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Finished Death Note: Reporting Back.

Summary for the un-caught up. A handful of commentators recommended the Manga series Death Note. Since this was before we had a Manga reviewer-type (Hey Kethylia) who knows what she’s doing, I figured I’d read this and report back, even though Manga ain’t usually my beat.

And I liked it a heck of a lot. It was a

Nah, scratch that last article. THE best example of effective plotting I’ve ever read in comics. The story kept moving, reinventing itself, knocking the feet out from under the characters and laughing, laughing, laughing….

And, yeah, I freaked out like a crazy person at the slightest HINT of spoilers, because I really wanted to see what was next for myself. But now I’ve polished off the rest of the series and….

Yeah, the commentators were right.

Again.

This series got worse in a hurry.

Volumes 7 through 11

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See, here’s the problem: The first six issues were about the two main characters coming together. They start out not knowing each other, than only knowing each others names, then the plot rushes forward like a freight train and BAM! they meet and they become friends sorta and it all, predictably, ends in handcuffs.

And then came volume seven.

This status quo that had been building and building? Gone. Buh-bye. But that’s the sort of thing you expect from Death Note.

Which means that the remaining issues are spent building a new status quo, which could have been fine. Except that the new status quo is really kinda close to the old status quo, but the closeness between the characters that anchored the plot since the beginning was gone, and the charactersare further apart, physically, mentally, spiritually. It feels like a regression. Let’s call this BIG PROBLEM A.

We’ve also got BIG PROBLEM B, which results from BIG PROBLEM A. When you have main characters not really interacting because click for spoilers.

Keep in mind that Death Note is reallly plot dense. Which means that we need a lot of explanation to keep track fo what’s going on.

Which means the finished result is a plentitude* of pages of people sitting and talking. We’ll call this BIG PROBLEM B. Talking heads work well in comics very, very rarely.

Talking heads in film have the advantage of the actor’s body language, rhythm, and inflection. It your screen star is good enough, they can sit there and make it cool. Hell, the right actor can SLEEP cool.

Talking Heads in prose can play around with the language offering more rhythmic options, and it’s relatively easy for the prose writer to create narrative asides and scene changes without losing track of the main story. So even if they’re not James Joyce the prose writer can keep the reader interested by shifting the scene around.

In comics you got pictures of people talking.

Which gets old after forty-odd pages.

I’m looking at you, beginning of volume 11.

For comics to remain exciting, characters have to be DOING stuff. All. The. Time.
And there was an awful lot of stuff not being done between volumes eight and eleven. The plot doesn’t completely fall down but you can feel it teetering under it’s own weight. Creeeeeaaaaaaaaaaak.

Which ain’t to say that these books are ALL bad. Even “significantly worse,” in this context, is still pretty good. Stuff I liked:
deathnote_j41_small.gif

Themes: While it’s always been fairly clear what the major themes of the series are, Volume 8 moves them from subtext to text as the characters reveal their individual positions on “what’s good” and “what’s evil” for the first time, and it’s interesting stuff. Light argues that his ends justify the means, and that history will judge him favorably. The Click for Spoilers, sensibly don’t give a crap about history. There’s legal and illegal, right and wrong. It made the world more alive, more real to see that these super genius characters are as aware of the big picture thematic stuff at work in their conflict as us doofus readers.

Misa… Misa Misa Misa. I really did not like Misa. And I posted about it at length last time.** The commentators were split about fifty/fifty with me against Misa and against me with Misa.

But to tell you the truth, I’m starting to warm up to her a little bit.

Let’s look at the one scene in the whole damn 12 volume thang I believe I can spoil without ruining major plot-points relating to the rise of Light. That’s because this is Misa’s scene, start ‘ta finish. Misa and Kiyomi Takada – the sorta spokesman for Light’s sorta organization are having dinner. They’re also both head over heels in love/lust with Light, there’s some snappy back and forth and the scene ends with Misa, bottle of wine in hand, leaning back and smiling contentedly.

“Misa wins.”

Ohhhhh.

OK.

I get it now. While the nature-of-morality stuff is the main attraction, the second big theme is that each character – and please, forgive me for this – reflects Light back at himself. Light and “L” are obviously two sides of the same coin, but Light sees himself through his father’s morality, his sister’s innocence, Teru’s absolute devotion to the cause….

