Regular readers may remember that sometime last year I embraced full nerd-dom (who was I kidding, anyway?!) and started to get into graphic novels. Until recently, I’d stuck with familiar territory, mostly focusing on the works of Neil Gaiman, or stories which were already familiar from movies (like Scott Pilgrim and Watchmen), but the recent loan of some books by a friend who’s even nerdier than I am has introduced me to the world of manga.
Death Note is the first manga series I’m reading, and the first thing to say is that it really does take a little while to get the hang of it. Like a lot of translated Japanese comics, the Death Note books are written backwards – you read from right to left through the pages, and from top-right to bottom-left through the panels. For a speed-reader like me, it was really tricky to get my eyes to stop jumping to the top-left corner and making the whole thing very confusing!
Once I got the hang of it, though, I’m really enjoying the story. The art is great – on the slightly more realistic side of the Japanese manga style (very few of those big sparkling eyes and cutesy touches more common in anime, for example) and with very cool gothic-dark touches in keeping with the narrative, which is the kind of creepy-cool, magic realism that I love.
The story starts when Light Yagami, a fifteen-year-old boy genius, finds a notebook on the ground outside his school. Turns out, the notebook was dropped by a Shinigami – a death god – who was bored and looking to cause some chaos in the human world. As the name suggests, when someone’s name is written in the Death Note (as the notebook is called), that someone dies… and the Shinigami’s chaos ensues!
I don’t want to give too much away, so that’s all I’m saying about the plot. It’s a really interesting story though; heavily playing on the themes of vigilantism and justice found in many comic book stories, and exploring good/evil and the grey areas in between in a really fascinating story. Light is the protagonist, definitely – but he’s also definitely something of an anti-hero. His nemesis, L, is the antagonist – but is he the bad guy, or not? I’m only on book two, but I haven’t actually worked it out yet.
If you’ve never read manga before and it all looks a bit too confusing and intimidating (or just not interesting), then let me reassure you. That’s absolutely how I felt until recently, but the Death Note books – once you get the hang of the backwards-reading thing – are accessible, engaging, and really fun stories.