JOJO'S BIZARRE ADVENTURE (JoJo no Kimyo na Boken), by Hirohiko Araki. First published in 1987, and first published in North America in 2005.
PLOT: We get off to a thrilling start with...an exposition dump? I'll get into this more in the Story section, but for now all you need to know is that this release is actually the 12th in the Japanese run, so the editors are bringing us up to speed. It tells the epic tale of the Joestar family, English aristocrats who were betrayed by their adopted ward Dio, and in turn he is turned into a vampire by a magical stone mask from South America. You know, as they tend to do. An epic battle spanning many years ensues, ending only when both Jonathan Joestar and Dio are plunged into the depths of the ocean.
The story then skips ahead a few generations to focus on Jonathan's great grandson Jotaro, the JoJo of the title. We first meet him inside a jail cell, where he is freaking out his other cellmates by manifesting a strange power which lets him sneak in things like a radio, beer, and even a copy of Shonen Jump, along with the ability to beat his cellmates without lifting a finger or catching a cop's bullet midair.
He is soon bailed out by his mother Holly and his grandfather Joseph Joestar, but not before Joseph's friend Advol gives Jotaro a cooldown smackdown with his own powers. You see, Jotaro, Joseph, and Advol all possess what is called a Stand, a sort of humanoid avatar created from one's life force. Now out of jail, Joseph informs the others about Dio - his backstory, how he appropriated Jonathan Joestar's body after being decapitated, and how he has seemingly returned.
Dio's first act is to possess one of Jotaro's classmates, Kakyoin, with a sort of brain tick created from his own flesh (...ewwww), which gives Kakyoin Stand powers as well. Kakyoin and Jotaro have an epic battle, one that involves a possessed nurse, a violent use for a fountain pen, and an exorcism performed through an EPIC FRENCH KISS. Kakyoin soon joins Jotaro's motley crew, and together he, Advol, and the Joestars must travel the world to save not only the world, but Jotaro's family from Dio's malevolent plans.
STORY: This story is utterly outrageous. It's so over-the-top that it should be outright ridiculous. So why was I so entertained by it. Was it the characters? Well...maybe. Jotaro is frankly kind of a punk, one who believes himself to be too cool and badass for everyone in the room. In all fairness, it's true, but his prickly, standoffish attitude does make it a little hard to root for him. I admittedly enjoyed his grandfather and mother more, as they had a oddly funny and sweet relationship between themselves and between Holly and Jotaro, even if Joseph spends most of the volume in Exposition Mode. The other Stand users (Advol and Kakyoin) are pretty much just ciphers at this point.
Maybe it was the plot itself that made the story so enjoyable? I can't say it starts off on a good foot when it has to feed you the backstory versus letting the reader see and experience it themselves. That really shouldn't count against it though, because that was the choice of the American publisher and not the mangaka. You see, the whole story is currently told over eight arcs, and Viz chose to start with the third arc to tie it in with the then-current OVA series. It's kind of a shame, because that first part in particular sounds pretty kick-ass. (Betrayal! Intrigue! Vampires! Zombie slaves! Fights to the death!)
Once the backstory is out of the way, the story moves along at a rousing pace, interspercing Jotaro's growing awareness and need for his Stand with brief, tantalizing glimpses of the nefarious Dio, and it always feels like the story is building towards something more, something bigger, so credit to Araki-san for the excellent pacing and mood. He's not shy about gore, be it the nurse's eye-popping use of a fountain pen or a tongue-stealing Stand beetle, so more sensitive readers should take warning. Really, it's not so much about the elements of the story as it is the sum of those parts. It's an interesting take on the shonen fighting tournament template with great atmosphere and some interesting touches of mysticism and Tarot.
ART: This is old-school shonen, where all the men are six-foot-plus beefcakes and the pages are drenched in thick, dark lines. Araki's style is particularly lush, with lots of dense shading and plenty of detail and hatching. You would think that all of this would make the art overly busy, but instead it makes the characters pop off the page as they demand your attention with every glower and grimace. The fight scenes are no different, with their dramatic poses and attacks. The composition is rather packed, as Araki packs in as many reactions and dramatic zooms as possible. The way it's done actually adds to the energy of the action and even lends it something of a cinematic flair. I suspect the art helped me enjoy this as much, if not more, than the story itself. It's old fashioned, but not in an unpleasant way. Instead, it's rich and eye-catching and helps sell the reader on the ridiculousness before them.
PRESENTATION: Being a Viz release, the extras are nonexistant. I do have to note something about the way it was printed. The pages were bound in a way that the outside edges of the panels are slightly cropped. I know that it can sometimes be hard to make magazine-sized artwork fit into a standard-sized tankoban, and sometimes that means that the art is either shoved towards the spine or towards the edges, but I do wish a little more care was taken. I do like the cover art, though, with its canary-yellow background and Jotaro in a dramatic, glittering pose (even if it makes him look like he's about to cast a kamehameha).
RATING: I'm not the biggest fan of shonen tournament fighting stories, but this one charmed me with its dramatic flair and lush artwork. This is one bizarre adventure that I want to continue reading.
This series is ongoing in Japan, and was published in the USA by Viz. Only the third arc was released in the USA, in 16 volumes. Some earlier volumes have been discontinued, but most are still in print.
This volume and many others like it are available through RightStuf.com!