The year is 1890. Entrepreneur Stephen Steel has unleashed his grand vision: the Steel Ball Run, a race across America where the winner will take home $50 million. Among the entrants is Gyro Zeppeli, an Italian immigrant who has reasons for winning the race beyond the cash prize. He joins Johnny Joestar, an ex-jockey at the low point of his life who uses the Steel Ball Run to find his life’s purpose. What they and the other racers do not know, however, is that Funny Valentine, the president of the United States, is using the race to secure everlasting power for his country.
I want to say something up front: the art for Steel Ball Run is (mostly) fucking phenomenal. Now, I’m biased. I love the aesthetics of the western. The barren, golden landscapes bereft of seemingly all life; the slight towns hanging on by a thread and constructed seemingly to funnel lone gunmen into duels to the death; and the weird, existential bent to all that open space. Steel Ball Run’s visual style is akin to a Sergio Leone spaghetti western crossed with the madness one expects from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. I adore that. Steel Ball Run is the best-drawn part of the series so far, both in the actual technical quality of the art and how Araki uses the art to play up the tension of battle.
(By the way, I probably won’t go too spoiler-heavy, but you never know. Just like with Stone Ocean, you probably know by now whether you actually want to read the manga. If you want to, then go read it! It’s good!)
There’s one aspect of the art in particular that plays into that feel: the close-ups. Here is an example of the former, with the closeup focusing on Stephen Steel’s wife, Lucy Steel. These are moments of focus. Often they’re used in the midst of battle — ala the famous duel at the end of Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly — but they’re also used when characters are at a crossroads. (The non-spoilery context for this page is that Gyro and Johnny ask Lucy to help with an extremely dangerous plan.) They work because they’re more detailed and naturalistic than everything else, even during the part of the series where Araki’s art style shifts to a more naturalistic tone after the series moves to a monthly schedule.
The difference between manga and a movie is that the reader can look as long as they like at a specific drawing. (Assume that we are watching movies without pausing.) The moment is there, captured for as long as we would like to contemplate it. When one of these drawings came up, I would linger. The eyes struck me. Look at Lucy’s eyes in the page I shared. In the other panels, she is worried and confused, torn about what she should do. But for that one split-second, you see the resolve, the power within her despite being mostly powerless in an insane world. There’s a seriousness that lends extra weight to the decision that would come after. Later on those close-up moments reminded me of the pastel freeze frames that were a trademark of Osamu Dezaki’s anime. (Rose of Versailles; Aim for the Ace!; Brother, Dear Brother, etc.)
The panel construction and pacing also leaps out at me. There are so many sneak attacks in JoJo that the affairs rarely unfold like a traditional western duel (focus on the heads, focus on the hands, long shots of the gunmen facing each other), but Araki has perfected the pacing of those types of battles. The fighters are always at the ready, coiled up for that sudden explosion of violence when their attacks are unleashed. Araki’s smaller panels lead the eye so well, ratcheting up the tension before the fatal strike. I’d be interested to know whether Steel Ball Run uses the most splash pages — those two-page layouts made up of a single image — of any part in the series. It seems that way. Many JoJo battles have those smaller panels that progress the fight before the splash page unleashes the image with the most violence and oomph, but it seems as if it happens more in Steel Ball Run. That would make sense, because it takes advantage of the setting — most battles happen in the wilderness.
Maybe it’s because I’m familiar with how westerns set up their battles, but the visual language of the panels leaped out more at me in Steel Ball Run. The page up above, for example: the idea is that Gyro is luring the president into this specific, narrow area to minimize the influence of his powers and increase the chance of a mortal blow. The panels are constructed with that idea in mind — they’re mostly tall and narrow. It’s a simple thing, but it’s visual communication that even a dummy like me could understand.
(Time to qualify “mostly” I used earlier in reference to the art quality. If there’s one thing Araki absolutely cannot draw, it’s feet. Lucy Steel spends a lot of this part barefoot, and her feet look like someone glued a pair of hands onto her ankles. They are terrifying.)
