Here we are at Stardust Crusaders, the third part of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. It follows Jotaro Kujo, the grandson of Battle Tendency’s Joseph Joestar, who also tags along for the ride. Dio Brando, the sworn enemy of Jonathan Joestar, has risen from the grave once again
due to a plot hole, because Erina totally took his reinforced coffin at the end of Phantom Blood. Dio’s rebirth brings with it the development of Stands — spiritual manifestations of psychic powers — among the Joestars, including Jotaro’s mother, Holly, who is in danger because her Stand is slowly killing her. Jotaro, Joseph and Joseph’s friend, Mohammed Avdol, embark on a long journey to Cairo, where Dio is hanging out, so that they can kick Dio’s ass and save Holly.
Stardust Crusaders is the most well known of all the JoJo arcs. It’s also where, I think, Araki’s ability as an artist catches up with his ability as a writer. Stardust Crusaders’ art starts off solid (if occasionally blocky) and gets quite good by the end. There’s a great level of detail in the settings, the character designs are cool, the layouts for the battles are more clever than before, and on and on. Lots of improvements, big and small, to the art that make it that much better than Phantom Blood and Battle Tendency. After a certain point, I’d probably pause a few times per volume just to admire a particularly well-drawn scene. Araki came a long way from Phantom Blood. (To be fair, it probably helps that I read the Viz release rather than crappy scans.)
It also introduces a concept that shifted a ton of things in the manga: Stands. Yes, the Ripple is out for the most part (Joseph uses it a bit, but not much), and Stands are the new hot shit. As I wrote mere sentences ago, Stands are the manifestation of one’s psychic abilities (Araki made them spiritual entities because he wanted a visually interesting way to draw psychic powers), but more importantly than that, they are a vehicle for Araki to turn the story into anything he wants at any given moment.
(Note: There will be minor spoilers in this post. There are precious few big twists to spoil in Stardust Crusaders, but I won’t be writing about any of that.)
There are relatively “normal” Stands. Jotaro’s Stand, Star Platinum, is super strong, quick, precise and has sharp eyes. Avdol’s Stand, Magician’s Red, works with fire. You get the drift. The real fun starts when the one-shot villains with truly nutty Stand abilities show up and throw down with Jotaro and company. For instance, the Stand you see at the bottom of the above picture has the ability to jump into any surface that can reflect light — and any damage it does to someone’s reflection is inflicted on that person. (Also, apologies for the crummy picture quality. The manga scans for Stardust Crusaders are rather shit, so in lieu of using those, I’m taking pictures of my copies of the Viz releases.) Another Stand has the ability to draw people into a dream world, Nightmare on Elm Street style. There’s a Stand that steals people’s souls after games of chance. And on and on.
The fighting is entertaining in Phantom Blood and especially Battle Tendency, but it goes to an entirely different level in Stardust Crusaders. Because each Stand user has a power that differs so much from the others, Jotaro and his allies must constantly adapt to these crazy new powers and figure out how to use their own against them. There’s a lot of brains to go with the brawn displayed; in fact, many of the best fights involve the person in question (the villains tend to isolate one or two people from the group and fight them) finding a clever way to turn the Stand user’s power against them. Of course, there are also times when Stand users are defeated in ridiculous fashion without the heroes realizing it. (A pair of Stand users who utilize premonitions are beaten in quite an amusing way.)
What makes Stands memorable to me, though, is how Araki uses them to effortlessly shift the tone of the story. There are Stands where the fight unfolds like a pure battle manga. There are Stands where the fights build like an eerie horror story. One memorable battle has the heroes recreating Fantastic Voyage. (If you don’t know what that is, then don’t look it up! Let it surprise you!) Then there are the battles where Araki shifts genres and tones within pages and somehow pulls it off. Here’s one scenario: There’s a Stand user who gets his kicks from beating the shit out of children. A lovely fellow. Conveniently enough, his Stand has the ability to age people in reverse, and then he uses an axe to chop them into bits. Again, great guy.
So, naturally, one of our heroes gets turned into a kid. This ordeal starts off quite horrific, because it’s a horrible dude with an axe trying to chop a kid to bits. Then, suddenly, it shifts to comedy as the kid is mistaken for an orphan by a buxom lady, who, because this is manga, gives him a bath. The fun times cannot last, though, as the evil dude barges in like a creep and tries to drown the kid. But our childish friend whips that shit straight back to comedy by concocting an escape plan that only a kid would do. It’s all fun and amusing and stuff. Then, this happens to the poor woman who helps the kid . . .
Yep, if you’re affected by the power long enough, you turn into a god damn fetus. WHAT. This is one of the more horrifying images in the manga up to this point, and that is saying something for JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Then it basically turns into The Shining until ending with more comedy that I won’t spoil because it is kind of amusing. There’s even a decent moment of melancholy before the story moves on! All this takes place in five chapters and is done way more seamlessly than my write-up probably suggests. It’s probably the most extreme example of mood whiplash, but it also shows how Araki uses Stand powers to dictate the tone of each story.
