There’s scarcely a manga fan who hasn’t heard of it. It’s spoken of widely and regarded highly and its creator, Kentaro Miura, is an industry legend. Berserk is very much a classic and it’s perhaps the most popular dark fantasy comic ever. Set in a cruel, harsh world of demons, savagery and horror, it chronicles the journey of the mysterious ‘Black Swordsman’ named Guts. His past is shrouded in great secrecy and the callous and cold hero is not terribly likable, not to start off at least. Accompanying the dangerous dark hero of the title is the naive and bright elf Puck and it’s their travels through the deadly realms of the Berserk world that we follow.
Miura’s a renowned storyteller whose artwork has only gotten better and better over the years, but here the audience gets to revisit the creator’s roots. All the key features and notable hallmarks of his style and sensibilities as a creator are evident here despite being in their rawest, most unrefined state, relatively speaking. From the usage of blacks, whites and gray tones to the way he frames action and uses dynamic double-page spreads to take the reader’s breath away, it’s all here. But what’s also there and helps give Berserk some of its unique flavor is Miura’s experimentation with textures. Miura plays with various ways to give his pages, especially in certain settings, a unique aesthetic. This is seen most evidently in the opening chapters, where a painting-esque aesthetic and look takes over before leading back down to the usual style. Miura manages to boldly tie key visual ideas and moments together to give the work more flair.
His use of textures with the monstrous creatures he renders into being and the use of dark tones are also essential to setting the mood of the horror that is so essential to a dark fantasy. Miura is able to consistently build atmosphere and tension, scaring the reader and conveying despair and dread as his intense story demands. His usage of lighting is also remarkable, as he plays with it effectively and brings even more attention to the blacks and the darkness that pervade so much of Berserk’s imagery. This is a world of shadows, monsters, mysteries and creatures of the night and Miura makes sure that you know.
Guts is an interesting leading man. Absolutely selfish, cruel and disturbing as an individual, he lives by the code of strength wherein those who are weak deserve all that is inflicted on them. He’s very much not the figure you traditionally tend to follow; he’s closer to an antagonistic figure one might find across in a vast array of series. But he’s our hero here, and he’s one who grins as the weak fall and lets you know he couldn’t give a damn. He’s relentless and even merciless, going to any length and pulling any stunt he has to in order to achieve his goal. He’s a terrifying man and one full of anger and hate.
We’re not given the story as to why, at least not yet, but the book slowly teases out what could ever lead to the existence of such a man. That’s very much where the interest of the book lies. Guts’ past and the brutal demon mark he bears, as well as his ties to the masked ‘Griffith’ of the Godhand, a mysterious group of demons, are what make the book so intriguing to follow. While the opening tales are fine, the manga really begins to shine once Guts and Griffith come face to face. The book emphasizes the great shared history between the two gents, teasing the reader and making them wonder what it is that led to this scenario in the first place. One man is a berserker, the other a god of demons for all intents and purposes. The raging anger, the evident pain and resentment bursting in Guts’ eyes, these are the things that make Berserk. The second the book establishes itself as a revenge narrative, things click into place perfectly.
The other key character is Puck. The presence and usage of Puck as a character is obvious, almost serving as a Robin-esque lighthearted audience-proxy figure to the dark and disturbed Guts, the Watson to his Sherlock if you will. Guts is a hard person to in invest in given he’s such a callous and horrible person, so Puck gives us a character to latch onto. Beyond that, with a silent protagonist like Guts you need someone to get him to talk, to create some interactions and develop things beyond Guts’ silent mercenary murdering. He’s very much the light to Guts’s darkness.
But therein lines the issue. Berserk is a fairly over-the-top dark fantasy with impossibly giant swords, ridiculously horrendous monsters and action sequences and more. It’s all a dreary storm of blood, guts and horror. And within it Puck is this figure that almost feels out of place. He very much comes off as a character from another entirely different manga stuck into the book. He’s a lighthearted and comedic character that feels like he’d fit better into a fantasy sitcom series like Konotsuba than in a dark fantasy epic like Berserk. The contrast of the darkness and silliness is purposeful to be sure, but at the end of the day it feels like the two are competing against one another rather than being complementary. Berserk is what it is, so Puck’s presence and general usage feel rather jarring and the comedic moments, while intended to provide levity to relax the audience from the never-ending onslaught, don’t really land all that often. Apart from that, the other thing that could definitely be better is the lettering. It’s solid and gets the story and characters across well enough, but there could be a lot more done in order to push forward and help it be a more active part of the story.
Berserk is finally being collected and given the treatment fans have longed for. Miura’s magnum opus is here to be read, shared and experienced once more. But before you plunge back into its thorny, terrifying world of horror, ask yourself: do you have the guts?