Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Sep 20th 2009
Leaving the forest for open expanses of sandy beach, Guts and his gang stop to rest. For the first time since the Apostles attacked her home, diminutive witch Schierke takes the time to reflect on her teacher's death. In the meantime Guts, prompted by a beautiful little boy Casca adopts, reflects on the fate of his own demon-spawned child. When the inhuman hordes of Kushan's sorcerers inundate the shores, however, reflection is quickly abandoned in favor of survival. The battle reawakens the Berserker Armor, forcing Schierke to try and stop it before it drives Guts to commit an unspeakable atrocity. Afterwards Guts and his companions head to the port city of Vritannis. While the rest of the party takes to city living like fish to water, Schierke loathes the unnatural place. When Isidro's usual idiocy causes her to storm off, Schierke loses herself in the city's labyrinthine depths only to come face-to-face with the extremity of human depravity.
Every epic has its down-times when it slows and ponders future moves, and Berserk is no exception. But heck, even at its slightest, Berserk is still richer than many a lesser series. Schierke in particular makes out well this volume as she grapples with her place in the world, and more specifically in Guts' little band, after the death of her mentor the woodland witch. A few more of Griffith's followers are introduced as well, the Kushan begin moving in earnest, and there's a heavy hint dropped about the fate of Guts and Casca's demonic child. And of course Berserk is probably the only epic whose down-time includes a gory battle against an army of mutated crocodiles. All in all, a pretty nice mix of action, plot advancement and characterization for a volume in which little of consequence happens.
And therein lies the rub. The above isn't a list of highlights; it's a list of every single event that matters. The entire Kushan attack sequence serves only to demonstrate the mechanics of the Kushan magic and to drop the aforementioned hint. Fully two thirds of the volume, and it gives us exactly one and a half items of interest (the Kushan magic isn't really that interesting). Guts' arrival at the metropolis of Vritannis tries to make up for that with a wealth of historical background, but only ends up infodumping Holy See politics into the stagnant backwaters of our brains. Only in the last two chapters does the series start to come back to life. Schierke's solo Vritannis adventure is revealing, atmospheric, horrifying, and blackly funny—everything the series should have been but only sporadically was in the previous one hundred and eighty pages.
This isn't the Berserk of the brilliantly objectionable Conviction Arc or the troll chapters, the Berserk that wove intricate tales of fleshly corruption and unholy ambitions, of demonic manipulation and mortal rage. It isn't even the Berserk that built up to those arcs, to say nothing of the Berserk that burned readers to ash with the Great Eclipse. Those stories were masterworks of epic plotting, cutting emotional and intellectual undercurrents and grand guignol fantasy action. There is little opportunity for such virtuosity here. The dearth of plot puts epic storytelling firmly out of reach, while the series' recurrent observation that the truly terrifying monsters lie within is blunted by the Berserker Armor's externalization of Guts' inner demons, to say nothing of the fact that croc fight—wherein the idea is revisited—is basically a redux of the previous volume's Grunbeld fight.
Kentaro Miura draws Berserk as if it were the last fantasy ever written, and he draws this particular volume as if to force it forward by the power of art alone. And as long as the outlandish escalation of his patented medieval action continues, he succeeds quite admirably. Miura's is among the most intricate, evocative and plain beautiful art ever to be put to page and arranged cinematically. He draws wonderfully expressive faces, awe-inspiring monsters, gorgeous armor and some of the finest gore to be found just about anywhere. He's a past master of aesthetically smeared brains and symmetrically spilled intestines, and no one does flying eyeballs better. Of course you have to have a certain kind of temperament to appreciate that. His action scenes are lucid, propulsive and energetic. While they're running, it is nearly impossible to think—which, in the case of this volume, is good thing. His timing is impeccable, particularly when escalating through a series of small pertinent details to shocking two-page-spread denouements. And those spreads...they're the kind of thing you could blow up and hang on your wall—so long as you have a strong disposition and don't care what people think about you.
However, for all the staggering skill of his art, Miura's heart clearly isn't in it until the last two chapters. With their Grimm's fairy tale atmospherics, they're alive in a way that the wonderfully illustrated but rote chapters preceding them simply aren't. The settings are insanely detailed and genuinely haunting, and the scene in which Schierke is lured by a wayward spirit to the site of a genocidal horror burns itself into the eyes as none of the previous scenes ever did.
For fourteen bucks, you expect a few more bells and whistles, and Dark Horse delivers in the form of a gorgeous full-color fold-out with Casca's boy on one side and a panorama of Guts' party heading off into a moonlit night on the other. The book itself is solid, printed well on thick paper. The only gripe is that, given the intricacies of Miura's line work, the series really could have benefited from a larger book size.
Twenty-eight is possibly Berserk's weakest volume to date. Never has the series been closer to outright filler. The clues it contains about the future direction of Guts' journey—and the relentless monster action—ultimately save it, but unless the series regains its bearings soon this will begin to qualify as a genuine slump. The beginning of the Vritannis material does show promise; whether it will be realized however remains to be seen.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : A
+ Some quality Schierke time; Guts fights a whale(!).
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