I’ve talked about Berserk many times on this blog. It’s one of my favorite stories of all time. Yet I realized that I haven’t actually taken the time to review the original manga. I had plans to do it earlier. A few months ago, in fact. Except… well, you probably know what happened.
Miura’s passing was one of the most unfortunate tragedies that could have befallen the manga industry. The dude was an absolute legend of his craft and an inspiration. I admired him a lot, both for his work and for the man himself. Reviewing Berserk so soon after his passing would have felt wrong, like I was trying to get extra traffic off of the situation. That would have left a bad taste in my mouth.
*Note: this is not going to encompass the entire Black Swordsman arc. Rather, I’ll break down each of its three stories into different articles. This time, we’ll be covering the Black Swordsman. Next time we do this, it’ll be The Brand. Then we’ll move on to The Guardians of Desire. Then the Golden Age, so on and so forth. You get the idea.*
Shortly after fucking and killing a demon, our protagonist, Guts, makes his way into a small town ruled by a demonic lord. To lure out this demon, Guts brutalizes his men and sends the only survivor back with a message: “The Black Swordsman has come.” It’s here that he meets Puck, a friendly and naïve elf that he just can’t seem to get rid off. But when faced against the town guard, mercenaries, and a demonic monster, can the self-proclaimed Black Swordsman live up to his title?
Berserk gets off to one of the most thrilling starts in any manga I’ve ever read. The first three pages are dedicated to Guts literally having sex with a lady who turns into a demon, whom he then proceeds to blow up with his fucking cannon arm. He then wanders into a bar and slaughters everyone. All of this occurs in the span of ten pages. Boring, Berserk is not!
It is kinda weird that Guts would have sex with anyone other than Casca, though. Especially a demon. Even more so when you remember how much he hates being touched. But that’s more of a nitpick than an actual criticism.
This introductory chapter is as close to perfect as you could get. It introduces every concept that we’re going to need to know for the rest of the series. Demons, Apostles, the Brand of Sacrifice, the God Hand, the demon baby, all of it. By the time you’re done with this, you’ll know all the basics you need for the series going forward.
Well, you’ll know of them. The details won’t be filled in for quite a while.
I also love the role Puck plays in this initial story. He’s comic relief, yes, but he’s also the audience surrogate character. He reacts with wild curiosity every time Guts hints at his past. He’s utterly horrified whenever something gruesome happens. When Guts is in the heat of battle, he’s sitting there panicking and cheering Guts on. He really is just us when we first read the story.
Guts is also absolutely perfect. There’s that hard edge and darkness to him that makes him menacing. But there are plenty enough hints to his true nature here. Granted, this chapter definitely leans more on the dark, asshole side of the character. It won’t be until the next chapter that we really start to see the more vulnerable side.
Emotionally vulnerable, at least. Physically, Guts is very vulnerable. He gets fucked up during his fight with the demon. Honestly, that only makes him cooler to me; after reading so many stories where the protagonist initially feels invulnerable, it’s nice to see a story where the main hero just gets his shit kicked in right off the bat.
On the subject of which, the villains of this story are pretty… bleh. The demon designs are absolutely incredible, don’t get me wrong! They’re absolutely horrifying! But in terms of personality or depth, they’re severely lacking. Both the succubus and the snake-man are just ‘mwah hah hah, look how evil I am’ and then they get murdered by Guts. Definitely some of the most forgettable big bads in Berserk.
Shifting gears: I love the art style of these early chapters. It’s still incredibly detailed and well-paneled. But there are plenty of panels where you can tell that this is a manga from the 80s. It has that charming softness that old manga had, particularly with the characters hair and faces.
It becomes even more charming when you remember how insane the art gets even later on in the series.