In a preemptive strike on the teetering stacks of manga waiting to crush me, I've finally tossed out the first 18 volumes of Bleach. I really enjoyed the light-hearted ghostbusting action of the first, what, 8 books or so, but then Soul Society happened, and basically threw away everything I liked in favor of some half-assed mash-up of Agatha Christie and Dragon Ball. I could have handled the sudden shift to murder mystery if it actually involved the original cast, but this arc suddenly bloated the roster to over six times normal size, all tied up in tons of interpersonal drama we joined in progress. It took entirely too long for something important to happen to a character I cared about, and by the time it did, I realized I no longer cared about them. So off the buy list it went, and at last out of my house it goes.
Like any breakup, getting rid of the mementos brought everything back to mind, and thinking about it, sheer cast size can't be the real problem; Eyeshield 21 has even more recurring characters, literally enough to fill a football stadium, most of whom vanish for several volumes at a time, and I never have problems keeping them straight-- in fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of one I don't even like. I have to put this down to Riichiro Inagaki just having better writing chops. Bleach ventured into more conceptually challenging material than "students play football; win", but ultimately overreached Tite Kubo's ability to tell that story. Eyeshield's massive cast has basically one character trait apiece (Hiruma is an extortionist, Taki is a doof), but each of them is tuned to express that trait with maximum efficiency, right on the edge of annoyance, and the narrative's focus jumps around often enough to prevent them from going over that edge, just in time to remind you why you liked the next character in line. It's really amazing; on paper it sounds like it should be the most cliched, cynical writing-by-the-numbers hack job ever, and it kind of is, but somehow it all just WORKS.
Of course, this probably wouldn't reach that level without Yusuke Murata on art, who is the Clark Kent of manga artists, constantly deploying superhuman skills and making it all look so easy you barely even notice. Every single one of his character designs could be the star of some other series, and the art effortlessly flips between cartoony caricature and heroic action, complementing and illuminating the writing the way every good comic should but too few actually do. Forget football-- Eyeshield 21 is easily the best superhero comic book being published today, and if Stan Lee were paying attention he'd have hooked up with Murata instead of Takei.
So, uh, go read Eyeshield 21. It really just is that good.