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Graphic Novels Reviews

Berserk Vol 1-6

Four Stars
Writer/Artist: Kentaro Miura
Publishers: Dark Horse Press/Digital Manga Publishing.

Satyajit Chetri May 20, 2009
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A one-eyed, one-handed man tangles with a bunch of soldiers in an inn. As the men surround him ”“ swords drawn, crossbows at the ready ”“ he hefts his sword, a gigantic heap of iron bigger than himself, and cleaves the armoured warriors into pieces with a single stroke. The man’s name is Guts, the Black Swordsman, and Berserk is the story of his singular crusade in a medieval world rife with war, mercenary knights and foul monsters.

At first glance, Guts strikes you as a typical lone warrior, getting into scraps and fighting evil for the sake of justice. And it feels easy, at this point, to dismiss Berserk as an ultraviolent sword-and-sorcery story, but Lord of the Rings this is not. Guts has a quest, but it apparently does not include protecting the weak or helping the poor. “It pisses me off when I see weaklings,” he admits in the beginning to an elf named Puck that follows him around, “It makes me want to crush them.” It would admittedly be a boring book if all we saw was this all-conquering swordsman hack and slash his way to glory. But most of the time Guts is on the losing side. His enemies are not humans ”“ he fights grotesque, nightmare-inducing creatures, and even as he cuts a crimson swath of carnage through them, it is apparent that the stakes are set too high against him. Most of the scrapes leave him with painful reminders of his mortality; after a point, he becomes a character who exasperates us with his foolhardy stubbornness.

In addition to the no-holds-barred action in the opening chapters, Miura gives us tantalising glimpses into a back-story that goes beyond a shallow vendetta tale. A brand on Guts’ neck bleeds when his supernatural enemies approach. A mystical artefact called a Behelit opens a portal to a hellish dimension, activated by a monster’s dying cry ”“ the otherworld is portrayed by Miura as something a drug-addled MC Escher would have painted, populated by creatures that owe a note of homage to both Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Guts has a personal feud with one of these creatures named Griffith, and yet is powerless to harm him. This first storyline covers the better part of the first three volumes, most of which almost seems like a trial run of sorts, as if Miura is teasing you to see how much violence you can take before he goes into (pardon the pun) the meat of the story.

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Things take an interesting turn with the beginning of an arc called ”˜The Golden Age’ at the end of volume 3; ostensibly, this is Guts’ origin story, one that tells us how a baby born of a dead woman became the snarling, unstoppable Black Swordsman. It’s a brilliant example of using a storytelling method to make us empathise with a character that has so far appeared so stereotypically one-dimensional. Small things begin to fall into place as the storyline progresses ”“Guts’ angry reaction to Puck touching him in the first volume has a chilling back-story involving his past with a band of soldiers; there is even a justification behind the gigantic sword Guts wields. We meet a previous incarnation of Griffith, the leader of gang of mercenaries called the Band of the Hawk, the one man Guts looks up to. And we are introduced to more recurring members of the case ”“ Caska, the woman he falls in love with; Zod, the first of the many monsters he will tackle and the only one who warns him of the terrible future in store for him.

In Miura’s own words, the complete saga of Berserk will take him more than 50 volumes to narrate, and he takes his own sweet time building his house of cards. By the end of the fifth volume, Berserk has morphed into a touching tale of humanity, friendship and ambition. It is less about the blood spilt and more about the choices made by the characters, the small twists that will ultimately turn friends into nemeses.

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Berserk is manga that is hard to describe objectively. Let me put it this way ”“ if you are easily offended, Kentaro Miura’s multi-volume saga will probably be the equivalent of a fifty-megaton bomb of highly-offensive material exploding in your hands. If you are turned off by blood and gore, this is not for you ”“ Miura positively revels in showing horrifying arterial sprays and decapitations on-panel, up close. It requires a sense of merciless humor to properly appreciate this series, and a willingness to accept the faux-realism of a world where a happy ending is a quick and painless death. Think of it as the equivalent of the masala Indian film ”“ celebrated by aficionados and Friday audiences, misunderstood and pooh-poohed by the rest of the world. But let’s give credit where it’s due ”“ Kentaro Miura is a splendid storyteller whose artwork is stark and bold enough to bring the world of Guts to life magnificently.

33 volumes of Berserk are out so far, with 28 having been translated into English. Miura’s got it all ”“ a solid cast, sensational penmanship, international acclaim, a rabid fan following for his multi-part epic. Now if only he would hurry up with the remaining volumes before he drives us”¦er”¦berserk.

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