If you’re looking to get into manga but don’t know where to begin, you won’t find a much better starting point than Bleach, a highly addictive and insanely bingeable comic from cartoonist Tite Kubo.
Originally published in Weekly Shōnen Jump, Bleach is the story of Ichigo Kurosaki, a high schooler with the rare ability to see spirits. He meets Rukia Kuchiki, a Soul Reaper whose job it is to help guide spirits to the afterlife and protect humans from evil spirits. Through a series of events, Ichigo becomes entwined in the world of the Soul Reapers and their enemies.
It’s an incredible tale with gorgeous art that will have you hooked from the first chapter, so let’s break down what exactly makes this tale of life and death such a powerhouse.
In the beginning, Bleach scratches a lot of the same itches as Invincible or early Spider-Man stories: Ichigo is a high schooler with a strong moral code who is suddenly imbued with great power. The story is very character-driven. There’s drama and comedy in Ichigo’s day-to-day life that we can all relate to, with the awesome addition of late-night spirit fighting. It’s in these early chapters that we get to see who Ichigo is, and set down the building blocks of our relationship with him as readers. This is what sucks you in.
And then…something amazing happens.
The series explodes into a sprawling 74-volume epic with a MASSIVE cast of characters, each of whom stands out as unique and memorable. Seriously, as you meet all of the humans, and Soul Reapers, and villains, and every persona in between, you’ll think to yourself, “there’s no way I’ll be able to keep track of all these characters.” But you will. I promise that you will, because I myself have a sh*t memory, but I can stop reading Bleach for two months, read a bunch of other stuff in the interim, and then jump back into it without missing a beat.
Kubo writes his characters so well, and with such distinct voices, that your subconscious mind will absorb them all and store them with ease.
Sense of Growth & Progression
Bleach consists of four major story arcs over the course of its 74 tankōbon volumes. Each arc builds off the previous one, and as the story grows, so does the world within. It gives the overall tale a sense of momentum and growth. You always feel like you’re going forward while reading, always marching towards a destination. Sure, it’s an action comic, and some battles might go on for chapters (or volumes), but even they are building up to some specific endpoint.
Whereas some long-running series have lulls where it feels like they’re spinning their wheels in place, Bleach almost always has a sense of purpose to keep you reading.
But, while the story grows bigger and bigger, it still retains that personal, intimate connection with the characters thanks to those early chapters where things were a little more quiet. And in fact, the characters grow quite a bit with the story.
This is just as much a coming-of-age tale as it is an action story. Ichigo and his friends change greatly over the course of the series. We see them fail and make mistakes. We see them learn from those mistakes, and, in turn, we learn from them as well. Again, Kubo imbues Bleach with purpose and meaning, giving it weight and making it more than just a “demon beat ‘em up” comic. It feels real; life continuously moves forward and changes, and so too does Bleach.
We can’t very well talk about a comic and not discuss the art, can we?
Bleach was only Kubo’s second ongoing series, the first being the short lived Zombiepowder. So when Bleach begins, the art, while good, is more raw and unpolished compared to what it becomes as the series progresses. We as the reader get to see Kubo’s style develop in real time. The action becomes more explosive; the characters become more crisp, and their expressions more nuanced.
It’s like a drug for art junkies who are obsessed with the cartooning process and seeing how styles change naturally over time.
And, this being an action comic, sometimes there will be pages and pages of little to no dialogue, leaving just the art to tell you what’s happening. To say the battles are “explosive” as previously stated is actually an understatement. The fight sequences are fast and fluid, which makes reading them a breeze, and when a “f*ck yea” moment hits, you’ll literally scream “F*CK YEA!!” out loud.
Plus, Kubo absolutely NAILS visual comedy. He’s up there with the likes of Steve Lieber, Max Sarin, or Ryan Browne in terms of being able to make you bust out laughing while reading. Which is a good lead-in to…
Damn, Bleach is a funny comic.
Yes, there is insane over-the-top action that will blow your mind. Yes, the series ruminates on heavy subjects such as life and death, and the moral responsibility we owe others. But between all of that, there are tons of laugh-out-loud moments that I personally just don’t see as often in American comics.
There’s the visual comedy as mentioned, but the writing itself also never takes itself too seriously. Kubo maintains a constant sense of whimsy and levity throughout Bleach. The way characters bicker and argue adds a sense of reality to their relationship. And the banter during fight sequences rivals that of Peter Parker.
The humor balances out all the action and heavy themes, and that’s a big part of what makes this series so great and endlessly readable: it has a sense of perfect equilibrium.
It’s hard to not smile while you’re reading Bleach, for one reason or another.