An’ so on.

And although I didn’t completely grok this the first time, Misa’s a reflection too.

“Misa wins.”

Her existence isn’t defined by loving Light, exactly. it’s playing a role, and more than that playing a game. So her life parallells the Light vs. “L” war, except she sees it as Misa vs. the World (or at least the vaginated parts of the world) to hold on to Light, who doesn’t really love her. Which, sure, makes her a narrow-minded, immoral bitch. But in Death Notes world of ever-so-slippery morality that’s almost like validation.

So I see what Tsugumi Ohba (if that is “her” real name) is doing here. I still say the story could’ve benefited greatly from less of her.. But them’s the breaks.

Volume 12

Was a really solid ending, much better than the last four volumes. But it also got weirdly American.

Well, more similar to American comics artwise. Lemme explain: Like I said in the last go-round, the art from Takeshi Obata was designed to (A) serve the narrative and (B) not to call attention to itself.

Or it WAS.

Until volume 12.

All of a sudden we’ve got repeated half-page shots of Light wrapped in shadows all hair standing-on-end and cackling evil. All of a sudden ‘an for the first time the art is screaming “Pay Attention To MEEEEEEEEEE!” There’s nearly full-page shots, panels that aren’t aligned at ninety degree angles on the page… All of a sudden we’ve taken a turn towards Neal Adams.

And it works, mostly. I had problems with the ending, where Click For Spoilers. And, yeah, their were a lot of talking head panels. But those are quibbles in the face of the masterful use of mood and (once again) continually escalating tension as we watch Light…

Nah. That would be telling.

Predictions

Last Death Note time time I made some predictions. Let’s see how I did before I wrap up.

I give myself full marks on (A) and (B). 2 out of ten for (C) and (D), for being technically correct in the meat of both but not really capturing the spirit of what actually happened. (E) I’m giving myself a charitable 4 out of 10 for asking the right question that related back to a major plot development. And, yeah, a big fat goose egg for letter (F).

So 28 out of a possible 60. Pretty freakin’ terrible, really. But Death Note is not an easy series to figure out – and I mean that in the best possible way.
Alla this leaves me wondering what I’m going to do between now and when volume 13 comes out, though.

I’d like to read more Manga. I was going to read Tezuka’s Buddha, but now I’m committed to reviewing a series that stupid Matt Brady didn’t do first. Any recommendations?

* Ha! Had to go to the Thesaurus for that one, but it’s a real word and You Don’t Know It. Eat it, Windows SpellCheck.
As an upside, Spellcheck doesn’t recognize “Spellcheck.” So I count this as a victory.

** P.S. Wasn’t that feminist criticism? I THINK that was feminist criticism! And if so, who do I have to blow to get linked to by When Fangirls Attack? :)

24 Comments

Glad to read your thoughts on the finale. The cast members you mentioned in the second spoiler link were pretty much what killed the series for me; I just couldn’t bring myself to care about them. I can honestly say I found even Misa more interesting to read about than I found them.

Anyway, as far as manga goes, my personal favorite has always been and will always be Kentaro Miura’s Berserk, but it requires a pretty significant investment of both time and money (They’re up to volume 31 in Japan with no signs of stopping,) as well as a pretty high tolerance for carnage. Volumes 12 and 13 of Berserk contain perhaps one of the most amazing radical shifts I’ve ever seen, turning the plot from a medieval warfare/political intrigue series into something that has to be seen to be believed.

If you’re looking for something shorter, Uzumaki by Junji Ito is a visually stunning and genuinely unsettling horror comic with influences ranging from Lovecraft and Clive Barker in addition to the best J-Horror tropes, and it’s only 3 volumes for the complete storyline. And then there’s always Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&! which is probably one of the most charming comics I’ve ever read.

I have been following “Monster”. It is relatively short and has pleased me so far.

As for Death Note, it seems that the story lends itself for quite a few more readings than I thought it did. At its core it is a fairly simple tale as far as right and wrong are concerned. It is hard to side with Light until the end of volume one and plainly illogical to do so at the close of volume two – and he never really comes any close to redeeming himself IMNSHO. Likewise, Misa’s whole point, as I told previously, is clearly to be annoying. She is a not particularly subtle warning about the dangers of blind following. She is not _meant_ to be taken seriously.

