Shadows are bad news, at least in the world of Ral & Grad. Demonlike creatures born in the world of darkness, they have no dimension, no form, have an insatiable appetite for living creatures, can possess human beings, and are generally up to no darn good. When a tragedy-struck teenager named Ral befriends the shadow inside him --- a giant blue dragon named Grad --- he is tasked with saving the world, protecting his kingdom from evil shadows that wish to destroy it.
Ral & Grad --- from cowriters Tsuneo Takano and Takeshi Obata --- is full of mainstream, giddy delights, breathtaking artwork, a completely comprehensible narrative, and lots of breasts (teen Ral is absolutely obsessed with them). Its storytelling moves lightning-fast, with plenty of corkscrew surprises and unexpected turns, drawing much of its accessibility from employing traditional fantasy tropes and videogame totems.
Ral comes with a fascinating backstory. Having spent the first 15 years of his life locked in a cage, because the king so feared the power of his shadow dragon, Ral is now nearly deified because the king needs his fearsome powers to defeat the evil Queen Bira. But Ral’s dilemma and journey are complex and rich.
The books may find Ral devoting a hair too much time to his overactive libido. Too often, Ral is more Beavis than Naruto. Still, the basic mythology of Ral & Grad is solid, mainstream stuff—bits and pieces of Western classics like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are in abundance, making the books a fairly easy read for Westerners or manga newbies. That said, the series’ cosmology can be dizzying. Takano and Obata require plenty of space and time to explain, for example, the world and function of the Shadows before allowing their story’s primary conflict to unfurl.
Obata’s artwork is absolutely sumptuous, full of action and detail, dark fantasy, and elegant humanity. Fantasy touches --- and the renderings of dragon Grad --- set high standards for other manga. This is truly superlative work.
For all the labyrinthine storytelling and thrilling action, the poignant backstory and dark touches, the little boy’s world of Ral & Grad is offered great, if occasionally redundant, touches of levity, thanks to Ral’s juvenile obsession with breasts. Kudos to Takano and Obata for creating a book that honors, in equal parts, the worlds of fantasy and adolescence, sex and violence. Good stuff for older teen readers.
Reviewed by J. Rentilly on October 18, 2011
Ral & Grad, Volume 1