Well, time to wrap up a month full of fantasy with one of the great (and gory) classics of the genre.
BERSERK (Beruseruku), by Kentaro Miura. First published in 1990, and first published in North America in 2003.
Somewhere, a kingdom lies in chaos. Demons and monsters of every shape and size wander the lands, preying on all those they meet. Those without power are helpless before them; those with power wheel and deal behind the scenes to either save themselves or satisfy their own dark purposes. It seems no person can stand up to such evil...that is, no person except Guts, the notorious Black Swordsman. He is a mercenary cursed to roam the earth, bearing a brand that draws the demons to him. His only goal is to survive, and to do so he must slay any demon that crosses his path and those who would interfere.
I might as well get the most obvious question out of the way. If you're wondering why that description above does not include mentions of Griffith, Casca, or the Band of the Hawk, then I'm afraid that your storyline is in another volume. The beginning of this series is a one-man show, and that man is the grim and bloody Guts.
Guts is a hard man to like. He's terse and nihilistic, a man with no sympathy towards those who do not fight. He doesn't battle demons out of any sense of doing good, but instead to lash out at those who would kill him first. His body bears numerous scars from battles past - a missing eye, a metal arm, and most notably a strange brand on the back of his neck. He is an incredibly strong man, wielding a sword that, in the words of Miura himself, is "massive, thick, heavy, and far too rough. Indeed, it was like a heap of raw iron." It's a wonderfully evocative phrase, and one that not only sums up the sword, but the man who wields it as well.
It's easy to see how such a dark and depressing world could spawn a man like Guts. It's a world that's positively soaked in sex, death and violence. Miura makes no bones about establishing that right away, as we start with Guts having sex with an anonymous woman. She transforms into a squirming mass of teeth and tentacles, and he in turn slays her without so much as a word. It's a cruel and truly medieval world, one where it's hard to tell the difference between the corrupt lords seeking profit and those who are themselves demons. Such a world might cross the line into pure grimdark exaggeration if not for the little bit of levity known as Puck.
Puck is our comic relief, a captured elf who keeps running into Guts as the story progresses. You can understand why Miura needed to add a character like him. He keeps things from getting too depressingly serious, and he also gives Guts someone to talk to, someone with whom to share exposition. That being said, I can also understand why so many fans of the series considering him incredibly annoying. He may be called an elf, but he's more like a fairy in looks and attitude. He's childish and more than a little naïve. He inserts himself into situation without asking or thinking, and more than once gets into trouble because of it. In many ways, Puck's personality is just as much an extreme as Guts' nihilism, and extreme personalities can often be grating.
There's not much of a continuous arc here. Every few chapters or so, Guts moves on somewhere else, discovers the whereabouts of another demons and sets out to kill it. Miura knows well to pace these episodes well, letting things build until it explodes in an orgy of blood. Every new fight builds up the world he has created, letting us learn a little more about either the world itself or about Guts. Miura is clearly playing things close to his chest and planning things out in the long run, which mercifully means that there are no pages-long founts of exposition. Berserk is beautifully balanced in its darkness, always keeping things moving forward. Guts may not be a sympathetic sort of man, but he is oddly compelling, and one can't help but want to see just what evil force he will fight next.
Miura's work on Berserk precedes him, as many consider him one of the best and most elaborate manga artists still working. Even at this early stage, I can see how he would earn such a reputation. His attention to detail is stunning, and his imagination clearly takes as many cues from Hieronymous Bosch and H.P. Lovecraft as it does from more standard fantasy art. Miura hasn't quite reached the fantastical heights of his most recent chapters here, but it's still leagues beyond what most mangaka were doing in 1990. Hell, it's still leagues beyond what most manga art looks like now.
His characters are solid and surely drawn, aided by the rich and dense shading and hatching. The designs of the demons are suitably strange and grotesque, and Puck can be both delicately, androgynously beautify as well as silly and almost chibi-esque with his over-the-top reactions. Miura does not shy away from the violence, as many a page features bodies being hacked and slashed as dark, thick splashes of ink issue forth. Miura does not waste one bit of space, filling nearly every panel with richly detailed backgrounds and composing his panels with the eye of a cinematographer. Berserk's is truly epic in the traditional sense of the world. It's a true feast for the eyes, at least for those able to stomach its content.
Berserk is a glorious, gory fantasy epic, a truly one-of-a-kind work. Its story, while extreme in content, is compelling, and the art is nothing short of exquisite.
This series is released by Dark Horse. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 37 volumes available. All 37 have been released and are currently in print.
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