Sporadic Sequential
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Bleach: Back to Basics

Bleach Volume 21 is a welcome change of pace after the extended "Soul Society" storyline. Counting this volume, the epic arc ran anywhere from 13 to 15 volumes, depending on where you set the starting point. (Even if you wait until Ichigo and gang themselves actually set foot in the Soul Society in book 9, that's still over a dozen books dedicated to a single plot.) This volume is similar to those "downtime" issues superhero comics do in-between long arcs. Here, we see the members of the various Soul Reaper divisions licking their wounds after the villains escaped last volume. There's a nice mix of banter between characters and quiet, reflective moments where someone pauses to pay tribute to a fallen or injured comrade. The second half of the book returns Ichigo and crew to the land of the living, where school is back in session. We're reintroduced to supporting characters we haven't seen in a long time, and the next threat (which looks like a multi-pronged attack on our heroes) is established.

A tender moment between our two heroes.
(Just kiss her already!!!)

The volume's title "Be My Family or Not" clues readers in to the underlying theme of this volume: family and its attendant drama, conflict, and surprises. Actually, this volume had several surprise revelations concerning various family members, including: some inserted back story to justify Byakuya's behavior towards his adoptive sister Rukia; the unexpected return of one character's father; and a new role for a cast member I never really cared for that now has me viewing him in a much more favorable light. (I'd say more but I don't want to spoil the surprise for anyone else. I certainly didn't see this development coming, but it makes a great deal of sense when I think about it, and may even explain some early plot points that seemed all too convenient at the time, and may parallel another character's past in a neat kind of symmetry. Of course, I can also see how others might interpret the revelation as over-explaining something that would have been better left as a coincidence, kind of like when John Byrne felt as though he had to offer an in-story reason for Steve Ditko's penchant for drawing bad guys with similar hairstyles.)

The revelations made me wonder how much Tite Kubo has plotted out the details of Bleach in advance and how much he's just making it up as he's going along. Everything felt like it fit as I read it, but I've also heard that many manga-ka are so constrained by their deadlines that most of the time they're improvising from chapter to chapter. I guess in the end what matters most is how it reads in the execution, and here things integrate with previous information pretty seamlessly, so it's not a case of feeling like the added details are awkwardly inserted retcons.

Another thing I wondered about after reading this volume: Would it be accessible to anyone who picked it up without reading the previous twenty books? It's a common concern expressed in many superhero comics reviews: What about new readers? (See here for an example.) I'm assuming this volume would be impenetrable to anyone who hadn't read the earlier chapters, but I'm also wondering if anyone would try to jump in and start with the most recent volume. More likely, if someone were curious about the Bleach manga (perhaps as a result of catching an episode of the anime on Adult Swim), they'd track down book one and start there. With manga, it seems more likely that people would start at the beginning since (1) the beginning is clearly identified; and (2) the progression of volumes is important, as they build on each other, unlike superhero comics where the latest installment may have no relation to the previous one (due to a change in creative teams, reboots, or new editorial direction), or the relation may be so remote as to be effectively unbridgeable. (I'm thinking of DC's repeated references to storylines from the Seventies since that's when the current crop of writers imprinted on those characters.)

Finally, there were some moments in this volume that felt like they were lifted from Kekkaishi, which is ironic since my first impression of Kekkaishi was that it was a kid-friendly knock-off of Bleach. First, the scene where a bad guy tries to woo Ichigo to the dark side because he's "just like them" reminded me of when Kaguro attempted to recruit Gen to the Kokuboro. And, second, doesn't this maneuver by Uryƫ look a lot like a certain patented barrier formation technique???

But this version uses flares!

And just think: only four more months until Volume 22! (At least the release date moved up a bit from the original 3/4/08 date.)

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