Editor's Note: This article was written before the artist of Solo Leveling, Dubu (Seong-rak Jang), passed away. Regardless of the issues the manhwa has, it's still a landmark piece of media and Dubu's art was a large part of that. We wish his loved ones peace in this time.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that shounen is the most popular demographic in the world of manga. From middle school kids to working adults, everybody loves exciting shounen manga.
Manga like Dragon Ball, One Piece, Demon Slayer, My Hero Academia… these are some of the titles that will turn up whenever you search for “Best Selling Manga”. And, as you might’ve noticed already, the most favored genre within the shounen catalog is good ol’ action.
That being said, what most readers may not realize is the fact that there is one underlying problem that exists within this staple genre of manga. Strangely enough, the title that recently and clearly highlights this problem is not a manga, but rather an extremely popular webtoon called Solo Leveling.
The Story of Solo Leveling
In a world where mysterious dungeons suddenly appeared all over the globe, hunters are the only group of people capable of going inside the dungeons, defeating any monsters within, and claiming any kind of rewards inside. It is a high risk, high reward profession for those who have an aptitude for magic.
Sung Jinwoo is a weak E-Rank hunter who always risks his life whenever he enters a dungeon. However, after surviving a terrifying accident within a deceptive dungeon, Jinwoo wakes up with an ability that allows him to effectively and efficiently increase his own powers and skills. And as a bonus, he can also summon the shadows of people and monsters who just died to serve him as his loyal soldiers.
Needless to say, these new abilities catapult Jinwoo into being the highest-ranking hunter in South Korea. He defeats the bosses of numerous hardcore dungeons. He defeats super strong hunters. And he steadily builds an army of shadows from everybody who he has defeated. It doesn’t take a long time for Jinwoo to not only become the strongest hunter in the world, but also essentially a one-man super army.
The Shounen Predicament
The basic structure of the story of Solo Leveling has actually been around for a long time. The main character starts out weak, but as the story progresses, he gets stronger by defeating a stronger foe, which in turn makes him even stronger, which means his next enemy will be even stronger than the ones before. Rinse and repeat. You get the point.
There are several problems with this structure. First of all, it is highly predictable and formulaic. Before you read the next story arc, you know that the new villain will be stronger than before. In the world of storytelling, predictable usually means boring.
Second of all, the main character eventually stops being relatable to the readers. The struggle of David against Goliath is what makes the readers relate to the main character at first. But as the story keeps going, it evolves into essentially a battle between gods, and there’s nothing relatable about that.
And finally, this kind of structure will quickly force the author into a tight corner. It becomes sort of a trap. Because after a while, it becomes clear that the main character is the strongest being in the universe. When that happens, who else can you put against them? Gods from another universe? After that, what then?
Other Manga That Have Fallen Into This Trap
As mentioned earlier, Solo Leveling is far from the first shounen story that falls into this sort of trap. There are tons of other manga that have been in its shoes before. The only reason why this problem is so apparent in Solo Leveling is simply due to how straightforward the story is. The story is basically a series of action sequences and battle scenes, with some small human interactions and romance subplots in between.
Some of the high profile manga that have fallen into this trap are Dragon Ball, Naruto, and Fairy Tail. All of those titles ended their stories with their main characters essentially becoming gods. Sure, Fairy Tail disguises it by using the “Power of Friendship”, but it is clear that Natsu is the strongest being on the planet at the end of Fairy Tail.
As for Goku, well, Dragon Ball decided to simply end the story after it became clear that Goku is the strongest being on Earth. So what did they do with the sequel, Dragon Ball Super? Well, they look for even stronger enemies outside of the Earth, including actual gods.
Naruto, however, took a different approach for its sequel, Boruto. Since Naruto has essentially acquired powers that transcend human understanding, the sequel chose to tell the story of a different character, and nerfed Naruto to a level that is way below what he should've been capable of at the end of his own series.
Manga That Manage To Break Through This Trap
So does it have to be this way? Do action-oriented shounen stories have to fall victim to this vicious trap? The answer is absolutely not. But it depends greatly on how the authors craft their stories and manage the expectations of the readers.
Some of the high profile manga that manage to break through this trap are Fullmetal Alchemist, Hunter x Hunter, and recently, Demon Slayer. Edward, Gon, and Tanjiro are not the strongest characters in their own series. Sure, they may have a slight advantage over the other characters, but it is not enough to make them reign supreme.
Edward needs to work together with a bunch of other characters and use all kinds of tricks he has up his sleeve to fight against Pride, one of the homunculi. Tanjiro needs to fight alongside his friends, as well as a Hashira, just to barely defeat Daki and Gyutaro of the twelve Kizuki. The same thing can be said about Gon and how he has to sacrifice his life to defeat Neferpitou, one of the three generals in the Chimera Ant Arc. None of these main characters stand a chance of going one-on-one with the last boss. They would be obliterated.
These kinds of weakness, however, are what make these main characters so iconic, charismatic, and relatable. So how come these series manage to do that, while others fail? The answer is simply because fighting is not the main point of these stories.
Fullmetal Alchemist is about the journey of two brothers in search of a way to get their bodies back. Hunter x Hunter is a story about a boy who sets out on an adventure to find his dad, and meets with all kinds of interesting people along the way. Demon Slayer is a story about a brother who embarks on a difficult path in order to find a way to cure his sister and avenge his family. To these stories, fighting is just a means to an end.
There’s nothing more disheartening to an avid manga reader than seeing your favorite series turn into something boring, predictable, and clearly on its way to a disappointing end.
However, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are lots of shounen stories that manage to break through this common trap. So hopefully, Solo Leveling can also find a way to get away from this problem and go out with a bang.
Do you know of any other manga that have fallen victim to this trap? What about ones that managed to slip away from it? Let us know in the comment section below.