Editor’s Note: [Heh — fooled ya! I bet you thought there would be a note from an editor here. Alas, it’s just me. But I wanted to explain the following post. This week I have to read a bunch of comics for my lovely job, including manga (Japanese comics). And I’ve never read any manga before in my life. Ever. Just thought you should know.]

 

Naruto had to be the first manga I read in my effort to learn about Japanese comics, since it’s absolutely hands-down the champion high king bestselling comic book throughout the entire known universe at the moment. Naruto kicks sales ass in ways we haven’t seen in the comics industry since the 1940s, if ever. I had to see what it was all about.

What I want to say before I get too deep into it is that Naruto is a very poorly done comic. The figure drawing and linework is fine enough, but the storytelling — that all-important sequential clarity that all comics require — is sorely lacking. I spent a lot of my time doubling back a page or two trying to figure out what had just happened only to learn that there was no way to tell other than to read ahead and hope I got it in context or expository dialogue later on. The writing is equally bad, by necessity, since there is indeed a lot of expository dialogue needed to explain very simple plot points that I could have gotten on my own if the drawing was better.

With that out of the way, I also want to say that I really liked Naruto, I want to find out what happens next, and I completely understand why kids are gobbling this up like cookies all around the world.

While reading through this volume I was convinced I had been here before. It hit me about halfway through — this is Spider-Man, through and through.

Naruto is the story of young Uzumaki Naruto, a kid studying to be an elite ninja warrior in a Japanese village known for its elite ninja warriors. Unlike his fellow students, though, Naruto doesn’t have any family or friends, so he instead resorts to pranks and general foolishness to get attention. And for some reason, though he fails every test of skill in school, he’s remarkably agile, smart, and able to whip out complicated and super-advanced ninja techniques as if he were born to do it. He’s an outcast, basically, but an outcast with extraordinary abilities he’s only starting to figure out. Sound familiar?

The similarity to Spider-Man doesn’t end there. Stan Lee’s and Steve Ditko’s original Amazing Spider-Man comics in the 1960s were also crudely done (though even then, at the beginning of his soon-to-be masterful career, Ditko’s storytelling ability was far superior to that of Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto). But none of that matters because Lee hit upon something primordial and real inside of us all. We felt like we knew Spider-Man, that we were like him in a way, and we wanted him to come out OK because of it.

Naruto is like that. He fails a lot. No one likes him. But he wants more for himself, and all he has to do is find a way to hone that special inner ability — that secret quality of his that, sigh — if the others only knew. This is the stuff of outcast fantasies that has made every comic book hero so successful since they entered our cultural mythology in 1938. While reading this book I found myself eagerly turning the pages, rooting for the little guy to find a way to prove himself. He isn’t the far-removed superhero of Dragonball Z, another wildly successful boys’ manga that I read this week and really didn’t like at all. What’s so interesting about infallible supertypes fighting for pages upon pages? Nothing at all. That’s why Naruto sells — it’s about all of us, and what we sorely wish we could all be, and there should be more comics like that in the world.

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