Story and art by Tite Kubo
Translation by Joe Yamazaki and Lance Caselman
Lettering and retouch by Evan Waldinger (#21) & Mark McMurray (#22-25)
Edited by Pancha Diaz
Okay, confession time - I really loved the first six volumes of Tite Kubo's Bleach. Don't get me wrong, I don't think they're high art or anything, but they managed to put a new spin on some tired old plotlines, with some instantly memorable characters, stupid humor and action scenes filled with crazy energy. I enjoyed reading about Ichigo and Rukia as they fought monsters, dealt with the weirdos at their school and explored the craziness lurking just under the facade of Karakura Town. Volume six was a particular favorite. Just as everything seemed to have settled into a nice status quo, we got a wonderful story from Rukia's perspective that ended with her kidnapping at the hands of various corrupt elements of the Soul Society, memory of her very existence wiped from the minds of everyone in town. And Ichigo wasn't happy about that.
Wow, I thought. Now things are gonna get interesting.
Twelve volumes I found myself wondering what the hell went wrong. Ichigo and his friends had spent more volumes trying to rescue Rukia than they had spent getting to know her in the first place. New developments happened not to advance the plot, but to move it sideways and extend it. Uninspired fight scenes were streched out for no particular reason. New characters were being introduced not because they played an important role in the story, but because they could be used to round out the rosters of fighting games. The second time Ichigo was forced into an arduous bout of special training, I said to hell with it - I'll follow this story to the end and then I'm done with this series. Oh, and what a horrible ending it was. The bad guy, after setting up an insanely complex plan, just does something he could have easily done twelve volumes ago and escapes. Kubo managed to hit all of the right emotional notes, but everything else was just a huge mess. But at leat I was done with Bleach forever.
But life is funny sometimes. A few months ago I found myself in the South Hills Borders, trying to find something to pad out my order so I could take advantage of a "buy 2, get 1 free" sale, and volume 21 of Bleach was right there. I figured it couldn't hurt to confirm my prejeudices, right? And now I find myself five volumes back into Bleach again, and enjoying it tremendously.
But I don't think it can last.
Don't get me wrong, these volumes get off to a great start. Ichigo and his allies return to Karakura Town, and are reunited with their wonderfully wacky family and friends. Hints are dropped that there are afoot, funky new characters lurking in the wings, old characters are developing strange new powers, and Ichigo and his pals may no longer be capable of being satisfied by ordinary life. There are a lot of hooks here that you could hang a compelling story on.
But I can also see this new status quo disintegrating faster than the old one. To some extent, it's a variation of Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga's "Strong-Opponent Inflation" - after the dramatic highs and earth-shaking events of the last story, who can take going back to fighting small monsters in a small town? But there are other troubling signs. Karakura Town's resident weirdos and their mysteries are already being pushed to the side by characters from the Soul Society (and not even the interesting characters from the Soul Society, for that matter). A fight sequence with the arrancars has already been stretched out to multiple volumes. We're introduced to eight of the Visored, but six of them don't have anything meaningful to add to the story right now. Ichigo's already been suckered into a volume long fight sequence that doubles as special training.
It's frustrating, because I can see how with a little work Bleach could be turned into something more than a fight-of-the-volume comic. It's not like there isn't a market for fantasy comics set in the modern world, or action-comedies, or comics with relatively short plot arcs. You could work those elements into the current set-up and create something just as marketable but infinitely more interesting in the long run. Instead, I can't help but feeling that we're heading down the Dragonball Z path, where the comic eventually starts catering to a series of die-hard fans while paring away anything that might interest a larger audience. As much as you might try to suck fans back in with a new beginning, as soon as you start sliding back into your bad old habits that audience will disappear.
I think I'll give it about ten volumes this time.