Saki Hasemi and Kentaro Yabuki’s To Love Ru Darkness is not the most ambitious comic in the world. It’s the sequel to a high school sci fi harem series (To~Love~Ru), in which very convoluted and strange things happen to get the protagonist into embarrassing situations with naked girls. The initial set up is fairly simple: Rito, our everyman Japanese high schooler, had an alien princess, Lala, crash land her ship onto him and declare that they were engaged. Her father, the Emperor Deviluke, declared that if they did not get married, and Rito did not prove himself to be a worthy suitor by defeating all the other suitors for Lala’s hand, the Emperor would destroy the planet. Rito, unfortunately, had a crush on the girl next door, Haruna Sarenji, and was uncertain of how to resolve the situation. And because of the nature of the genre, he’s a well meaning dolt who would never actually consider taking advantage of any of the smörgåsbord of women presented to him. It gets more complicated, of course, with alien assassins and the high school morality committee and all the strange devices Lala keeps inventing causing problems, but overall it followed pretty closely the formula established in Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura (albeit with a less intentionally perverted protagonist). The series was ended in a hurry when the artist’s wife went a bit crazy, stole everything he owned, and disappeared with their daughter, essentially holding her hostage until he turned over the rights of the series, because the “girl next door” character was based vaguely on her appearance. The rather abrupt ending comes in the most obvious way possible: Rito confesses that his love to Lala, but that he loves Haruna, too. And, because this is a wish fulfillment series, the Devilukes are totally cool with polygamy, and Lala pretty much outright states “Marry her too, I’m game.”
A few years later, after the situation was resolved, the new series began as a monthly title running in Jump Square. If the first series was pretty honest about being adolescent wish fulfillment, Darkness states pretty much outright that it knows why you’re reading and that it’s going to give you what you want. Lala’s younger sister, Momo, a minor character from the first series, has also fallen in love with Rito. In one of the weirdest sad/strange twists in comics I’ve read, rather than try to win him for herself, she sets about setting him up a harem (which he’ll need if he’s going to be Emperor of the Universe, obviously), so she can be a part of it and receive some affection too. Rito wants nothing to do with it, but also can’t deny just how many of the girls he finds himself attracted to. He doesn’t want to be rude or hurt her feelings, but he also doesn’t want to hurt anyone else. Pretty much each issue features Momo setting up some elaborate plot to make more girls fall in love with Rito, or at least spend a lot of time naked around him. There’s also quite a bit about Yami, an assassin who was a minor character in the first series, and a secondary protagonist in Yabuki’s first comic, Black Cat (and need I note how odd it is for a character to go from a somewhat serious action series to a romantic comedy? Kind of a reverse Cerebus effect).
On one level, it is everything that is wrong with manga: impossible anatomy, nudity abounding, the plot solely in service to allow said drawings of naked girls… And yet, in terms of creative bankruptcy, it is a far more honest series than most being published today. The “antagonist” refers repeatedly to her scheme as the “Harem Plot.” In terms of fanservice, it was directly cited as the inspiration for a recent anti-pornography/youth corruption law in Japan. To say that it is not work safe, or that it’s not the kind of book you’d show your mother, is like saying a lake is wet. Sure, it’s not as big as the ocean, it’s not actual hardcore porn, but it’s quite literally as close as you can get to it without crossing the line.
I read the the whole of both series on a lark over the course of a week a while back, and because it comes out in monthly 40 page installments that take perhaps 10 minutes to read, I’ve kept up with it. It’s a low effort read with some excellent emotion and surprisingly realistic reactions to outlandish situations (a recent issue, for example, featured Momo actually trying to come onto Rito, and realizing that she’d built herself up, expectation-wise, far more in her head than perhaps she was emotionally capable of doing in real life), and after drowning myself in Pynchon or McCarthy or Garcia Marquez, it’s an occasional breath of simple fresh air. It isn’t good by any acceptable standard, but it’s funny and usually has me gasping and saying “Oh seriously?” or “Holy shit, they went there” at least once an issue. I read it for the same reason Chris Sims reads Tarot.
It struck me the other day that such a stupid fun book would be the perfect barometer with which to judge the other comics I read. I had made a resolution to quit spending money on comics that I no longer liked or enjoyed. Quite a bit of the American comics output I’d been reading would just dance around the line, or pretend that they were doing something artsy and fancy when it was really just high concept bull shit. If I was going to read lowest common denominator books, why not read an honest, unpretentious one? And if a book can’t overcome the pretty low hurdle that is being better that To~Love~Ru, well, why bother?
Thus, the central question of my evaluations: Would I rather be reading To~Love~Ru Darkness than this comic?