One of the strongest manga debuts of the year.
Now this I have been excitedly waiting for. Named in my Top 15 Best Mangas of 2016, The Promised Neverland has finally arrived in trade form for all those to enjoy who haven’t been following it in Weekly Shonen Jump. Is it good?
Here’s the description for this volume:
Emma, Norman and Ray are the brightest kids at the Grace Field House orphanage. And under the care of the woman they refer to as “Mom,” all the kids have enjoyed a comfortable life. Good food, clean clothes and the perfect environment to learn–what more could an orphan ask for? One day, though, Emma and Norman uncover the dark truth of the outside world they are forbidden from seeing.
The Initial Reaction
I’ve been reading this series since it first debuted back in Viz’s Weekly Shonen Jump in August of 2016 and it’s been one hell of a ride. However, going all the way back to the very first few chapters again has been great. Knowing everything I know now, I can pick up on all the little subtle hints and foreshadowing going on, seeing more of the genius in the series. But even looking at this from the perspective of a newcomer to this series, it still holds up well and will suck you in, making you want what’ll happen next. Just be prepared to wait a while.
The first volume of The Promised Neverland is about pitch perfect when it comes to story and plot. It does an absolutely excellent job at laying out the premise, the plot focus, the setup, the antagonists, establishing the stakes at play, how difficult it will be for our heroes to achieve their goal, and the eerie tone in less than 200 pages. The book is packed to the brim with content, moving at a brisk pace that keeps it from being boring. It’s an absolutely tense battle of the minds the likes of which I haven’t seen since Death Note, as characters try to figure things out without letting the other side know exactly what they’re up to. The story is constantly keeping you on your toes with characters always pulling out new ideas or tricks on each other, like getting in each other’s face subtly or calling in reinforcements to help them out. You just never know how things will turn and, having read far in advance, that holds true throughout the series.
Without getting into the details, since it’s better to let you discover them for yourself, let’s talk about each of the characters. First is Emma, the narrator who we see most of the story through. She’s a very lively, happy, and loving girl, caring for all of her family within the orphanage and trying her best to protect them all. She’s the big sister and heart of the three core players, the one who will try for the best despite all odds against her. She’s easily the most rattled and hurt, absolutely crushed by the big reveal, but she refuses to ever give up and keeps on trucking along. It’s easy to see why everyone likes her and it makes her easily the most likeble of the group.
Then there’s Norman and Ray, two smart characters who both react differently to the reveal. Ray is cool-headed through and through, always approaching things as logically as possible and not cracking under pressure. Only when things are harsh does his confidence drop, showing he’s not as stoic as he tries to be. Given his situation, he doesn’t believe everyone can be saved and if they try to, everyone will die. It’s not that he doesn’t care about others, he just can’t be as optimistic as everyone else. Norman is a mixture of both Ray and Emma; very level-headed and smart, but also visibly shaken and broken by what has happened. He’s described as the smartest of the three and it shows, quickly putting together a plan of escape and scoping out his home after learning the truth. He also seems more dedicated to Emma and her wants, even though he agrees and shares some of Ray’s views on the situation. The trio makes for a good, enjoyable cast of main characters in this tense world.
Then we come to our antagonists Mom, aka Isabella, and Sister Krone. The demons, while certainly intimidating and threatening, don’t compare (or have any characterization) to these two. Isabella is an incredibly crafty and intelligent woman who seems to have been in the same position the kids find themselves in now at some point. She’s about her own survival and making sure she survives, but that does not diminish her calculating behavior. She’s always calm, approaches every situation with a careful touch, and thinks several steps ahead. Like the best quote in the book goes: “It’s like you know everything we’re thinking.” “Of course I do. Because I am your mother.” Simple, but chilling and it makes her a very dangerous threat, one with even her own agenda that’s separate from her duties to the demons.
Soooo many gears in the ceiling. Who was the building designer?
And then there’s Sister Krone, who is brought in during the final two chapters to act as Isabella’s assistant and to keep an eye on the kids so no one tries to escape. Like Mom, she’s made out to be very intelligent and crafty herself, picking up on a lot of suspicious things right off the bat, like the fact that Isabella clearly has goals in mind when it comes to holding back information from the demons. By the end of the volume, she’s also working towards her own goals and wants, showing that she’s willing to cut down anyone to get to the top. Though given the world she lives in, that may not be just because she wants power.
The most negative thing that I can find or say about this series, even early on at this point and ignoring what comes next, is that it is a slow burn. The Promised Neverland really takes its time, making sure all of its logic is sound and every plot point is explained well. No one’s motivation or behavior ever seems unreasonable or wrong, because the story will go into great detail and have heavy dialogue scenes explaining things. The series is very much about dialogue and setting up for what will come next, especially early on here. If you’re a person who is more into action and excitement the whole way through, this will not be for you.
While Shirai handles the writing, Demizu provides the series’ art and they do a great job here. The characters are all uniquely designed and easy to distinguish from one another, especially the kids. The art does well at capturing their emotive, expressive faces, from their distraught and broken looks to their fake, joyful guises to keep their cover. The layouts are solid as well, making a relatively dialogue-heavy series easy to follow along with and not too bogged down by captions and dialogue balloons. It does skimp out on some backgrounds at times with these glaring, obvious, empty white abysses in some scenes, but it usually isn’t distracting. It actually ends up benefitting some moments, highlighting a feature in the panel in an uncomfortable, uneasy way, like Mom staring at Emma. But when the backgrounds are drawn or double page spreads are used, which is rather rare, the scenes just come alive and leave you with this huge sense of dread and shock, from the early scene at the gate tothe final shot of the book. It’s a great-looking book and knowing what comes later, I’m happy to report that doesn’t change.
The Promised Neverland Vol. 1 is one of the strongest debuts Viz Media has brought us this year. This is by far one of the most unique tales to come out of Shonen Jump magazine in a long time, while also capturing the old mind games feel that Death Note had (but with likable protagonists). There’s so much crammed into this first volume that there’s plenty to chew on and get invested in. If you’re looking for a good, tense tale, this is something you should not miss out on.