Reviewby Grant Jones,
Ragna Crimson GN
In a fantasy world where humanity is on the brink and beset by dragons, warriors known as dragon hunters are the one thing standing between safety and extinction. Dragon hunters use silver weapons to kill dragons and collect their bounties. Ragna is one such hunter, but not a particularly good one. He tags along with the young prodigy Leonica, who is one of the greatest dragon hunters alive. However, as the dragon threat suddenly increases, he borrows power from an unexpected ally who shows him what would happen if he remains weak: he would see Leonica die in his arms. Armed with this new power and fueled by the fear of losing Leonica, he leaves her behind and sets out to slay every dragon in his path— no matter how powerful they may be.
It is written and drawn by Daiki Kobayashi, with translation handled by Stephen Paul and lettering by Eric Erbes. It is published by Square Enix Manga and this first volume includes chapters 1-3.
Ragna Crimson is a strange mixed bag of expected and unexpected in the realm of gritty/dark fantasy tales.
In many respects its premise and execution are very familiar. A fantasy setting where humanity is on the verge of being wiped out by enormous monsters who gobble up hapless innocents by the dozen in suitably gory fashion with only a few beleaguered and outnumbered defenders to protect them? I don't think it would be much of a stretch to say it brings to mind another series that is hugely popular at the moment (and a few more besides). Even the monster's weakness—silver weapons—is only unique in that it applies to dragons specifically, and even then that's nothing particularly original.
It even has a rather familiar action-horror sense of pacing for scenes as well, generally going along the lines of:
“Well, things might be bad but we're keeping it together for now!”
[Two seconds later]
“Oh no, things are exponentially worse!”
So you could write this off as another “also ran” in the realm of dark fantasy action horror work and not be off the mark, at least initially. But there are a few unique qualities to it that help its setting stand out from the pack.
Firstly, the rather early transition from "using silver weapons" to "the hero becoming one with his weapon" is a good twist. The way the silver manifests around Ragna is a great visual and is thematically much more distinct; having a sort of living cloud of vines erupting from one's body is definitely more interesting than swinging around a traditional blade. Ragna quickly goes from “bumbling squire” to “s-tier xianxia hero” in the blink of an eye, and that gives a different flavor to the dragon fighting than a more traditional fantasy story might have.
The acquisition of his new power is similarly exciting. I will attempt to avoid major spoilers, but the main hook itself is solid enough even without being terribly original. The real meat of it is the time spent investing in the emotional aspect of Ragna's power up. I think Daiki does a tremendous job instilling the reader with a sense of how important this moment is for Ragna and what the cost of failure is. To put it bluntly, Ragna becomes one of the most powerful beings in the setting, and yet it feels like the stakes couldn't be higher—which, in my opinion, is evidence of strong writing and effective pacing.
The visual excitement and artistic fidelity of the manga are both beyond excellent. Every frame a painting, to borrow a well-known phrase. Daiki Kobayashi's line work is wonderfully crisp, and everything has a level of precision and edge that perfectly fit the source material. I would go so far as to say that Daiki's art is disarmingly good—I got so accustomed to the fidelity of the art that I almost forgot to slow down and appreciate the care that has gone into each panel. Moody shots of King Crimson on a throne or Ragna overlooking the dark forest beneath him practically hum with tangible dread, while haunting visions of Leorica's fate and draconic demises at Ragna's hands spring to life with palpable viscera. When Ragna Crimson gets going, it's a non-stop guitar solo and it's hard not nod along to its rhythms.
Similarly, the comic language is just as readily flexed. Aggressive panelling and booming sound effects make every action scene jump to life right off the page. Moments that are more ethereal and otherworldly are appropriately disorienting and somber, while the framing for action sequences is executed with deft clarity. I found myself rereading certain sequences and soaking in them again, from out-of-body meta commentary to gory dragon executions. Daiki Kobayashi is working in a number of different spaces and at no point does he seem unequipped for the situation.
That is not to say that the art is entirely without drawbacks. The character designs are… fine. They're fine! I would not say any of the cast stands out particularly, save maybe King Crimson in the outfit with the crown. While not exactly generic, I was not particularly enamored with the design work in that regard. It's all functional of course, but outside of a few exciting dragon monsters there is not much to write home about. I walked away from the volume for a few days before writing this review and I was struggling to conjure up mental images of much beyond the core trio of characters introduced.
The setting also feels very ill-defined and loose. We learn a few city names, that there are dragons and dragon hunters, and that things are bad; there is not much to go on beyond that. It's not hard to see why: the narrative is clearly prioritizing the kinetic action sequences, and the geography lessons and political charts have taken a backseat to the raw spectacle of what is happening in the moment. But it sure would have been nice to know a little more about what is going on in the world or who some of the people involved are, because watching a few dozen people get eaten whole by a dragon or hearing that nine of the ten remaining cities are burning left me responding, “...ok.” Maybe Daiki is planning on fleshing out the worldbuilding later, but I would have preferred to be even a little more rooted in the setting before the blood started flowing.
I also, personally, felt very uncomfortable with the depiction of Leorica and Ragna's relationship. Nothing necessarily untoward happens—and in a “dark fantasy” kind of pitch there was a real fear that it might, so believe me I'm relieved—but there is definitely a vibe that I did not care for. The head pats, the bathing, the co-sleeping, the lap sitting… the age gap between them and the framing of those scenes really made me uncomfortable. I'm not alone in this regard either, as other characters also mention it being creepy in-text. Now, again, nothing explicit happens, and as the narrative progresses the emphasis shifts to the details of their connection and what it means to the two of them. I think outside those first few dozen pages it is fine, but I think I'd be remiss not to note that some of those early scenes were very much detracting from my enjoyment of the work.
Overall though, if you can get past the initial discomfort of those early scenes and forgive the use of a few well-worn tropes, I think Ragna Crimson has a lot of visceral excitement to keep you entertained for an afternoon read.