Spy x Family 001-005 – Manga Review
Synopsis: An action-packed comedy about a fake family that includes a spy, an assassin and a telepath! (Official Shonen Jump Synopsis.)
(Warning: Spoilers to Follow):
Spy x Family comes out on top as one of the greatest additions to Shonen Jump’s digital offerings thanks to a wealth of low-key comedy and a slow-paced build up that allows each of its characters to breathe. Let’s Jump In!
Spy x Family made its Western debut over a month and a half-ago. Truth is the title snuck up on me just as we were getting ready to do Full Summer Anime reviews, and begin writing the previews for the new Fall anime. But I think it’s worth signal-boosting because it truly is one Jump title you absolutely don’t want to miss out on.
Spy x Family opens by introducing one of its three leads: Twilight. Twilight lives in a world with plenty of political subterfuge and betrayal. Twilight himself acts as a Spy, dawning new identities in order to protect the government he works for. Shortly after completing his most recent assignment, Twilight finds he’s been given a new task for ‘king & country,’ he must fake having a family in order to get close to his newest target. What’s great about these first few pages is how well we introduce the world, Twilight himself, and subtle hint towards the story’s more comedic nature. The introduction for this Spy laden world is very dour and dark like any good spy story, but we know the series is a comedy thanks to the information Twilight is first sent to steal: photographic proof that the Foreign Minister wears a hairpiece. It’s a fun subversion of expectations that doesn’t betray the series’ big reveal too hard.
With Twilight under new orders, he sets about crafting his latest fake persona, and finding himself an Orphan to play the role of his daughter. This is when he stumbles upon Anya, a young girl left to wallow in a terrible, back alley orphanage. It’s not till page twenty that Anya pops up, giving us a decent about of time to cement Twilight’s persona, and the story’s set up, before even adding another of our main characters into the mix. What’s so cool about this slow build is that most Shonen titles are very dedicated to the narrative. In a lesser version of this story we’d be speeding along, throwing Anya and Twilight together much quicker. It’d all be about moving the plot forward. But taking it easy like this allows us to now focus on Anya and Twilight’s budding relationship, giving the series a more character oriented focus.
Unfortunately for Twilight there’s a small problem with his plan of adopting Anya. Unannounced to him is the fact that Anya is telepathic, meaning she already knows he’s a spy, and works doubly hard to aid him, often to detrimental effect. The inclusion of this more fantastical element is where the series is a little haphazard, but I honestly can’t think of a more natural way to introduce this element. The series does its best by hinting that Anya is telepathic just before revealing it. It works, but still feels like an abrupt addition to the story.
As Twilight attempts to acquire a few necessities for his new mission Anya insists on tagging along, turning it into a ‘father and daughter’ shopping trip. This leads to plenty of sequences where both Twilight and Anya get to bounce off each other, generating the kind of comedy that’ll form Spy x Family’s primary value as entertainment. The comedy here is based off of two simple ideas: Anya can read Twilight’s mind and the comedy that ensues from that, but also her little misunderstandings as a kid. While both could get stale, this 1st chapter does a fantastic job of weaving them together, making both types of gags last far longer than either would on their own.
Another thing that’s so expertly woven into the story is its more heartfelt moments. Like building up Anya’s tragic life, her desire for Twilight to be her dad, and the understanding that forges Twilight into perhaps giving this mission, and Anya, another try, even after things go comically wrong as soon as he lets Anya out of his sight. It helps to endear both characters to us, getting us more immediately sucked into their stories, even if the series gradually jettisons its more dramatic notes as time goes on. It still builds a solid foundation and that’s important in any series, even comedy. If you don’t actively care about the characters, even comedies start to wane no matter how funny they are otherwise.
The series also takes another bold approach and one I appreciate: Leaving the introduction of Thorn Princess, the Assassin Mother of the family, till Chapter 2. Thorn Princess, also know by her false identity name of Yor, is a Secret Assassin. Her false identity is as mild mannered Yor, a mere office member working at City Hall. It’s thanks to the series’ slow build that we get a chance to introduce Thorn Princess in a proper way, fleshing her out before the story really gets going. We learn what her deal is, in this case the very real pressures women face to get hitched. However, unlike other Jump titles with female characters pushing 30, Thorn Princess hasn’t so much as internalized these sexist demands of society, but rather seeks to placate them for her own means. Yor, upon finding out that Twilight needs someone to pretend to be his wife, agrees to the idea, wanting to placate the more troublesome people in her own life. Neither knows the true identity of the other, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Thorn and Twilight will legitimately fall in love. Because her desire to get married is based off wanting to placate her friends and family, rather than having internalized the sexist notion that women are ‘over the hill’ if not hitched by 30, it feels much more nuanced compared to other Shonen titles that have touched on this element.
Chapter 3 is where we finally settle into the series more usual length of 25+ pages a chapter. It’s still slightly more than the typical weekly titles, but not by much. But even here Spy x Family is taking things slow. We know Twilight’s mission hinges on infiltrating the school that Anya needs to go to, but we’re already on Chapter 3 and haven’t even seen the school yet! Instead Chapter 3 allows us to put the whole family together and get a taste for what comedy the three of them generate when together, making the bread and butter of the series’ value. The excuse here is Twilight’s apprehension that both Yor and Anya are capable of actually fooling the school’s admissions staff, and sets about taking the trio on a family outing to try and bolster the results.
It’s not till Chapters 4 and 5 that we finally see what the school is like, the first major step in the narrative, and I can’t help but feel like a lesser version of this title would have skipped to this stuff. With a little bonding under their belts, Twilight leads the three into the Eden Academy Admissions Interviews. It’s here we see the series gradually push away its drama for more comedy, with most of chapters 4 and 5 dedicated to the absurdity of Eden’s admissions program, our wacky, quirky bad guys, and how uneven the dynamic between Twilight, Anya and Thorn Princess still is. There’s nothing wrong with gradually replacing the drama with comedy, although if you were hoping for that more dramatic line of character work, it feels like it’ll gradually give way and perhaps leave that particular audience wanting. My guess is that when the series looks to be wrapping up we’ll see a resurgence in the drama, making for a cathartic and emotional ending.
Overall though Spy x Family is fantastic from the get go. these first five chapters are stupendous and Tatsuya Endo, the author, should be praised for such a magnificent start. Endo has struggled in the past, producing a total of 4 series, including Spy x Family, since his debut in 2007, with all his other titles either being cancelled, one shots, or simply not lasting very long. It seems that this author has really been tested and has taken lessons from previous failures, allowing him to craft something that’s definitely a stand out. I’ll be catching up with the series in another couple reviews this month, so look forward to more discussion of Spy x Family in the coming days.
That’s it for this week! Let me know what your thoughts are on Spy x Family!
Spy x Family is published weekly in Shonen Jump.