Naruto1Jesse at What We’re Reading Now assays to read Naruto:

What I want to say before I get too deep into it is that Naruto is a very poorly done comic. The figure drawing and linework is fine enough, but the storytelling — that all-important sequential clarity that all comics require — is sorely lacking. I spent a lot of my time doubling back a page or two trying to figure out what had just happened only to learn that there was no way to tell other than to read ahead and hope I got it in context or expository dialogue later on. The writing is equally bad, by necessity, since there is indeed a lot of expository dialogue needed to explain very simple plot points that I could have gotten on my own if the drawing was better.

With that out of the way, I also want to say that I really liked Naruto, I want to find out what happens next, and I completely understand why kids are gobbling this up like cookies all around the world.


  1. So, Nymphet proves the lie than manga is outselling American comics because it’s more “girl-friendly,” and Naruto proves the lie that manga is outselling American comics because it has “better stories”?

    As much as I hate a lot of what’s going on in American comics right now, don’t these two points pretty much disprove every rant about what American comics need to do in order to appeal to a broader audience?

  2. I like that review. I have also found it hard to read some of the Japanese books in the same way Jesse mentions. I suspect it happens not b/c the creators don’t have the skills to tell the story more clearly, but b/c they’re working in that bunch-a-page-a-week format, and so shortcuts must be made. Give the same team more time, and they’d make a smoother-reading book; or with more experience they’ll make better shortcuts.

  3. @ Kyle – Your logic really, really messed up. You’re judging an entire genre based on an execution or two, and I’m going to guess you’ve read neither.

    As for the review, the second and third paragraphs really, really make my head hurt. While there’s plenty of foundation built in to suggest that Naruto is a disaster (and from reading the review, I’m really guessing that Book 1 was the only one she read), it’s quite clear that she enjoyed it.

    It should be clear that the first volume was successful in it’s base mission – it got the reader wanting to find out what happens next. And things do happen next, which is that story-telling aspect. Within the next three books, it becomes very clear that Naruto is not Spider-man. Spider-man is not the villain in his books. He’s also not detached from his family, as he still has Aunt May.

  4. I think a lot of the difficulty in understanding what’s going on has to do with just not having the visual vocabulary to understand what’s going on. My wife and I have been reading (and loving) Naruto for about a year now. I have nearly thirty years of wide-ranging comic-reading experience under my belt. My wife has less than two. I had absolutely no trouble reading through the books and understanding what was going on. My wife would hit a page or panel that seemed odd to her and would stumble and do the flip-back-and-forth thing to try to divide some sensible interpretation from the mystifying passage. Some times she would figure it out. Other times, she would have to come to me and ask what she was supposed to be seeing. Every time, the problem was some difficulty that could be resolved with an expanded visual vocabulary.

    Now she knows that when she sees a panel with a foot, some random lines running more-or-less perpendicular to the foot, and sound effects like “TAK TAK,” that means someone’s running. She now knows that when she sees a herd of shuriken floating midst an empty panel and surrounded by more lines, that implies direction and speed and to infer that every projectile has a projector. She also now realizes that what are thought balloons in American comics are probably just whispers in Japanese ones (hence, the characters “thinking” to each other really aren’t telepathic, just secretive).

    She also understands much better how to read American comics now. All this because her visual vocabulary has increase. She understands that certain things are storytelling conventions and when they appear, they can be almost universally treated in a certain way. She still has trouble easily figuring out which panel comes next in any given issue of Powers, but I suspect that it would take years, decades, or millennia to intuitively discern that kind of arcana.

    I suspect that much of the reviewer’s difficulty in discerning story flow might be a result of a simple lack of this kind of visual vocabulary. Just like how your average tenth grader, while competent enough to read and follow To Kill a Mockingbird, would probably get stuck on some of the hardboiled, genre-specific jargon found in the novels of Raymond Chandler.

    When it comes down to it, if you really want to know where the allure of Naruto lies, it’s twofold: 1) in the characters and 2) in the story.

    The characters of Naruto are always developing and even secondary characters have exciting backstories and motivations. Where your typical superhero rarely undergoes any significant development outside of his origin stories and the occasional writer who just writes the character, well, out of character, there are no such boundaries on the characters of a project like Naruto. It’s not expected that the series will be an unending serial like Mary Worth or Superman, so we come to expect development for and from the characters. And Naruto delivers that in it’s principles.

    The story is exciting. There is no real status quo. And it’s absolutely thrilling. By the fifth volume, things really start picking up and it’s hard to put down. The reader is consistently being put on edge, wondering who’s going to lie, who’s going to die, and how they’re going to feel about it. Spider-Man‘s a book about overcoming odds, but it never felt as thrilling as this. I’ll routinely feeling like cheering at various points as I devour new volumes of the book.

    The story-telling is certainly not what we expect from a “good” story. As the reviewer suggests, there is a veritable ton of exposition—and this continues well into the series. Every time a new fighting technique is introduced, we get a detailed description (often using charts) to explain how it works and how it utilizes a body’s chakra (the series’s sense of “combat fuel”). But within the world of the series, it works fine. Once one accepts the apparatus, the story-telling style becomes a part of the book’s charm.

    So yeah, the reason Naruto is blistering through sales charts is that it’s engaging, exciting, relateable, developing, and, more than anything, fun. I’m not one of those who says that that kind of stuff is missing from American comics, but it certainly isn’t abundant.

  5. Hmm, Jesse’s problem, like The Dane has said, seems more a lack of experience with manga than anything inherently wrong with Naruto. I’m not saying it’s a flawless example of sequential art, but I’ve never had a problem reading it. Even with it being my first manga experience back in 2001 (when it was only available as a scanslation without sfx translations) I can’t recall being stressed out by any of the issues Jesse raises.

    As for its merits regarding characterisation and as a story, these early volumes completely mess all over most modern American comic equivalents. The Dane explains why more specifically, but personally I find it’s one of the most compulsive, engaging comics around. Bar Brian K Vaughan’s output I really can’t think of an American book to challenge Naruto in these respects.

  6. I agree with The Dane (above) that it’s a matter of vocabulary. I’ve had no trouble understanding what’s going on in Naruto, but I read a lot of manga so I think I’m pretty familiar with the conventions.