Fairy Tail is a relatively young manga as weekly shounen titles go (only 251 chapters in print so far) but it is certainly growing in momentum and gaining fans. (I’ve even done a cosplay group from it!)The first time someone recommended Fairy Tail to me, she described it as ‘mages and guilds and fighting and stuff, it’s awesome’. I (who spends too much time on the internet) took this to mean it was set in an MMORPG like the .hack// franchise, and, having no desire to read ‘WOW – The Manga’, I looked at the first few pages and dismissed it out of hand.
Well, after continuing to hear only good things about it from my friend, I finally decided to give it a second chance. And I am truly glad I did, as it was and continues to be an excellent read. Fairy Tail is in fact completely unrelated to the internet or massively multiplayer online roleplaying games, as I found out. It follows the adventures of young mage Lucy Heartfilia (a Mary Sue name for a character who is actually quite likeable) and her adventures with the friends she makes after joining the mages’ guild Fairy Tail. Mages in this manga’s world are somewhat like independent contractors who take jobs or commissions based on their own magical skills. There are several mages’ guilds in the country of Fiore, and joining a guild is sort of like joining a trade union – you have a group at your back if you get in trouble, and having a respected name brings in loads of contracts that are unavailable to independent mages. Unlike other guilds, Fairy Tail’s reputation is a bit of a mixed bag – its mages are some of the best in the world, but they are also famous for causing large-scale property destruction in the middle of completing a job. Lucy, a mage who can summon spirits via magic keys, has dreamed of joining Fairy Tail since she was a child, so when she meets the guild’s famous Natsu Dragneel by chance, she seizes the opportunity. Natsu is a Dragon Slayer mage, which, confusingly enough, doesn’t mean he kills dragons; in fact, he was raised and trained by one, which gave him the ability to summon and fight with fire as well as to consume flames to re-energize.
Various hijinks and drama later, the two join up with Natsu’s rival and friend Gray Fullbuster (an ice-summoning mage with an undressing problem) and the famous/notorious Erza Scarlet (who can magically switch between dozens of suits of armor with different strengths and weaknesses) to form what is dubbed by the rest of the guild as “Fairy Tail’s Strongest Team”.
Pros of Fairy Tail: Fairy Tail has a consistently strong plot, although it should definitely be filed under both humor and action since it often breaks the flow of fights or conversations to further a joke or gag. There have been several story arcs so far (spanning the shounen plot mainstays from “Everyone Fights the Source of the Pale Dark-Haired Best Friend’s Angst” to “Bad Guys Bring the Fight to Good Guys’ Turf (And Fuck It Up)” to “The Let’s Go Up A Rank Examination”) and I’ve found all of them engaging even if the basic ideas can seem a bit recycled.
The characters in Fairy Tail are generally well-developed and likeable (or love-to-hate-able). Lucy gets top billing as a main character rather than being the hero’s whimpering sidekick, and, although she is modest about her powers, has been known to independently kick some ass. Gray does display some of the typical shounen rival (think Sasuke, Ishida, Kanda, Touya, L, etc.) angst-bucket tendencies, but in general is much more extroverted and less generally dark and vengeful than what the typical shounen consumer is used to from a guy with his looks. And Erza is so enormously kick-ass that even Natsu, who sees her as a sort of older sister/rival combo, and whose ludicrous power-ups are about to be my main complaint, has never been able to scratch her in battle.The supporting cast is equally interesting, and the author uses them to deal with some intriguing issues. Mirajane, for example, was once just as powerful as Erza, but after witnessing her little sister’s death during a battle, she developed a psychological block on her magic, and now serves as an administrator/bartender for the club. There’s always the implication that there’s more to Mira than her cheery facade would suggest.
(Also, I hate to apply slasher logic in reference to lighthearted manga (just kidding, I love to do that), but Lucy is totally bi. She has been known on several occasions to appreciate the female form, and in the anime’s first OVA someone suggests that Lucy’s true love is Erza. Which makes it totes canon. /slashergoggles)
The cons of Fairy Tail: Where most of the main characters have great depth and background that is explored in the various plot arcs (Erza’s past relationships and time as a child slave, Lucy’s rejection of her privileged background, the death of Gray’s teacher), Natsu doesn’t really have that much character depth. His primary motivation is to find the dragon who raised him, as Igneel disappeared when Natsu was still young. But outside of that, he doesn’t have much of a backstory or any sort of character conflict that helps him develop as a person. Only in the most recent story arc did he come up against an adversary he couldn’t defeat, so he almost never experiences the sensation of failure or the need to train or develop a new technique. Since these are tried-and-true opportunities for a character to grow and develop, you would think they’d happen all the time. But usually when Natsu needs to defeat the biggest bad guy at the end of the arc, it goes something like “AAAAARGH I HAVE NO POWER LEFT BUT I SHALL PULL A NEW COMBO FROM NOWHERE AND PWN YOU ANYWAY”, aka a total ass-pull.
I’d really like to see Natsu grow a little as a person, even if he keeps his mischievous and cocky ways.
The other annoyance about FT is the fanservice (“Oh look, Lucy’s shirt ripped open mid-battle…again…”); I mean, seriously, look at the bust-waist ratio on Lucy and Erza. It does subscribe to equal-opportunity objectification, however, as there are plenty of lookers amongst the men who spend a lot of time shirtless (or
practically naked). Also, it’s harder to bitch about the occasional bikini spread or the impracticability of fighting in a miniskirt when the women wearing those clothes are strong, empowered, independent characters rather than frail tear-prone eye-candy.
As someone whose shounen bread and butter when coming into the anime/manga world were titles like Bleach and Naruto, Fairy Tail is a refreshing new take on the boy-centered genre, and I definitely recommend it to readers looking for a lighthearted, fast-paced, funny, and often touching story that is also filled with ass-kickery.