermind horror tale. L — or at least the one agent of "L" that we're shown — turns out to be close to Light in age, and though the two match each other in looks, smarts and athletic ability, the detective proves slouchily inelegant stacked next to his rival. (The book has mild comic fun with the contrast.) Quickly deducing that Kira is someone who has connections to the Japanese police, L cozies up to his most likely suspect, asking for his help in catching Kira even as he openly admits that he's looking to Light as a prime suspect.
Much of the story interest in the second and third volumes, then, comes from Light's elaborate ploys to carry on his Kira work even as he's being closely watched. In one sequence, he manages to use the notebook in a hidden camera-laden bedroom under the eyes of both L and his observing father.
Though Death Note is proudly pulpy in its storytelling, its violence is not as over-the-top as, for example, Battle Royale. Many of Kira's killings occur off-panel, while as much of the focus is on the logistics and ethical ramifications of using the Death Note as it is on suspenseful sequences like the one where Light's father attempts to get into a television studio being held hostage.
Artist Obata (known for his work on the popular sports fantasy manga, Hikaru No Go) has a clean, well-lit (apart from the brief scenes in the death gods' domain) style that suits the material — it has the flat evocativeness of a fifties B-flick or a Fritz Lang Dr. Mabuse movie — though occasionally his treatment of the bulging-eyed, gangly L grows repetitive. If the story has the potential to grow too repetitive by focusing on the cat-and-mouse (Which is which? Good question.) 'tween Light and L, that's not the case with the first three volumes.
Another new manga series for me to follow? Yup. Ah, well, at least Shonen Jump’s paperbacks are a good two bucks cheaper than yer average $9.95er . . .