The winner of Jump’s Future Golden Cup award, Tabata Yuuki pens his second series with Black Clover. Originally published in Weekly Shounen Jump, Viz picks up the series in English under the same label. Taylor Engel, a familiar name to readers on this site for his work on Horimiya, joins translation veteran Satsuki Yamashita in providing the English adaptation.
Black Clover opens in a world defined by magic. After the Wizard King saved humanity from the grips of demons, the title has been passed down to the most powerful mage in the land for generations. Asta, an orphan from a poor village in the kingdom, dreams of becoming the Wizard King. There’s just one problem with his plans. Asta has no magical ability to speak of.
Even when he gathers at the traditional coming of age ceremony to receive a grimoire, a book that amplifies the magical ability of its owner, Asta walks away empty-handed. It’s his childhood friend and rival Yuno who walks away with all the glory and a four-leaf clover grimoire, the same kind used by the original Wizard King. Yet when a rogue magic knight attacks Yuno after the ceremony, Asta refuses to let his lack of magic stop him as he charges in to defend his friend. Asta’s chances are looking grim, when suddenly a grimoire appears to choose Asta as its owner: the five leaf clover grimoire of anti-magic. With the ability to wipe out magic at will, Asta handily defeats the rogue knight and saves Yuno. Heartened by the fact that he has a grimoire of his own, Asta and Yuno sets out to the capital to chase their dreams of joining the Magic Knights and becoming the next Wizard King. Even without any magical talent save for what the grimoire grants him, Asta’s hopes seem farfetched until one of the squad captains takes an interest in him. So Asta’s life as a Magic Knight begins in the company of a band of misfits and outcasts known as the Black Bulls.
In Black Clover, Tabata clearly sets out to tell a story of an underdog. With no talent to speak of, Asta is an outsider even in his small village where the children and members of the monastery where he’s raised are all capable of at least minor magical feats. Yet his discipline and work at physically conditioning himself is what sets him apart and gives him the ability to stand at the same level as others within the ranks of the Magic Knights. The fact that he’s selected by a group of other outcasts and social pariahs highlights the story of a hero at a disadvantage set to overcome the odds.
Yet despite the story’s focus on Asta overcoming the odds, Asta’s closest relationships on the page are indistinct and lacking depth. While Yuno and Asta seem to be set as foils against each other at the start of the story, Tabata doesn’t give much focus to the history that they share. For the majority of the volume, in fact, Asta’s rivalry with Yuno seems one-sided and somewhat naive. Even though we’re told that the two of them were raised together from infancy, Yuno is very aloof and unsympathetic towards Asta until Asta obtains his own grimoire. Though Yuno later shows an interest in Asta’s progress and outwardly recognizes Asta as his rival, the power and potential dynamism of this relationship quickly disappears from the page along with Yuno himself. In this way, the relationships and characters that Tabata creates seem to be somewhat half-formed. While it’s clear that he means to play off of the tropes of childhood friends and rivals, the fact that Yuno doesn’t appear in the second half of the volume leaves the reader wondering what importance he’ll hold to the story in later volumes.
Noelle Silva, a member of the royal family and the misfit Black Bulls, also has a background which doesn’t seem to hold up to close scrutiny. While Noelle seems to fit the profile of the Bulls at first because she has difficulty controlling her magic, the class dichotomy that’s enforced by other characters in the manga doesn’t seem to quite explain why she wouldn’t have been taken in by another squad for political reasons or why she wouldn’t have received additional training that would have surely been available as a result of her privilege.
The indistinct nature of Tabata’s characters is also not served by the somewhat lackluster world building for the story’s setting. We’re told that the Wizard King defeated the demons to save humanity, yet that alone doesn’t seem to explain the class dynamics that are presented as a driving force of conflict for Asta and Yuno. Furthermore, once the two join the Magic Knights, it becomes unclear exactly what tasks the knights are set to accomplish. While this does get lampshaded when Asta outwardly questions what sort of missions the knights undertake, the answer that the story gives is vague and makes it seem like Tabata isn’t sure what sort of antagonist his kingdom is set against.
In his art, Tabata also seems to fall victim to the same pitfalls found in his storytelling. Asta himself and several other secondary characters have clear and distinct designs, although Asta’s design is strongly reminiscent of Hinata Shouyou from Haikyuu. However, when it comes to side characters they all start to blend together into a mass of light-haired, same-faced men. While he does seem to have a talent for overblown reaction faces, at times it also feels like the characters on the page only emote through a single, default expression which makes it difficult to read emotion on the page.
For the most part, Engel and Yamashita’s translation does a good job of holding the story together on the page. Asta’s voice sounds distinct along with many others. However, the one sticking point in the translation is the constant reuse of “the boonies” or “the boondocks” to describe Asta’s home village. For a series with an ostensibly medieval fantasy setting, the phrase feels anachronistic on the page.
Overall, the unclear storytelling on the page is perhaps Black Clover’s biggest detriment. As the main character, Asta is the only person who stands out with a strong sense of definition but the first volume doesn’t end with a sense of where the arc of his character is going. Future volumes might tighten up some of the loose ends in Tabata’s storytelling, but at this point in time it feels a little bit like rooting for the underdog.