Of course, the quest for The Next Big Thing in shonen can always go astray. Just look at today's example. It's part of a popular genre, tied to an equally popular card game, and drawn by the creator of another popular card-game manga spinoff, and yet it's one of the most boring works I looked at this month. Oh well, I guess they can't all be Yu-Gi-Oh.
CARDFIGHT!! VANGUARD (Kadofaito!! Vangado), by Akira Itou. First published in 2011, and first published in North America in 2014.
Aichi Sendou lives in a world where practically everyone plays the competitive card game Vanguard. Aichi has always wanted to play, but was always too shy to initiate a game. When a schoolroom bully steals his most precious card, he follows the bully to the card shop. The card has already been given to Aichi's old friend Kai, but Aichi fights him for it and wins. Now Aichi's world is opening up, as more and more people are drawn to his card-fighting skills and his kind heart.
Well this certainly is a card-fighting manga about card fighting! It's hard to take this series seriously because so many others like it have come before (not to mention the popularity of the parodies of series like this). The fact that it hews so slavishly to a lot of tired tropes doesn't help it either.
The entire cast is as one dimensional as the cards with which they play. Aichi in particular is so bland and mild-mannered that he constantly threatens to fade into the background. Every other boy here is either a cartoon bully or doofy comic relief, and the only girl we see is stoic beyond belief. Worse still, she doesn't even get to tell her own story; all her backstory is told through her boss. We're supposed to believe that Aichi is this great, natural card player, but I never bought it for a second. Aichi never has any sort of conscious strategy to his games. He simply pulls whatever solution he needs from his butt...er, I mean, he's just so naturally talented that he picks things up instantly and effortlessly!
Of course, you can argue that no one reads these sorts of manga for the characters. They're merely ciphers there to show the young and impressionable readers how to play whatever card game they're promoting. So, does it work as a promotional piece? Of course not! Admittedly, I'm not an expert at these sorts of games, so I have no idea of Vanguard is a good or a bad example of the genre. Still, I can't say that this manga made it look all that appealing or made the rules and structure easy to understand. It still had to re-explain the rules afterwards, so not even the makers had all that much confidence in how well the story explained things. As for the actual events of the story, it's a very formulaic affair. Some new character is introduced, things come to a head, and somehow the solution to everything is a card game. Aichi wins, and a new friendship is formed. The story then ends on a sitcom-style still frame of friendship or some comment teasing the next chapter's conflict. I guess Itou figures that if a plot formula isn't broke, then why fix it? Of course, that formula makes for a rather dull and predictable read.
Cardfight!! Vanguard can add all the exclamation points it wants to its title, but no amount of punctuation will make this manga anything but a boring, by-the-book take on what is already a very tedious subgenre.
The artwork is just as stereotypical as its plot. The character designs are all the generic sort of square-eyed, overly pointy, weirdly coiffed sort that are all too typical for the genre. It seems that Itou still thinks he's drawing Yu-Gi-Oh at times, because everyone bears a vague resemblance to the cast of those stories. He can't even seem to pull that look off competently, as the eyes in particular tend to off-model with fair frequency. He certainly tries his hardest to make the card fights visually interesting by having the cast essentially play pretend, visualizing the characters and attacks as they play. It's kind of an obvious choice, especially since the alternative would be pages of nothing but two guys slapping down cards in a game store. Sadly, these flights of fancy don't improve things because the card avatars are just as generic as the characters, just with a few overly jagged-looking bits of armor or mech suits. Decent art might have given this dull story some life, but Itou clearly just doesn't care. As an artist, he does the barest of minimums at every level, and it shows on every page.
In addition to the reminder on the rules of Vanguard, the first volume comes with a free card to start your own pack...or to serve as a spare bookmark, as the case was for me.
Cardfight!! Vanguard plays it safe at every level. Playing it safe has dire consequences here, though, as this is a manga that's inoffensive, dull as dishwater, and looks every bit like the Yu-Gi-Oh ripoff that it is.
This series is published by Vertical. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 7 volumes available. 4 volumes have been published and all are currently in print.
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