There was once a movie called The Wild Bunch, a Western that did what no other Western before it had done: it made the West look like a horrible and violent place, not a breeding ground for heroes or men of honor. In Roger Ebert’s words, the movie “cleared away the moralistic oatmeal” of the Western and left behind something a lot less romantic, but a whole lot more realistic and thought-provoking. This wasn’t the West we wanted, but it might well have been the West we deserved.
In the same way, Berserk clears away the moralistic oatmeal of the fantasy genre. It takes the epic-adventure that we see in something like The Lord of the Rings and strips out all of the assumptions we bring to it: that the bad guys will lose, that the good guys will win (and that they deserve to), and that violence doesn’t just strike like lightning and kill whoever happens to be standing there. What is left behind is one of the darkest and bleakest stories you’ll ever read, but once you get started you won’t be able to pry yourself loose. If you have a strong stomach you owe it to yourself to discover what may be one of the most horrifically violent, philosophically desolate, and yet also flat-out best manga out there. The first volume is only a taster of what it’s all about—the beginning of a story that has already been unfolding for years and will continue to unfold across over thirty published volumes of manga in Japan (and eighteen or so in English, as of this writing).
That first volume also wastes no time throwing us into the thick of things. It gives us a world, “Midland,” that is vaguely patterned after the Middle Ages of Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, where different fiefdoms exist for the sake of little more than raising armies and butchering each other. Life is nasty, brutish, and short—and the only way to keep it from being too short is to be nastier and more brutish than anyone else. When we meet the “hero” of the story, Guts (given the generally Franco-Germanic tone of the setting, I’m guessing it’s more like Götz), we learn most everything we need to about him in the span of only a couple of pages: he’s having mercenary sex with a woman who promptly turns into a giant demonic creature and tries to eat him alive. She gets the worst of it, however: Gut’s left arm is a prosthetic, to which he can attach any number of weapons of destruction such as, oh, a cannon—which he shoves into her mouth up to his elbow and uses to blow the back of her head off.
The more we learn about Guts, however, the more we sense that we are looking at an iceberg—in that he’s a) deadly cold and b) nine-tenths of his real self is hidden below the waterline. He roams Midland and sells his sword (a “heap of iron” that’s almost as tall and broad as he is) to whomever will buy his talents. The weak are objects of contempt; the strong are there for him to match his strengths against. It's a small wonder he reacts with disgust when he runs into Puck, a pixie-like creature who more than lives up to his name by being both helpful and irritating. He attaches himself to Guts—whether the other man likes it or not—and the two of them struggle to survive as endless legions of the demonic undead are drawn to Guts like maggots to fresh meat.
There’s a reason for this. Guts has been branded with a sigil that marks him as a sacrifice to the forces of darkness, but by sheer force of animal will he has managed to survive being their prey. He has also nerved himself to do the things that other people cannot do for the sake of his own survival. When a harmless young girl becomes a demonic puppet, he doesn’t blink before slicing her in half. She should have known better than to get involved in his mess, he rationalizes. “If you’re always worried about crushing the ants under you, you won’t be able to walk,” he sneers. And yet there are hints of something else buried under all that, something Puck can only dance around the edges of but not bring to the surface. It takes an encounter that closes the volume—an encounter not with a person but a thing, an artifact of crucial importance in theBerserk universe—to draw us all the closer to what Guts keeps down below.
Most of the plot of the first volume is just setup, and will be played off in detail across the next two volumes. If the first volume hooks you, either despite or because of its violence and unremittingly grim tone, then pick up the next two and see where it all leads you. Berserk may be a tough morsel to swallow, but you’ll know right from the start if you want to try and sink your teeth into it—and if you do, you’ll see that it’s one of the very few manga out there that actually takes its setting, its violence and the implications of its story seriously, all the way to the bitter end.
Art: One constant point of praise for Berserk is Kentaro Miura’s artwork. And even though the first few volumes are a little rougher and less polished than the later ones (his anatomy and perspective are sometimes a bit awkward), you can immediately see what the screaming is about. Miura’s loving attention to detail on most any page or panel is stupefying—and sometimes downright repulsive, as when he shows Guts spattering his namesake across the page. But he also pays great attention to other kinds of details that matter—the look on a face, the knotted muscles in one’s shoulders or neck—and his character designs are markedly more “Western” (and that much more striking) than what you’d see in most other fantasy manga. It’s the sort of design work that’s impossible to mistake for anyone else’s achievements.
Translation: Dark Horse has almost never done a bad job with any of their titles.Berserk has been presented unflopped and uncensored (each volume is also in shrinkwrap, this being an 18+ title), although only spoken texts have been relettered. Sound-effects are not translated or retouched, nor is there a glossory for it in the back. I could say that’s a minus, since Berserk is one of those titles that a fan from another kind of comic oeuvre (i.e., Heavy Metal) might be able to get into, and the lack of FX translations might be a stumbling block for them. But I suspect the force of the story and artwork would win them over in time.
The Bottom Line: Berserk definitely isn’t for the timid. That being said, you might be surprised at how you respond to the story in the long run—it’s not just a mindless gore-fest, and it knows that.