Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Graphic Lit: Naruto Nation

The most popular comic book character in America right now isn’t Superman or Batman. Or Spider-Man. Or even Wolverine for that matter.

No, that title is held by a plucky young Japanese ninja named Naruto.

His self-titled manga series, written and drawn by Masashi Kishimoto, has consistently charted on USA Today and Bookscan best-seller lists and is often used as Exhibit A proof that manga has surpassed American comics in popularity.

Meanwhile, the “Naruto” anime (Japanese term for animation or cartoon) is one of the most popular offerings on the Cartoon Network right now (in fact, it just wrapped up a “100 Hours of Naruto” marathon).

And, as you might expect, the phenomenon doesn’t end there. Go into any big-box store and you’ll see Naruto clothing, toys, collectible card games, video games and much more.

Now Viz Media, publishers of the manga and anime, has upped the ante considerably with the arrival of “Naruto Nation.”

Starting this month, Viz will ramp up its publication schedule to release three volumes of the manga a month.

September, for example, sees the arrival of volumes 16, 17 and 18. Volumes 19-21 will come out in the beginning of October, and so on, up to the release of volume 27 in December.

In March, Viz will go back to its regular schedule with volume 28, which abruptly fast-forwards to two and a half years later to feature an older, wiser Naruto.

That’s not all, of course. This month also sees the release of “Naruto the Movie: Ninja Clash in the Land of the Snow” on DVD. The book “Uzumaki: Art of Naruto” will be published in October. And then there’s the seemingly endless assortment of stickers, magazines and video games that will hit stores this fall.

The idea behind the push, according to Liza Coppola, senior vice president of marketing at Viz Media, was to accommodate fans clamoring for more Naruto while at the same time catching up with the Japanese release schedule.

“All the fans want to get caught up. They want to get as much Naruto as possible,” she said. “This is our chance to give the fans what they want and ... get caught up to what’s already been out in Japan.”

Without sounding too flip, “Naruto” can best be described as “Harry Potter with ninjas.”

Naruto Uzumaki is a 12-year-old orphaned ninja whose body houses the spirit of a violent fox demon that attacked his village before he was born.

For that reason, most of the village — except for a select few — views him with suspicion or outright hostility, although poor Naruto doesn’t find out why until much later.

Rather than wallow in self-pity, he instead dedicates himself to becoming the best ninja ever, though his impetuosity and mischievous behavior frequently interferes with that goal.

Kishimoto’s story features a huge and diverse supporting cast, from Naruto’s rival, the unflappable Sasuke, to the murderous but pitiable Gaara.

It’s the relationships between all those characters, combined with the intense and well-choreographed action scenes, that’s made “Naruto” so successful, according to critic and journalist Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter Web site (

“It’s this generation’s ‘X-Men.’¤” he said. “It features a real fun, engaging, refreshing approach to action on the comics page. Marry that to the time-worn underdog drama — it’s an irresistible action comedy.

“It’s not one of those fluke hits where you think your kids are morons for liking it.”

But is the series popular enough to bear the brunt of such a heavy release schedule? Will fans, in Spurgeon’s words, become “so saturated with Naruto product that they get a brain-freeze and won’t be on board for the newer stuff?”

Coppola doesn’t think so.

“I think ‘Naruto’ is the exception to every rule,” she said. “There’s an affinity with this property that we don’t really see with other properties.”

In other words, if there’s any series, Japanese or American that could sustain this kind of retail onslaught, it’s Naruto.

Oh, and maybe Harry Potter.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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