When I was a teenager, manga was a type of comic that was hard to get, often in a small section of my local comic book shop. They were usually wrapped in plastic and quite pricey by the standards of comics at the time.
Now that manga and anime have become the mainstream, more of the mediocre to bad stuff has become accessible as well, which of course damages the medium as a whole. So someone has to sift through all the junk to find gems, or at least find titles that stand apart in some way. So I will be bringing attention to some of these gems, and talk about them from a male (gasp!) perspective.
Now on to today’s manga/anime: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (hereafter referred to as simply JoJo) is a long running manga series by creator Hirohiko Araki. Ironically, while I am intending to make people aware of this franchise, some of you might already know of it. That makes sense, because in Japan, JoJo is certainly not a fringe product and sits well within the manga mainstream. It’s been running since 1986 to today, and is currently on its eighth story arc. It is also one of the most successful series in manga history, selling over 80 million copies in Japan alone. Other franchise products related to JoJo include an original video adaptation of the series third story arc, Stardust Crusaders, toys, fashion items, video games, novels and even an ambitious brand new animated series that retells the entire series from its beginnings.
I’m going to go on record as saying that JoJo is what I would call a MAN-ga. Even though Araki’s art style makes for seemingly odd artistic choices and many of the characters at first blush are androgynous or even sexually ambiguous, the stories are so strong that I forgot all those things almost immediately. It’s also refreshing to see MAN-ga done in a style like his. The figures are huge and often imposing, the use of light and dark creates strong dramatic contrasts, and the action, while exaggerated for effect, feels believable and visceral. The common themes that run throughout most of the arcs are those of brotherhood and strong male friendships, and even the most minor of characters can have long lasting effects on the stories in later arcs.
PART I: Phantom Blood
The stories all revolve around the Joestars, a noble English family, with wealthy roots. The first arc, taking place in 1880 England, centers on Jonathan Joestar, whose father was seemingly rescued by a man named Dario Brando after a stagecoach accident when Johnathan was a baby. Unfortunately, this is a case of misunderstood intentions, as Dario was planning to loot the corpses upon finding the overturned coach. Jonathan’s father George Joestar, a kind and virtuous man, makes a promise to Dario Brando to repay him for saving the life of himself and his only son, Jonathan. Years later, as a young man, Jonathan is introduced to a new foster brother in Dio Brando, the son of Dario after Dario dies of a mysterious illness. Jonathan at first tries to befriend Dio, but little does he know that Dio had plans from the beginning to ruin Jonathan’s life by trying to gain favor with his father all while tarnishing Jonathans reputation. Dio does this by brutally beating Jonathan in a sporting match of boxing in front of his friends, spreading bad rumors about him to ruin his character, stealing the first kiss of Jonathan’s girlfriend Erina, and even kills Jonathan’s dog Danny by burning him alive in the estate’s incinerator. At the same time, in George’s presence Dio presents himself as a young man with impeccable manners and study habits.
Seven years pass, and it appears that Dio and Jonathan have outgrown their past differences. Now a college man, Jonathan has taken an interest in archeology and is studying the mysteries of a Mesoamerican stone mask, an artifact his father had discovered. George has fallen ill, and grows weaker by the day. Jonathan becomes suspicious that Dio has slowly been poisoning George over a long period of time, and that this was the way that Dio murdered his own father. In a staggering series of events, Dio kills George and uses the stone mask to reject his humanity and become a vampire! Joseph barely survives this encounter, burning the manor down in an effort to destroy the seemingly immortal Dio.
Some time after that, Jonathan meets the eccentric Will A. Zeppeli. Zeppeli is an Italian Baron who came to England in search of the stone mask, in order to destroy it. He informs Jonathan that Dio is still alive and that if he wants to destroy him he has to learn a special breathing technique from Tibet known as the Hamon (the ripple). This technique allows the user to use internal energy and transform it into other types of energy, in particular sunlight. This technique is the only way to fight vampires directly, so Zeppeli teams up with Jonathan to track down and defeat Dio and destroy the stone mask once and for all.
Phantom Blood begins as a dramatic thriller, and then things escalate from there. It turns into a supernatural horror, then a martial arts story. JoJo is one of the most interesting MAN-ga I have ever read as a result. And believe me when I say, it is a MAN-ga. A theme of brotherhood flourishes between Jonathan and Dio, then Jonathan and close friend Robert E. O. Speedwagon. A father and role model for upright behavior is impressed upon Jonathan from his father George, and then inherited by Will A. Zeppeli. Jonathan’s journey from boy to man with noble and masculine qualities is something worthy of admiration. Finally, even though Jonathan and Dio become mortal enemies, there is a very strong theme of respect and even love between them, particularly in the story’s final climax.
Araki, who writes, pencils and inks everything himself, does a masterful job of telling stories that at once keep you on the edge of your seat with thrills, while still making the characters relatable. He even does some educating along the way. He is a large fan of Western culture, and often references American movies and musicians in his work (JoJo is a reference to the Beatles song Get Back, Zeppeli references Led Zepplin, Dio references Ronnie James Dio, and so on). It is because of this that JoJo doesn’t have a great deal of exposure in the West, because of potential threats of legal action. In turn, JoJo has also inspired other creators, especially in the video games industry. Massive franchise series such as Street Fighter, King of Fighters, Guilty Gear and Persona all have taken inspiration from JoJo and other Araki works.
Still, the great storytelling, interesting and often detailed art and striking designs are definitely a staple of Araki’s JoJo series. If you like stories that are truly bizarre, look no further than JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Also be on the lookout for my next review of Part 2 of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Battle Tendency!