Hello, friends! Ever since watching David Production’s adaptation of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, I’ve fallen head over heels for this delightfully mad series. Normally I don’t go back and read manga for anime that I have enjoyed, because
I’m a philistine I don’t have as much time as I would like to spend on the wide world of manga. However, I am making an exception for JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.
My journey into the world of the Joestars started as curiosity. I thought I’d see how the original stories stood up to the anime. But then I saw that several volumes of Viz’s adaptation of Stardust Crusaders were still available as long as I did some digging. “Well, I know how Stardust Crusaders generally unfolds,” I told myself. “What’s the harm of skipping ahead of David a bit?” Then I saw how much those OVA adaptations of Stardust Crusaders I’d viewed before had butchered the arc — and how truly amazing it is. Now, I can’t stop. I must march forward with JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.
I know how much all you lovely JoJo fans enjoyed seeing my reactions to stuff you’ve loved for years, so I thought I would kill two birds with one Ripple and document my stroll through the bizarre land of JoJo as part of the Manga Driver series. This serves a nice dual purpose for me by encouraging me to take things slower than I might otherwise, to drink the manga in more and savor it like a fine wine.
This post will cover both Phantom Blood and Battle Tendency, because even combined, they are shorter than every other arc. Subsequent posts will cover individual arcs. I have completed Stardust Crusaders and will be writing about that soon, but I might wait until next week to post it since we’ve got plenty of content in the backroom. Still haven’t started Diamond Is Unbreakable yet, but I will once I have written about Stardust Crusaders.
One more thing: I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum in these posts, but it may be more difficult once I get into territory with which I am unfamiliar. That said, there are totally spoilers here, so lol.
Volume count: 5 (complete)
Here it is, the beginning of it all. Jonathan Joestar, son of a nobleman, against Dio Brando, son of scum, a man who conquers death by becoming a vampire. Of course, this means Jonathan must study under an eccentric Italian to master a martial art that makes use of energy that mimics the sun. Phantom Blood is Dracula as shonen manga filtered through ’70s rock.
I’m of two minds about Phantom Blood. On the one hand, it doesn’t hold up particularly well in several respects. The art is especially rough. The character designs are more cartoony and less visually interesting than in later arcs, and everything else is generally less detailed than the rest of the manga . . . everything, that is, aside from the crazy ultraviolence. In everything else, Hirohiko Araki would improve with time, effort and practice, but man, he could draw some wonderful violence right from the start. Look at that hand split! How beautiful.
There is, however, another aspect in which Phantom Blood is not particularly visually interesting: the paneling. It’s not totally strict and rigid, but the general layout of the panels is mostly simple. This is understandable — obviously, despite the insane violence, Araki is writing/drawing for the younger set in Shonen Jump — but it makes reading through the manga a bit more boring than it should be. Araki gets much more daring with his layouts in later arcs. And, to be fair, that stuff gets a bit stronger as it goes along. The battling is mostly fun, too, even if it’s not quite as clever as the fighting in Battle Tendency and beyond. The fact that there’s some brains to go with the brawn makes the fighting notable.
Still, the storytelling is basic and clunky. Jonathan is a straightforward hero, and Dio is a straightforward villain, albeit one who is interesting because he is often a dick in such childish ways. The pacing is pretty weird, too. Phantom Blood is slow in the beginning when introducing the reader to the basics of Jonathan’s life (what are the odds any manga starts off this slowly today??), but when the action gets going, it’s super breakneck to the end, almost to an overwhelming degree. Zeppeli is gone almost as quickly as he arrives, for instance. It’s kind of crazy! (To be fair, it would have felt far longer reading it week by week.) The truly gonzo stuff doesn’t really begin until the march on Dio’s castle, either. Sure, a mask that turns people into vampires is odd. Fighting vampire Jack the Ripper? Definitely strange. Zombie knights named after a drummer and an Emerson, Lake and Palmer album? You’re getting there. But it’s when we get mystic warriors named after Dire Straits and Tom Petty, and horrible monsters named after the members of Led Zeppelin that it feels like JoJo is from another world entirely. (Though one Robert E.O. Speedwagon does almost push it over the top.)
