For a while, I've been hoping that the popularity of 'otaku self-insert gets dumped into (usually digital) fantasy realm' works would lead to a resurgence of fantasy anime and manga in general.
As you can imagine, I'm still waiting on that resurgence.
In the mean time, there's plenty of old-school fantasy manga for me to peruse. I just have to wonder why I picked this one out of all of them.
DRAGON KNIGHTS (Doragon Kishidan), by Mineko Ohkami. First published in 1990 and first published in North America in 2002.
Rune, Rath, and Thatz are three explorers on the run. They are trying to return a treasure to their lord, but there are countless demons chasing them who want to take it back by force. They aren't too worried about that, though. If anything, they're more concerned with making money and getting a good mean afterwards. There's an additional complication in the form of Cesia, a witch's apprentice who has her own plans for the hapless trio. Will the knights ever make it back to Draqueen with their prize or is their quest doomed to fail?
Dragon Knights most assuredly comes from a different time, a time when high fantasy manga were so common that many a manga tried to ride on the coattails of The Slayers and do comedic riffs on those tropes. What boggles me about it is how it managed to last so long because it's a deeply uninspired, confusing, and awkward comedic riff on high fantasy tropes.
The back cover blurb explains that our leads are meant to be an elf, a demon, and a human. It's a good thing that they did because I could barely distinguish which character was which, much less any difference in species. They spend most of their time bickering about money, food, and occasionally over who has to dress in drag for the plan of the day. These guys aren't so much daring, dashing heroes so much as they just happen to stumble their way into success. So yeah, these guys are very much in the Slayers mold, but Okhami clearly missed what made the main cast of Slayers work. Yes, the main characters there would fight amongst themselves and act like gluttons from time to time. The difference is that each of them were distinct personalities and that when the plot demanded it, they could successfully work together. In comparison, the main trio here are completely dysfunctional and completely interchangeable and I simply couldn't care less about them.
That's a big enough problem on its own, but Dragon Knights' plot is also vague as hell. It starts off badly as the story starts off in media res. Thus we have no idea why Nardil's head is so damn important to these people or who this Lord Lykouleon is. Then the plot (such as it is) will take a hard turn into a tangent where the trio might raid a dungeon or fight some demon for a chapter. The only continuous plot that can be followed is Cesia's. We learn who she is, what her motivation is, and she demonstrates a bit of cleverness in how she manipulates the boys into getting rid of opponents for her. If anything, she's more compelling and heroic than our actual freaking heroes.
Some might try to argue that these major flaws are part of the joke. After all, Slayers and its many imitators were never meant to be about grand heroics but instead about the characters and the gags. That might be true, but Dragon Knights possess no character, no humor, and all too frequently it gets distracted from its own plot. It's just a confusing, lame mess.
Ohkami's art is downright BIZARRE. She's clearly trying to go for an elfin look with her characters, but her designs are so harsh, angular, and bug-eyed that they come off as alien instead. Their fashion are vaguely fantastical by way of the 1980s, something that only becomes more apparent when you look at all the weird, upswept hairdos and the garish neon colors on the cover art. The tackiness doesn't stop there, though. The pages are busy as hell as Okhami tends to stack and layer as many panels as possible upon them. Because of that, she rarely has room for anything else in the panels save for our leads even in the middle of a fight. That's a shame because the fights had some potential to be interesting as they use not only weapons, but also elemental dragons. Yet she insists on obscuring them in speedlines and sound effects and obscuring everything by inking everything so thickly. The thick inks combined with Tokyopop's poor scans of the materials are the finishing touch in making every page visually incomprehensible.
Dragon Knights is a poor Slayers knock-off with terrible and deeply dated art. I can't understand why anyone stuck with this series for as long as it ran because it was a fantastical dud right from the start.
This series was published by Tokyopop. This series is complete in Japan with 26 volumes available. All volumes were published and are currently out of print.