How about the story? There are many interesting themes in Steel Ball Run. The setting is fitting for where the series is at this point. Early westerns have a romanticized view of America: they’re set in a harsh, unrelenting wild waiting to be tamed and civilized. It’s a dangerous place that only the most lawful hero can endure. Despite whatever trouble might come up — outlaws, those pesky Native Americans, etc. — the hero wins because justice is on his side. What justice? The justice of American expansion and Manifest Destiny, of course! But that’s getting off topic. The point is the western represents a new, harsh frontier to be discovered, and Steel Ball Run is a new world after the end of the previous world in Stone Ocean.
Steel Ball Run, however, has more in common with the westerns born when filmmakers got more cynical. The Steel Ball Run seems like a fine thing: It’s a race to exemplify the American spirit of expansion and discovery, to explore and endure the harsh wilds and attain victory. But unknown even to the man who promotes the event, the race is a front for something more insidious: collecting the pieces of the corpse of Jesus Christ, which will grant the owner unimaginable power. (This is JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, so of course Christ’s corpse is 1) still around and 2) gives you magic powers.) The man who wants this corpse is none other than the President of the United States, Funny Valentine. Can’t get much more cynical than the most politically and symbolically powerful man in the country desiring to seize more power for himself his country, and using a race built on patriotic symbolism to cover his tracks. Gyro’s backstory, with how he struggles to fulfill his obligations as an executioner, also instills the theme of distrust in authority.
(Side note: With religious conservatism seeping ever more into American politics, it’s amusing that the president uses the literal corpse of Christ to fuel America’s continued rise to power. I have no idea whether Araki follows American politics at all, or where he got the idea for this, but it’s such blunt, hilarious political commentary, whether purposeful or not.)
Funny Valentine is an interesting villain among the big bads in JoJo because he’s motivated by a specific ideology: power for America at all costs. This is what makes him so dangerous beyond having a powerful Stand. Look at the motivations for the other villains: Dio at first just wanted to be immortal, and then he want to crap all over the Joestars and get revenge. Cars wanted to be the Ultimate Being, still cartoony, cackling villain motivation. Yoshikage Kira wanted to be left alone so that he could kill cute girls in peace and shop at groceries with their hands. Diavolo was a sort of combo of Cars and Kira: he wanted to be the anonymous man at the top of the world. Enrico Pucci in Stone Ocean is the first villain who has purpose beyond the simple attainment of power. He has a fanatical devotion to Dio and wishes to remake the world in (what he believes is) Dio’s image. It’s the first time a main villain has not only desired power, but also desired to use that power to do something beyond fulfilling base desires.
Valentine has a devotion to America that is just as fanatical and dangerous as Pucci’s devotion to Dio. His goals are couched in symbolism that add a higher purpose: the napkin, the American flag and the corpse of Jesus Christ. The first is what was delivered to Valentine in his youth after his father committed suicide during wartime so that he wouldn’t betray his country. This is what inspires Valentine’s patriotism, devotion to America and his philosophy of “the one who takes the napkin sets the table.” (Meaning that the one who seizes power rightfully gets to use that power.) It’s his belief that seizing the power and making it his own is what makes his cause just. This is America as superpower and the world’s police. The second symbol is clear: the American flag is the main symbol of his country. It’s no coincidence that Valentine first uses his Stand power by wrapping himself in the American flag. He’s making himself a patriotic superhero with the flag as his cape!
Finally, wielding the corpse of Christ is akin to having God’s approval. It lends a higher purpose to Valentine’s goal of power and advancement for America at all costs. (We can probably throw Lucy Steel into that for the final few volumes since she turns into the Virgin Mary figure.) These symbols drive Valentine’s beliefs and give him a frightening fervor. What makes him dangerous is that Valentine’s pursuit of his goals is so absolute that even death could not stop him. To achieve their goals, the other villains needed to live. Not Valentine, who places his goal above himself. Obviously, he would like to be alive to lead America’s rise to prominence. But as long as America gains power and is led by someone who will use the corpse of Christ in support of America, then that is almost as good. America’s position in the global landscape supersedes all other concerns.