But enough about Stands! Let’s talk about Jotaro’s allies and actually name the others so that I don’t have to write vaguely about them. During the course of the journey, three dudes — Noriaki Kakyoin, Jean-Pierre Polnareff and Iggy — join Jotaro’s quest to rough up Dio. They’re also the source of another big change for JoJo: The allies get a chance to shine and kick ass! In Phantom Blood and Battle Tendency, the allies are basically the coolest jobbers ever. Not so in Stardust Crusaders. Each ally gets at least one memorable battle, and most of them get several. In fact, I’m of the opinion that the allies — Polnareff in particular — totally carry Stardust Crusaders in the beginning! It takes a while for Jotaro to make his way into a really cool battle while Polnareff has most of the best fights in the first few volumes.
This evens out later, but the beginning portion went a long way toward making Polnareff my favorite character in Stardust Crusaders. Everyone is pretty dope, though. Even Joseph’s crappy Stand is way more awesome in the manga than in the OVAs (mostly because, you know, he actually does stuff in the manga). What I love most about the allies is their goofy interactions. They’re together for a short time, but they build a fun camaraderie and have all manner of in-jokes and playful insults they throw at each other. One of my favorite running gags is Jotaro groaning whenever they have to fly something, a reference to the times in Battle Tendency when Joseph is involved in plane crashes.
But what of Jotaro himself? I thought he was just OK at first — he’s kind of a dick (normal for a teenager), and very much the stoic type, so he didn’t grab me right away with charisma like Joseph. What warmed me up to Jotaro, though, is how he keeps his cool in the nuttiest circumstances. Jotaro isn’t Golgo 13 (stuff can take him by surprise and make him sweat), but when I read after finishing Stardust Crusaders that Araki based Jotaro on Clint Eastwood, it make total sense to me. Stardust Crusaders is basically what would happen if you stuck Clint Eastwood into a surrealist nightmare and gave him a psychic ghost that punches people a million times a minute. I can dig that. Joseph is still my preferred JoJo, but Jotaro is a solid dude.
The villains are a bit less memorable for the most part. If I recall them, it’s usually due to their crazy Stands rather than the villains themselves. They’re mostly of the “Ha ha, I am totally evil and am here to kick your ass because Dio told me to!!” type. There’s nobody with the sheer force of personality of the Pillar Men in Battle Tendency for a good, long time in Stardust Crusaders. Dio is the closest, but he spends the majority of Stardust Crusaders skulking in the shadows — his face isn’t revealed until Vol. 15 when he finally steps up to do battle. The Stand powers are so interesting that I don’t really care that Stardust Crusaders is mostly a boss rush around the world. The novelty and fun of these fights more than makes up for the lack of that one charismatic villain who constantly makes their presence known. Besides, the crazy battles are my favorite part of JoJo thus far, so an entire part of them is fine by me!
Another potential flaw I didn’t mind much is that the actual story of Stardust Crusaders is the lightest of the first three parts, even though it is by far the longest. The basic crux is “Let’s go to Cairo and kick Dio’s ass and try not to get killed by all these Stand users along the way.” There are some twists, but not much surprising happens along the way, plotwise. Really, it’s the plotting of the battles that is far more interesting and entertaining than the story itself, and Stardust Crusaders totally embraces that. There’s no extraneous (albeit entertaining) training arc. There are only occasional instances of downtime. It’s mostly fight after fight after fight, rinse and repeat. This would probably become repetitive if each fight weren’t so different and fresh.
This post is plenty long, so let’s end this with a chat about a couple of my favorite panels in this arc. I mentioned earlier that Dio’s face is kept in shadow until he finally reveals himself in Vol. 15. The whole time I couldn’t help but wonder why this was the case. Presumably, many of the people reading Stardust Crusaders at the time had also read Phantom Blood and knew what Dio looked like. But, really, it adds to the air of mystery surrounding Dio, to the sense there is something different and more grand about him this time around. Throughout the journey, there’s much speculation about Dio’s Stand, The World. What is its power? What can he do? Is he invincible? The thing is, I know what Dio looks like in Stardust Crusaders and what The World does (no spoilers, please, for the five people who don’t know!). Yet, I couldn’t help but be sucked in; the presentation marks Dio as a mythical figure.
Then comes the reveal. Dio steps out, and it’s like he’s the lead singer onstage at the greatest motherfuckin’ rock show of all time. He’s big, he’s bold and he’s gonna fuck you up.
Then the reveal of Dio’s face at last. I am not lying when I say this may be my single favorite spread in all three arcs of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. It’s so big, so outsized and the presentation pays off the buildup in a way that actually gave me chills. It’s so simple, but the sheer power Dio exudes makes you believe that he’s capable of anything. I can’t think of a better way to kick off the two-volume fight against Dio Brando. I don’t even want to talk about it, because I could never be coherent about it. It’s just a great fight. Experience it, friends.
Overall, I’d say Stardust Crusaders is my favorite part so far, though admittedly I can’t be totally sure how much of that is because it has the most new stuff to surprise me with. The sheer volume and variety of the battles won me over quickly, along with the silliness of the interactions among Jotaro and friends. None of them are particularly deep characters, but they’re distinct enough for JoJo‘s purposes.