Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
GN 1 & 2
Asta is determined to be the next Wizard King of his country, but there are just two problems: he's from a town in the country's lowest caste, and he has no magic in a world of magic users. But what Asta can't do with magic he makes up for in determination, and when he turns fifteen, he manages to get into the kingdom's elite defense forces, the Magic Knights, with a different sort of power. Sure, he's in the lowest-ranking group, while his foster brother Yuno has great power in the highest rank, but that's not going to stop him. Maybe, just maybe, Asta's actually got a chance.
How picky should we be when a new series feels like a compilation of series we've read before? To a degree, it really depends on how well the new one melds its influences together; after all, prevailing wisdom says that there are only six plots in the entire world, right? This is really the core issue with Yuki Tabata's Black Clover – not that it isn't a good story, but rather that it feels very obvious where all of its elements are coming from. It's not just that protagonist Asta makes up for his lack of magical skill by being loud (as one of the characters says) or that his determination to be the next Wizard King is cliché in shounen adventure stories. It's more that every time he says it, you half expect him to declare that he's going to be King of the Pirates after he joins Fairy Tail and hangs out with Cana before using his nullifying magic to save the school, after which he'll go conquer a dungeon and claim its djinn.
As many readers will recognize, Black Clover freely takes inspiration from a large number of popular shounen titles, which is not in itself a bad thing. Any genre has its collection of tropes that make it tick, and the core story of “underdog overcomes” is almost an unwritten rule in this kind of adventure plot. Tabata adds to this by making the kingdom of Clover (no relation to QuinRose's) a very stratified society. There are three castes, represented by the area of the country you live in: nobility/royalty, living in the center of the kingdom, commoners in the next arc, and farthest out, you have the peasants. Your status is in part determined by the amount of inherent magical ability you have, or at least it appears to have started out that way. This makes Asta, as well as his foster brother Yuno, even more of an underdog as an orphan with no inherent magic. This built-in prejudice is one of the stronger aspects of the story, adding the question of whether all the neighboring kingdoms function the same way – in volume two, we do learn of the existence of the Country of Diamond, so we can guess that there are at least two more.
Another strength of Tabata's first two volumes is the way he gives us characters' backstories as soon as possible. This is not to imply that he rushes the pace or doesn't give us the time to get to know someone before rushing headlong into their pasts; instead it allows us to quickly understand why someone is the way they are. In the case of Noelle, a princess whose first few encounters with her fellow Knights make her come off as an incredibly unlikable ojou-sama, this makes her much less of an impediment to enjoying the story. She's prickly and snobbish because those were her only defense mechanisms in a family that treated her like an embarrassment. It doesn't make her treatment of Asta and the rest of their group any more palatable, but at least we can see why she's doing it and that she has room for growth. This works slightly less well with both Asta and Yuno, but that's largely because we're expected to immediately agree with their friendly rivalry set-up, which is not particularly well developed. Tabata doesn't overuse this technique either, making it more effective when only a few main characters get it.
Regretfully, the rest of these two volumes aren't as well done. From the premise of Asta screaming about how he's going to be king (you can practically hear him through the pages) to his super-special nullification powers, there's nothing terribly new or engaging here, and Asta's shouty enough to be truly annoying. His catchphrase, “I'm not done yet,” is overused, and even though Yuno has hints of personality, he's basically lacking one. More of an issue, however, is the way that elements of other popular stories are so clearly seeded throughout these books. If you haven't consumed a lot of shounen, this really won't be an issue, but for many manga fans, recognizing the source inspiration can take you right out of the story. To be clear, this is not plagiarism. Nothing is directly taken from any other series. Rather, the elements of others are recognizable, as if Tabata really enjoyed something in another author's work and decided to try incorporating it into his own. It's a bit reminiscent of when every other YA novel that came out after Twilight was a vampire romance – an easy way for a relatively new author to express their enthusiasm without having yet honed the skill to do it smoothly. Black Clover reads like the work of a mangaka who has not yet matured in his storytelling rather than a bad one.
Even within these two volumes, we can see the art smoothing out, becoming more Tabata's own as he grows more comfortable with page layouts and drawing his characters. This is particularly obvious in Asta and Noelle, as well as the panel set ups in volume two. As the series goes on, there's a good chance that the storyline and its myriad references will strengthen as well, making this much more Tabata's own series rather than a pastiche of others he enjoys. That does make Black Clover worth keeping half an eye on, even if it isn't an A series right now.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B-
+ Good character backstories, caste system makes the story's world more interesting, art and layouts improve as the books go on
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