Writer: Son Jae Ho
Artist: Lee Gwang Su
Reviewed on Oct 27, 2010

The story: An ancient vampire finds himself in fish-out-of-water situations (in high school!) after an eight-century slumber. Add a dark organization with superpowered agents, and you've got plot (and an interesting one, at least initially).

Vampires as protagonists are difficult to write without screwing up. They were, after all, originally horror villains, but fiction has seen them changed from villains to anti-heroes to tragic heroes to...well, pussies. The line between those last two is thin. These days it's hard for me to take any vampire story seriously enough to actually read it. Thank God for Noblesse, then.

Noblesse is a web manhwa (Korean comic) with vampires, powerful villainous organizations, vampire-zombies and a whole bunch of beings that can rip you apart in a second, but it's pretty light-hearted. Although the humor gets sparse in later volumes the story doesn't get too serious and remembers to throw in a joke here and there, and of course it never fails to make fun of the main character's lack of technological literacy. Because goddammit, a powerful, ancient vampire fumbling around with menial things like Counter Strike and eating ramen is funny. Whether this gag gets old may vary between people. Personally, I found other things funnier by the second volume.

Now I might have mentioned Noblesse was a vampire story. Frankly, saying that isn't being accurate. Noblesse has vampires, yes, but the story itself doesn't revolve around the vampires (just one of them), and even these vampires are far from the usual blood-sucking monsters in previous fiction. The writer went out of his way to devise a different lore for his 'vampires', and this removes Noblesse from vampire fiction. In fact it's more of a shounen (anime/manga for boys), with its action and evil organization antagonists and the band of protagonists growing as the adventure continues. Nothing ground-breaking, but interesting and entertaining nonetheless.

What I really like about this manhwa, however, besides the humor, is the art. Apart from the treat of colored panels the style is far removed from usual manga or even manhwa styles. Something between Eastern and Western styles, actually. Panels are detailed, painstakingly drawn and you can have several pages of eye candy without dialogue.

Left: earlier page of the manhwa. Right: Second series. See the generous background and panel size on the left, and the lack of it on the right?

Unfortunately that only applies to the first volume. Somewhere in the second volume the art undergoes evolution, and sometimes for the bad. While a lot of female readers will be glad that the characters have 'softer' looks and get more good looking in the later chapters, some people might be up for disappointment when the art gets sloppy. Faces get slanted or stretched out of proportion, chins get sharp enough to cut glass, and a lot of times the art looks rushed and sketchy, so that even the pretty boys rarely get good 'shots'. Even the scenery and background panels I used to enjoy get less and less love from the artist. It's just sad to see the art deteriorate like that, really.

One of the characters turn from scarred, asshole villain to mopey bishounen after a hundred or so chapters.

My experience with Noblesse can be summed up by me being interested in the art, getting hooked by the humor and mystery, and then just sitting around for the ending. The later chapters just don't have the same allure as the first ones. The problem isn't just with the art; it's also with the story. While with really good series things get more interesting as the story unfolds, Noblesse just loses the audience's interest when the plot gets clearer.

Not only that, the dialogue also gets worse in much later chapters. Speech bubbles cover much more of the space in each page. That or white space. There are several pages--and chapters of pure exposition, with sometimes even repeated lines.

Despite all this I think it hasn't gotten horrible (yet), and at the moment some of it is entertaining on some level. Or maybe I just want closure. However, I get the painful feeling that it might eventually turn out like many shounen (or whatever they call boys comics in Korea) before it. You know how it goes: what looked like a great series loses the things that made it good in the beginning, and the level of crap towards the end is directly proportional to how good it was in the beginning. But since I love this series I'm crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.

Update as of Jan 2, 2011

As I feared, Noblesse has gone to the dogs. Again and again characters have conversations only for exposition and nothing else, the art has degraded to a point where the beautiful panels of the first chapters are very rare if non-existent, and there are just no interesting or threatening villains any more. Even the 'evil organization' is played down. Villains just pop up for short arcs, are easily dispatched, and then replaced. If there is any looming threat from a much bigger enemy, either it's not felt, it's rarely touched upon, or it's just not presented well. Noblesse has become repetitive and boring. I don't care if a new chapter comes out any more--nay, I can't even stand reading any chapter.

With how things are right now, I'll stop reading. There's still a chance for the writers to fix the story, though. There's definitely room for that. But until then... 'Goodbye, Noblesse. It was fun.'

© Yves Macatangay Oct 2010 Some Rights Reserved.

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