Reviewby Faye Hopper,
RWBY: The Official Manga Volume 1
In the world of Remnant, beings of pure malice known as Grimm roam the land, wreaking havoc and destruction. To combat their rampant evil, humanity developed Dust—an energy source harnessed from the natural energies of the world—and founded schools to teach those willing and brave enough to battle these forces of darkness. These warriors are known as Hunters and Huntresses. Ruby Rose is a young girl who wants nothing more than to become a Huntress and protect the innocent. And her moment has come. In a daring attempt to stop a notorious thief, Roman Torchwick, from robbing a Dust Shop, she catches the eye of the Headmasters of Beacon Academy, one of the most prestigious Hunter schools in the world. And though she is a good few years younger than the typical entrant, she is invited to attend. Along with her sister, Yang Xiao Long, a mysterious girl named Blake Belladonna, a privileged rival named Weiss Schnee (the heir to one of the most powerful Dust companies in existence) and many others, Ruby faces a great multitude of conflicts, from having difficulty making friends to the combat trials of the academy, as the dark forces of the world stir and maneuver in the shadows.
RWBY first came out when I was in early high school. I remember enjoying the first season as it aired in chunks, having grown up on Red Vs. Blue and honestly being quite taken by Monty Oum's exuberant action direction. Granted, I was 14, and my opinion of the series has diminished greatly since. I now regard RWBY as a simultaneously strange, tepid and not-very- good Western evocation of Shonen Battle Anime conventions (yes, I do know it goes to different places in the later volumes and takes a few artistic risks), complimented by an even stranger and more depressing production history marked by the tragic death of its creator. This is a lot of potentially unfair baggage to take into a Jump manga adaptation, but with a franchise with such a pedigree and reputation as RWBY (especially if, like me, you have a history with it) it is impossible to not compare it to its source text; see the ways in which it, as an adaptation, succeeds and fails. And how does it fare as such?
In terms of the of the good, RWBY: The Official Manga already has a leg up on RWBY's first season in that it has consistent character writing. Ruby Rose, the lead precocious tyke, actually has a decipherable personality and a clear arc. While in RWBY's first season she was mostly a collection of bubbly anime girl clichés punctuated occasionally by a want to protect the innocent, here her altruistic inclinations and desire to become a Hunter are impaired by her lack of experience interacting with others. She might be talented, she might be ambitious, but without a willingness to reach out and make friends she'll never be the Huntress of her dreams. This is shown in her evolving relationship with Weiss, where both must compromise and put aside their hostility toward one another in order to—at the end of the volume during a monster attack—save people from being hurt.
And while Blake and Yang spend most of the volume playing second-fiddle to Ruby's growth, they also get a few good scenes establishing, respectively, Blake's perceptiveness (in how she cuts through Weiss's bluster and denial to explain how Weiss and Ruby are coming to trust each other) and Yang's wish to see her sister grow and mature. Even Jaune Arc, the worst character in the history of storytelling, has a thematic role that makes sense in context of the broader ensemble; as someone who realizes their own weakness, and yet is still brave and is willing to use himself as bait to help his team (even if they still keep his annoying, uncomfortable and putz-y hitting on of every girl in the cast intact, though mercifully it's only relegated to one scene of this volume). This isn't groundbreaking stuff (and is in some ways true in abstract of RWBY's first season), but it being clarified at all, with any level of precision, means that a narrative that was once disconnected and muddied becomes a much sharper, stronger story about coming-of-age, learning to work together and connecting with others.
But it wouldn't be RWBY if the whole thing weren't hobbled by bad art and major execution issues. RWBY: The Official Manga's paneling is extremely difficult to parse. The introductory action scene featuring Roman's robbery and Ruby's failed attempt to halt the heist creates a bad initial impression, as hits lack impact, action doesn't flow digestibly from one panel to the next, character designs are under detailed, and almost all the wrong choices are made as to how to sell the key, central moments of the combat. This is an issue persists throughout the book, both in terms of action (the final moments of the volume featuring the whole cast squaring off against two giant Grimm are story crucial, and yet lack the impact they should due to barely being able to tell how the fight is progressing) and general visual storytelling (the scene in the commons area where Ruby confesses her dream is more confusing than compelling, as the book's faded, effervescent style makes it hard to tell where the scene is even taking place). But even this is workable. It's worth noting that Kinami isn't a bad artist (I actually like their sharper, more mature riffs on RWBY's character designs and their wispy, ethereal style), and this isn't always a deal breaker in the case of other series with similar issues (I'm a huge fan of Yasuhiro Nightow, and I have never been able to tell what's happening in his busy action scenes) .
No, the problem that hinders the series' storytelling is that Bunta Kinami's artistic strengths are at odds with the kind of series RWBY is. RWBY is a worldbuilding-based fantasy action series, but Kinami seems to feel much more at home with personal, emotional character work; there is a huge difference in creative energy and general decipherability between scenes that focus on character development and psychology and those that depict action, scene-setting and worldbuilding. This is a major issue when half the book consists of action and worldbuilding. While this approach, as mentioned above, does mean that characters who were previously ill-defined have much clearer psychologies the reader can more readily connect with, it also means that a good chunk of the volume (such as explanations of what Grimm are, what Dust is, how the multiple magic systems work) is so badly executed that the reader is confused and without reason to care, which is not the response one wants to be having when a girl with a gun-scythe is slamming it into the face of a monster. These execution issues are counter to RWBY's appeal (and in a strange inverse, counter to how the one good part of the first season was Oum's energetic, inventive action sequences), counter to what a good majority of it is comprised of, and leaves me wondering if the series would be better if Kinami was allowed to deviate from the established plot arcs to play more to their interests.
For what it was, I enjoyed RWBY: The Official Manga a lot more than I expected. There's a lot that it does to sharpen and make more consistent writing that was, at best, confused and unsure of what it wanted to be and, at worst, actively incoherent. But there's also a lot that is exactly akin to the problems of Season 1; in terms of worldbuilding, in terms of presentation, and in terms of art. Even so, the surprising strengths of this first volume does leave me curious if things will improve in later volumes or if the story will spin off in bold, new directions. And if I'm curious about and potentially invested in what anything RWBY-related is going to do, that's a sign of some kind of success. After all, I haven't cared about RWBY since high school.
Overall : C-
Story : C+
Art : C-
+ Takes the muddled writing of RWBY Season 1 and sharpens it into a conventional but decently executed coming of age story; more consistent, rich characterization is surprising and welcome
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