It's funny how quickly things change. I remember a time when Naruto was the next big thing. Then it was released and Bleach became the next big thing. But guess what? Now Bleach is out, there's a new next big thing - D.Gray-Man.
Set in a fictional 19th Century England (hooray!), the story follows a mysterious young man called Allen Walker. Allen is an exorcist, a man with a strange power that allows him to turn his deformed left hand into a monstrous armoured gauntlet which can destroy and purify demonic living weapons known as 'Akuma'. However, Akuma are not just any demons. When a person loses a loved one and is in the very depths of despair the enigmatic Millennium Earl will appear to them with an offer. The Earl claims to have the power to return the dead to the land of the living, but to do so he needs the voice of someone with a close bond to them to call their soul back into an artificial body of his creation. However, once the soul returns it is trapped within the body and even worse is forced to do the Earl's bidding. The Earl aims to destroy the human race, and the only thing that stands in his way are the exorcists. Akuma often disguise themselves as humans, often killing and taking on the form of the very person who brings them back to life. Allen the power to identify hidden Akuma and the time has now come for him to present himself at the exorcist headquarters, where his life an an exorcist will truly begin. What can he expect from the other exorcists, and with his unusual powers, will he even be accepted?
Yes, it's another manga about a young man with a good heart and awesome untapped powers! It's easy to see why D.Gray-Man has appealed to fans of Naruto and Bleach in the US and Japan, at first glance it seems like a variation on a familiar theme. Allen is the hero of the piece and he is as you would expect your typical Shonen Jump hero to be. He's strong, noble, has something about his appearance that sets him apart and is has a traumatic past that has let him without a parent. Unlike most Shonen Jump heroes though he's also calm and collected and not totally reckless. He's the focal point of the story as you would expect,
and he makes a very good lead. The support characters are also good, although some don't appear for too long, and the Millennium Earl makes an interesting villain. He's strangely comedic yet still creepy and sinister, coming across something like a circus ringmaster crossed with a clown. He looks a bit rubbish to be honest, but because of this he's also more disturbing than most manga villains as he just doesn't look threatening...most of the time.
The oddness of the Earl sets the tone for a large part of the manga. D.Gray-Man frequently jumps between almost disarming silliness and quite dark horror, and it doesn't always work. For example when the Earl gives someone the opportunity to resurrect someone, he produces a special artificial body to house the soul. The body is on a plastic sprue like an oversized model kit, which to be honest is a bit daft. The story jumps between comedy and drama quite suddenly and it doesn't always work very well. The coffee-chugging, work-shy Exorcist chief-of-staff Komui is a case in point, at times he's just too idiotic and it clashes with the scenes when he's serious. He's a bit like Uruhara Kisuke from Bleach, but not done as well. It's a bit infuriating, as often the comedic elements seems a bit crowbarred in when to be honest the series seems to work much better as a action horror. The odd pratfall and comic bit is fine, but some parts take it too far and it detracts from the rest of the story.
There is a lot to like about D.Gray-Man. The art is as crisp and high quality as you have come to expect from Shonen Jump titles and the character designs are distinctive and interesting. As always the monsters look a bit pants, but their abilities and backstory make them creepier than they have any right to be. Unlike many similar stories this one begins with a main villain for the hero to fight against, which gives it more of a sense of direction and structure. The Earl is an unusual villain too, and it'll be interesting to see how his character will develop. D.Gray-Man vol 1 is a well paced and strong start to the series, but it is let down by some unnecessary comedy moments and daft characters. It's a decent enough read, and the action scenes are excellent, but at the moment it isn't as good as Naruto and the like. Worth checking out, but I'm hoping for improvement in volume 2.
The usual ads in the back are joined by character profiles for Allen Walker, The Millennium Earl, Komui Lee and Lenelee Lee. These profiles don't give away too much about the characters themselves, but do explain how Hoshino came up with the ideas for their design. Also included are a couple of random bonus pages featuring the Gate Keeper and Komui's assistant Reever Wenham, and a bizarre drawing of the author's assistants as characters from the series. Not bad.