The ending is also bleak. Though there’s usually much sacrifice at the end of each JoJo part, there’s always the sense that the good guys come out on top without a shadow of a doubt. Even in, say, Phantom Blood, Jonathan Joestar dies without betraying the kindness in his heart, and because we know Erina is pregnant, we know the Joestar bloodline lives on. In Stone Ocean, where the world we know and are familiar with gets wiped away, a new world comes forth where Jolyne, her friends and the Joestar clan may live a better life than what they had before. Here? Johnny escapes by the skin of his teeth after losing to Dio. He completes his journey and physically and symbolically regains the use of his legs. He feels like he has more purpose now. But is the world on his side? Funny Valentine dies an American hero. Gyro dies without fulfilling his mission. (The note about the kid being freed but later dying of an illness feels like a black joke from Araki, a cruel kick in the teeth that made me laugh because of how senseless it is.) The corpse must be hidden away because it is too dangerous to allow anyone to use. (I expect it to come up again in JoJolion. No spoilers, please!) The Steel Ball Run race seems meaningless in the face of everything that happens. The real battle is one to keep Pandora’s Box sealed, to preserve a precarious status quo. Stone Ocean’s ending sees the heroes destroy an evil world and begin it anew. Steel Ball Run sees the heroes barely hold it together.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The use of faith as a driving theme is interesting, and I like how it manifests in three of the protagonists: Johnny, Gyro and Hot Pants. (Being a straight-up Lawman archetype, Mountain Tim doesn’t get to be quite that interesting, though he is cool. Those ropes!) Each has their own source of guilt: Johnny and Hot Pants the deaths of their brothers (though Hot Pants is more directly responsible for her brother’s death), and Gyro the weight of the life-and-death decisions he must make as the arbiter of justice for a corrupt kingdom, and his fear of following through on his convictions.
Johnny’s journey of faith is the straightforward Good End: His journey to collect Christ’s corpse is one where he comes to terms with his guilt and sin (washed away in the Civil War battle) and is reborn, regaining the use of his legs for good. Hell, he even gets his own prodigal son moment when his father apologies to him after the racers arrive in New York! He grows up from the hedonism of his jockey days and faces the world with new purpose. Johnny is an interesting reimagining of Jonathan Joestar. He has the same fierce determination, but there’s more darkness in him that informs his personality (like the murderous, focused looks he gets in his eyes). Hot Pants is the tragic version of Johnny. She spends her life searching for forgiveness — joining a convent, later working for the Vatican — but never quite finds it in a way that is satisfactory. Maybe it’s because the weight of her sin feels so much greater than Johnny’s. It’s also interesting that she’s doing so much to seek salvation while also doing as much as she can to hide. It’s not so much what she’s hiding that’s important, but more the metaphor of hiding under clothes, secret missions, speech patterns (in the original Japanese she apparently speaks in a hyper-masculine tone to Johnny and Gyro), etc. She’s an interesting character. I felt sad at the ending she got. Gyro is more in the middle. He’s chasing a solution by running away from the problem. It’s why he loses stage after stage — the guilt and doubt still cloud his mind. Gyro’s journey has less to do with religious faith and more straight-up faith in himself. His wake-up moment in the battle with Ringo Roadagain is great. It’s the most Western battle in Steel Ball Run. Beautiful. And even if Gyro’s swagger is a barrier for his doubts, it’s still wonderful. Gyro for Best Zeppeli for sure. Too bad that doesn’t protect him from his Zeppeli destiny.
The other characters are cool, too. Lucy Steel? It’s tough being the normal person in a world of ridiculous superheroes. It’s always weird to find a character who acts as an actual teenager would in these ridiculous anime situations. She acts with a hell of a lot of bravery despite being (rightfully) scared shitless of Funny Valentine, and she’s objectified and made into the symbol of Valentine’s new era later. (Good work helping usher Lucy into that life, Jesus!) If Johnny is a reimagining of Jonathan Joestar, then Lucy Steel is the remake of Erina, and in that sense, she fares well. She has strong devotion and loyalty, and she conducts herself fairly well despite not gaining the means to fight back against anyone until near the end of the story. It seems ironic to give a badass name like Lucy Steel to such an utterly normal person, but she survives, and she saves the day at the end. That’s pretty badass.
The villains are mostly solid, but clearly the most memorable aside from Funny Valentine is DIO. SBR takes what could have been a cheap bit of fanservice and makes it more interesting. He’s normal, arrogant Dio at the beginning, but he’s so much more fun when he’s given room to plot and scheme on his own. I’ve always been a mark for villains who pretend to be on each other’s side and conspire to undermine the other. Not gonna lie: Even though Dio is a total shit and it’s obvious he plans to betray whoever may help him get the corpse, it was legit fun to root for him briefly in the final volumes.