Why do we love superhero comics? Why do the works of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, and Joe Shuster stand the test of time? There are many reasons, but one of the biggest is that they inspire readers. They show us characters at the peak of morality. They remind us to be and do good, or at least to try. Bleach does the same.
Now, Ichigo Kurosaki isn’t the same ideal specimen as Superman or Captain America. He’s more of a Peter Parker. Ichigo is an everyman. He’s flawed. Sometimes he’ll make the wrong decision thinking it’s the right decision. But at the end of the day, he wants to do good, and he puts forth the effort.
Kubo makes it very clear early on in the series that all Ichigo wants to do is help people, especially those who cannot help themselves.
And with Ichigo being more of an everyman, we as the reader can see ourselves more clearly in his shoes. We can see ourselves making the same choices, and hopefully, in a perfect world, when we stop reading, we go out into the real world and we try to help others when given the chance.
But again, Bleach is a series in equilibrium. So instead of just showing “good guys” going out and helping people, Kubo introduces plenty of characters who operate in the grey. There are characters who we would consider “antiheroes,” and those who outright resist the urge to do good.
These aren’t “bad guys,” and they aren’t bad characters. They’re great characters, some of the best in the series. They give a different perspective on the story, and in doing so, they provide another lesson to the reader: remember to look at things from different points of view.
Bleach shows that not everything in life is black and white. It reminds us to be a good person, yes, but also teaches us that we need to question things and understand other people’s point-of-view in order to be the best version of ourselves.
Tite Kubo loves to pull the rug out from under his readers. Bleach is FULL of surprises for readers.
They all come out of nowhere. You’ll just be reading, chugging along in a good groove, and then BAM, out of nowhere you get slapped with a shocker. A dopey character will reveal him or herself to be a major badass, or the plot will zig when it looked like it was going to zag. It’s hard to discuss a series’ “surprise factor” without risking spoilers, but the point is that Bleach keeps its story fresh and interesting.
Reading these moments is like getting a glass of ice water thrown in your face. It wakes you up and reinvigorates your interest in the series just when you thought you had a handle on the story. It keeps you engaged, which is crucial when you’re talking about getting through 686 chapters of a story.
But here’s the thing. Here is what makes Kubo both a genius and a horrible tease of a man. He will surprise you with a twist, but then he’ll take it right back and hide it for a long, long time. Volumes will pass where the twist is not addressed. This is dramatic irony at its finest. The story beats on, and the characters will go along with their lives blissfully unaware of the bombshell that you – the reader – know is coming for them. You so wish that you can just scream through the page and let them know what’s coming. But you can’t. So you keep reading while a small thought continues to gnaw at the back of your brain, asking, “What about that one thing?”
Ok, I didn’t mean to bury the lead, but this section right here is why I wanted to write about Bleach in the first place.
I’ve thrown a lot of praise at Bleach and Tite Kubo, but I’ve been very careful to avoid using the word “master” up to this point, and that’s because if there’s one place I want to use it, it’s right here.
Tite Kubo is a master of catharsis.
His storytelling in Bleach is all about building something. Building anticipation; building dread. This is particularly apparent during major battle sequences. Kubo will back his heroes into a corner and make it look like they have no way out. Now, comic readers are used to these scenarios. You think to yourself, “obviously the hero finds a way to get out of this.” But Kubo manages to dig his characters into holes so deep that you genuinely start to believe that they can’t get out of them. Instead of thinking, “how is Ichigo going to get out of this?” you begin to think, “oh man, maybe this story doesn’t go the way I thought it did.”
Kubo is able to build true, genuine dread in a way that readers just aren’t used to anymore in American superhero comics.
And then comes the payoff. The payoff isn’t always good, for the record. The good guys don’t always come out on top. But whichever way it goes, Kubo’s payoffs are almost always mind-blowing. They’re less a “wave of sweet release” and more of a volcanic eruption of awesome after the anticipation and dread built up inside you hits critical mass.
You would think after the third or fourth time something like this hits you, it would get repetitive and boring. But here’s the thing…it never does. Each time it happens, Kubo somehow manages to go bigger, raise the stakes higher, even when you thought they were maxed out the last time. This series exhilarates you and charges you up; you won’t want to stop reading.
Bleach is one of the all-time great reads for readers young and old. It’s rare to find a series that can balance huge action with personal intimacy so well. There’s a little bit of something for everyone, and – most importantly – it’s a fun read.
You can read the first three chapters of Bleach for free right now on the Shonen Jump app, or read all 686 chapters by signing up for just $1.99/month (You’ll also gain access to over 10,000 chapters of manga, including the full runs of Dragon Ball Z, My Hero Academia, and One-Punch Man. This is hands down the best deal in digital comics. #notsponsored).