As if waiting for A Song of Ice and Fire wasn't fan-torture enough, I've gotten hooked on a long-running, irregularly-updated manga called Berserk. If Miura and George R R Martin ever teamed up, would we ever see the fruits of their labor? Or would their joint delaying rend the space-time continuum?
Mild spoilers ahead - the manga began over 20 years ago, however, so I don't feel bad about spoiling it here.
Berserk begins en medias res, following the mysterious Black Swordsman, Guts, as he travels around a medieval-ish land. Fierce and stoic, he holds a deep rage, and an insatiable appetite for battle. A brand on his neck marks him as a demonic sacrifice - every night, demons draw towards him (and anyone unfortunate enough to join him). He's hunting the world for larger, more powerful demons called Apostles. For what reason? Where did the brand come from? What caused him to lose his right eye and left arm?
Guts (aka Gattsu aka Gatts) being badass.
After three volumes we flash back to his very beginnings. Born by a hanged woman, and discovered beneath a tree by mercenaries, he is regarded as cursed and treated roughly by his adopted father, Gambino. Though he taught Guts how to fight, he brought nine-year-old Guts into battle and sold him to a fellow mercenary for one night of rape. Eventually Guts kills Gambino in self-defense and flees, finding work in other mercenary bands, never forming close bonds.
His life changes upon meeting the famous Band of the Hawk, led by the magnetic figure of Griffith, who sees in Guts the strength he needs to fulfill his dream of ruling an empire. Casca, the Band of the Hawk's female general, clashes with Guts over his impulsive tendencies and devil-may-care attitude. Big surprise, she and Guts end up together - she's the only woman he could ever love, because of her superb fighting abilities.
From left: Casca, Guts, and Griffith
Throughout their journeys the Band of the Hawk encounter some supernatural forces - unlike the first three volumes, magic and demons are rare in this earlier time. Griffith himself owns a supernatural item called the Egg of the Conqueror, an egg-shaped stone with eyes, a nose, and mouth - he believes it will help him fulfill his destiny. A destiny, foretold by the Apostle named Nosferatu Zodd, which might mean the death of Guts.
I'll stop here, because going farther would divulge some plot points best left for you to experience on your own.
Berserk is not for the faint of heart: graphic (and I mean graphic) violence; graphic sexual violence; graphic pedophilia; graphic body horror. Berserk earns the title GRAPHIC novel, and not just for the format. Beyond the visual darkness, there's some dark themes involved, including the morality of "the ends justify the means" and the seeking of greater meaning in a confusing world.
Though for some people these things might be turn-offs, for me, I think they bolster Berserk above many other long-running comic series.
Further things to appreciate:
CHARACTERS: Guts occupies a moral grey area - in his adventures he kills without question or mercy, but once you learn his motivations you're loathe to disagree with him. However, instead of a thick-headed brute, he is at times nurturing, caring, vulnerable, helpless, confused, and compassionate. Casca kicks all of the ass, while also being an incredible leader and intelligent strategist. Though "one of the guys" in the Band of the Hawk, the onus of proving herself worthy in a patriarchal world falls on her shoulders, energizing and draining her in equal measure. You come to care about these people - which comes around to bite you in the ass.
MORE COMIC THAN MANGA: Manga, to those unfamiliar with the medium, has an extensive stable of tropes and conventions not found in most Western comics. For a satire of manga/anime cliches I recommend .
Fight sequences drawn out over an entire volume due to unnecessary flashbacks and over-explaining dialogue. Excessive cuteness. Talk of "ancient techniques." Storylines that stop for no reason. Action for the sake of action.
Berserk's fight sequences are guttural and fluid, any flashbacks are topical and important. There are a few "cute" characters (especially once the extended flashback ends and we meet Isidro and Puck - though their presence does help lighten the pitch-dark world of the Berserkerverse.) The "ancient techniques" trope is lampshaded to comical effect. Each "arc" storyline feeds back into the basic plot, while fleshing-out characters and the world. Action that reveals character motivations.
ARTWORK: In the beginning the artwork is so-so, not very different from many late 80s/early 90s manga styles. But over time...hooo, man, does shit ever get real!
Art evolution in Guts' face. Quality You Can See!
**Word of Warning**
The translation for the first 3+ volumes is wonky. You'll get the gist of it, but the Engrish lends itself to unintentional humor. If the world/themes/characters catch your interest, please, slog through. Like the artwork, the translation grows better and better over time.
You can - that's where I read it, and besides a few issues being uploaded out-of-order, it's the best out there.
VERDICTIdeal for fans of dark fantasy and Game of Thrones-level graphic sex/violence, with an emotional heart which elevates it above mere pulp. Thrilling, tear-jerking, fist-pumping, and wildly imaginative.