Thumbing through the pages of Fairy Tail, a new manga series by Hiro Mashima, I prepared myself to loathe or at least barely tolerate its contents, as it seemed like just about every shonen manga cliche that’s come down the pike in the past few years — from a fantasy-based setting to a spiky hair protagonist to an abundance of cleavage — was crammed in for maximum sales potential.
So the good news then is it’s actually a quite charming series, full of good fun and humor. It’s also an excellent example of how a good author can make even the most tired premise seem fresh and inventive.
The plot involves Lucy, a buxom magic user (her trick is summoning fantastic creatures with a set of keys) whose dream is to join the wizard guild (a loose club of super-powered adventurers who take on a variety of jobs for pay, a la Final Fantasy Tactics Advance) known as Fairy Tail. A misadventure with a creepy con artist and his band of thugs leads her to meet a member of that clan and join up, though naturally the reality turns out to be a bit less than what she envisioned.
Fairy Tail is a pretty motley group, to put it mildly. Their members consist of the goofy Natsu, who can wield fire to great affect but gets terrible motion-sickness, a female, card-summoning drunkard who quaffs barrels of ale without blinking, and a guy who can’t seem to keep his clothes on, just to name a few.
Lucy quickly teams up with Natsu and his pet cat Happy, and the three of them set off on various tasks for money and reputation. There are subplots about Natsu trying to find the dragon that raised and trained him and Lucy’s desire to be an author, but mainly the book is about this gangly group of adventurers taking oddball jobs, meeting strange and sometimes evil characters and kicking ass whenever necessary, though never at the expense of a good visual gag.
Mashima, whose previous manga was the very popular Rave Master (unread by me), owes an obvious debt to One Piece creator Eiichiro Oda as both books offer an appealing mix of comedy and action, drawn in a rubbery, cartoonish style.
Mashima is no mere copyist though. He has a gift for exaggeration as well as a fertile imagination that serves him exceedingly well here. His monsters bend and twist in odd shapes as though they were made with Silly Putty. They might snap back into a ball if you tugged the right corner.
I also like the way he subverts your expectations for the sake of a good joke (as with Natsu’s motion sickness) and then uses his artistic skills knock the ball out of the park. A lesser creator, for example, would find a joke about a rich man’s stable of hideously ugly maids funny enough on its own to not need further embellishment. But Mashima’s ugly maids, with their impossibly squashed faces, hairy arms and oddly proportioned bodies drives it up into the realm of inspired. Tex Avery (or Bill Watterson for that matter) would be proud.
Light and frothy, Fairy Tail is full of likable characters and winning scenarios. It’s not particularly deep, and it certainly doesn’t stray far from traditional manga fantasy cliches, but neither does it overstay its welcome, delve into wonky and impenetrable rules about the way magic works in this universe, or lose itself in cheap smuttiness. If Lucy, for example, sometimes bends over a bit too far or wears short skirts, the series nevertheless displays none of the sexual ickiness that mars something like, say, Negima. In other words, it plays fair with its audience. It’s a puppy dog of a manga, that only wants to play fetch and have its ears scratched every now and then.
I had a goofy grin plastered on my face the whole time I was reading Fairy Tail. I think you will too.
Fairy Tail, Vols. 1-2
by Hiro Mashima
$10.95 per volume