In this column, I feature comic book reviews written by my students at Oxford College of Emory University. Oxford College is a small liberal arts school just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I challenge students to read and interpret comics because I believe sequential art and visual literacy are essential parts of education at any level (see my Manifesto!). I post the best of my students’ reviews in this column. Today, I am proud to present a review by Adra Curington.

Adra Curington is a first-year student at Emory Oxford College majoring in philosophy. While she’s not busy studying for classes, she enjoys spending her time watching movies, reading, volunteering, and planning fun club events for her peers. She hopes to one day attend medical school and become a physician while maintaining her passion for comic books and media arts.

Berserk (Volume 1) by Kentaro MiruraBerserk (Volume 1) by Kentaro Miura

The story of Berserk follows a young man named Guts and his fairy sidekick, Puck, who travel to different cities around a mysterious country plagued by war, death, and cruelty. Throughout the course of the journey, Guts and Puck go up against many evil beings to bring about the ultimate goal of justice for humanity. Wielding a razor-sharp, almost unbelievably large sword, this is the story of Guts’s Black Swordsman arc. The author of Berserk, Kentaro Miura, is a notable Japanese manga artist born on July 11th, 1966, in Chiba, Japan. He created his first manga at the young age of 10, which went on to be published for his classmates in a school publication. With the creation of Berserk in 1989, Miura quickly rose to success as Berserk received great acclaim and went on to become one of the most popular manga series of all time. From the manga’s captivating art which gracefully captured the intricate details of the dark fantasy setting, to the mature, philosophical themes deepening the layers of the gripping narrative arc, readers from the past to the present continue to be enthralled by this marvel of modern fiction that is sure to pique the interest of many comic book or manga enthusiasts around the world.

Volume 1 of Berserk serves as an engrossing and enjoyable introduction to the fantastic world. It would go on to be developed into a complete series that is now heralded as one of the greatest to ever emerge out of Japan. The main premise of this first volume and its intense character-driven story, is that Guts, (aka the black swordsman), the morally-grey protagonist of the story, lives in a dark fantasy medieval Europe-inspired world where he travels from city to city on a quest to take down his enemies of demons and apostles who have much of humankind under unjust and violent control. He is accompanied by the loyal, friendly, and innocent elf, Puck, who we are also introduced to quite early in the volume. It becomes a pleasure to watch the two characters experience the unexpected and action-packed moments of their journey together as well as the quieter moments where we catch a glimpse of how the two are beginning to subtlety grow as characters based on what they undergo and how these shifts influence the way they subsequently interact with one another. Much of the volume is dedicated to fleshing out these individuals and indeed there is an immense focus placed on the characters as individuals instead of mere one-dimensional characters that complement a plot. Guts and Puck feel very human in this sense and their dialogue or reaction to particular events that take place in the story is a testament to how well Miura manages to craft such a visceral, emotional piece of work that sees its characters as vital to the art of storytelling.

This volume’s pacing and framing largely indicates that Miura is still in the beginning stages of developing a focused narrative, and for that reason, much of the story centers on establishing the characters’ internal motivations, how they think, and the relationship they have with one another. The same can be said about the story’s setting as we never receive a direct and blatant explanation of the fictional world. Miura uses the protagonist, Guts, and the archetypal sidekick, Puck, to gradually walk readers on a journey through the story’s environment as experienced by the characters in the story themselves. In this way, we come to learn more about not only the world in which the story takes place, but also the power dynamics between humans and nonhumans inhabiting it. It is in these moments where much of the story’s thematic development takes place and readers must grapple with philosophical notions of the existence of an afterlife and justifications for a meaningful death to name a few. To reiterate what has been previously mentioned, this volume is primarily interested in fleshing out characters and driving the plot forward just enough so that readers can gain a sense of the world and all its many complexities and intrigues; as a result, there is a much lighter emphasis placed on theme development or any other deeply layered narrative devices such as motifs, but when these scarce moments do occur in the volume they help to give the characters greater depth and provide the narrative with a more rich and engaging storyline to follow.

So far, I have praised the storytelling and amazing world building present in Berserk, but Miura also creates all the art found in the manga as well and proves that he can make exceptionally gorgeous and detailed art that beautifully enhances and gives new shape to the already compelling narrative and human characters. What can’t be communicated through dialogue is often communicated through the body language and facial expressions of our sullen and reserved protagonist. I especially like how well aligned the characters’ faces are to their current circumstances and how the mood of the scene is meticulously translated from the general atmosphere to the physical facial features and characteristics. Subtle details from shadowing on certain parts of the face to complete substitution of facial features for darkness do an incredible job of mirroring the emotion associated with the situation taking place, and it results in a highly visually interesting read. Miura masterfully draws his characters in such a way that the emotion can be easily interpreted from just a single panel because of the intense attention to detail given to important facial features that convey emotion such as the eyes, forehead, and mouth. For this reason, the fast-paced action sequences are given more personality, and we as readers feel when someone is in intense pain or agony because of the pain being reflected on their face. Aside from the characters, the medieval European setting is nothing short of figurative eye candy that is so lush and visually satisfying to look at. As I began reading the first few pages of the book, I found myself easily sucked in and the fine detailing of the cobblestones of the alleyways, the attire worn by the townspeople, and even the worn and aged-looking wood, go to show the intense dedication and effort that was put into crafting this work. The result more than lived up to what it was supposed to represent, and it highly exceeded my expectations for a manga first released in the late 1980s.

Considering the attractive art and the story’s compelling sense of direction, many manga series, and other pop culture mediums have paid homage to the Berserk series or taken direct inspiration from it. One such example is the Final Fantasy video game series that features characters wielding huge swords and other weapons, like Guts’. Other popular game series that readers may draw similarities are Sword Art Online and Dark Souls. As for manga, the creators of well-known titles such as Blue Exorcist and Attack on Titan have each expressed their admiration for Miura’s work and have acknowledged where they took influence from him. In Blue Exorcist, the mangaka cites the intricate, detailed art from the battle scenes in Berserk as influencing him immensely and the Attack on Titan mangaka was largely enthralled by Berserk’s character depth as they face very relevant and very emotional human struggles. Both mangakas sought to capture some of this brilliance in their own work, and they are not the last to do so.

In summary, Berserk volume 1 is a thoughtful and enjoyable manga that ingeniously introduces readers to a expertly fleshed-out dark fantasy setting with three-dimensional human characters, fresh plot beginnings, and small doses of philosophical themes and intrigue to top it all off. It has remained highly influential in media circles for many years on end due to some of these charms and it is likely to remain so as new chapters continue to be released today. Let it be known that this attention is fully warranted as this manga manages to cover and communicate so much in the few of number of pages that it contains, and it makes for an astounding introduction that will keep readers yearning for more, long after they’ve closed the final page. My rating for this comic is 4.5/5 stars (with half a star deducted because the series gets better as it continues), and I’d highly recommend it to both novice and experienced manga readers alike as it truly offers important takeaways for mature readers everywhere.



  • Brad Hawley

    BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

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