Starting with some randomness, a while back someone I followed on Twitter wrote that they’d been told they were saying Hunter X Hunter wrong. I commented that I was doing it wrong too, though I didn’t know what the right way was. But maybe a week later, I recalled that in Italian X is shorthand for per, or for. So a sticker written as 2 X 1 is saying it’s a two for one sale. Then I also remembered that X in Japanese is often used as a shorthand for versus. So, this week’s manga review is really called Spy Versus Family. And now you know.
Anywho, I put Spy X Family on my Manga+ favorites list based solely on the overwhelmingly positive reviews for the manga as well as the anime. The premise certainly sounds great, and it’s summed up several times in the opening chapters as, “The husband is a spy. The wife is an assassin. The child is a telepath.” Meaning husband and wife do not know each other’s secrets or secret lives, but the kid knows everything.
The longer premise is that a spy from Westalis code-named Twilight is given a mission to sneak into Ostania, which has a very shaky truce with Westalis. There, he must make up a fake family, enroll a fake child into an elite private school, and use that child to get close to a member of a known war hawk political faction to learn if they have any plans to ruin the truce. So, taking on the identity of Loid Forger (really on the nose with that surname, by the by), Twilight first adopts Anya, who is telepathic, and uses that power to look like the perfect candidate even though she’s too young and definitely not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. He then uses his contacts to find the “perfect wife,” Yor Briar, who is eager to play a wife because as an assassin she’s worried about her cover being blown if she remains single.
The first few chapters build on this premise with hilarious results. This continues up to the point of Anya being accepted into Eden Academy, and it’s all based on the classic improv comedy tool, “And then?” Right after that, the series begins spinning its wheels with nowhere to go. This is actually part of the point of the story and is a feature, not a bug. Twilight is used to missions where he just puts on one disguise, slips into a role to accomplish one task, and then disposes of his mask and goes on to the next mission. But to succeed at this mission requires actually being part of a family, something he knows nothing about.
Equally important in this slow-down is Anya, who cannot fake smarts for the school even with her telepathic abilities. She has no idea who to copy for tests, and she’s about as adverse to studying as any normal child of four or five. So instead of rising to the upper echelons of school, she’s barely hanging on at the bottom.
At this point, the padding begins, with more “and then” trying to make up for the lack of momentum. A labor shortage for Westalis keeps pulling Twilight away for other missions. An Ostania secret police is added to the mix. Yor can’t cook and worries about getting a divorce. The family adopts a dog who can see the future.
Each of these setups is charming, yes. But they lose the sharper humor of the opening chapters. So instead of devouring each chapter in binges, I might read one or two per week because the plot really isn’t going anywhere, and because it’s no longer hilarious. Maybe one chapter in four might get a really good laugh, but the rest is cute fluff.
I don’t think it helps that Anya is constantly veering from terrified of losing this new family to overconfidence that she can “help Papa save the world.” Because she knows her role is a mission, she keeps assigning herself “oper-ay-shuns,” all of which blow up spectacularly. This is where so much of the friction comes in to drag down the humor. Anya fails at stuff, Twilight goes into multi-thought-bubble mode to over-analyze the mission, and Anya tries to suss out what her next operation is, all while Yor tries to fake being a supportive mother and wife.
Where I’m at with the series is, I don’t see any reason to quit reading. It’s charming and cute, so it’s good for a side read between other comics. But I keep hoping that even if the story can’t get off the “and then” treadmill, it can at least get back to the kind of humor that drew me in.
Would I recommend Spy X Family? Sure, but I’d also advise tempering your expectations. Those first chapters don’t convey how quickly the premise goes from feet running on the ground to jogging on a treadmill.