What do you get when you combine an over-achieving high school student and a magic notebook that lets you kill someone by doing little more than writing the target's name? You get Death Note. This is a tightly plotted mystery that will pull you right along. If you can take the fact that the "hero" progresses fairly quickly from having good intentions to mass murder to delusions of world domination (over the course of the first three volumes). Still, once the main antagonist--with his almost equally stark views on right, wrong, good, and evil--is brought in, the cat-and-mouse game gets very, very interesting.
Suppose you found a book that allowed you to kill anyone you wanted, just by writing that person's name in the book.
That's the essential conceit behind the manga comic book "Death Note." In it, an honors student named Light Yagami finds a book dropped by a shinigami, a Japanese death god. Rather than being petty and using it to off people he finds annoying, or sensibly recognizing the dangers of the book and attempting to destroy it, Yagami decides to put it to the practical use of making the world a better place.
One after another, he begins to write the names of criminals in the book, and one by one, they die.
It's an intriguing idea for a story, and it just gets more interesting when Interpol notices that high-level criminals are dying at prodigious rates. That's the point at which Light begins to explore the capabilities and limits of the Death Note, and where the reader gets caught up in the potential battle of intellects between Light and the mysterious L who is spearheading the investigation. And because it's a comic book, L is able to determine fairly quickly that Kira -- as the mysterious killer has been dubbed in the mass media -- is a student outside Tokyo.
I picked up a copy of the book on the recommendation of a friend, who likened Light-as-Kira to God in the Hebrew Scriptures. A better comparison might be with Raskolnikov, the would-be übermensch in Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" who believes that he has the right to murder a useless and spiteful old woman, since her death will benefit others. (And like Light, Raskolnikov kills again to cover up his first crime.)
Dostoevsky's protagonist was also a bright student who thought that he possessed the moral clarity and vision to make the world a better place, and to whom common morals did not apply, though in the end he discovered that he was not beyond the reach of a conscience after all.
It doesn't look like "Death Note" is going to explore those themes in later volumes, although it touches lightly upon them. The appeal of "Death Note" lies instead in the cat-and-mouse game between Light and L, as the two try to discover one another's identity, with their respective lives at stake.
The themes won't be as deep as Dostoevsky's, and this comic won't leave you thinking for hours afterward, but the story will move along at a faster pace, and it's a comic you can read again and again.
I was skeptical that this was not going to live up to its reputation as a very popular series, but when I read this first book I was entranced -- I wanted to read more! It is surprisingly good, in spite of its popularity (Yes, I say in spite of -- many manga that are popular are not very good).