I decided last year it was time I read some manga, so I set myself a project: read 10 different ones – at least a “book” of each title. Manga have monstered the US comics market: they sell huge amounts, and they sell them to the people who used to buy American comics – kids and teens. I kicked off my project with the best-selling manga ever, Naruto, but I haven’t finished a whole book of that. Death Note, on the other hand, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy but I ran through a book in a train journey, and ended up sitting up until 2AM reading it on the web. Eventually I had to spoiler the ending in order not to stay up all night. This is significantly thrill-powered stuff.

The plot is pretty simple, though: a gifted high school student finds the Death Note, a notebook with the power to kill at a distance anyone whose real name the user writes in it. He starts using it to kill criminals, which attracts the attention of the police, who call in the world’s greatest detective, whose real name is – aha – unknown. Here’s why Death Note is good:

ADOLESCENT WISH FULFILMENT! Most nerdy kids don’t just dream about getting superhuman powers, they dream of taking sadistic revenge on the world. The protagonist/anti-hero is an unsympathetic character in many ways but he’s also a kind of twisted version of Spider-Man or any other teen superhero: he has to hide the Death Note and his secret identity as its user from the world or the consequences for him and his family will be terrible. But he has a bright adolescent’s blazing self-confidence so the whole ‘great responsibility’ thing doesn’t worry him at all.

HEROIC PROTAGONIST! Light, the Death Note’s owner, isn’t the only protagonist. L, the master detective, is the hero of Death Note even if he gets less panel time than Light. He is everything Light believes himself to be: a mysterious young genius using his uncanny talents for justice. The first really clever move the storyline makes is to not turn the manga into a series of repetitive “dead criminals” stories but instead make it a tactical battle between its two main characters. And by making the heroic character more of a supporting role, it makes his survival a great deal less assured.

ACCELERATED PLOT!: Writer Tsugumi Ohba has a great trick of suddenly accelerating the plot well beyond where you’re expecting it to go. He obviously doesn’t believe in hanging around when a plot development is obviously coming – the most striking of these being in the first conversation between Light and L, which raises the stakes in an instant and completely throws out your expectations. The result is a comic where something significant happens almost every episode, keeping you at a high level of tension (and up all night reading it!).

INTERNAL CONSISTENCY! The motor for much of the action is the Death Note’s set of ‘rules’ – how it can be used, on who, when, and what the consequences are of other people seeing or touching it. The first book is spent mainly setting these up and their permutations drive the plot along. Like a training level on a videogame, the opening chapters fill you in on the various rules and (so far in my reading) Ohba is careful not to introduce any new twists or sub-clauses which break the spirit of the existing ones. So the chess game the protagonists are playing has an internal logic despite the supernatural elements.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS! The major supernatural element in Death Note is the Death Note’s former owner, Ryuk, a ‘death god’ who Light can see and talk to (though nobody else can unless they touch the note). Ryuk, a big long-limbed grinning goth who floats behind Light at all times, acts as chorus, plot explainer, comic relief, and recurrent injector of creepiness – he’s one of the comic’s most successful aspects.

MORAL COMPLEXITY! Well, by comics standards at least. Light is a walking death penalty debate – it’s made clear early on that his criminal-killing quest is actually working to lower violent crime, but he also often kills innocents, investigators or minor criminals as part of his ongoing struggle with L. This isn’t the most subtle analogy in the world but it frames its issues engagingly at least.

I don’t think Death Note is the most profound or well-written or beautiful comic ever made, but it is seriously addictive – it reminds me of 2000AD, except it has an intelligence and sophistication of plotting which the more visceral 2000AD generally lacked. It’s definitely more entertaining than 95% of American comics I’ve read recently. More manga recommendations gratefully received!