Imagine yourself alone in the world, with nothing and no one to your name. You’re under the care of a loving parent (maybe not your own, but she’s close enough) and you’re surrounded by wonderful friends. Sure, maybe you can’t go outside home, but who’d need to? Home’s got everything you need. Every now and then, though, some of your friends have to leave and go off into the world to find their true calling. Soon enough, you’ll be joining them, and you just can’t wait. Everything is perfect.
Now imagine what it would be like if that precious little life came crashing down.
Emma is a young girl living in an orphanage that’s just shy of being a glorified prison. The mansion’s young wards have numbers tattooed on the backs of their necks, are forced to take rigorous tests, and are forbidden from leaving the orphanage grounds. It’s not like they realize this is a bad thing, though; the kids adore their lives and their ever-loving Mom. However, Emma and her friends, Ray and Norman, eventually discover that Mom has secretly been feeding her sweet little angels to a pack of creepy and surprisingly business-savvy demons, and that the orphanage is little more than a farm. Dead-set on escaping with the rest of the kids before they’re all put on the menu, the trio begins a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with Mom, her watchful eye on them at all times.
The opening chapters of The Promised Neverland are a strong start for the series. From the get-go, they emphasize the underlying eerie nature of the orphanage while simultaneously lulling the reader into a false sense of security. This is thanks in no small part to the main cast. Emma, Ray, and Norman are welcome breaths of fresh air compared to their fellow Jump contemporaries. They don’t have any special superpowers outside of their intelligence, there’s no tragic backstory to them, and there’s not even anything unusual about them. They’re your average kids, which works well for this kind of story. It doesn’t do them any favors in the personality department, what with each character sort of just exhibiting one or two key traits beyond not being interested in being eaten by demons. But the narrative still gives them a naivety and innocence that really make you want to see them succeed in their tense mind games with Mom. The mind games themselves are your standard fare for the genre, i.e. “Don’t let her know we know she knows” and all that jazz, but they’re fun to follow all the same. Mostly, at least.
This is complemented by some of the most gruesome imagery any Jump manga has had in a good while. The demons look like something out of a manga by Junji Ito, with their highly detailed faces, spindly fingers, and gangly bodies. One of the scariest things about them is that they act so unnervingly normal. They treat the “cattle” at the orphanage like a shipping worker would treat their cargo, checking human lives off a list like they were chickens bound for the slaughterhouse. It’s simultaneously scary and kind of hilarious to see them complaining about just getting “another 6-year old” and calling each other idiots for wanting a taste of their “product.”
Additionally, most series would shy away from showing dead kids, let alone having them shoved into a food canister, but Neverland just goes straight for the body horror and existential dread. This isn’t even getting into the variety of unsettling scenes with Mom. Whether she’s flipping from the kindly caretaker persona to her sinister side or even just looking Emma with an intense, dramatic stare, she’s quite possibly more terrifying than even the demons themselves. This focus on different types of terror works wonders in setting a dark tone for the series, and it makes us want to see how it these horrors will affect the kids over the course of the story.
The art leans more towards what you might find in a seinen manga like Tokyo Ghoul than traditional Jump fare, with extremely sharp work on character expressions especially. Whether it’s a character glaring off into the distance or the sinister smile of a villain at work, the detail put into each character’s unique facial features makes every bit of emotion come across clearer than in a lot of modern manga (where a character’s scared, angry, and shocked face tend to look the same across the board and even occasionally shared between other characters). This does have the unintended side effect of having various characters make utterly exaggerated expressions at the worst possible times. Sometimes this is intentional for the sake of tension or drama, but it doesn’t always land. Additionally, some characters have a weird forehead-to-face ratio that veers close to off-model on a few occasions. Whether that’ll take you out of the story or not is a matter of taste, but it’s not egregiously distracting either way.
What is a tad more distracting is how the story decides to point flashing, neon signs at whatever important thing the audience needs to know. While a bit less of an issue in the latter half than the first, Neverland tends to deliver its exposition in an extremely blunt manner. Want to show a character is strategic and cunning? Have another character say as such instead of showing it. Think your audience might not be able to tell that Mom has something up her sleeve? Have one of the kids state it as a supposedly shocking admission. It’s telling rather than showing, and while plenty of psychological battle manga have their fair share of clunky exposition dumps, the best ones also find ways to reward the reader for figuring things out either alongside or before the cast themselves. By waving giant red flags around before any big reveal, Neverland occasionally loses that opportunity. It’s a crutch that hopefully will be lessened if not outright removed in later volumes.
The Promised Neverland has an extremely intriguing hook and a welcome cast of characters, accentuated with some of the strongest art out of a Jump manga in a long time. While its plot is interesting and the “battles” with Mom are engaging to follow, its lack of confidence in its own storytelling abilities keeps it from becoming something truly special. As more of the series’ fascinating world and lore are revealed, however, it’s hard to imagine this being the case for too long. It’s not a bad first course, but Neverland is just a bit undercooked-a little more time in the oven and it should turn out well-done.