As you might know, manga are all backwards and shit. You start at the "end" and turn the pages the other way. You read from right to left. Thing is, not only are the panels structured right-to-left on the page, the panels themselves are to be read right to left! It's crazy! But, actually, that makes it easier because you just, well, change the way your eyes move. It only takes ten seconds to get used to, and then you're doing it. It baffled me because I wondered if the Japanese see the entire world that way, if even their film is framed to be viewed right-to-left. Having just read Understanding Comics, I looked for the differences in manga as opposed to regular comics. Sure enough, like McCloud said, there was a different sort of focus, with many more panels of "nothingness," just scenery. And a lot more close-ups of faces and eyes. I only noticed these things occasionally, though; it's not like it would be a completely foreign experience for a comics reader.
Death Note is about...the Death Note. It's a notebook like any other, except for the fact that if you write someone's name in it, they die. There are tons more rules, but for pimping purposes, let's keep it simple, especially since that's all I knew. That's all I needed to know to be interested in the series because, come on, that's a fucking brilliant idea, and there's so much you could do with it.
What Tsugumi Ohba does with it is this: an extremely bright high school student named Light Yagami finds the Death Note. The very first thing we hear him say is "The world is rotten," and this informs the rest of the series. Because what Light Yagami decides to do is rid the world of evil people, eliminating the criminals and putting fear into everyone else such that they won't commit bad deeds. So he's just like Dexter, right? Well...not quite. Because while Light's motives are partially pure, they're also tainted with extreme selfishness: he plans to rule over this ideal world as its god. This makes Light somewhat hard to like, but he's so awesome you root for him anyway.
On the other side, we have L, the world's most brilliant detective (yeah, eat it, Batman). L is pretty much everyone's favorite character, and that is because he is awesome. Also, completely bizarre. He constantly sits as if perched, the bags under his eyes giving him a constant look of crazy. He's always eating sweets or putting his finger in his mouth. He even holds cell phones in a weird way. Also, he's smarter than you. No, really, he totally is. You know it, he knows it, don't even argue.
Problem is, the only person in the world who can match L's intelligence is...Light Yagami. And thus, the game of psychological cat-and-mouse begins, with each one trying to best each other in, as sophiap puts it, the highest-stakes chess match of all time. You know that scene in The Princess Bride where Vizzini tries to guess which cup is poisoned, and he walks us through his reasoning, continually changing his decision based on the fact that he assumed Westley would anticipate what he was thinking and how he would act? That is the entire series. No, seriously. The whole book is one mindgame after another.
And it's amazingly fast-paced and exciting for a book with very little real action. The handful of action scenes with gunfights and explosions feel almost out of place. Takeshi Obata's art is very simple and straightforward, keeping the focus solely on the dialogue and inner monologues and enhancing them with the proper facial expressions. So it's simultaneously a fast read because you don't have to pay as much attention to the art and a slow read because you have to pay a lot of attention to the words since Light and L both have dizzying intellects.
Also, the series is FUCKING NUTS. Because the plot unfolds at an abnormally and atypically fast pace. Things you would not expect to happen until near the end of the series happen in the first couple volumes. I was always aghast, wondering where in the hell the story was going to go with X volumes left. As latropita puts it, they pull every trigger they have. If it's going to make life hard for Light, IT HAPPENS. The fun is in watching him get out of every sticky situation. Like Benjamin Linus, he's always got a plan.
Death Note is mostly concerned with being a whip-smart suspense tale full of plot twist after plot twist. It's one long narrative from start to finish, which I love. The characterization is pretty thin, although the minor characters do distinguish themselves. Light and L were a couple of my favorite characters, obviously, as was Ryuk, the shinigami (god of death) whose Death Note Light finds. I loved Ryuk's character design, and his personality is a source of great entertainment. Interestingly, he's not on Light's side, per se. He's just here for the lulz; he finds human behavior very fun. And then there's Matsuda, who's the butt of every joke and mostly provides comic relief, although he comes through for the team occasionally. You can't help but love the guy, though. Ohba said he tried to stay away from human drama because that's not what he cared about. Oddly enough, he also said that the ideology of the Death Note wasn't really important to him either. So don't expect a lot of meaty philosophical debates on whether it's a good idea to kill all the bad guys; the topic comes up occasionally, obviously, but the series is not really about taking a side. It does open up the avenue for discussion, however.
You may notice that I've written a lot but haven't really said much about what happens in the series, and that's very intentional. Like I said, I knew very little when I started, so every surprise was just that: a surprise. I wouldn't want to deprive you of that enjoyment! Death Note is a huge phenomenon, so you'd be way cool if you checked it out. I am curious about the anime, but it looks like the reason it's not as good as the manga is that it covers the first 7 volumes in 26 episodes...and then compresses the last 5 volumes into 11 episodes. Good job, guys. As I said earlier, you can read it all online, but check your local library to see if they carry it, just for the experience of flipping through the book backwards. It also makes it a little easier to get into that mindset.
Oh, Death Note. You hurt my brain, but I love you anyway.