BERSERK volume 1: The Black Swordsman

Berserk volume 1 berserkvol1: The Black Swordsman
by Kentaro Miura
Dark Horse Comics / Digital Manga Publishing
Translated by Jason DeAngelis
BW, 288 pgs
$14.95 US / Higher in Canada

Berserk volume 1 introduces Guts, the Black Swordsman, a feared warrior and bearer of a gigantic sword, an iron hand and the scars of countless battles and tortures. He wanders countryside reminiscent of medieval Europe, searching for someone or something. He’s a mystery for the better part of the first volume, and while we do get glimpses into his past and the motivation for his travels, there is still plenty we don’t yet know by the time this volume ends. This sense of not yet knowing but needing to know is what will draw me further into this series because volume 1 didn’t offer much else.

We only meet what appear to be two main characters in volume 1: The aforementioned Guts and an Elf (more like a fairy by standard fantasy reckoning) named Puck, who tags along with Guts because of a sense of duty (Guts saves its life in the first episode in volume 1) and curious desire to see things it had only heard about in stories. Puck brings a margin of civility and joviality to the first volume 1, which is important because Guts is a morose and uncaring character. If it weren’t for Puck, the darkness of volume 1 would suffocate the reader.

Anyone who interacts with Guts is doomed to die as collateral damage in his war against demons. (Saving Puck was a side-effect of killing some thugs.) His philosophy is that everyone needs to live their own life and if they can’t survive on their own then they don’t deserve to live. It’s not his job to save them. As such, he doesn’t care if destroyed innocents are among the trail of carnage he leaves behind.

Manga-ka Kentaro Miura wisely gives us some insight into why Guts is the way he is. He is being relentlessly pursued by all manners of demons, an effect of a curse placed upon him. Being constantly harassed by demons both during the waking hours and in his dreams has turned Guts into a solitary figure that knows nothing but pain. That pain and his focus on his quest have isolated him from the rest of the world.

We don’t yet know why he was cursed, but he appears to be either hunting the person or demon that cursed him, or is hunting down and destroying demons as the task that will lift the curse. The reason for the curse is the unknown, but whatever the cause there is no shortage of demons and their minions to destroy, which brings us to the infamous violence of Berserk.

Relentless in his quest and the carnage it creates, Guts wields his impossibly large sword to literally cleave his way toward his goal. There is no shortage of swordplay in Berserk volume 1, and while Miura’s action sequences are well executed, I have to say they get repetitive quickly. Decapitated heads and bodies cleaved in half get tiring after a while, and we’re only talking about the first of thirty-one volumes in the series.

Despite its unsympathetic protagonist and repetitive violence, Berserk volume 1 managed to grab my attention because of the unknowns that remain: Who or what cursed Guts? How did he lose his arm? What does he need to do to lift the curse? These are the immediate questions that will see me go forward, but there is one other thing I need to know. Will Guts rediscover his humanity? If subsequent volumes continue to reveal more answers and if more re-occurring characters are introduced, Berserk will get stronger and stronger. (Chad Boudreau)

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