Volume 3 of Berserk is the end of the beginning of Kenta Miura’s self-professed life’s work — the final installment in our introduction to Guts, the first true delineation of the universe he inhabits, and the first chapter of the next part of his violent odyssey.
The second book ended with Guts clashing with the vile Count, a man who used the mysterious Behelit to broker a deal with the demons from the world beyond to give him incredible power on earth. (I mentioned Hellraiser as a good point of reference, and the more I read of Berserk the more valid it all seems as homage.) Guts delivers as much of a hammering as he gets, not just to dole out sadism, but to prove a point: I may be “only” flesh and blood, but even flesh and blood can be far stronger than you imagine. In his dying moments, both the Count’s cry of despair and the blood showering from what’s left of his body fuse with the Behelit … and, as Guts mentioned in the previous volumes, that proves to be the key to unlocking the demonic dimension beyond.
Miura fills panel after panel in Volume 3 with his renditions of that dimension. It’s an M.C. Escher painting gone mad — a place where the laws of physics seem to have been suspended and the material world exists only to boggle the senses. There, Guts comes face-to-face with the Guardians of Desire — the monstrous, Cthulhu-esque gods who rule there. Among them is Griffith, a character of pivotal importance in Guts’s life, but we will only learn of his full story later — for now, he is depicted simply as one of the Guardians, one whom Guts has no more of a chance to destroy than any of the others (although he tries, and is almost broken in half for his effort). The Guardians have an offering for the Count: sacrifice his daughter to them, and he can sit at their side and wield power beyond belief; if he refuses, he faces annihilation. Only in the face of destruction does the Count realize the strength of his love.
What makes Berserk so special is something that shows up time and again in every aspect of the story, even the parts that initially seem cold-blooded. Each time the plot takes a step forward, the emotional stakes are raised and then raised again — so much so that we can’t help but care about Guts. Even when he does hateful and terrible things, we’re fascinated, because we know there’s a heart pumping away under all of it. And at the end of this book’s plot arc, we finally see a glimpse — a couple of glimpses, really — of his heart, buried under all the blood and suffering. With that little glimpse, Miura closes off the first major portion of the story and allows us to begin the next one: the tale of how Guts became what he is now, of the forces that shaped him, and the friend who became his greatest nemesis. There are pieces of that in this volume (among them, a flashback that drops major hints), but the full details will have to wait for my treatment of the next volume.
Art: One constant point of praise for Berserk is Kentaro Miura’s artwork, and even though the first volumes are a little rougher and less polished than the later ones (his anatomy and perspective are sometimes a bit awkward), you can immediately see what the screaming is about. Miura’s loving attention to detail on most any page or panel is stupefying — and sometimes downright repulsive, as when he shows Guts spattering his namesake across the page. But he also pays great attention to other kinds of details that matter — the look on a face, the knotted muscles in one’s shoulders or neck — and his character designs are markedly more “Western” (and that much more striking) than what you’d see in most other fantasy manga. It’s the sort of design work that’s impossible to mistake for anyone else’s achievements.
Translation: Dark Horse has almost never done a bad job with any of their titles.Berserk has been presented unflopped and uncensored (each volume is also in shrinkwrap, this being an 18+ title), although only spoken texts have been relettered. Sound effects are not translated or retouched, and there’s no glossary of same in the back. I could say that’s a minus, since Berserk is one of those titles that a fan from another kind of comic oeuvre (i.e., Heavy Metal) might be able to get into, and the lack of FX translations might be a stumbling block for them. There’s a few points in Volume 3 where this sort of thing becomes a bit problematic — as when the Count’s daughter screams “Yamete!” (“Stop!”) and it’s not translated at all. But I suspect the force of the story and artwork would win people over in time.
The Bottom Line: If you got this far, keep going, because Berserk will only get better from here, and in ways you couldn’t possibly anticipate.