Since the untimely passing of Kentaro Miura last month, there has been a renewed interest in his manga masterpiece, Berserk. The series, which has sold more than 50 million copies since its debut in 1988, is widely regarded as one of the greatest works in comic and manga history and features some of the most breathtaking artwork ever printed.
That said, any recommendation of Berserk has to come with a disclaimer: the story is dark. It involves physical and sexual violence along with a long series of traumas that befall the main cast. Much of this is depicted graphically in Kentaro’s legendary artwork, making this a story that is not for those who might be impacted by these sorts of things.
For years, the subject matter of Berserk put me off reading it, and it remains a large reason why I shy away from recommending it to people. I read manga and comics largely to escape from the traumas of the real world, choosing more light-hearted stories to pass the time with rather than something as heavy going as Berserk. However, there is still a case to be made for giving this manga a chance.
As has been mentioned numerous times since his passing, Kentaro is considered one of the greatest ink and pen artists of all time — and Berserk is where he has been able to showcase that skill to its fullest. Every chapter features at least one panel that is stunning in its detail and execution, so much so that it is easy to forget that it is the work of a single person. Few creators have managed to capture the “dark fantasy” feel, with its visceral and mucky feel, that Berserk so perfectly embodies.
Guts, the main protagonist of Berserk, has had a lasting influence on character design both in Japan and beyond. Whenever someone steps into a battlefield with a sword bigger than himself, they are paying homage to Guts. The difference is often in the fact that Guts feels the weight of the massive sword he carries, called the Dragon Slayer. It is an object that has impact when it lands and when it is swung, with the warrior often stating that he felt burdened by the sword’s size, making it a metaphor for his own actions in battle which carry with them their own kind of heaviness.
For its part, the trauma that the characters in Berserk undergo is a large part of the point of the manga. Each person reacts to their hardships differently and overcomes them in different ways and at their own pace. Some carry their pain with them throughout the story while others find peace relatively quickly. The relationship between Guts and Casca is built on an understanding of each other’s pain and their ability to support each other through it.
Berserk inflicts a lot of pain on its characters, sometimes in a heavy-handed and graphic way, but it also shows one of the most complete depictions of how to live with that pain and trauma in any media. Some wield that pain as a weapon. Some use it as a drive toward their ambitions. Others manage to let their pain go and live with it in their past. There is a beauty in Berserk’s handling of such a difficult topic that makes it worth exploring further, even if this sort of thing isn’t normally your bag.
With the mangaka’s death, the future of Berserk remains in question — but even if another chapter is never produced, this is already one of the greatest works of fiction in the modern era. If you can stomach some of the darkness that is depicted within it, it is absolutely worth picking up in either digital or printed format.
The stunning hardcover “Deluxe” editions by Dark Horse are a great place to start — though be prepared to shop around a bit for them, as since Miura’s passing they have, as you might expect, become rather popular!
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