JoJos Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood vol. 1 (Viz English HC edition) – Hirohiko Araki

3 out of 5

It’s only really been a year or so for me, dipping into the manga (and ‘deeper’ anime) waters, but there was something that became apparent soon enough: you can’t read these things – by which I mean the collected tankōbon – exactly like English-language graphic novels or trades.  They’re not written in arcs that cleanly break up, and there’s also often not a seeming need to clarify a ‘hook’ that will rope you in right away.  Seeing as how some of these titles stretch on for quite some time, once could reason that a larger percentage of manga creators are aiming for sticking to a series for a while.  In short – you’ve got to give a title some time to get its footing.

Still, some creators / works can make an impression from the get-go, even if story-wise it takes it a bit to catch up.  I’ve been aware of and interested in JoJo ever since the first video game in the late 90s (…a little over ten years after the title’s start…); based on a much later volume of the series, while the visuals were in the style of other big-sprite brawlers of the era, the insanity of the character design and attacks blew my mind at the time.  I hadn’t been exposed to much Japanese cartooning beyond the classic titles like Akira (and then only in movie form), and so maybe a later, more jaded version of myself would have brushed it all off as a genre thing, but right-time-and-place and the title squatted in my consciousness.  Fast-forward however many years, and the visuals – though Phantom Blood volume 1 takes place in the 19th century, and so works with a way stylized design more fitting of that era – are still absolutely eye-catching.  With other manga I’ve started, although certain pacing / character design templates seem to hold true, different creators certainly have different ways of depicting action and emotions, and – for me – it’s been a steep learning curve to “translate” this to my eyes.  JoJo, although exacerbated in a funny 90s Image kind of way, has dazzlingly over-the-top design that is immediately understandable.  Araki’s way of handling emotions become a long-lasting cultural of sorts: a pantomime posing with a matching sound effect (often English-translated to ‘doooom’) thereafter called ‘JoJo-dachi.’  It’s humorous, but it’s fully matching with the over-stated dramatics of the book and helps to make the tone clear right away.  So the book looks fantastically fun as you flip through, and I experienced none of the catch-up sensation I normally do.

But: the plot does lag behind.  We’re dealing with the lineage of a mask with special powers.  Dio Brando is our wholly evil dude, who is adopted into the rich Joestar family for various reasons and maintains two fronts – kindly son to the father, double-dealing maniac to brother Jonathan (the JoJo of the title) – while plotting to inherit the family’s riches.  Jonathan is our force of good, starting out as something of a whiny whelp and then maturing – volume 1 covers a decade or so – into a massively muscled, Sherlock Holmes-hat wearing man who tries to maintain a relationship with Dio while protecting his father.  Along the way the mask, a family heirloom, pops in and out of the story.  The problem is that these characters are completely concept representations and not, exactly, characters.  Creator Araki even has a blurb about this in the one-page extra included in the Viz English HC printing of the material, stating that JoJo is about good vs. evil, with Jonathan the former and Dio the latter.  So expect every thought and action they take to enforce that.  And thus there’s hardly and development, and not a lot of logic in terms of the What and Why of things.  Looks great, but hard to get invested.

Thankfully, when the mask’s potential place in the story finally comes about in volume 1’s last few pages, you are absolutely hooked to check out what happens next.