*Warning: this post contains some explicit language and description*
Few manga manage the impressive feat of telling you everything you need to know and can expect within the first five pages. Berserk opens up with the main character, Guts, making love to a woman by the fire only to reveal herself as a demon mid-climax. Unaffected by the interruption, Guts dispatches the demon in the series’ iconic gory manner with sinister glee. As Guts prepares to continue his journey, he looks back at the mess he left, and a regretful expression appears on his face. Berserk is famous for its copious amounts of sex, gore and plot twists, so I would say this is an excellent introduction to the series.
The first volume primarily deals with Guts’ journey to kill demons known as apostles, underlings of the mysterious Godhand. During his travels, Guts comes across his elven sidekick, Puck, a childlike spirit who develops a keen interest in Guts, despite his selfish and violent nature. After instigating a full scale slaughter in the name of killing a single apostle, Guts travels with a priest and his daughter to his next destination, where he is asked by a mutilated man to kill the local Count, who happens to be the apostle Guts is looking for. The volume ends as the man reveals himself to be in the possession of an egg-shaped object known as a Behelit.
The art on display here is top notch, to the point where I often forgot I was looking at a two dimensional picture. This effect is brought about by the excellent use of shading throughout the manga. This ranges from simple touches such as appropriate body shadows to distinct contrasts in light to create almost life-like light effects. Shading isn’t used just as literal detail to create depth, it is also used in metaphorical ways, such as completely blacking out Guts face after a kill, save a small patch of sharp white on his eyes, to demonize him. The art itself is lush with fine detail, especially during action scenes where Kentaro Miura shows us exactly how much he loves his violence. With each hit, blood splatters, teeth are knocked out, entrails burst from bodies, and many of these scenes involve entire towns. When Guts gets to fight the first apostle, we are treated to the gorgeously horrific snake armor of the apostle, with a snake head that casts an ever lingering shadow over the demon’s face, rough, spiky scale armor and flowing cape. There are also several expanse scenes of the various environments, during various states of duress, with equally as much attention to detail as the characters. The only major complaint I can level against the art is Puck, who looks so unsoiled compared to everything else that the little elf can be something of an eyesore and feel completely out of place.
It isn’t even the art on its own that makes Berserk such a beautiful comic to look at, it’s how the art works together with the dynamic panel layouts. No two pages of Berserk resemble each other; something about each one’s direction keeps the book animated throughout. Pages bring focus to the most important panels, characters literally pop out, huge events such as invasions are given appropriately large spreads, and dialog boxes expand over the images to emphasize key dialog.
While Berserk is exceptional in terms of its visuals, the first installment’s tale is not quite as spotless. For a series that has just begun, Berserk does quite a bit to convince the reader that there is far more to the world and characters than meets the eye. World-building is done in unison with the progression of the story, allowing readers small glimpses into the greater picture of the work, without delving into excessive exposition. However, the way the story unfolds becomes quickly obvious, with the basic rule of thumb being that the dark route will always be taken. By the time the priest showed up, I knew far before Guts got in the carriage with them that they were not going to be alive for much longer, especially since the priest’s daughter was built up as this innocent, sweet girl. Puck is also a somewhat sour point because his desire to follow Guts makes less and less sense as Guts continues to commit heinous acts in his quest for revenge. The story does make it apparent that Guts has a more human side, but with Puck having just met him, it stretches the suspension of disbelief for him to willingly pal around with Guts knowing what he is capable of.
As the start to the legendary series, volume 1 of Berserk creates great interest in continuing to read. The art is a shining example of what the medium is capable of, and each panel flows into the next as it should. The story is relatively predictable and simple, but begins the process of setting up its world without the need for excessive exposition. Overall, this is an introduction that gives the reader a very good idea as to what can be expected for the future, and that is the most important feat a first volume can achieve.