I do not particularly mind the break at volume 7, because in my mind it is not more significant than, say, the change of dynamics that we have in volume 3. Besides, the story flow is relatively smooth from the tail end of 7 until the big climax in 12, although I certainly could use a little less Mello.

An important plot trend that often goes unmentioned is the growth of many secondary characters, most of all Matsuda. Between issues 6 and 12 he becomes almost a different character, yet it all happens quite organically. Much as I like the setup of the first few issues, odds are that it would become monotonous if The Big Change in Volume Seven did not happen. And the new setup was in most respects perfect, showing how the outcome was in subtle yet powerful ways basically unavoidable. At the end of the day Death Note is very much a clear and wholesome play about morality and the dangers of hubris.

A “Monster” mention. Yes. Death Note ends up on a bad….note, but Naoki Urasawa is still very good.

I think Death Note does get worse in the second half, but I don’t think it ever actually ends on a bad note. It’s just that the first half is so outrageously genius, that when the second half is only really, really brilliant is still feels like a drastic drop in quality and creates an illusion of the latter comics being worse than they actually are. But I still find the latter half of the series to be more ingenious than any American comic post Lee/Ditko Spider-Man.

It also showed the weaknesses of a lot of modern writers like Millar and Morrison, who I used to think of as genius, but now realize have a long way to go since reading stuff like Death Note. Like, we are always told that Batman and Luthor and Braniac 5 are geniuses, but do we really see them do much that is genuinely genius? A great example is the scene in Rock of Ages where Batman takes off his cowl in the Batcave and says that if Luthor is going to engage in hostile takeover, he is going to fight Luthor not as Batman but as Bruce Wayne, and use his corporate raider skill set to outwit Luthor. It’s a great “oh shit!” last page and is cool, but what does it amount to? Batman just sending Plastic Man as a spy. Clever, but not really a move of high-level Machiavellan intellect. Looking back, it’s kind of lazy. But after reading Death Note, I’d really love to see the writer of that book do what American writers always skim over….show so-called geniuses really interacting and battling at a high Machiavellian level. Picture Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthoer or Batman and the Joker really, REALLY fighting a battle of the wits on the level that Light and L are shown battling? I’d love for DC or Marvel to get on the ball and hire the Death Note writer to do some work with some American superhero “genius” characters.

Hey, thanks for the shout-out, MA! I think I agree with you here about Death Note (although I should mention that my statement that there were only two possible outcomes to volume 12 only really applied because it was the final volume; if the series had kept going, I would have been confident that Ohba would have come up with some sort of crazy twist), even about the Misa stuff. It’s a hell of a series, isn’t it?

As for other manga to check out, I would also recommend Monster or Nana or Drifting Classroom (but I’ve read and covered them already; I’ve only read the first two volumes of Monster though, so you could pass me up pretty quickly) or probably tons of others. There’s a hell of a lot of good manga out there; I really need to check out Yotsuba one of these days…

Just scrolling through the entire article and all comments in order to avoid spoilers and to thank Mark and all the people who recommended Death Note. I’m enjoying it immensely as well.

Ah, bummer. I just read a little more of this article and saw that the series takes a downturn in a hurry. That just sucks :( Oh well. At least I’m getting it out of the library.

Da Fug, trust me, Death Note, even at its worst, is still incredible and well worth buying.

Whoah. Deleting comments is fun. There’s a flash of red, and then they fade into the ether.

I’d like to read more Manga. I was going to read Tezuka’s Buddha, but now I’m committed to reviewing a series that stupid Matt Brady didn’t do first. Any recommendations?

I’m far from an expert since I don’t read a whole lot of manga but I’d definitely recommend Blade Of The Immortal. The OldBoy manga was pretty good too and any serious comics reader should own Akira in my opinion. Domu (also by Katsuhiro Otomo) won’t disappoint either but I’m not sure if it’s still available.

[...] [Review] Mark Andrew on volumes seven through eleven of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Death Note. [...]

Yotsuba, Yotsuba, a thousand times Yotsuba. Stuff like Death Note and Fullmetal Alchemist may keep me buying each new volume, but Yotsuba makes me glad comics even exist. And hey, it’ll be a nice change after 12 volumes of magical serial killers.

