House of 1000 Manga Case Closed
by Shaenon K. Garrity, Jan 2nd 2014
When ace high school detective Jimmy Kudo is fed a mysterious substance by a pair of nefarious men in black—poof! He is physically transformed into a first grader. Until Jimmy can find a cure for his miniature malady, he takes on the pseudonym of Conan Edogawa and continues to solve all the cases that come his way.
So states the back cover of every volume of Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, which is, strictly in terms of time investment, quite possibly the most intimidating manga available in English. There are longer manga series in Japan—the untranslated This Is the Police Station in Front of Kameari Park is still the champ with 188 volumes and counting, and about a dozen other manga have reached the 100-volumes mark—but Case Closed is chugging along at an impressive rate, with 81 volumes out so far in Japanese and almost 50 in English. One Piece and Naruto currently have more volumes available in English, but Case Closed has a bigger backlog waiting for translation. And it's an unusually wordy manga, so it takes a lot longer to get through a volume of Case Closed.
My manga-column cohort Jason Thompson has avoided covering Case Closed for just this reason. I hereby throw down the gauntlet and call him a craven manga coward for failing to scale that 50-volume manga mountain, while I myself stand proudly atop it, planting my flag, which bears a super-deformed image of myself crushing Jason under my iron boot. Admittedly, I may have a slight advantage, inasmuch as I am the English-language editor of Case Closed and have to read it for my job. But still! Triumph!
To be honest, though, Case Closed is an easy manga to get into. Since the storylines are short (each volume typically covers the resolution of a mystery from the previous volume, another complete mystery, and the setup of a mystery that will be resolved in the next volume) and mostly episodic, readers can jump in at any point. Maybe that's why it's remained one of the most popular manga in Japan and the flagship title of Shonen Sunday magazine for so many years. Creator Gosho Aoyama even has his own museum, the Gosho Aoyama Manga Factory, in his hometown in Tottori. Sunday’s other biggest creator is Rumiko Takahashi, and both artists became superstars by combining accessible character-driven stories with cute, rounded, anime-ready artwork.
But part of the odd appeal of Case Closed is the way it mixes its friendly, innocent style with plots about murder and mayhem. Almost every mystery is a murder case—once in a while Aoyama will mix it up with a jewel theft or a kidnapping—and almost every volume ends on a cliffhanger splash page of a graphically dispatched victim, frequently with someone screaming KYAAAA in the background. The very first chapter demonstrates Jimmy Kudo's deduction skills via a beheading on a roller coaster, drawn in lovingly bloody detail. The casual juxtaposition of cute kiddie artwork and brutal crime scenes remains faintly bizarre no matter how long you keep reading, but it's probably a big part of why grade-schoolers like Case Closed: it's kid-oriented enough to feel safe, crime-oriented enough to feel dangerous.
At this point I can feel the heat rising from the foreheads of devoted fans who very badly need to object that Jimmy Kudo's original name is Shinichi Kudo, and the Japanese title of the manga is Detective Conan. It's true: Case Closed is one of those manga with the names all switched around. The Viz edition follows the Funimation release of the anime, which Americanized the names of the characters. (Eventually the manga passed the point covered by the Funimation anime, and any new characters got to keep their Japanese names.) Meanwhile, Funimation and Viz couldn't call the series Detective Conan because of the threat of a lawsuit from the holders of the rights to Conan the Barbarian, who has his own rival comic books.
Anyway. Jimmy Kudo—let's call him Jimmy—is transformed into a little boy, takes on the name “Conan Edogawa”—Conan after Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, Edogawa after the enormously influential Japanese mystery writer Edogawa Rampo—and goes undercover as a first grader. He encounters all the expected difficulties and humiliations: sitting through classroom lessons designed for six-year-olds, having his former almost-girlfriend Rachel see him as a cute little kid, generally being treated like an idiot. But at least he has a lot of freedom, thanks to his parents being constantly out of town and arguably criminally negligent. And he can still solve mysteries, because people get brutally killed in front of Conan and his friends on a more or less daily basis. Eventually the police commissioner starts to comment on the suspiciousness of the same bespectacled little boy showing up at every gruesome crime scene.
