You can say a lot of things about D. Gray-man, but you cannot deny that it is stunning manga. Katsura Hoshino knows her way around a pen. And if you thought I misused my pronoun, you’d be mistaken. In Japan, female manga-ka are closer to the norm than the exception. Even better, what genre they cover is not confined to their gender. There have been plenty of shonen comics written by ladies. The immensely popular Fullmetal Alchemist and Ranma ½ are just two examples. With constant battles, menacing enemies, and a young man prepared to righteously fight, D. Gray-man has earned its shonen mettle. But while I love being able to review sketchbooks, it does leave out a whole half of this sequential art deal. There’s no pacing or story to these illustrations, so while I can tell you oodles about Hoshino’s art, I can only discuss the periphery of the story. So if you’re looking for an in-depth discussion of D. Grey-Man’s story, that’s another review.
Alright! Now that the caveats have passed, let’s talk about art, shall we? Hoshino has graced her readers with an art style rarely attempted in a monthly format: it is intensely detailed. Among shonen comics this is especially rare treatment. Most younger comics favor broader expressions that, if not cartoony, are certainly brighter and more sprightly. Modern examples would be shonen like One Piece and Naruto. However, everything in D. Gray-man is hyper-realized. From her characters faces to their outfits, to their surroundings, there is not a line out of place. While characters are still structured in a manga-style (rounded faces, expressive eyes, outlandish hair) everything is kept to a minimum. The eyes, which might claim half of a face in another manga, (we’re looking at you, shojo) are largely in human proportion. Rounded faces are usually reserved for the younger, or happier characters, while more serious characters approach a style that is very life-like. Fortunately, as the cast is composed of demon-hunters, demons, and people somewhere in-between, their varying monstrous characteristics always keep you well grounded in the D. Gray-man universe.
To match their complex lives, the characters in D. Gray-man have the most intricate outfits. The story takes place in an alternate Earth, around the Victorian Era. Add the Akuma (demons) into the mix, and it is a recipe for some of the most outlandish costuming in comics. Somehow, Hoshino pulls it all together. A lot of the clothing focuses around the uniform of the Order (those committed to fighting Akuma). While it’s standard issue, there is no character that does not give it their own embellishments. So girls will have their favorite weapon, then frills, or skirts, or boots, or some character design that we’ll never hear the back story to, but Hoshino has undoubtedly thought about. Even stripped of individualism, the standard uniform is a cacophony of buttons and lines and belts and fabric. However, with some whirl of designer’s magic, there is never a question in the reader’s mind when you need to distinguish different characters. While that is a compliment on its own, it’s compounded when you actually read the series and see how many battle scenes there are. Hoshino can have twenty characters on a page, and you know who they are. And, it’s all in black and white. It’s astounding.
As a small aside, one of the biggest complexities in Hoshino’s illustrations is her layout choice. It is remarkably inventive. It’s not something you see a lot in this sketchbook, but I thought I’d provide it for the sake of a well-rounded view. In the manga, she takes her camera all over the scene, which is one of the greatest challenges artists can impose on themselves. She’s a bold artist for undertaking the risk, because when it doesn’t work out (and sometimes it does not) the page can be unreadable. But when she’s successful? The artistic accomplishment is wondrous. Okay, back to the actual sketchbook! It contains more than 80 full-color images of the characters of D. Gray-man. Most of the work is cover illustrations from the series, but there are other commissions or special magazine images (anniversaries, contests) included. Most of the images are pen and copic marker. However, some include digital coloring, added tones, or are in a different medium. There’s at least one errant acrylic one and another in colored pencil.
Having a full-colored work of D. Gray-man in your hands is actually a nice change of pace from the comic. With minimal serious pictures (many are smiling group shots) and few demons infiltrating the illustrations, you might get the idea that D. Gray-man takes place in a really happy world, albeit a little Gothic. I don’t say that as a criticism, really it’s a nice reprieve. The comic is so dark and serious, with very high stakes. It’s nice to be reminded that these characters know how to smile.
The back matter includes a run through of the images by Hoshino, (not more than a sentence per piece) as well as a little picture diary of what her life is like. In addition to the glimpse into her world, there are two interviews they conducted with Hoshino paired with a famous manga-ka. One is with Osamu Akimoto (creator of Kochikame) and the other is Takeshi Obata (artist on Hikaru no Go, Death Note, and Bakuman). Both talks are brief, but very elucidating. They focus largely on the art processes these different manga-ka go through. In the interview with Akimoto, Hoshino isn’t very active, possibly because she’s humbled before such a legend. She talks more with Obata, which is nice because it’s obvious that his art style influenced her. He’s probably one of the few contemporary artists that is just as ambitiously detailed. It’s very neat to see she inherited that legacy from him.
For any fan of D. Gray-man that wants to get a behind-the-scenes look D. Gray-man Illustrations: Noche is a great addition to their collection. To any student of art, I’d also recommend this. Whether or not you’re a fan of the manga series, there’s definitely a technique or two to be learned from this collection.
D. Gray-man Illustrations: Noche
by Katsura Hoshino