Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 26th 2010
Young aristocrat Oz Vessalius is caught in a supernatural conflict between two organizations, Pandora and the Baskervilles, who seek to control the dark underworld known as the Abyss. Despite Pandora's best efforts to recruit him, Oz is only interested in working alongside Alice, a Chain (a denizen of the Abyss) who has formed a spiritual contract with Oz. Together, they are trying to restore the fragments of Alice's memory while investigating why Oz has become a target in the battle for the Abyss. A run-in with a rampaging Chain, and the Pandora agent who is hunting after it, forces Oz to recall his painful childhood as he watches tragedy unfold. Meanwhile, Oz's personal valet Raven recalls his own troubled past: the missing years when Oz disappeared into the Abyss, and how Raven fell into Pandora's clutches as he sought a method to bring back his master.
Some manga series are constructed like a cake of infinite layers, endlessly building upon themselves until the protagonist has fifty friends and three hundred enemies and is traversing a fantasy world the size of Jupiter. But Pandora Hearts has been taking the opposite tack, adopting a structure more like an onion: at first only the surface details of are shown, involving Oz, Pandora, the Abyss, the ongoing conflict. However, as Oz investigates his past and encounters friends and foes alike, layer after layer of story is peeled away, revealing intertwined organizations, individuals, and motives that have been lying underneath the whole time. This inward-spiraling exploration continues in Volume 3, turning up some new characters as well as answering one of the most obvious questions since Volume 1: what did Gilbert (or Raven, as he is now known) do during those ten years that Oz was buried in the Abyss? At last we learn the answers that will fill in those gaps.
Not everyone is going to like how those answers are revealed, though. Once again, the series uses mostly dialogue scenes to fill in new details about the battle for the Abyss, meaning that we are now on Volume 3 and people still have to stand around and explain things to each other. "Yes, this is how the Pandora organization was formed, and here is why one of the Chains went loose a couple of chapters ago, and..." Sadly, the "show, don't tell" principle is violated pretty often, owing to the sheer complexity of this fantasy world—and while some enjoy being absorbed into that world, others will reel at the thought of having to sit through even more exposition.
Then again, when the story actually gets to the point of showing rather than telling, it does a respectable job—whether in the present day or in the past. The flashbacks are the true highlights of this volume, with Oz's recollection of his father being one of the best explorations yet into the protagonist's psyche. In the last chapter comes the grand showpiece: the story of how Gilbert fell in with the Nightray family and became Raven, a flashback that combines the heartbreak of Oz and Gilbert's separation, flashy dark-magic action scenes, and essential plot revelations. However, this also means that the main storyline doesn't advance much, with only a couple of chapters devoted to Oz and Alice fighting to maintain supernatural order, while also encountering new characters and learning a thing or two about damaged parental relationships. Really, they could be getting a lot further in recovering Alice's memories and defending the Abyss if there weren't always people having flashbacks or trying to explain things.
The shortage of action scenes also means that there aren't too many places for the artwork to shine—anyone who remembers the nightmare visions of the Abyss from earlier volumes won't find anything like that here. There's Oz and Alice's fight against a Chain in the middle chapters, but the sharp linework and frenetic visuals only last a few pages before the scenery returns to its usual stoic Victorian nature. The flashbacks have some strong moments too—deep black-and-white contrasts as Gilbert confronts his personal dark side, and the stark image of loneliness as a young Oz is abandoned by his father. But more often than not there are large segments where the scene shows nothing more than characters conversing, and even the attempts at interesting layouts get predictable (panel shapes and sizes are almost always based dividing the page into thirds). Of course the other problem with the art is how clean and polished the style is—which normally would be a good thing, but here it dilutes the 19th-century European feel with too much of a glossy modern-day sheen.
With expository dialogue still a major feature of the story, naturally one hopes for good writing and a good translation—which is about 80% true in this case. The characters' personalities are well-defined and come out clearly in the dialogue, especially in Alice's ornery outbursts. However, there is still that infuriating habit of characters saying vague things to each other—any talk of Oz's "sin," ominous warnings about Raven's life decisions—which might sound dark and mysterious, but more often comes out confusing and pointless. Discriminating readers might also be put off by the use of Japanese honorifics (even going so far as "onii-chan!") in a series that is clearly European in setting. Yes, faithfulness is important, but sometimes it's better to be faithful to the narrative than to the language being used to tell it. At least the sound effects offer options either way, with both Romanji transliteration and English equivalents placed next to the original.
If Pandora Hearts could be accused of a sin, it would not be for having a complex fantasy world—there's nothing inherently wrong with that. Rather, the series' guilt lies in the way it presents this world: constant sit-down-and-talk sessions, with the intricacies of the Abyss being presented through dull conversations instead of making maximum use of a visual medium. This volume also has a problem just getting the main storyline going; aside from meeting new characters and finishing off one particular beast, Oz and Alice don't accomplish a whole lot. Everything else is either expository dialogue or flashback material, and while it's good to learn the ins and outs of the characters and their motives, it would be nice to see a return to wild nightmare visions and battles against the menace of the Abyss once more. This series has plenty of potential in the way it brings together fantasy, horror, drama and even occasional comedy elements. But can it use that potential to its fullest?
Overall : C
Story : C
Art : C+
+ Flashbacks into Oz's and Raven's past reveal some essential truths about them, deepening the plot.
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