Time to make more enemies.
Bleach, by Tite Kubo, Grade: B
Bleach drives me up the wall. The artwork is good, the character designs are solid and don't look like anyone else's, the backgrounds are detailed, the shinagami world is imaginative and well thought-out, and the action sequences are very dynamic. What's not to like?
Answer - the perennial use of "oh, you didn't really defeat me; I was just playing along with you. Let me show you my REAL power/attack/next secret move/etc". Just when it looks like someone is down for the count, or cornered with no way out, they either pull yet another rabbit out of the hat, or come up with yet another unbelievable power up. Case in point, Ichigo's getting a hole blasted through his chest, getting to the edge of death, and then standing up stronger and more indestructible than ever. All of the thrill is gone. There's no drama if the hero is going to get a shot of "godlike power" every other volume. The only uncertainty is in how long Kubo is going to milk a specific battle before getting bored and going on to the next one. People used to complain that Dragon Ball Z was "draggin' on", yet DB ended after only 35 volumes and Bleach is already up to 38 with nothing major to show for it.
There probably isn't a manga fan on the net that isn't at least familiar with Bleach's story, so there's not much point to getting into any level of detail here. Ichigo's the guy that gets into fights because he stands out with his naturally orange hair. He's got a soft side, wanting to protect those weaker than him. He accidentally gets pulled into the world of the shinagami, which in this case are tasked with granting the souls of the dead a final repose, and turns out to be stronger than most of the shinagami. But all is not well in the afterworld, and the intrigue and backstabbing taking place there draws Ichigo further into their conflicts. Basically, this is a "fight of the week" manga, and the fights always end with Ichigo and friends winning, eventually.
Summary: A well-drawn, well-planned fight fantasy of the week manga that is a lot more popular than it should be (probably because of Shonen Jump magazine's major publicity engine behind it). I read it only because I like the character designs. Recommended to everyone with too much free time on their hands.
Naruto, by Masashi Kishimoto, Grade: B-
Well, if I didn't alienate you with my Bleach review, I probably will here. Naruto is kind of like caffeinated sodas - they're sickly sweet and aimed at children that don't understand the flavors of more adult beverages, like teas and coffees. Naruto has a huge fan base, showing the popularity of the title. Yes, it is well drawn, the action sequences are good, and the character designs look unique. It's just that I just can't stand the main character. Naruto brags about being powerful, strong, and how he'll be the next hokage (ninja village leader). Then he gets his butt handed to him by an entire string of people that are older, wiser and better than him. Insert standard "godlike power up" here. Oh, gee, surprise, surprise, Naruto wins after all. And does Naruto learn from all of this? Nope. Insert next super-tough bad guy, rinse and repeat.
Story: Outcast child living in a ninja village vows to become the next villager leader. The fox-demon his father had sealed inside him promises to destroy the world first, contributing to his being outcast. Rival ninja clans work to kill each other off and it's up to Naruto to stop the cycle of hate. Can he do it before the author burns out and tells his editors to stop calling him all the time for the next chapter?
I'm not big on ninja stories to begin with. I like the way Lone Wolf and Cub set up the Yagyu clan as primarily a spy network, focused on stealth and small hit-and-run techniques. "Naruto's" reliance on magic, fantasy and "chakra" (energy) puts this series more into the realm of Harry Potter than anything else. I skipped about half the series just to see if it was getting anywhere near the end. I'm currently reading it out of morbid curiosity, but if things drag on too much longer, I may stop reading it again.
Summary: A dynamic, highly-detailed fantasy fight of the week manga that is a lot more popular than it should be (probably because it draws so much from Dragon Ball). Recommended to anyone that likes Bleach and One Piece.