A joy to some and utterly unknown to many, Berserk can be considered a facet of what are sometimes either erroneously or mockingly called “Chinese Cartoons,” in this case a manga [basically a comic book] of 37+ volumes in production since the late eighties that has since then spawned several television and movie adaptations and video games beside. It has been exceedingly successful, and yet even within its home country of Japan, it’s far from being a household name, but I have a sense that fans of Grimdark fiction in probably any country would be familiar with the series at least by reputation.
Imagine a medieval, fantastical universe in which the gods do indeed exist but in which they are similarly a genuine reflection of the human psyche which contains hordes more misery and woe than the few precious gems of genuine joy it has rudely hewn from the rock in anger. In theory, that should be all the description you’d need, but it’s so far from elucidating a picture of the action. The protagonist is a character called “Guts,” or “Gats,” depending on the romanization, who was born the product of a dead woman, inducted at infancy into a mercenary regiment, and suffered as the stings and arrows that sort of pedagogy would provide, including the usual physical abuse and several notable instances of rape. With the accidental slaughter of his adoptive father, he flees their company in the fear of his life, somehow surviving naked and alone in wilderness, some time after which he grows into a fine young man more than a little accustomed to the hefting of blades that more and more resemble the entire weight of a motor vehicle. Shenanigans accrue, and in a short time he’s missing an eye and his arm in the aftermath of something I’ll only call the “Eclipse,” and he’s out for revenge against the fantastical monstrosities he never should have survived in the first place.
This series is so replete with rape, murder, and mayhem, that I suffered an existential shock that burned me for years after completing as many volumes as I then had available. The only optimism is the result of hard work–the strength of arms that separates a living man from a corpse. Nothing is given. I realized, and it burned my heart for years, that the only thing separating another man’s dagger from my heart are his good intentions and the strength of the justice system to prevent and punish him. I was deeply affected. I couldn’t just move on. I became comfortable becoming a recluse. It would be hard work to overcome this miserable epiphany, which I maintain still to this day. It didn’t help that I had a history of paranoia. I just can’t think of much art that can do that to me. Made me realize that the persona we present to the universe is really a sailing vessel floating aboard an ocean of tears. In calm seas, it’s easy to maintain the facade, but sometimes you can’t even hide from yourself.
Now I’m going to be honest. I absolutely love this series. It’s one of the few influences in my writing I’d actually list from anything like a comic book, which usually bore me with their Mary Sue, overpowered protagonists. The list otherwise contains such names as Homer, Ovid, Nietzsche, Gogol–list goes on.
Now for a few general comments:
Kentaro Miura, the creator of the series, is very good at using the medium to its fullest. What’s the point of great text bubbles that consume the entirety of the frame? If you wanted to write a book, why did you draw a comic instead? On the contrary Miura is a very talented artist, with an exceptional understanding of weight and proportion–which is increasingly a dying art, unfortunately–and most of what needs to be communicated in frame can be done easily with the illustration alone.
And speaking of powerful opponents, even if Guts is capable of hefting around a sword that in all probability would weight about two tons, against the sort of enemies he’s regularly pitted, he’s constantly an underdog. And I like that sort of thing. Powerful characters need more powerful opponents. Pitting superman against virtually any opponent bears as easy a resolution as “Let there be light.”