By Ken Akamatsu. Released in Japan as "Mahou Sensei Negima!" by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Magazine. Released in North America by Kodansha Comics.
First off, let's get the translation thing out of the way before we get to reviewing the actual content. As I've noted before, when Del Rey licensed Negima, they hired famous comics and SF writer Peter David to do the adaptation, which he did through Volume 5. It is known for being notoriously loose, with a ton of dialogue simply being rewritten entirely. Now, sometimes I'm OK with this (I'm an Excel Saga fan, after all, and I'm fairly sure Excel doesn't quote the Geto Boys in the original Japanese), but in the case of Negima, it actually alters the personality of many of the characters. Konoka calling Asuna a cheesehead draws attention to the adaptation, which isn't something you want to do. After Peter David left, Trish Ledoux (known for her work on Ranma) started to adapt, and many things got smoothed out, but then she left about 6 volumes later, and we got a new team, etc. Now, this is not uncommon for long-running manga series here in North America. Unfortunately, Del Rey had no editors (or at least bad ones), so there was little to no continuity between volumes. (I've yelled at them about this before as well, in my Zetsubou-sensei reviews.)
Now Kodansha decided to re-release Negima (still their best-selling series here) as an omnibus. They'd actually done this before for Barnes & Noble bookstores only several years ago, but it was the old Peter David adaptation, so there was no need for fans to get it. By now someone there had heard about fan derision of the early volumes, so hired the Nibley twins (the series' current translator/adaptors) to clean up a few of the more egregious moments in the series. On starting this project, the twins realized it would be a lot less aggravating to simply re-translate and adapt EVERYTHING, which they then did. And it was well-worth it, because this is definitely a re-release fans of Negima should get. The dialogue reads far more realistically and in character, nothing seems to jar (there is one 'Southern Master' in Asuna's dialogue, but I'm pretty sure that was left in as a joke), and it doesn't call attention to itself. We can now read Negima (mostly) as it was meant to be, and I thank Kodansha and the Nibleys for that.
Now, as for the manga itself. I went into it with my opinion that the first three volumes sucked, and that the series only started to get really good with the Kyoto arc starting in Volume 4. I am now prepared to revise that opinion. Volumes 2 and 3 turned out to be better than I expected, with 2 in particular giving us some nice character development and building up the campus as being more than simply a really big private school. Volume 1, though, actually managed to be WORSE than I remember, and for those people who cannot power through bad writing to get to the good beyond it, well, I'm sorry, you're never going to get into Negima.
I have also mentioned before the story of how Negima came to be what it is. After finishing the love comedies A.I. Love You and Love Hina, Akamatsu was somewhat weary of harem manga and decided to do a shonen fighting series with a young male protagonist. Kodansha's editors at Shonen Magazine, however, has no confidence in his ability to write action-filled battles, and told him they wanted him to write more of what sold like hotcakes - lots of girls, lots of fanservice, and lots of wacky situations. So we get Negima, where 10-year-old magical school graduate Negi Springfield is sent to a huge private school in Japan to teach a class full of thirty-one 14-15 year old girls. On his first day, he runs into Asuna Kagurazaka, a fiery girl with a short fuse and a fierce temper, who is not Naru from Love Hina at all, except yes, she is.
Negi's specialty is wind magic, and being 10 years old, he has not completely mastered self-control of this. This means that when he sneezes, clothing tends to fly off of the nearest females, including Asuna. If this sounds incredibly lame, that's because it is. Luckily, after a volume or two, it stops being every single chapter, and starts to be used in the obvious 'comedy' chapters, or as a balance to an overly serious battle. Here, however, Volume 1 seems to consist of endless pages of Asuna being humiliated, stripped, and broken. And because Negi's ten years old, she doesn't even get to beat him up the way Naru could hit Keitaro. More to the point, these early characterizations of Negi and Asuna are off enough to be irritating as well. Negi, known in later volumes for being 'overly mature and serious' for his age, if naive, is far more bratty and child-like here. As for Asuna, I have grown to like her character a lot, but there's a reason that people kept comparing her to Naru in Love Hina at first. All she does is yell and scream.
Luckily, things do not stay this way. Negima is far more of an ensemble cast than Love Hina, and we begin to see Negi interacting with the other girls. We meet Nodoka, the shy librarian whose life he saves on the first day, and who promptly falls for him. We see the 'Baka Rangers', five girls who get the worst grades in class for various reasons. We meet grumpy hacker Chisame, whose job it is to lampshade how ridiculous this class is. And, in Volume 3, we get our first major villain in Evangeline A.K. McDowell, a centuries-old vampire who is currently trapped at the school and in the body of a 10-year-old girl. The relationship between Negi and Asuna also mellows here, and once she starts to see Negi as more of a little brother (don't start, shippers) than a bratty kid out to ruin her life, her own character becomes much more of a 'big-sister' type and we begin to like her much better.
It's very strange seeing Evangeline at this stage in the manga. She's certainly a threat, but there's no sense that she'll be impossible to defeat - indeed, once Negi and Asuna become battle partners, she's almost easy to take down. I get the sense that the feedback Akamatsu got from readers and editors was HUGE for Evangeline, and so he may have decided that he needed to give her more to do. Certainly by Volume 6, when Evangeline next lets her powers loose, she's one of the most formidable foes in the entire series.
I should mention the fanservice again, because it's really, really a major part of this omnibus. If you crack open the book to a random page, there's a good chance you will see a teenage girl in a state of undress. As I noted earlier, I think Akamatsu was trying to press the harem aspect really hard at the start of the series in order to get the series popular enough that he could start to do what he wanted to do. So you get tons of bath scenes, and school measurement days, and "Oh no, you've seen my panties now!" type humor. Given Negi is ten years old, this is a little discomfiting, but at this stage there's little evidence that anyone is serious about things - Nodoka's love for Negi is seen to be mostly a crush, and the one girl we worried about (Ayaka) is shown to be seeing Negi as more of a little brother replacement than anything else. So the fanservice tends to mostly be "look, I can draw all varieties of naked girls!" type service. As the series goes on, this gets less and less, but it never entirely goes away - these days, he tends to write normally for about a dozen chapters, then toss in a full chapter of nothing but nudity to counterbalance.
In the end, I am glad that we're getting this re-release, and that it will apparently continue through at least Volume 9. Negima may have started out as nothing more than Harry Potter meets Love Hina, but Akamatsu has crafted quite the epic fantasy adventure, and though he has not quite fulfilled his promise of making all 31 girls important to the story, he's come damn close. Negima fans, obviously, should get this. Folks curious about the series should as well, but just be aware - the first third of this omnibus is terrible. It gets much better.