Generic isn't always a bad thing, you realise. The implication that a story being by the numbers or conceptually something we've seen a million times before doesn't inherently make it BAD. I mean heck, nearly every single shonen manga churned out from Shueisha in the last two decades has been conceptually the same thing, which is assumed to mostly be King Generic's fault (King Generic in this piece is played by Dragon Ball).
Let's just put the obvious out there as to how 90% of shonen manga are nowadays. First take a naive boy. Now give him a special talent or something he excels at despite other failings. Give him some insurmountable thing to face that can only be beaten through love, friendship and hope. Oh and while you're at it we're gonna need a brooding anti-hero with black hair and an inability to JUST ABOUT reach the heights of the main character, even if he started off being far more talented. Finally the cherry on top, a stubborn girl who despite constantly being annoyed by the main character's actions slowly falls for him, worn down over time. Heck, be adventurous, throw in a side character or two, an old friend who's lost his way, a teacher who has something mysterious about him, and another girl who is far more outgoing and love crazy than the main character's love interest. With larger breasts.
So, what shonen manga have I made there? MOST of them? Yes. Yes, I have. But then almost half the manga that fit this template have a gimmick, a unique selling point that pulls it above the rest. And those, those generic little beauts, are the BEST generic shonen manga out there.
Which brings me to today's focus (yeah it's late, I know), a manga that sounded so generic that I almost passed it up. But it does everything just so... tweaked to perfection, utilising each trope perfectly, that it truly deserves a look from each and every one of you. Even Clive over there in the corner. Yeah, you see him. Glare at the bastard for not already owning this series. The bastard.
.... What? Oh yeah, HIT THE JUMP TO READ MANGA FOCUS!
What Is It?: Beet the Vandel Buster is a shonen series from Koji Inaba and Riku Sanjo about a young boy in a world of monsters, where humans often choose to stand up to the monsters and their leaders, the Vandels by becoming Busters, warriors of might and magic who are out to make the lives of the humans of the world just that little bit easier in such oppressive times. The young boy (Beet) idolised a group of these "Busters" and one day became one himself to follow in their footsteps. This was admittedly poorly timed, as one of the strongest Vandels in existence attacked Beet's hometown, his heroes the Zenon Warriors attempted to save them all and (SPOILER!) Beet's youthful arrogance almost gets himself killed. For Beet's life to be saved the Zenon warriors (which it turned out was led by Beet's older brother, a fact revealed as they saved Beet's life) they had to give him their Saigas, magical weapons powered by the elements. Without their weapons they fought on, appeared to all be killed, and Beet decided to live on and fight in their memory.
That's the initial premise anyway. From there it became a series about Beet and his "fiancée" Paola building a team of warriors and taking on the strongest Vandels, who begin to target Beet and his team for their slights against them and the promising power within Beet himself.
It is ALSO a series that went on hiatus 4 years ago when the artist Koji Inada fell ill, and has yet to have had even a hint of continuing to this day, leaving the current volume count at 12, with a VERY awkward cut-off point mid-fight. But we'll try to ignore that for the minute, shall we?
What's So Great About It?: I have to heap praise on the characters on display in the series. The humans are pretty much entirely stocks, albeit stock characters done to a fine degree. Beet is the weirdly relaxed/serious when he REALLY needs to be hero with unusual talent and an inability to pay attention to big problems along the way. His ignorance and goofiness are endearing because he can switch just like that into a fighter, ready to do anything to protect the people he cares about. Paola is the standard grumpy love-interest who denies being a love interest, frustrated at how far behind her team-mates she believes herself to be. But of course behind that is a person capable of something great that none of the others on the team can do, with a soft spot in her heart for Beet and a readiness to do crazy things to save the day. That small change is endearing compared to other Shonen heroines, who are usually just left at the 'weaker than everyone else' stage for an eternity or two. Then there's the other team-mates, the most notable of which being Slade, a gruff, miserable looking black-haired ally who hides his caring and respect for someone who he mostly treats as a nuisance and a weaker rival. The stock for this sort of anti-hero type is broken in that he learns to display his respect for others more openly as the series progresses, and even learns his faults and deals with his mistakes over time. It's captivating.
But the REAL stars here are the Vandels, giant demonic humanoid demons, who all have their own personalities and strategies, with different motivations for how they act and an unpredictable element that often shows that when you JUST ABOUT think you know them you're proven wrong. This is something we see most notably with Grineed, the first big-time Vandel Beet & company take on. At first he just seems to be a calm, collected and suave Vandel, intent on taking out any promising Busters before they can become anything more than amateurs. But as the series progresses we see that he's also a calculating, ruthless bastard who plans everything he does to perfection, all to hide that deep down he's a hyper-aggressive and super strong monster whose rage drives away all around him. And this upsets him. It straight up makes him cry out in despair at one point when his true form is revealed to all, showing him for the brute that he is. It's actually one of the more emotional turns in the story, as you emphasise for the enemy who just wants to be more than he was created as. I mean the Vandels don't choose who they are. They're made and they be exactly what they are. And he just didn't want to be that. Which is heart-breaking and a true credit to both the stellar writing and the art.
Oh, the art! I should definitely talk about the art. Koji Inada brought something spectacular to the table with Beet the Vandel Buster, bringing his inimitable style from Dragon Quest: Dai's Great Adventure (which sadly ISN'T out in english) to a new level. The faces were better defined, the proportions felt tighter. And the expressions carried a lot more impact. Again, the main praise here has to go to the Vandels, who all look so different from each other and anything else I've seen that it boggles the mind how he managed to create them. But then I guess with him and Riku Sanjo working together for so long (they both worked on the aforementioned Dragon Quest series for EIGHT YEARS) they'd surely know how to take any crazy thought they'd have and put it down perfectly on paper.
... Wait, so basically I could have just made all this section shorter by saying "WHAT MAKES THIS SERIES SO GREAT?! THE FUCKING VANDELS!"? Bugger.
Is It Worth Buying?: Honestly? Kinda-sorta. If you can live with the fact that there's a 99.9999% chance that the current arc will NEVER finish and that the series is effectively over for good now then yes. Seriously, without the hiatus issue looming over everything this is the dog's bollocks, a perfect example of how you can take something generic in concept and craft a perfect world around it, defying the limitations of the thoroughly stereotypical Shonen genre. And even if you don't care about stuff like that, this is a pretty cool footnote in manga, being a key series for Monthly Shonen Jump when it was around, with a dedicated following and being a decent success at that. And I like to think that maybe, just maybe it'll come back, and those who've experienced it will rocket it to the heights it's always deserved.
That and it's bitching. You can get the current 12 volumes at Amazon (UK) and really, why wouldn't you? Aside from the huge and obvious reason. But as I said earlier, let's just ignore that, shall we?