Today, we have another new series that came out this year. Having recently spawned an anime in 2016, we have Yen Press’s Bungo: Stray Dogs. Is it good?
Bungo: Stray Dogs Vol. 1 (Yen Press)
Written by: Kafka Asagiri
Artwork by: Sango Harukawa
Translated by: Kevin Gifford
Lettering by: Bianca Pistillo
Here’s the description provided by Yen Press for the first volume:
Having been kicked out of the orphanage, a despairing young man by the name of Atsushi Nakajima rescues a strange man from a suicide attempt–Osamu Dazai. Turns out that Dazai is part of an armed-detective agency staffed by individuals whose supernatural powers take on a literary bent! When Nakajima is engaged by Dazai and his associate Kunikida to hunt down a man-eating tiger terrorizing the region, little does Nakajima suspect that the encounter will transform his life forever!
The best way to describe the first volume of Bungo: Stray Dogs is that it is flawed, but has potential. There are plenty of things to like about it so far with enjoyable characters and quick, setup. Really, the setup gets things done faster than a lot of other series–the main character is well-defined and established, already pulled into this mysterious detective agency with others that have mutant/skill powers. We get an idea about how the agency operates and meet a few members, seeing their personalities in action. Before the end of the book, we even meet a big villain, get a revelation about the second protagonist (Dazai), and add some drama to Atsushi’s storyline. The only problem with the setup is that it doesn’t lay down enough groundwork for this universe. We meet a bunch of characters from the agency, but only for a brief bit. We don’t have much of an idea about the setting itself other than it is a port city, or even have a grasp on the rules of the world and the powers. I feel like instead of the last two chapters we got, we should have focused on easing the audience into this universe and showing how the agency operates usually.
We let the interns do that obviously.
The story itself isn’t too much to write home about currently. If anything, things just feel rather hazy and unfocused, with no real clear direction for a big overall goal. We know the story will be about our characters solving cases, probably at least, and fighting against dangerous foes in their cases, but what else? Is it going to be about protecting Atsushi from other crime families? Will it be about the origin of his powers and how that connects with the other players? Is it about Dazai’s past catching up to him or something? Is it going to be about everyone solving cases that pull them into a big conspiracy? It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the main plot hasn’t unveiled itself yet, but it could helpful to the audience to know where this series is going and what’ll happen.
While the story isn’t fully there yet, the characters make up more than enough for that shortcoming. Atsushi is very likable and sympathetic, having been tossed out of his orphanage and onto the streets for reasons that are not his fault (to a certain extent). He acts as the newcomer and sort of the audience’s surrogate, being new to this world and its colorful characters, making his reactions rather believable and relatable. He even has a courageous and heroic side to him, shown in the second chapter. Then there’s Osamu Dazai, one of the bigger members of this detective agency, who is just plain weird. He’s goofy, carefree, strangely competent, a complete mystery of a man, and is also oddly suicidal as he’s always trying to off himself for one reason or another. His attitude is strange, but he is amusing and intriguing in how he is presented and how he works off the others. There’s also Doppo Kunikida, the straight man and no-nonsense individual, always getting annoyed by Dazai’s antics and being rather cold. He’s probably the most amusing to read about thanks to his attitude and the fact that he sometimes is quite gullible. Other members of the agency are introduced, but are not expanded upon all that much (in fact, three of the six on the front cover barely appear in six pages of the actual book) despite some decent designs. The two villains are pretty great, making a very big entrance into the series, establishing themselves as dangerous threats worth being dreaded. Overall, it is a solid cast of characters that should be a lot of fun to follow from here on out.
The writing isn’t too bad here either. The characterization is pretty good like indicated, with very memorable characters full of personality. The dialogue is fine and the exposition never feels too clunky or stilted, outside of the ending when the person is clearly saying things another character should already know. The pacing is a bit iffy admittedly, since things are just a bit too quick at points for its own good. It feels like there should have been more buildup and establishing things in between the second and third chapters. The thing that stood out the most to me though was the humor of the book. The creators have a good sense of humor with solid timing and exchanges between each member of the cast. The constant use of suicide jokes and later, adding incestuous humor with a girl who likes her brother way too much is a bit much, though. Now, I’m not against using darker elements for comedy, but it all depends on how you pull it off and the book is half and half. Sometimes the jokes land, like with Dazai’s introduction, and sometimes they just fall flat like the opening of the second chapter. Hopefully the writer does come up with some different material, because after a while, the shock of that particular joke is going to wear off.
Last to discuss is the artwork, which isn’t too bad here overall. While the characters have somewhat similar faces, everyone is pretty well designed and easily distinguishable from one another. The art, for as simplistic as it can feel at times, does a fantastic job with expression and capturing the characters’ emotions at the time. You can get a really good read on the mood of the scene because of it, also helping a lot with selling some of the comedy at points. They layouts are put together decently and things do flow well from each panel to the next. However, there are a lot of blank voids due to a lack of backgrounds. The world feels empty at times because of that and for as crime ridden as this city is supposed to be, it never really looks the part due to the lack of gritty details. The action can look nice at times, whenever there is action, but it is also rather static-looking too. At least the powers and skills being deployed by the characters are interesting to look at, especially when it comes to Atsushi.
Bungo: Stray Dogs Vol. 1 is a decent start to what could be an interesting series. It has a good set of main and supporting characters, along with a decent villain so far. The writing isn’t too bad and the artwork is alright as well. However, an unfocused story and weak foundation in a lot of areas prevents us from getting fully invested or know exactly where this story is going. Hopefully, with the recent revelations at the end, the series will be heading off in a good and promising direction.