Volume one introduced Guts to me: a brilliant swordfighter in a fantastical 1500s European world. He was definitely an anti-hero who carried around a sword that was almost two times his size. Volume one felt like that sort of '90s manga that includes ample amounts of excessive violence, weird monsters, and even weirder sexual fetishes. But, it was manageable. It made sense. Guts was an interesting character. Cut to Volume 2 with Guts as a kid, and for the next three volumes what started out as a '90s manga explosion turned into Game of Thrones by way of Shakespeare. It became dense, dealing with Guts’ childhood trauma in an emotionally interesting way and how that carried into his adulthood. Next saw Guts becoming part of a group of elite bandits called the Hawks whose leader Griffith had his eyes set on the Castle. Politics and war descended upon our characters, as Griffith made his way up the chain due to his military prowess and Guts for his unmatched skills on the battlefield. Then, as the story progressed, we saw Casca - Griffith’s second in command - who was ever drawn to Griffith, suddenly sparking with Guts; watching those flames fanned has wound me up!
It’s been masterful storytelling, while still hanging its hat on all of those sordid manga tropes. Like Game of Thrones, Kentaro Miura explores the darkest sides of humanity: rape, incest, death, and torture, and it can be pretty graphic, though never does it slip into sheer exhibitionism. Miura cares about his characters too much. He also never shies away from the realities of hell and what that would look and feel like. While the characters are battling each other on both the physical and psychological maps, darker forces are converging - demons. I’ve never seen more terrifying depictions of demons, both beautiful and abhorrent, eventually giving way to - be forewarned - a brief hentai-like sequence.
The scale of Miura’s art is boundless; endless armies are drawn in incredible detail: landscapes that are absolutely beautiful and the dark surrealism of hellish images that swirl across the pages. Images I won’t soon forget. We see elements that would eventually inform stories like Attack on Titan and I Am a Hero.
Miura’s work is unhinged, but it’s also darkly poetic. The #StoriesMatter initiative calls me to point out that even in the midst of the violence and sexual weirdness, there beats tenderness and love; loyalty and comradery; and hope. To balance such great extremes and never lose the reader shows that the talent behind this book is a great one. The fifth volume comes out in July, and I’m already antsy to read it.
Creative Team: Kentaro Miura (story and art), Duane Johnson (translation), Dan Nakrosis with Studio Cutie (lettering and retouch)
Publisher: Dark Horse
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