Show and Tell

In comics, the balance between showing and telling can be tricky. With the right material, a dozen pages of talking heads can be absolutely riveting. Long, wordless sequences can be evocative and complex, packed with action and drama.

Under less fortuitous circumstances, talking heads can be numbingly expository, leaving you thinking, “Thanks for the plot summary. It would be have been lovely to, you know, see some of that happening.” And pages of technically proficient, eye-popping illustrations can still leave you wondering just what the hell is supposed to be going on.

Death Note (Viz), with story by Tsugiumi Ohba and art by Takeshi Obata, lands squarely on the “tell” side of the equation, but it’s pretty engrossing all the same. Ohba and Obata have crafted a creepy morality play that relies heavily on psychological suspense.

It begins with a death god, a Shinigami named Ryuk, leaving his notebook lying around on Earth. If a name is written in the notebook, the bearer of that name will die within forty seconds. The Shinigami writing the name can also specify the cause of death, if it’s feeling particularly creative. If a human finds the notebook, they can use it.

Gifted high-school student Light Yagami picks up the notebook, much to Ryuk’s delight. Ryuk hadn’t misplaced it out of carelessness; in fact, he’s bored and wants to see what will happen. Disgusted with the slacker ways of his fellow Shinigami, Ryuk thought a human using the notebook would be a diversion, and Light provides more entertainment than Ryuk could have ever wished for.

Light is exceptionally bright, and he takes a dim view of the state of the world. After some half-hearted experimentation with the notebook, he recognizes its potential and starts killing violent criminals he finds through news outlets and the Internet. But he doesn’t just view the deaths as a short-term good, weeding out dangerous scumbags from the population. He sees his actions as a deterrent, capable of frightening the populace into crime-free lives. “I’ll make this a world inhabited only by people I decide are good!” he explains.

As Light predicts, his actions don’t go unnoticed. Conspiracy theorists build web sites devoted to “Kira” and his righteous crusade against evil. With criminals inexplicably dropping like flies, international law enforcement is understandably concerned. Foremost among them is the mysterious L, a genius investigator who picks and chooses his cases and maintains a strict veil of anonymity. L calls Kira out very publicly, and a game of cat and mouse begins between two formidably intelligent opponents.

Much of the first volume is devoted to Light’s methodology and philosophy. It’s talky, but Light’s ruthlessness and rationalizations have a twisty, compelling punch to them. Ryuk becomes Light’s confidant and appreciative audience. (His face is fixed in a gruesome, wide-eyed grin as he realizes, “Humans are… a riot!!”) With L on his trail, Ryuk dribbling out the notebook’s rules with a teaspoon, and an ambitious world-improvement project, Light has plenty to juggle. His delight in meeting the mental challenges is chilling and impressive at the same time.

In Death Note, Ohba invests a very verbal story with considerable suspense. That isn’t meant to slight Obata, whose illustrations serve Ohba’s story perfectly. For all the talk, there’s plenty of variety in composition and visual flow. Settings are detailed and realistic, grounding the events and characters, and making his creepy, malevolent design for Ryuk pop even more. Obata also illustrates the splendid Hikaru No Go, where he brings real visual excitement to a board game. I guess it’s no surprise that he can do the same with a more unsavory intellectual exercise.

Pulpy and surprising, Death Note is one of those instances where an imbalance between showing and telling isn’t a failing. It’s talky, but it’s gripping.
And now, a quick return to the land of all telling, all the time. After reading my column on the novelization trend,Viz sent me a copy of Fullmetal Alchemist: The Land of Sand, a novel by Makoto Inoue featuring the characters from Hiromu Arakawa’s most excellent manga.

This is the kind of novel I would have snapped up as a comic-loving adolescent. In prose form, Inoue can make a more leisurely exploration of the characters and their society. The plot is constructed well, and the characters are consistent with their manga portrayals.

In The Land of Sand, state alchemist Edward Elric and his brother, Alphonse, follow a lead on the powerful Philosopher’s Stone to Xenotime, a dying mining town. Known for its gifted goldsmiths, Xenotime’s mines are tapped. As they search for a new vein of ore, they give what little money they have to wealthy Master Mugear. Mugear is funding alchemical research to create a Philosopher’s Stone so that he can make new gold and restore Xenotime to its former glory and affluence.

After Edward and Alphonse’s arrival, they learn that Mugear is being assisted by two other alchemists… Edward and Alphonse Elric. The real Elrics investigate the imposters and try and figure out just what they’re up to with the Philosopher’s Stone. They also try and help the townspeople realize that they’re spending too much energy trying to recapture past glories rather than deal with present realities. Inoue folds in some environmental messages without seeming preachy.

Inoue also comes up with a nifty dynamic for the real Elrics and the imposters. To the Elrics’ discomfort, the frauds have qualities Edward and Alphonse wished they possessed. Faux-Edward is tall and poised. Faux-Alphonse… well, he has a body instead of a hulking suit of auto-mail armor. (The only major shortcoming is Inoue’s failure to specifically describe Alphonse’s physicality. There isn’t enough of a sense of his size or power.)

When you get right down to it, The Land of Sand is sanctioned fan fiction. As frightening as that sounds, the result is a very readable, entertaining expansion of a popular manga franchise. It makes good use of the prose form and gives an eager audience another way to experience characters they love.