That said, I can’t totally trash on Phantom Blood, at least not without acknowledging my obvious bias: I first experienced this story via the anime. David Production had several notable advantages when adapting this arc: full color, motion (important because Araki wasn’t yet adept at making fights come alive in still images), sound (“Roundabout” adds such a kick to the climax of each episode), and perhaps most importantly, 25+ years of observation of JoJo‘s evolution and the development of Araki’s style. David used those advantages to smooth out the rough edges of Phantom Blood and make it the best it could possibly be with the only disadvantages a limited animation budget and censorship. It’s clearly going to be better than something produced when the author hadn’t totally mastered his style. And obviously Phantom Blood struck a chord in its time, or else the opportunity to continue the story wouldn’t have come.
So, yeah, Phantom Blood is something I can appreciate more than I can enjoy, but it is totally worthwhile to read to get a clear idea of JoJo‘s beginnings and how much it evolves and improves. Also, really, I can’t possibly hate something whose ending involves the hero cradling the severed, vampiric head of his sworn enemy as a ship explodes.
Volume count: 7 (complete)
This is where the series really hits its groove, but it doesn’t get there right away. Araki’s art style is still evolving; it’s definitely in a better place at the beginning of Battle Tendency than it is at the beginning of Phantom Blood, but the character designs are still kind of odd, and the level of weird detail that would come later is still developing.
The actual storytelling, though, is almost immediately far better. There’s a greater energy that comes with the shift to the new setting, and a restlessness that almost demands Araki explore the world. Battle Tendency feels like a pulp adventure from the beginning, with oil baron Speedwagon exploring an Aztec temple and finding the first Pillar Man, Santana, and it all builds from there.
The characters too feel appropriately larger than life. There’s obviously Joseph, who is charismatic and ridiculous, and also kind of a jerk. The Pillar Men are cocky and inhuman in ways even the vampires of Phantom Blood cannot hope to match. Caesar is a good foil for Joseph, cocky in his own way, but also driven due to his past. Lisa Lisa is still damn cool. Stroheim is the coolest Nazi of all time. You get the idea. These aren’t simply characters; they’re Characters. They’re memorable and timeless.
While the story is simple, there’s a thrill and fun in the way that it all plays out that brings it to life even while Araki’s artistry is still developing. Araki was about 27 or 28 when Battle Tendency started, and it feels like the type of story a comics artist of that age would create. He’s old enough to be confident and sure of himself, but young enough to want to kick the world in the teeth. Battle Tendency has the same breakneck pacing of Phantom Blood — only slowing down when Joseph and Caesar must hone their Ripple powers — but it works because something as pulpy as Battle Tendency thrives when you don’t have time to think about it. You’re reading on pure instinct.
The art still has its rough points (look at the size of Cars’ head!), but it gets a lot better as it goes along. It’s not at Stardust Crusaders levels at the end, but it’s a hell of a lot closer than it was at the beginning. Still, it’s tough to ignore things like Lisa Lisa looking fine in one chapter and having enormous gorilla hands in another one. (And check out this awkward pose.) Caesar looks a bit rough in the beginning, too. Araki’s definitely still learning and perfecting things while he pumps out stuff week after week, to say the least. But there are details to be admired. How could you not love the way the Pillar Men are dressed? The faces of ACDC and Cars being shrouded in shadow until they’re properly introduced is something I love, as well. (And it’s something Araki would use again to great effect with Dio in Stardust Crusaders.) And the poses! Those wonderful, beautiful poses. There is nothing quite like hulking, muscular humanoids posing like fashion models, let me tell you.
The battling is more fun, too, because Araki gets more adventurous with the Ripple powers. Even with the memories of animated Battle Tendency still fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but enjoy Wham vs. Caesar, Wham vs. Joseph, Cars vs. Joseph, etc. The way the battles are laid out is also more fun. I’m a big fan of dramatic, one-panel break outs in the right place, and there are plenty of good, memorable ones here. Off the top of my head, my favorite is probably when Caesar uses his bubble lenses to briefly brutalize Wham with light. The paneling is a bit more sophisticated, too. The action is easy to follow, but it’s laid out in a way that gives it a bit more oomph. Wham gorging Nazis with his horn and covering light bulbs in blood and guts helps, too.
Again, animated Battle Tendency has many benefits unavailable to the manga, but the gap between the two is much smaller than with Phantom Blood. That said, I totally had this playing on repeat in my head while reading the appropriate parts of Battle Tendency.