Beck vol. 1

Beck vol. 1
 Chad Clayton  rates it:    

Author/Artist: Harold Sakuishi
Format: Paperback
Price: $9.99

Basing a manga review on only the first volume can be a bit of a crap-shoot. Most of the time – I’d say eight or nine times out of ten – a single volume is all that’s needed to determine where the story’s heading and if it’s worth pursuing further. That other small percentage of the time, however, you feel like you need to see more before offering your authoritative opinion. I really do feel like I need to see more of Beck to get a better feel for where the story may be headed, but I have an assignment to complete, so I press on. So if I seem a little tentative in this review, it’s because I feel a little tentative.

Yukio is a totally boring 14-year-old boy, just drifting through life at that most awkward of ages. Then he meets Beck, a dog that seems to be sewn together from the body parts of many other dogs, and through Beck he meets Ryusuke, a 16-year-old rock guitarist with charisma to burn. Yukio and Ryusuke eventually become friends through music, just as Ryusuke’s band breaks apart. So Ryusuke has to put together a new band, but he needs a singer. It just so happens that Yukio has some talent in that area…

In terms of plot, Beck is what’s called a “setup” volume. That is, the first volume serves little purpose other than to introduce the main characters and move everything into place so that the story can begin in earnest. Beck isn’t terribly quick about it, either. The story saunters along at an easygoing pace, not getting in too much of a hurry to reach its destination, which actually works beautifully for this type of story. This is a very character-driven title, and its leisurely pace allows the characters time to be people, and the audience time to bond with them. It certainly yields more satisfying results than the all-too-common “let’s hurry up and get all this out of the way so we can get to the good part.”

But if there’s anything that truly sets Beck apart from other manga, it’s the portrayal of the characters. The characters generally tend to act like real people, as opposed to “manga people” (read: archetypes, stereotypes, and gross caricatures). Yukio is a very convincing portrait of an awkward young boy. He starts out shy, banal, a bit of a wet blanket, and he often tends to say the wrong thing, but he’s not completely docile or spineless. He begins to come out of his shell as the comic progresses. Ryusuke is a handsome, charismatic “bad boy” type of guy, but unlike many characters of his type, he’s not untouchable or unfailingly cool. The female characters, Izumi and Maho, are strong-willed without being menacing or overbearing, and they react to Yukio’s indiscretions in ways not involving exaggerated comic violence. Even the highly varied character designs, which range from “gorgeous” to “ewwww,” are a refreshing change from the homogeneity of pretty people that’s become commonplace in manga. Not only does Beck manage to sidestep some of the worst and most common cliches of manga, it handles the characters with both humor and wisdom. Even though Yukio is often the subject of our laughter, the comic still has a very realistic sense of what it’s like to be a young teenager just trying to adjust and find a place in his or her quickly changing life. That aspect alone is enough to warrant a glance at this manga.

TOKYOPOP has categorized Beck as a “Comedy/Drama,” which seems to be the best description possible. However, it’s worth noting that Beck‘s comedy is character-driven, and not gag-driven like so many other manga comedies. Most of the comedy comes not from gags or running jokes, but from the idiosyncracies of the characters. Yukio is the awkward, hormonal, slightly neurotic kid who often speaks before he thinks. Ryusuke is the charismatic bad-boy who has his moments of lameness. Izumi is Yukio’s childhood friend who always seems to be there when it’s time to call one of his bluffs. Beck‘s sense of humor actually helps endear us to the characters, rather than forcing us to feel contempt for them, and it works very well. It’s seldom laugh-out-loud funny, but it is consistently entertaining.

Though I think it’s a little too early to tell where Beck is going at this point, it still does what it does quite nicely. I don’t know that I would call it “essential” just yet, but it’s definitely worth checking out if only because it dares to do things a bit differently. But please don’t get the impression that I’m recommending Beck simply because it’s different. Thus far, it really is a well-made story with only a couple of niggling complaints. One, it could be a tad funnier than it is. Two, the comics medium can suggest that music is being played, but I imagine the experience would be richer if we could actually have listen to the music and the singing. But hey, if those are the worst things I have to say about Beck, I guess it’s doing pretty well so far.

Added:  Monday, August 29, 2005

Related Link:  TOKYOPOP
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