Berserk is a long running Manga series both written and illustrated by Kentaro Miura originally published in 1990 that remains an ongoing project. Bloody and dark, Berserk is set in a medieval-Europe style fantasy world rife with monsters, evil spirits, and cruel demonic overlords. I will be discussing the first of the thirty-six released volumes of the manga and not either of the anime adaptations available. The English language version is published by Dark Horse Manga.
The volume opens with a chapter titled “The Black Swordsman” in which a large man named Guts armed with a fake arm and a freakishly large sword dispatches a tavern full of armed soldiers that are threatening to kill an elf (visually like a fairy) named Puck. He does this in order to send a message to the person who employs them. Identifying himself as “the Black Swordsman”, Guts commits a slaughter that draws out the mayor as well as the creature threatening the mayor into servitude. A fight erupts, revealing the creature as something called an apostle that serves “the God Hand” the members of which, Guts wishes to kill. It seems personal.
The second chapter is titled “The Brand” and features more of Guts killing things and more hints at why he does what he does. Guts comes across Puck once more in the back of a wagon driven by a priest and a young woman. After some discussion regarding Guts’ way of life (he is some sort of a mercenary), Guts is targeted by a horde of undead skeletal creatures as a result of the brand on his neck, which apparently draws evil spirits towards him during the night (or when he sleeps, it’s vague). Violence ensues.
The third (and final) story is titled “The Guardians of Desire, Part 1” and yes, it does end on a cliffhanger. Guts comes across another town fresh from beheading a woman accused of being a heretic. Guts’ nature gets the better of him and another huge brawl with more armed soldiers erupts (he kills many, many people) before escaping into the sewers with Puck on the instructions of a mysterious, mutilated man who sees in Guts a chance for vengeance. This town is also led by something vaguely human (but almost definitely not) who burns anyone as a heretic for the oh so slightest of reasons.
Berserk‘s first volume sets up its world well in terms of atmosphere: this medieval world is dark, brutal, and corrupt. Vague evilness practically seeps through the pages between all of the blood splatter. Thus far, the setting seems to be the typical dark fantasy world replete with the requisite monsters and a quasi-medieval setting. The presence of more sprite-like elves differentiates Berserk from most fantasy series that follow the typical Tolkien model of man, elf, and dwarf (and orc, goblin, wizard, balrog, hobbit…) for their fantasy worlds. The presence of a priest also hints at potential religious strife later on and the apparently under-the-radar nature of the monsters and demons that Guts hunts hints at a fantasy series more grounded in reality rather than just one that is just dark and gritty.
The character of Guts, however, is ripe with potential for both character depth and cinematic style thrills. One of which is only hinted at, the other is supplied in spades in all three chapters (he cleaves torsos through armor with ease). Guts is a warrior, plain and simple. He fights and he kills and he seems to do both often enough and well enough to have time for little else than fighting and looking for his next battle. That is, not unsurprisingly given his status as Berserk‘s protagonist, deceptive. In all three instances of him fighting he has a clear motive: hunting evil or defending himself from it. His proclamations that he couldn’t care less if the weak are trampled and if innocents die also ring hollow: the one time he is anywhere close to being shaken from his berserker-rage (like the title) is when an innocent girl dies in front of him; he didn’t even lose that steely gaze of his while being tortured. Guts as a character has potential to be an interesting antihero should his implied depths be delved. For all of you A Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones) geeks out there (like myself), Guts in some ways reminds me of Jaime Lannister: a bastard to those that meet him, but a bastard with damn good reasons once you get inside his head.
The only other recurring character between the stories is Puck, an elf just looking for interesting things to see that views Guts as a person always coming across interesting things (I’ll wager he is correct). Though Guts brushes him off as a pest and weakling, he seems to recognize in Guts something besides the brute he shows himself to be to the world (the two fights Guts starts are over innocents being killed and Puck notices this). I have a hunch that Puck is here to stay and will be the first member in an ever expanding travelling party for our hero (a cliche, but a good one).
The art by Kentaro Miura is crisp, detailed, and, most importantly, clear. It is not difficult to get a sense of what is happening or who is doing what to whom (why is a different matter). There is also no vagueness in regards to the speech bubbles and who their designated speakers are, which is often an issue in comics with a fast-paced, action-packed, and kinetic style of story-telling like Berserk.
Is it worth reading? I’d say yes, though it is not for the feint of heart or those who dislike gratuitous bloodshed. The setting is fairly standard and the villains are (at this admittedly early point) shallow and vague, but a strong lead character and hints of hidden complexities in both the setting and the character of Guts will keep me reading for at least another couple of volumes.