Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Dec 1st 2011
Guts and his companions felt the ripple in reality set off by Griffith's destruction of Ganishka. Now they're going to suffer its effects. The journey to Elfhelm is going smooth enough, but there's a pack of persistent pirates on their tail. When an attack by the pirates, now strangely changed, damages their vessel, they dock at a nearby island. Dashing off to explore, Isidro makes the acquaintance of comely young fisherwoman Isma, while the others make for town. It is soon clear that all is not well. Something vast and evil is stirring on the island, and it's very hungry.
How do you follow up a volume that blew the top off of the world, carrying your creation to new, breathtaking extremes of action and scale? If you're Kentarou Miura, you back off to explore the changes on a smaller and somewhat more personal scale. It's a solid move, even if it can't help being a bit of a letdown after the brain-popping, jaw-dropping show he put on last volume, and it has the additional benefit of re-centering the series on Guts.
You can feel the letdown right here between chapters one and two. Chapter one is the final chapter of Griffith's fight with the unspeakable monstrosity that was formerly Ganishka. We see the results of the cosmic shift Griffith's plan instigated: Ganishka transformed into a stratospheric tree of light and the rise of Griffith's Olympian capital, Falconia. It's a magnificent, nearly wordless sequence—Miura's art at its heart-stopping peak. Chapter two begins with the goofy, jokey pirates that Guts' companions have been humiliating for the past few volumes. You can almost hear the thump as the series drops down a notch.
It isn't a disastrous drop, though; just the series falling back into a comfortable, classical adventure mode. There's high-seas derring-do, monsters, pirates, isolated islands, ominous caves, and mysterious new acquaintances—all united by the dark shadow of an evil god, awoken by the astral disruption in Midland. The pleasures of the arc are simple and straightforward: action, excitement, and the thrill of the exotic and unknown. Miura is unwinding here, delivering uncomplicated entertainment after volumes of intricate, epic storytelling. In demonstrating in miniature what must be happening to everyone the world over, Guts' monster-plagued trip to Elfhelm has a greater purpose, but in truth it resembles the short and luridly entertaining fantasy tales of Robert E. Howard more than the brilliantly tortured epics of the series' previous story arcs.
As anyone who devoured Howard's stories during the dark nights of childhood can tell you, there is nothing wrong with that. The seafaring section is rife with majestic, terrifying sea creatures and increasingly unreal naval warfare, with plenty of opportunity for traditional heroics. Guts' big entrance—in the nick of time of course—is a perfect balance of the cheesily over-the-top and the super cool, followed by much hacking, slashing and praise from impressed rescuees. It's bloody good fun. Afterward the arc shifts gears somewhat, entering a slow atmospheric boil when the party makes landfall. The island they land on is smothered in a pall of doom and decay, all empty fish markets and silent, standoffish locals. It's the kind of place where bad, bad things are brewing, and when they boil over it's with the off-the-wall nuttiness of an artist gleefully indulging his dark inner child.
Backing away from the Griffith side of the story also has the advantage of freeing up the series' oft-overlooked (and often odd) sense of humor. Where the Ganishka material was dark and sober, Guts' trip is almost larky in its own weird, violent way. The pirate villains are an old-school blast: eye-patches, peg-legs, poor hygiene, slobbering incompetence—the whole nine yards. The way they maintain their back-biting idiocy even after they cease being human is plain great. And they're just the start. Some gags are purely visual (Isidro and Puck doing what immature dips must inevitably do when confronted with a witch in a magical trance). Some are the result of blackly comic excess (cliff-climbing ships, say). Still others are situational (Schierke using thought transference on Isidro at exactly the wrong time). All, however, are good for a laugh.
Miura can do a pretty mean sight gag—as Isidro and Puck's prank proves—but that's not where his real gifts lie. His gift is for immersive fantasy artwork. His art pulls you in with gorgeous, intensely detailed linework and smoothly sequenced panels and rarely lets go. So persuasive and powerful is it that sometimes it's hard to believe that what you've experienced was only ink on paper. As stunning as the Falconia chapter is, nowhere is that better demonstrated than when Schierke, inhabiting a soaring seabird, surveys the dark seas of Griffith's new world only to be attacked by sea dragon and an unspeakable ocean behemoth. It's a beautifully cinematic sequence, drawing you instantly into Miura's world. It's an easy world to stay in, once you've been drawn in. Very few illustrated worlds are as real and tactile as Miura's. You can really believe that the sheer cliffs and rotting villages of Isma's island are real places, and that even the most outlandish elements (submersible ghost ships?) are perfectly plausible.
Throughout all of this, of course, Miura's patented gut-splattering violence continues strong. One of the volume's primary pleasures is seeing Guts back in action, dicing foul tentacled things and spilling buckets of blood. As ever Miura's action scenes are dynamic, detailed and easy to read, and his mastery of squirting fluids and extruded eyeballs is still unmatched. He has a fine-grained knowledge of human anatomy, so movements—however preposterous—look and feel real. He uses that same knowledge for fan-service (Isma is not shy about being unclothed), though one hesitates to call something so beautiful by such a crude name.
Dark Horse treats this volume much as they treated volumes past. It's a well put-together book: sturdy and beautifully inked. It includes the now-standard glossy color fold-out, this time featuring the pirates and their ship on one side and a tastefully naked Isma on the other. Kudos to the translation, by the way, for its hilarious pirate-speak, and for the throwaway Scooby-Doo reference. If you have pirates, you have to have a Scooby-Doo reference.
Depending on how future chapters play out, it seems likely that this volume's only real importance will be the introduction of Isma. That doesn't mean it isn't a great read. After all, like Miura, sometimes we need to unwind too, and there are worse ways of doing that than following Guts and his merry band through a crazy, funny little side-story.
Overall : B+
Story : B-
Art : A
+ Plenty of straightforward, entertaining adventure; returning sense of humor; fantastic art; Falconia chapter.
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