Death Note Vol. 1
Viz, September 2005
Tsugumi Ohba, writer
Takeshi Obata, artist
Pookie Rolf, translator/adapter
It’s hard not to cackle with glee at how neatly Death Note fits into the scary-media pantheon, filling a slot previously occupied by Marilyn Manson, Beavis and Butt-Head, Bart Simpson, Grand Theft Auto, N.W.A., Natural Born Killers, Dungeons & Dragons, and so on all the way back to the days of Elvis Presley and EC Comics. The premise–a straight-A student discovers a death god’s notebook, and anyone whose name he writes in it dies–is practically guaranteed to send authorities into a Chicken Little panic. It’s not the world’s most artful effort: like most translated manga, scene transitions are awkward and dialogue comes out in weird little bursts, while the figurework is sturdy but pretty standard and the characters play comfortably to type.
But it shines in a couple of regards besides that initial, killer high concept. I really enjoy the way Obata spots blacks; they’re pitch dark and almost geometric, as though the page is occasionally partially posessed by a slightly greasier Mike Mignola. And they come together in the form of Ryuk, the death god whose comically lanky larger-than-life presence and googly-eyed, permanently grinning, static shock of a face is a continual source of chuckles for me in its ostentatious weirdness. The other highlight is Light, the model high-schooler who within a few hours of finding the death note has become an archcriminal capable of baffling the combined law enforcement agencies of the entire world with his plot to exterminate the global criminal underclass and force everyone else into good behavior via paranoia. I’ve grown reluctant to harp on sociopolitical messages in genre work, but the idea here seems to be that Japan’s insanely intense educational culture produces miniature sociopaths, and that’s just plain funny. Right now the cat-and-mouse games aren’t engaging in any visceral way–by way of contrast, I’m watching the first season of The Wire for the first time, and there’s just no comparison–but the whole thing just tickles me in much the same way that Light’s plans tickle Ryuk, so I’ll make my way through the whole series, I’m sure.