By the way, this is totally off topic, but T mentioned that Bruce Wayne’s corporate fighting against Lex Luthor was limited to sending Plastic Man in in disguise. But didn’t he also “buy out” Mirror Master? That’s the sort of corporate warfare he was able to do. Anyway, it would certainly be cool to see something along the lines of Death Note in that sort of book, but it wouldn’t have fit in Morrison’s big, crazy action style of writing for JLA. In my opinion.

Yeah, Da Fug, T’s spot on.

It never does get BAD. And even if it did it would still be worth reading for the ending.

Luis – I’m not sure that Death Note does work as a morality play – I think that Kira always has a moral position that, if not completely supported by the text, is at least arguable and/or defensible.

I put a hold on the first volume of Yotsuba at the library. I might be a little tough on it, though – Sounds like it’s hanging out in Lynda Barry territory, conceptually. And she’s my absolute favorite cartoonist ever. So it’ll be tough to compete.

Luis – I’m not sure that Death Note does work as a morality play – I think that Kira always has a moral position that, if not completely supported by the text, is at least arguable and/or defensible.

This is a very tough call. If a morality play is supposed to come down clearly on one side of the aisle or another, than I would agree that this does not work as a morality play. If provoking thought and stimulating debate on what constitutes morality counts as a morality play, then I’d say it succeeded. I’m not exactly sure what the proper definition of a morality play is, though. (I had a similar debate about Bret Easton Ellis’s books just last week)

I *THINK* it’s fiction – well, theatre specifically designed to instruct the audience in proper morality.

But I’m not a hundred. I always think of, like, Spenser’s the Faerie Queene, that kind of pure allegory where the heroes represent noble virtues (Calidore – The Knight of Courtesy) and the villains are named Faithlessness and Falsehood.

Best college class I ever had was on the Faerie Queene.

But Death Note always has some shades of grey than pure moral allegory, even if the text has pretty clearly chosen a side.

Going by that definition, I’d have to agree with you.

Luis – I’m not sure that Death Note does work as a morality play – I think that Kira always has a moral position that, if not completely supported by the text, is at least arguable and/or defensible.

I beg your pardon?

I mean, REALLY? Do you think so?

I mean, come on, folks, the tale is such a straightforward morality tale. A bit of shades of gray here and there, true, but not enough to actually deviate too much from the genre.

I was utterly hooked on Death Note up until the hand cuff arc. I just sort of wandered away at that point and after reading spoilers about what happens later it looks like I didn’t really miss much. Shame.

As far as manga is concerned, I’m going to second the recs for Yotsuba&! and Monster. Yotsuba is just a delight to read and Monster features some world-class suspense. I should note that Monster is a fairly long series–18 volumes, about 11 have been released in English.

And for a series that hasn’t already been brought up by the other commentators: Planetes. It’s a character-driven sci-fi series that is in turns both funny and deeply moving. All four volumes are available in English. I read it for the first time recently and it is probably one the best manga series I’ve ever read.

[...] MarkAndrew deconstructs Death Note at Comics Should Be Good, and he thoughtfully hides the spoilers so anyone can read it. [...]

Did you mean plenitude?

I’d agree that the second half of Death Note is vastly different from the first, but I still wouldn’t say it’s generally bad. I think in the first half I was reading for both the characters and plot, but in the second half it was more about the plot, and the characters were only an occasional factor.

I also wasn’t as bothered by the dense dialogue because Death Note is all about strategy and planning, and you need plenty of dialogue to establish both.

I’ll add my voice to those suggesting Monster and Yotsuba. I’m also a huge fan of Battle Angel Alita (the original series). I’d recommend Genshiken too, but I’m not sure if you’ll appreciate it as much since you’re not a big anime/manga fan — Genshiken is essentially “Seinfeld” for otaku.

So, it took me a while to get together the volumes of Deathnote. But, now that I have them, I am enjoying the hell out of them. Did I see correctly that there is a 13th volume? http://www.amazon.com/Death-Note-13-Read-Japanese/dp/B000RKTTTG/ref=sr_1_18?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1207069069&sr=8-18

Or is that more of a guide to the series? Anyone read it?

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