There are a lot of fun things about Case Closed. One is that the mysteries are challenging and generally pretty well constructed. Sometimes the solution tips over into the implausible, a problem that occurs more often as the series goes on and Aoyama has to reach further and further to keep surprising his readers. But this isn't like most detective manga where the solution to the mystery is obvious or hinges on a character making a dramatic eleventh-hour confession. Aoyama seems to be a fan of literary detective fiction—each volume includes a “Mystery Library” highlighting a fictional detective like Nero Wolfe or Miss Marple—and he puts effort into building his plots. I confess here that in 50 volumes I have never correctly solved a Case Closed mystery ahead of time. (I will complain that sometimes Aoyama comes up with a device and uses it to death; there were several volumes where it seemed like every damn mystery involved strings. But I digress.)
Another is the cast of characters, which keeps steadily increasing even as time otherwise barely moves forward. Aoyama knows all the detective-fiction tropes and provides his own twist on every character one could expect to encounter in a mystery. Rachel, a teenage Karate Master, serves as Conan's muscle, providing American readers of my hoary generation with fond flashbacks to Encyclopedia Brown and his bodyguard Sally. (Now there was a series with mysteries I could solve!) Conan's first-grade classmates form their own detective league, a nod to Conan Doyle's Baker Street Irregulars and Edogawa Rampo's Detective Boys. Local daffy inventor Dr. Agasa becomes Conan's Q, providing him with kid-themed crime-fighting devices like sneakers that allow him to kick high-powered soccer balls at crooks. A teen phantom thief, the Kaito Kid, makes periodic cameos from Aoyama's early manga Magic Kaito. And the role of femme fatalé is filled by Anita Hailey (Ai Haibara in the original, although neither is her real name…), the scientist who created the formula that turned Jimmy Kudo into a little boy and has used it herself to transform into a little girl. Anita is my favorite.
There are more characters, many more; the curious may pop on over to Wikipedia for an exhaustive if spoiler-ridden list of kids, teachers, detectives, police officers, CIA agents, criminals, and on and on. What's impressive is how well-developed most of them are, with their own goals and character arcs. Of course, Aoyama has had plenty of volumes to, say, build the romance between Detective Sato of the Metropolitan Police and her subordinate, Detective Takagi, or develop Rachel's efforts to bring her estranged parents—bumbling private eye Richard Moore and crack attorney Eva Kaden—back together. But the series shows a remarkable interest and curiosity toward all its characters. Curiosity is one of Case Closed’s great strengths. Aoyama clearly loves to learn new things and share his discoveries. Often these ideas go into mystery plots, of course, but he's just as happy to spend a page having Conan explain how to efficiently clean a room (start at the top and work down!), letting Anita talk about the differences between school lunches in Japan and in her own childhood in the U.S., or sharing a casual conversation between two characters who need a little development.
The plot that builds the most slowly is the main one: the story of how Jimmy uses his identity as Conan Edogawa to track down the “Men in Black” who turned him into a six-year-old and, hopefully, find a cure. Over the 50 volumes translated so far, Aoyama has dribbled out tantalizing dollops of information, building the Men in Black into a sinister, globe-spanning organization whose ultimate plan involves geneticists, computer scientists, and trying to “halt the flow of time.” Every once in a while Aoyama will let loose with a major revelation (some serious crap goes down in Volume 42, when undercover MiB agent Vermouth finally reveals her identity), but volume after volume will pass without more than a glancing reference to the case that Conan has spent the entire series trying to close. For readers eager for the solution to the mystery, this can be frustrating, but the only cure is to relax and enjoy the murder of the week.
Aoyama's already polished art gets slicker and more formulaic, but also more expressive, as the series goes on. It's very clearly a studio product, as a comic that's been running weekly for twenty years would pretty much have to be. The unusual loquaciousness of the manga—word balloons frequently take up the better part of a panel—limits the art as well. But the characters are lively and appealing, and Aoyama and his team do a remarkably good job of coming up with a wide range of physical types to fill out their enormous cast. (That said, Aoyama has his limitations, and sometimes pokes fun at the fact that he can apparently draw only one teenage male face; Osakan detective Harley Hartwell is basically Jimmy Kudo with a tan.)
Gosho Aoyama seems like an interesting person. Case Closed brims with curiosity, enthusiasm for literature and science and random factoids and world events ranging from Broadway musicals to the World Cup. He's one of the manga artists I'd most like to meet. If someone here has met him, and he's super boring, don't tell me. I prefer the mystery.
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