Let’s skip ahead a bit, shall we?
The last review I wrote of Berserk feels like ages ago, and while I was planning on going through the whole series in order before arriving at the most recent volumes, I had a nasty run-in with this thing called real life. Then volume 25 hit my doorstep, and I decided to save us all a lot of trouble and jump ahead. I should say that if you’ve any kind of investment in being surprised by the way Berserk unfolds and you haven’t gotten anywhere near this far, go back and get caught up. I hate to ruin a perfectly good surprise.
Volume 25 takes place in the main line of Berserk’s plotting — where Guts is a hulking engine of destruction, Casca a mute shell of a woman, and the world around them is being torn to pieces by demonic incursion. This installment kicks off in the middle of deep trouble, where Guts and his companions have stopped to aid a village being overrun by trolls. Guts’s sword, impressive as it is, only goes so far, and so a local magician — a lithe young girl named Schierke — steps in to lend a hand. Her use of sorcery sparks the ire of the local priest (“Blasphemy!” he thunders), but the townspeople could care less about blasphemy when their village is being overrun.
It takes the combined efforts of Guts, Schierke, and two others who are protecting Casca — the penant Lady Farnese and the smug Serpico — to protect the town not only from trolls, but a massive ogre (Guillermo del Toro would have a ball putting this monster on the screen!) and a “kelpie”, a supernatural monster spawned from the spirit of a drowned horse. All of this unfolds with the usual dollops of violence and mayhem that fans of the series have come to expect: barely a volume of Berserk has gone by without Guts ripping through a whole legion of monsters in one blow with that monster sword of his.
Two things come to light over the course of the volume. The first is something that’s been clear for a good long time, but illuminated in a new way in this installment: how Guts respects strength in others. Schierke may not be physically strong, but commands power that Guts can only guess at — and who’s he to turn down that kind of power when it’ll only help him? The other, and far more important thing, is how Schierke’s magic ties into the primal forces that drive the Berserk universe — forces thrown out of balance by the Godhand, and by Griffith’s alliance with them. The cosmology Miura created for this world is one of the most hotly debated things about it, mainly because so little of it is revealed at any one time — and the more we learn about it, the larger and more compelling Miura’s universe becomes. A smart strategy.
The volume concludes on as grotesque a cliffhanger as any that have come in the series: Casca and Farnese, cornered in a remote nook of the trolls’ lair, with fates worse than death staring them in the face. That’s as it should be: a volume of Berserk without a cliffhanger would be like glycerine without the nitro.
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, you can immediately see what the screaming is about. By this point in the series, the art's plateaued — it's polished and consistent in every respect, to the point where not only does every page look fantastic but there’s scarcely a single frame that doesn’t have something truly eye-catching about it. Miura does more with the weight of his lines than most other artist do with the whole of a drawing. His 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. 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 now being translated, with annotations for same done in an unobtrusive on-the-page format. This was one of my nitpicks for this particular series for some time, since earlier volumes left effects completely untranslated.
The Bottom Line: Even if this is ultimately a transitional or interstitial volume for the series — i.e., it’s designed to get us from one plot point to another, without too much else along the way — Miura’s gifted enough that he can make something that obligatory into a gripping experience. You’ll be best served by starting the series from the beginning, of course.