Crack pacing, crisp artwork, and a shocking plot twist in chapter one — those are just three reasons to pick up The Promised Neverland when it arrives in comic shops on December 5th. The first volume is a masterful exercise in world-building, introducing the principal characters and the main conflict in a few economic strokes, avoiding the trap that ensnares so many fantasy authors: the info-dump introduction. Instead, the writer-artist team of Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu allow the reader to figure out what’s happening by revealing important plot details as the characters uncover them, and letting the artwork establish the setting. That makes the very earliest pages of the story flow more like a rollercoaster than a Star Wars screen crawl, making every page turn feel like an urgent necessity.
The story begins at Grace Field House, an orphanage plucked from a Victorian novel: the main building is a homey Tudor villa that’s surrounded by open meadows and lush forest, perfect for a game of tag. Our first hint that something is amiss comes just six pages into the story, as Emma, the narrator, makes a mental note of all the things she’s grateful for: “a warm bed, delicious food” and “an all-white uniform.” Before we can ponder the significance of the uniform, however, Demizu inserts a panel revealing that every resident of Grace Field House has a number tattooed on her neck, a sure sign that the orphans are more prisoners than temporary wards:
A smattering of other clues — including a series of daily IQ tests and a fence encircling the property — reinforce our perception that Emma and her friends Roy and Norman are in grave danger. And while the earliest chapters occasionally bow to Shonen Jump convention with on-the-nose narration, it’s the artwork, not Emma’s voice-over, that makes each new revelation feel so sinister. Consider the panel that introduces the testing ritual:
In the first ten pages of the story, Demizu uses little to no shading to create volume or contrast, instead depicting the setting and characters through clean, graceful linework. The image above, which appears on pages 12-13, is the first time that we see such a dramatic use of tone; the students at the back of the frame look like they’re being swallowed by a black hole, while the students at the front sit under a klieg light’s glare. Demizu’s subsequent drawings are more restrained than this particular sequence, but her artwork becomes more detailed and complex than what we saw in the story’s first pages — it’s as if the setting is coming into focus for the first time, complicating our initial impressions of Grace Field House as a place of refuge.
I’m reluctant to say more about the plot, since the first chapter’s spell loses some of its potency if you know the Big Terrible Secret beforehand. (If you absolutely, positively must know what happens, Wikipedia has a decent, one-paragraph summary of the premise.) By the time Emma, Roy, and Norman realize the real purpose of their incarceration, however, the basic “rules” of the Promised Neverland universe have been firmly established, and the characters fleshed out enough for us to care whether they succeed in escaping. More importantly, the lead trio are smart and capable without seeming like miniature adults, making their likelihood of success seem uncertain, rather than preordained. That element of suspense may be difficult to sustain for 10 or 20 volumes, but hot damn — volume one is a nail-biter. Count me in for more!
Volume one debuts on December 5th in print and ebook form. Chapters 1-3 are available for free on the VIZ website; the story is currently being serialized in the English edition of Weekly Shonen Jump.