By Hidenori Kusaka & Satoshi Yamamoto
Pokemon Adventures: Black 2 & White 2 is the latest arc from the popular manga series available stateside. Taking place two years after the conclusion of the Black & White arc, the manga follows Interpol inspectors Blake and Looker hunting down the renegade members of the disbanded PETA-esque cult Team Plasma. Like previous arcs in the series, the Black 2 & White 2 arc creates a compelling narrative that feels fresh no matter how familiar you are with the games it is based on.
Making a return from previous arcs, Looker can best be described as the Zenigatta (the infamous Interpol zealot from Lupin III) of the Pokemon universe. He’s been a popular character among every incarnation he’s appeared in– be it the games, anime, or manga– and his comedic foibles and lovable good-natured clumsy cop personality make his moments real scene stealers. He often overshadows the actual protagonist, Blake. Blake is presented as a competent detective and a sly spy. This is both the strength and weakness of his characterization. While Blake pulls off some impressive feats and battle tactics, particularly during his battle with Genesect, his self-serious behavior and precocious talent can border on obnoxiousness. Particularly in his interactions with Looker, where he’s portrayed as more competent and battle-hardened than his partner. It’s hard to swallow that a twelve-year old, no matter how prodigious, is somehow more experienced than the likes of a seasoned veteran like Looker. It’s frustrating to see a fan-favorite character be subjected to the Worf Effect just to present Blake as more badass.
Blake’s self-serious nature as a secret agent is often contrasted well with his flirtatious undercover persona for fun dichotomous comedy. A choice example is when he tells Looker with a straight face he’s getting close to the girls in his class to uncover the identity of a former Team Plasma agent, then immediately reverts to an easygoing personality when talking with his peers. Reading the book with this context for his interactions with the girls in mind adds another layer to his daily life act in the Trainers School, embellishing the humor and meaning behind these scenes. Unfortunately, a lot of this humor is dissipated because of Blake’s questionable moral character. He’s first introduced breaking up with a girl, declaring to his friend that he did so for her sake, but he later reveals to Looker that he only got close to her to determine whether she was a former Team Plasma agent. He’s also incredibly pushy when he’s trying to get close to Whitley, to the point of not only putting her in danger when they encounter Keldeo, but making her feel uncomfortable around him. While they’re relationship may result in romantic feelings down the line, it’s often upsetting to watch Blake intrude on Whitley’s personal space in almost stalker-esque ways, even if these moments are being played for laughs, and this is ostensibly a children’s manga.
Generally the humor is in good fun though, and the Black 2 & White 2 arc introduces a lot of new, amusing characters into the mix. The games’ rival Hugh has been reinvented into a fight-obsessed and angry young man, who turns out to be a lot savvier than the dunce most believe him to be. Hugh’s outbursts of passion and obsession with battling makes for a fun personality and contrast with the calmer Blake, but what’s particularly impressive is how the manga actually improves his characterization from the original games. In the games, Hugh is obsessed with rescuing his younger sister’s Purrloin, which lead to some amusing memetic moments when he’s screaming “PURRLOIN!!!” at people constantly, but ultimately isn’t a very compelling motivation because it isn’t his Purrloin, and we never meet his sister. The manga improves this by making the kidnapping of Purrloin more personal, making it Hugh’s fault. We get a whole chapter establishing Hugh’s relationship with his sister, and that he caught it himself to give it to her for his birthday; immediately there is more of an emotional connection between him and the Purrloin as well as more context for the siblings’ relationship. We see for ourselves that he forced his sister to teach Purrloin how to battle in a public park, and that is how Team Plasma encountered and stole it, and Hugh was helpless to save it, brutally beaten up trying to stop them. This backstory adds new context to Hugh’s battle-focused agenda and vehement hatred of Team Plasma, elevating him as a more nuanced character than his games counterpart.
In contrast, while Colress is not necessarily improved from his game counterpart, he’s characterized in a refreshing way. Instead of the thoughtful, philosophical antagonist of the games, the manga version of Colress can best be described as a petulant child obsessed with having the best toys, those toys being Genesect, and his patented Colress machine. While a stark departure from other interpretations of Colress, he’s nonetheless a fun presence as an antagonist, gleefully naïve and laughably petty, but still formidable in his technical shrewdness. There are more examples of great characters to be found, but these two best highlight Hidenori Kusaka’s ability to take the preexisting characters of the Pokemon games and making them his own.
Satoshi Yamamoto’s art is as impeccable as ever. In addition to his signature round, expressive character designs, this volume features more shading than normal for Adventures, possibly because of there being more nighttime scenes. The battle scenes are a lot of fun and easy to follow, especially in Yamamoto’s depiction of the details of how a Pokemon fights, be it in how Dewott creates and uses it’s scalchops, or how Genesect transforms to use the cannon on its back. The manga brings these scenes to life in a way true to the spirit of the games and the imagination of the children playing them.
Black 2 & White 2 is a solid beginning to a new chapter of the Pokemon Adventures series. A Lupin-esque school life mystery is a refreshing take on the story of the games. It’s a premise the manga hasn’t attempted before, making it fertile ground for fresh ideas to take root and grow. Blake and Whitley are distinct from previous protagonists, though whether or not they are necessarily likable is debatable. Regardless, there are plenty of old and new faces to be entertained by, and it’s satisfying to see several of their stories continue to develop in this volume, be it Cheren becoming a teacher at the Trainers’ School, Brycen returning to his acting career, or Sabrina making a surprise cameo as a famous PokeStar Studios actress. To put it in black and white terms, Pokemon Adventures continues to be the most narratively satisfying way to enjoy the Pokemon franchise. If you’re not convinced after reading this volume, then I don’t know what could, outside of our upcoming Manga Mavericks two-part Pokemon Adventures retrospective podcast, featuring Annaliese Christman, official letterer for much of the series for Viz Media (which will be out on Friday, May 12th). Shameless plug aside, seriously, if you’re a die-hard Pokemon fan and you want to read a superior version of the story of Black 2 & White 2, this manga is for you. Provided you can stand the nearly year-long wait for the next volume, that is.