Most series get better as they go on, but the truly epic length of Berserk, now over 37 volumes and counting, has yielded a huge leap in artistry. The quality of the art in the second half of the series is light years ahead of the relatively crude renderings of volume 1, and the storytelling has evo
lved as well, with much sharper character development and pacing. That doesn't mean that volume 1 is terrible, by any means; it's just not on the same level as Miura's recent work. The European influence of artists like Francois Schuiten and Moebius is evident from the beginning; but it's particularly clear in the beautifully rendered battlefield sequences of volumes 34 to 36, in which the Band of the Hawk's war against the god-like Emperor culminates with a stunning transformation, as Griffin's troops reveal their true demonic selves. The imaginative firepower is very impressive and visually distinctive, with Miura's clean outlines and controlled hatching making every page a work that could stand alone on it's visual merits.Taking place in a peculiarly Japanese vision of Medieval Europe, Berserk is a relic of the Dungeons and Dragons-style fantasy boom of the 1980's. It always manages to make me nostalgic for something I never knew, in the same way the film Akira makes me nostalgic for 80's science fiction and cell animation. Berserk attracted a huge fan following immediately, and has since become an international multi-media hit, thanks to the anime and the Dark Horse translation of the manga. The sex-and-violence factor has contributed to its popularity, as Guts, the Black Swordsman, goes 'berserk' and kills everything that breathes, bi-secting his enemies with an eight-inch wide, six-foot long broadsword that is obviously and ridiculously phallic. While swords can always have phallic associations, it seems like Miura has to be conscious of the exaggerated super-dick fantasy he's illustrating every time Guts splits another enemy in two. Then there's the weird, almost-gay rivalry/bromance between Guts and Griffin (who looks like a woman)... but that has nothing to do with the early volumes.Berserk makes for a quick, entertaining read, with the cinematic pacing that is so different from European and American comics. This means that the 'time-lapse' between the panels is much shorter, resulting in more work for the artist. A story that takes 48 pages to tell in a European comic album will take 200 pages as a manga 'tankobon'. In Vagabond, for example, over 120 pages are devoted to a duel; specifically, the seconds spent waiting for the other man to launch his attack. 120 pages detailing the silent, psychic battle that is waged between wills, as fear and uncertainty are created or indicated by the slight shift of a sandal. Berserk has no such subtlety, but you still end up going through each 220 page volume pretty fast. I deliberately slow things down to enjoy the carefully crafted artwork, but unfortunately, manga does not encourage art scrutiny. I'd like to see Berserk and Blade of the Immortal collected in the larger-sized omnibus editions like 'Viz-Big', which collect three books together, use a better grade of paper, and provide a bigger page to show off the art. They're also far more economical; Berserk would seem like a far less daunting expenditure as 12 volumes of 700 pages at $22.00 each (I'm using the Viz-Big editions of Vagabond for comparison), rather than the current 36 volume run, which cost about $15.00 each (MSRP for both). It would be a significant difference in price: $264.00, instead of $540.00.
May 22, 2021