[Editor’s note: Drew is taking over for me a bit this month while I get some reading done. Got some good stuff I need to tell you guys about, but I have to read it all first!]
Where does one start with JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure? Ask an anime fan today and they would reference it as one of those crazy good simulcast hits from this past year, that’s about to start up again, grouping it together with the likes of Attack on Titan and Kill La Kill. Ask a video gamer and they would excitedly tell you about the hit PS3 game released this past year, as well as the new one to be released in a few months that’s already getting lots of hype. Ask an old school American manga fan and they’ll you a story of its jaded history in North America, one that’s gone on since the mid-1990s, a bizarre tale in itself for a different article. Ask any manga creator currently working in Japan, and it is perhaps one of the most referenced influences, only runner up to Toriyama’s Dragonball. But what is JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure exactly, with its crazy poses, muscular heroes, weird villains, weirder stand-system, and what seems to be the manga of 1,001 music references?
Starting in 1986, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure still runs today in Japan, although in 2004 the title switched from the weekly Shonen Jump to the monthly Ultra Jump, where Araki could slow down his work load and go into more adult themes/moments like he desired with the series. To put it best, it is a sprawling multi-generational epic that follows the blood line of the Joestar family as it eternally battles supernatural evils over the course of the series, spanning from vampires, practically immortal Aztec warriors, an array of freaky supernatural beings with mysterious powers called stands, and more. The charm of the series in part is its ability every so many years to hit the re-set button and take us to another time period and place. Some readers can draw the experience as akin to TV’s Dr. Who, where we follow another member of the Joestar family on an adventure, events connected just enough to previous tales and putting smiles on existing readers faces, but brand new enough where it’s a jumping on point for any reader to pick up and feel like they are getting in on the ground floor.
Phantom Blood, although very old school looking visually, which isn’t the first thing readers chomp at the bit for these days, is something fans of the series have wanted here for quite some time. In 2005 Viz did its first major manga release of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, however, they didn’t start at the very first generation’s story from 1986, but chose the third generation’s story, Stardust Crusaders, for numerous reasons, including it is arguably the most popular arc among fans. Viz’s other popular titles at the time, Shaman King and Yu-Gi-Oh!, both had their creators referencing this specific arc as an influence, so it seemed like a no-brainer. The series started its release, the anime-manga crash of North America took place, and before we knew it, sales on all manga of every title were down, and Viz slowed down the release schedule, completing the arc’s 16 volumes in 2010. But aside from some anointed notes in volume 1, readers never got generation one’s Phantom Blood arc, or generation two’s Battle Tendency. A few years passed, and in 2012 JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure finally got an anime TV series adapting generations one and two, popularity soared, in 2014 a second anime series adapting generation three started. Viz decided to give the manga another shot, with a re-release of Stardust Crusaders, and finally bringing out the volumes of Phantom Blood and Battle Tendency.
Phantom Blood takes place in 1880s Great Britain, where by a twist of fate, young Jonathan Joestar (nicked named JoJo, due to the “Jo” that starts both his first and last name) gets an unexpected adopted brother named Dio Brando, thanks to a promise made years prior by JoJo’s father to Dio’s father, the first thinking the latter saved him, although as readers find out this was not the case. Almost immediately upon arriving at the Joestar’s mansion, Dio attempts to make JoJo’s life a living hell, as he secretly plots to usurp him as the heir to the Joestar family fortune. These tactics include attempts to publicly ridicule JoJo, stealing his friends, forcing a kiss upon JoJo’s love interest Erina to hurt the relationship, and ultimately in secret killing Jojo’s beloved dog (in a pretty horrific way). As this all builds up, JoJo finally kicks the shit out of Dio, making Dio change his tactics and lay low for a few years. Before we know it, seven years go by and Jojo and Dio are almost adults, stars of their university where Dio is top of his law school and JoJo top of his archaeology class, driven by a fascination for a stone mask his mother bought from Mexico before she died, which holds its own secret. Things seem to be going well, the two even have developed a friendship after the hardships of their first year together, but that is only on the surface. Jojo’s father is looking more ill by the day, and Jojo finds a letter from Dio’s deceased father in which he had the same symptoms as his own Dad before he died, leading Jojo to believe Dio has been poisoning his father. After a confrontation, Jojo travels to London’s deadly Ogre Street hoping to find a cure for this poison, where he runs into the powerful street thug Robert E. Speedwagon, who will become a major part of his fate. At the same time, Dio, while going through Jojo’s stuff, sees his notes on the mask detailing that when fresh blood touches it, spikes spring from it that burrow into the back of the user’s skull. Dio takes the mask out one night for a test run on a street thug, but finds a more deadly secret; these spikes don’t kill the wearer at all, but instead turn them into a vampire! The stage for the tale to grow more epic is set!
This is a very old school feeling volume. It was created in 1986, and thus looks that way visually, where lead men practically have the bodies of Greek gods, similar to characters in other popular titles of the time, like Fist of the North Star. Even in the volume’s end notes, Araki admits in part he needed Jojo to bulk up to take the onslaught of fighting that was about to come his way, but also it was the time of muscle in pop culture, when actors like Stallone ruled the box offices in every country. Since then of course, Araki’s artwork has drastically evolved in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, proof in itself can be seen by his new illustrations he drew for the front and back cover compared to what’s inside. Writing side, the story is a little more forward, too, like other 1980s Shonen Jump titles, using a decent amount of narration, as well as first generation JoJo being a very straight forward, pure of heart, heroic, gentleman’s gentleman type of character, something Araki would go 180 with for Stardust Crusaders‘ JoJo. Again in the notes, Araki admits it being more straight forward and staged this way on purpose, referencing his love for anime/manga like classic Karate Baka Ichidai (whose complete 1974 anime series was just put up on Hulu under the title Karate Master).
Whereas these qualities with the writing and art may put some folks off, there not only is an entertainment to it, but it also becomes a saving grace and flavor for these early chapters. JoJo is such a truly good person that everything Dio does makes him the ultimate villain that you want JoJo to destroy and walk away victorious from at the end of the day. It’s impossible not to feel for him and cheer him on every step of the way. Like with the shock value in the twists of a modern title, like Attack on Titan, when a twist happens here it really hits hard with how Araki’s structured and built his characters, showing us good storytelling is a universal truth throughout time and space, and not just something for what’s hot now. The art evolves even in one volume, from its first chapter to its 11th, in terms of layouts and details, Araki quickly becoming at home with the story he is telling on the page. The colored pages in Viz’s digital edition used for this review (printed edition is not out until February, so at current we do not know if they’ll be printed this way, too) look amazing, bringing a newer POV to this old style artwork, and somehow adding an extra layer of charm onto the existing charm itself.
Phantom Blood is a great start to the saga for fans old and new. If it doesn’t sound appealing or you read the volume and it doesn’t do it for you, try the upcoming generation two story Battle Tendency (which is like supernatural, super powered, Indiana Jones), or the extremely popular Stardust Crusaders, which introduces the stand fighting system that has become one of the high points associated with the series. Araki has created something so large, so lush, there’s something to love for everyone in some part of it. As for the beginning, it all starts here of course. This and volume 2 are available now in digital from Viz, and coming soon to print.