I’ve just finished reading the latest chapter of Black Clover – the manga, not the anime most folks are pretty down on – and there’s enough for me to ramble on a little bit. So here we are.
After reading all of Yūki Tabata’s Black Clover, starting about two weeks ago (give or take), there isn’t much I can really praise it for. Aside from simply being a shonen manga, it’s almost impressive how thin Black Clover is all round. It feels harsh writing this – I did genuinely enjoy it, and it made for two very relaxing weekends – but the manga is so derivative and so embracing of the shonen genre’s many tropes that it almost falls into straight parody. In fact, Black Clover makes more sense as parody than a traditional shonen.
First, the premise: Black Clover follows a magic-less teen named Asta and his brilliant rival Yuno as they work as ‘Magic Knights’ for the kingdom of Clover and strive to become the ‘Magic Emperor’ — in a lot of ways, it’s just a wizard-flavoured Naruto. Asta has the unnatural power of ‘anti-magic’, contained within two magical swords that eliminate magic on contact.
And that covers most of it — actually, ‘wizard-flavoured Naruto’ probably covered it even better. Black Clover is a shonen-ass shonen that embraces everything about the genre. But by doing so, it becomes slightly different and almost-interesting, something that sits between parody and a traditional shonen.
For one, Black Clover is insanely fast-paced at almost every point. The first chapters’ set up of the premise has the two protagonists – both very ‘traditional’ as far as shonen protags go – already joining the prestigious ‘Magic Knights’ of this world, who represent the best-of-the-best. Within a few chapters, the heroes are already there, and it’s sort of wonderful for it. Black Clover wastes no time whatsoever, rushing and speeding along so we can get to the first adventure already.
Reading it, it’s a choice that comes off both cynical and respectful of the readers. On one hand, the fast pace seems to be about prioritising action above everything (which I’ll get into later). Missions are straight-forward adventures – the first is ‘search for treasure in a dungeon’ – that, almost every time, shift into climactic and gorgeously drawn magic fights. Almost every arc, building to the current and seemingly end-game-y arc we’re in now, have shockingly high stakes, too: not necessarily world-ending, but not far off. And the regularity of this – where every fight and quest is so climactic that, for the sake of the story, failure is impossible – results in a story with almost no stakes. Nothing for the reader to genuinely worry about. Either because you’re not too invested anyway, or it’s already at such a dangerous point that it can’t possibly end any other way.
But, again, this is what makes Black Clover such a great read. It’s so shamelessly disinterested in being a ‘serious’ shonen manga that it focuses mostly on comedy and action, with story arcs that are just constantly explosive and large-scale. Everything’s exciting, everything’s big and exploding with something new. I really wish it’d be more adventure themed but Black Clover moves so briskly that it doesn’t really matter, you’ve already finished the arc and you’re onto the next.
Another part of this is the constant – constant – classism or elitism themes and the total lack of subtlety Black Clover brings to the subject. The bigotry on display isn’t at all interesting or deep whatsoever: noble blood see ‘commoners’ as ‘street rats’, call them such with pride, and that’s the entire extent of that bigotry. ‘Street rat’ is somehow the main insult in this universe and you’ll read it just about every issue, especially early on. It’s actually so extreme and so repetitive that it comes off more like a running gag once you’ve read street-rat-street-rat-street-rat for the tenth of so time, five chapters in.
The cast of Black Clover is just as shameless, entirely made up of archetypes, but the series is so willing to poke fun at itself and its characters for being so. They’re characters you probably already know from somewhere else – as much as I like the majority of them, there’s only a handful I’d say are genuinely memorable – but they’re likeable and immediately understandable. They also genuinely learn and grow at a faster pace than the usual shonen cast, which is a refreshing change.
I guess I’ll finish on the action, which is genuinely great most of the time. Rarely incredible, but always entertaining and (usually) easy to follow, and instead of the typical fire-wind-ice elemental stuff – though that’s definitely there – combat rarely comes down to power-vs-power grudge matches. It’s definitely too generous to say so, but it reminded me of JoJo a few times, where their powers act more as tools with distinct purpose and ability than straight ‘power’, where magic will primarily respond chemically to another’s.
Black Clover is alright, and that’s pretty much it. I enjoyed reading it all, I’m glad I did, and I’ll keep up with it from now on, and it’s even pretty funny most of the time. But otherwise it lacks a real identity, so entrenched in shonen genre conventions and its world built so thinly on basic fantasy tropes that it’s not really something to become attached to – and that’s exactly what it’s good at.
If what you want is a really shonen-y shonen manga, Black Clover is alright.