Reviewby Carlo Santos, Aug 21st 2010
Boy wizard and schoolteacher Negi Springfield was on a quest to find his father in the Magical World—until an evil sorcerer's plot derailed his plans and left Negi trying to regroup the students who came with him on his journey. Unfortunately, a couple of them were sold into slavery, and now Negi must win back their freedom by participating in a high-stakes tournament. His final opponent is none other than Jack Rakan—the legendary fighter who teamed up with Negi's father years ago and is now training Negi in his own techniques! In order to defeat "the man who wouldn't die," Negi must demonstrate complete mastery of all the combat and magical skills he's ever learned (including ones he just made up in the last couple of days). There's no doubt that Negi has the talent it takes to win ... but does he have the confidence?
Well, that was a major improvement over the last one.
Volume 26 of Negima, as some will remember, was the calm before the storm—and what a mediocre calm it was, with dull expository dialogue and haphazard plot threads and promises of just how awesome Negi's next fight was going to be. But it never did get to that awesome fight ... because Ken Akamatsu, in all his carefully planned wisdom, was saving it for this book. A book that's well worth waiting for.
It takes a full nine chapters for Negi Springfield to beat the daylights out of Jack Rakan, and not before he has his own daylights beaten out of him, as well as having a poignant flashback where he reflects on what it means to be a hero. These moments, along with the escalating attacks and the refusal of both fighters to die, are all part of the traditional shônen formula for a series-defining battle—something on the scale of Naruto vs. Sasuke, or Ichigo vs. his Hollow-self. But where those Shonen Jump scenarios were clashes of raw power, physically and emotionally, Negi vs. Rakan is a battle of intellectual prowess, where the guy who out-thinks and out-plans the other guy wins. Only in final chapter, when the characters sit down to talk about what happened, does one realize that Negi's fight could never have been won by a sword-swinging, fireball-shooting jock. Against all conventional odds, Negi's fight is the revenge of the nerd.
There's a reason it works out that way. In the creative process, all manga-ka inevitably place a little bit of themselves in the characters they create. And Ken Akamatsu, a self-professed geek, is no different—his Negi is kind of a loser, always down on himself and unsure of his own skills, not to mention awkward around girls (although that's easier to get away with when you're ten years old). And what insecure, shoegazing intellectual hasn't once dreamed of triumphing over the loud, overconfident star athelete, as typified by Jack Rakan? That's why this battle happens the way it does—Negi succeeds not because he is stronger, or more magically talented, or even more determined or hardworking. He does what he does because he is smarter. This, more than any boilerplate axiom about doing your best or wanting to be stronger, is the surprising takeaway from this battle (although it's still wrapped up in a lesson about being yourself and not trying to be anyone else). Toss around all the magical spells and attacks you like, but the nerd wins. That's Akamatsu's personality coming out in the story.
Of course, just because Negi's path to victory is unconventional doesn't mean that it's boring to watch. If anything, the pyrotechnics in this volume are just as thrilling as any of the more traditional power clashes—Negi dishes out the most visually stunning spells in his repertoire, as well as unveiling a few new ones designed to impress not just Rakan but also the reader. With lightning bolts shooting across double-page spreads, high-speed maneuvers causing Negi to appear in several places at once, and magic circles complex enough to scare off Edward Elric, this battle is remarkable both in its scope and detail. Akamatsu still gets a lot of computer assistance in designing the backgrounds and special effects, but this time he blends in enough action and hand-drawing that the artificiality of CGI is not overbearing. Meanwhile, the series' long-suffering problem of packing too much into one page still crops up at times, but with the battle involving just two parties for an entire volume, any possibility of confusion is minimized. If something explodes, either Negi or Rakan did it—easy enough to explain, and easy enough to follow.
Even the dialogue, which is Negima's other main source of information overload, is easy to follow this time around. With no convoluted plot mechanics or double-crossing to worry about, almost every line in this volume is either Negi or Rakan taunting each other, people in the crowd cheering them on, or experienced wizards commenting on the situation. There are a handful of flashback scenes with wishy-washy emotional confessions, but those go by pretty quickly, the result being a healthy balance between attack-screaming battle dialogue and more involved conversation. If anything, the greatest translation challenge is simply getting all those Latin and Greek incantations right, not to mention parsing the back-of-the-book notes on magical theory. As always, the sound effects (of which there are many) have English translations placed next to the original Japanese text, and the finer points of Japanese language (only two in this volume, apparently) are explained in the glossary.
As a long-running adventure series, it's to be expected that Negima has its up and down points—and this is definitely one of the biggest ups yet in the story. Although this volume is almost robotic in its adherence to the tournament-finale formula, there are enough variations and flourishes to make it an impressive work in its own right. The most surprising variation, of course, is the revelation that Negi's greatest virtue is something other than Trying Harder Than Anyone Else or Wanting To Become Stronger. The other aspects of this battle are not quite as revolutionary, but they are still shining examples of the form: the dazzling visual effects, the edge-of-your-seat pacing, and the rousing emotional sweep as Negi goes from an insecure boy to a confident, self-assured hero. Yes, it takes almost a full nine chapters for two fighting wizards to beat the daylights out of each other—and it's nine chapters very well spent.
Overall : A-
Story : B
Art : A-
+ Earns its place as an unforgettable comic book battle with action-packed visuals, complex magical theory, and a lead character who subverts familiar archetypes.
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