D.Gray-man (3-in-1 Edition), Vol. 1 – Katsura Hoshino

3 out of 5

Allen Walker is an “exorcist” with a specially-powered right hand for destroying akuma – demons – and a cursed eye that can suss out those akuma when they’re hiding in the guise of regular folk.  Walker is part of the Black Order – a league of such exorcists – who are out to rescue a limited number of “innocence” artifacts (godly-imbued items which can be turned into weapons like his hand), and to keep them from The Millenium Earl, sorta the leader of the Black Order’s opposite numbers amongst the demons, and who delights in tempting lost souls into becoming akuma and…

…Look, most of this is either directly or indirectly explained within the first few pages or chapters of D.Gray-man, and it’s why I love manga.  While this essentially just boils down to good vs. evil, fighting over various MacGuffins, the setup and world and wild characters that start popping up (Kanda and LenaLee, fellow exorcists with their own powers; Road Kamelot, a demon-helping lady with a stolen umbrella that says ‘Lero’ all the time; Miranda, an accident-prone, time-stuck woman) are all delivered in that matter-of-fact way that’s just part of manga, and while D.Gray-man suffers from something of a wayward tone and sense of randomness, writer / artist Katsura Hoshina’s energetic (if not always clear…) sense of paneling and fantastic character designs keep the excess feeling quite buoyant.  The randomness is also tethered to what feel like some core rules Hoshina set for herself regarding how her world works, which makes the herky-jerkiness tolerably quirky instead of, y’know, just seat-of-the-pants nonsense.

And it gets deeper, and clearer, as Hoshina dives more in to things.  By Walker’s third main mission as an exorcist in book three, a lot of this stuff has streamlined, both visually and in the writing style: the slapstick and seriousness are better juggled; the emotional component of Walker’s need to save the damned souls powering the akumas starts to have some weight; the enemies become threats beyond their animated caricatures.  The core rules are still there, but the bonds become stronger as Hoshina grows with the material; for me, there’s a fairly clear point in that third book when D.Gray-man shifts out of fun ideas and design and into a story with characters, which makes the prospect of reading what follows very enticing.

The 1-2-3 volume collected edition from Viz offers no extras, but it does include the original back pages from each chapter, priced at a snazzy $15 altogether, so it’s an ideal way to get started, as the first two books are a bit clunky, and then things snap into focus in book three.