General stuff now. The actual writing in this part is some of the best in the series. Going monthly seems to make the pacing less frenetic, but the additional breathing room in each chapter helps tremendously. There’s more setup before the “see what happens next time” parts. Take the Ringo Roadagain fight, for instance. The setup for that battle — Johnny and Gyro wandering through the forest repeatedly before realizing they have been going to the same spot again and again — would have unfolded differently in weekly chapters than it would have in monthly chapters, where you’ve got the setup and realization in one neat package. It’s the difference between painting on canvas and on a wall — there’s plenty one can do with both, but a giant wall’s giving you more room to work with. I felt like Araki used the extra room intelligently most of the time, too. It never seemed as if he put things in just to fill the extra space he was suddenly granted. There’s a nice flow to everything.
And the Stands! Araki has gotten much better in using the conceptual Stands like Civil War or Sugar Mountain for actual storytelling and not as much for straight-up battle. The actual fighty Stands are neat. I’m amazed that after so long, there’s still so many new ideas out there and that they can be adapted for battle so well. There’s still some looking back to previous parts for inspiration (Soundman/Sandman’s In a Silent Way is basically a modified version of Koichi’s Echoes from Diamond Is Unbreakable), but stuff like Scary Monsters (DINOSAURS) and Cream Starter are neat and used in cool ways. Johnny’s Tusk is pretty cool, too, even if the idea of it grosses me out. (Anything involving fingernails getting peeled off is just … ick.) Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap is a good Final Boss Stand, too. I feel like this struck the best balance between being a powerful Stand but not requiring an absurd amount of bullshit to defeat it.
SBR has the least bullshitty conclusion in the series thus far. Maybe the one thing I’d call bullshit on is Dio’s reappearance with The World — Does Valentine gather intel from his other worlds? Is that how he knew this incarnation of Dio exists? — but it’s such stupidly brilliant fanservice and such a great “Oh shit!!” moment that I can let it slide. Otherwise, everything that happens makes enough sense in the context of the story. Maybe a bit of convenience with Johnny’s final power-up, but it’s not near the level of Jotaro also getting time-stopping powers or Gold Experience Requiem or whatever. Even with all the weird stuff going on, it never feels as if it’s weird simply for the sake of it, or something’s happening because a corner was written into. There’s a purpose behind everything, something that drives at the journey and themes of the story. A lot of the time it feels as if Araki is flying by the seat of his pants (whether that’s true or not), but here the story feels deliberate and well thought about.
You know, for a story about punch ghosts.
Jeez. This is way too many damn words. I talked a lot, but there’s so much more that I’m sure you all want to say. Before I end, however, you’re likely curious about which is my favorite part in the series. It’s a tough choice. Steel Ball Run has the best art, and its story is the most interesting to think about and pick at, but when it comes to sheer thrill and entertainment, I prefer Stone Ocean slightly. That whole ending is fucking gonzo.
Final ranking: Stone Ocean > Steel Ball Run > Diamond Is Unbreakable > Stardust Crusaders > Vento Aureo = Battle Tendency > Phantom Blood
It’s been a hell of a ride. I’ve not started JoJolion yet, but I will soon, and probably in a couple of weeks or so I will be all caught up on JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. That is crazy to think about. More than 100 volumes of manga in less than a year! It seems daunting when you look at the raw number of volumes, but it’s surmountable! After Stardust Crusaders, I never read more than a volume in a day. I took frequent breaks — sometimes as little as a week, and sometimes as much as a month. I read at the pace I wanted to. It still took less than a year to finish. If you want to read JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (and for whatever reason are reading this paragraph despite this post being littered with spoilers), know that it’s shockingly reader friendly. Each part mostly stands alone. There are little nods to continuity, but as long as you know the basic things (Ripple powers in the first two parts, and Stands thereafter), that’s all you really need. Think of it as eight (right now) stories in one. Each is long enough to be satisfying, but short enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome. Araki really did stumble upon the perfect setup with this series.
tl;dr Steel Ball Run is awesome, JoJo is awesome, and you all are awesome for getting through all my WORDS on each part of the series.