Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Power of Cliche, or, Value in Simplicity

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.


  1. I last a chunk farther into Bleach, until some point in the mid-twenties. He followed up Soul Society by getting back to what I liked about the series and introducing several interesting new characters before abruptly abandoning them and all their subplots in favor of taking the most boring characters into Soul Society II...without the hook.
    My particularly favorite disaster was when he introduced a new character as a replacement for a particularly boring villain, let the new character be interesting an awesome for a bit, and then abruptly killed them off in some weird attempt to demonstrate why his boring villain was actually stronger than we thought. It was very sad.

  2. Yeah, I did read Bleach a couple volumes past where I stopped buying it, just to be certain there was no turning back, and things did markedly improve once everyone was back on Earth, but I knew Kubo was just trying to trick me, and it couldn't possibly last in the face of all that shonen fightin' action money. And whaddayaknow, it didn't.

  3. I love Eyeshield 21 for a lot of the reasons you've explained. Inagaki sets up a lot of great characters and plays off their traits beautifully (and consistently) throughout the series. Murata's character designs are distinctive and fun -- when he does those "spot the character" spreads, you can immediately recognize each character, even when they're drawn very tiny. To me, that's the mark of a team that knows and loves their characters and knows how to weave a great story around them.

    of course, some of the cliffhangers are just downright ridiculous (come on, deciding the outcome of a game in the last 5 seconds with both teams scoring?) but it's exciting and fun. i just love this series beyond reason.

  4. I'd disagree. It might be fanboyism (it probably is), but Bleach is still my favorite current Jump series. The direction of the series has changed, but what I love about it is still there. And while I do see the similarities between the current arc(Viz release) and the previous one all too clearly, I can't help but be excited. Kubo is still great at portraying action, and overall, his visual storytelling style really clicks with me. The pace of the story might suffer because of his drawing style, but it's still effective in making a fight scene look cool, even if it isn't particularly important to the plot. I can't imagine ever dropping the series.

    As for Eyeshield 21, it is pretty darn good, and the art is excellent. I'm easily swayed by visuals...I bought the artbook before I ever read the series. However, I never got past volume 10. It wasn't a conscious decision to drop it, I just ended up buying other manga instead of continuing ES21, and before I knew it, eons had gone by since I read volume 10. The biggest barrier was that it was about football. It did a good job of making me understand the game AND maintaining my interest while being about that game, but ultimately, I couldn't get that excited about a football series. It was definitely a fun read (the "superhero"-ness you mentioned was one of its best features), and if I had more of a tolerance for sports, I'm sure I'd enjoy it even more. I'll probably continue one day, though.
    At the end of the day, I guess I'd rather see people swinging swords at each other than playing football.

  5. Two things that helped push me off Bleach: Kekkaishi, which wound up being the book Joe and I wanted Bleach to be, and Muhyo, where the creature designs really made Bleach's look super generic.
    I can think of several dozen artists right off the top of my head who not only draw action better panel to panel, but also know how to pace a fight better so it ends up being much more dramatic. Not to knock Kubo's talents in those directions, which are considerable - I have the Bleach artbook as well - but when all the fights are between people I don't remember or don't like to begin with or have just shown up and aren't making a very good impression it tends to undermine my enthusiasm.
    Bleach is never going to be a BAD book, but it is a relentlessly disappointing one, largely because it clearly has the potential to be something so much better than it is.

  6. Bleach is never going to be a BAD book, but it is a relentlessly disappointing one, largely because it clearly has the potential to be something so much better than it is.

    Yes, exactly this. Whereas Eyeshield is way, way better than it has any right to be.

  7. The fights in Bleach usually have at least one page where a character is presumed to have been damaged or killed, yet is revealed in the next paneling to be standing behind their attacker, mocking them. Becomes stale way too fast.

    Like D.Gray-man, I dig the early volumes of Bleach because concepts take greater importance than any sense of plot, and they don't allow the fights to really bog the narrative down. Yet neither really work once they get to their main plot of the story. (At least I can follow the fights in Bleach, though.)

  8. Christ, D. Gray-man is exactly the same boat; after a rocky opening the time loop storyline was really damn good, and I started reading the book enthusiastically only for it to spiral steadily into absolute incoherence. It IS an actively bad book, if not as unabashedly terrible as Waq Waq.

  9. Well, this is kinda symptomatic of the wider problem with Jump, where eventually almost every series devolves into aping Dragon Ball, because apparently that's what it takes to get super-popular in Jump.

  10. That's a common theory, but since I've actually read Dragonball, I don't really think that's what they're doing. The law about increasingly overpowered bad guys is one sort of inherent to the genre, but it isn't actually the problem with any of these books.
    I do think they're being encouraged to include action for the sake of action and missing the things Dragonball did to balance that, and the most successful Dragonball heirs have done to balance that. While they all contain things that try to evolve the formula, these have effectively just made shit more incoherent.