Here begins the greatest section in what is one of the greatest manga yet created — the story of how Guts, the Black Swordsman, came to be the man we were introduced to in volumes 1, 2 and 3 ofBerserk. This arc, which author and artist Kentaro Miura dubbed “The Golden Age,” was retrofitted into the TV adaptation, which ended abruptly but at the same time served the same purpose: to show us how Guts evolved into the killing machine we meet right at the start of it all. The comic version of the same arc has the advantage of being in its original context: if you’ve been curious about the TV show, start reading from volume 1 until I tell you otherwise, and then you’ll see what I mean.
(A side note: strictly speaking, this particular story arc started at the end of the last volume and continues into volume 4, but for the sake of convenience I’ll talk about it as if it were part of this book. Be sure to pick up volume 3 along with this one if you’re just joining in. The blurb quoted above from the back cover is horrendously inaccurate, since it completely ignores the flashback structure that kicks in at this point.)
Anyone who’s read this far knows that Miura’s worldview in Berserk is bleakness incarnate: the weak die, the strong live, and the strongest are left to kill each other off. Back at the end of Volume 3, we flashed back in time and saw Guts’ birth — a stillborn infant found lying on the ground between the legs of his mother, who dangles from an equally-dead tree limb. The only reason Guts survives at all is because of the obsessive attention of a deranged woman from a passing caravan, half-mad from having lost her own baby to a miscarriage mere days before. To everyone’s astonishment, the infant Guts survives, only to watch his mother waste away from illness a scant few years later. He will never know the woman who gave him birth, or the man who sired him, but he will spend the rest of his life trying to fill those holes in his spirit.
He grows. He is sold to a band of mercenaries, and educated in their violent ways by Gambino, the closest thing to a father-figure Guts will have at this stage of his life. Gambino is cruel in the way only a deeply frustrated man can be cruel: he resents Guts simply for being young and weak, and takes out his anger on the boy in the guise of training him in the use of a sword. The boy’s reaction is to choose a sword that’s at least as big as he is — a pattern that will continue through the rest of his life — and train himself with it until the skin is chafed from his hands. One night a fellow mercenary enters Guts’ tent and rapes him — an act that Gambino apparently sanctioned, and which leads Guts to surreptitiously kill his rapist later in the heat of battle.
Gambino’s resentment of him grows as well. It then multiples all the more after he loses a leg in battle and is forced to watch his men (Guts included) win his victories for him. One night they finally come to blows, and the older man gleefully admits to having prostituted the boy out. Enraged and sorrowful, the boy kills Gambino almost by accident and flees into the wilderness to almost die at the hands of wolves. He may be tearful and despondent, but his will to live is so strong that it will not only overwhelm him, but also many others around him.
He then wanders and soon crosses paths with another mercenary company, the Band of the Hawk, when they witness him dispatching a heavily-armored enemy knight with only a couple of blows. Among their company are the two other major characters of the whole of Berserk: Casca, a fiery young female mercenary, barely more than a girl in the same way that Guts himself is barely more than a boy, who trades blows with Guts when her teammates decide to kill him and take his share of the loot. And then there is Griffith, leader of the Hawks, impossibly handsome to the point of being effeminate — the only other man Guts will ever meet whom he is an even match for in combat.
Guts despises both of them — Casca for having to owe her one (and later, two), and Griffith for reasons he doesn’t even have words for at first. To a great degree, the feeling is mutual: Casca would be only too happy to see Guts drop dead, especially after she was forced to warm up his half-lifeless body when he first tangles with Griffith and comes within inches of being speared through the heart. She’s endured the sniggers of her comrades for “prostituting” herself like that, and once Guts is awake she takes out her anger on him by punching him right on his open wound. She’s the only woman Guts has met that doesn’t take life lying down.
Griffith, however, is fascinated with this half-suicidal young man, and Guts can sense the other man’s interest without yet understanding what it means. Yes, I could kill him, Griffith thinks, but isn’t it better to possess something like this, to command it and call it your own, instead of simply destroying it? The duel of wills that erupts between them soon becomes a very literal duel, which ends with Guts eating his own words (and, quite literally, the tip of Griffith’s sword). He’s now part of the Hawks whether he likes it or not — and the rest of the mercenaries seem to also be only too willing to stand back and watch Guts get himself stupidly killed for their sake. He might as well be of someuse to them.
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. But I suspect the force of the story and artwork would win people over in time.
The Bottom Line: In many ways, big and small, this book (and the end of the last one) is where the story of Berserk really begins. What’s been set up in this volume is the beginning of the emotional triangle that will dominate much of Berserk, and give it the depth and emotional force that makes it so special.