Pandora Hearts, vol. 1 needs you to keep up. You will be introduced to a new world, a huge cast, and a mysterious dimension with its own set of rules that aren’t explained until a third of the way through the first volume. You will be a very confused reader because you’re learning of all of this through the eyes of Oz Vessalius. He’s not a particularly helpful protagonist, since he’s a teenage duke who has no idea that the Abyss is anything beyond a legend. So, when he dreams about it, then is pulled into it, you are as lost as he is.
Fortunately, Oz defaults to being optimistic, so while the Abyss is a truly horrifying place, giant monsters like B-Rabbit somehow comfort him. Oz makes a contract with this monster (called a chain), B-Rabbit, to get out of the Abyss. After escaping, he’s accosted by agents of Pandora. Along with threatening him, they explain some of the things that have been happening. However, weird dreams, a strange watch, and why Oz is in the middle of all of this seem to be beyond their ability to explain.
I really love that Pandora Hearts makes you work to understand what’s going on. It’s one of the best building blocks to a suspenseful manga. At the end of this first volume you’ll have the main goal for the protagonist, but you’ll still have a lot of questions. Of course, with this kind of information overload it’s entirely possible that Pandora Hearts will break under the weight of all of the suspense, but at least the first volume delivered an entertaining story.
I hesitate to describe the narrative as tight because there are a few exposition dumps throughout the book that slow the pace, but it’s a strong effort. It’s refreshing for bad guys to come on the scene, attack, and not be entrenched in a lot of explanation. Because Oz doesn’t know what’s happening, no one explains anything. The reader can guess that his friend has been possessed, but we are not privilege to any information that Oz isn’t.
The art in Pandora Hearts is heavily detailed. It’s closer to the D. Gray Man family than it is to Dragon Ball. Everyone’s clothing seems to match his or her personality perfectly. It’s a great consideration and immediately helps the reader place what each character is all about without needing them to speak. Since Pandora Hearts is on a trajectory to have a massive cast, this is a wonderful aid. Occasionally there are enough detail lines, background images, and characters all in one place to make the action hard to read, but that doesn’t happen often enough to mar the story.
Since atmosphere is so important to the story, it’s great that Mochizuki knows how to block her scene. The story can shift from a chilling still to a fight sequence and the camera angles and character placement change accordingly. A well-placed Dutch angle in a sparse room can halt the story, and you can count your heartbeats in time with Oz’s.
As fun as Pandora Hearts can be, it’s not for every reader. It will never stop being hyper-detailed. It’s obvious from the beginning, in explanation and in appearance, that Pandora Hearts is stuffed, panel to panel. You’ll need to keep track of the information in order to make sense of the story. While that’s some readers’ delight, others might discover they have a threshold.
The detail and horror between the pages of Pandora Hearts sometimes suggests that this really is outside of the shonen world, which is where Oz comes in. He is unfailingly faithful and usually quick to retain a positive outlook. So, while merciless mannequins may chase him, it won’t take long for him (post-pursuit) to find a smile.
While there is some blood and violence, Pandora Hearts wants to unsettle with questions and chills as opposed to sicken with blood. Any reader who can handle suspense, the supernatural, and wants to learn the minutia of a new world, is welcome to take on the challenge of Pandora Hearts.