Written by Jonathan Wojcik
MANGA MONSTER REVIEW:
BERSERK'S ORIGINAL DEMON HORDE
It's been five years since I first reviewed any background creatures from Berserk, when we looked through the Troll Cave Critters, and I've been asked ever since if I'm ever going to revisit the series. Well, today's your lucky day! Berserk has many, many moments positively crammed with creature designs, something Miura is pretty excellent at, but the first such scene in the series is also the most important, and still features some of his most intriguing demons. If you know anything about this manga, then you probably know the scene I'm talking about; it's how Guts actually became the Black Swordsman and how all the main events of the series were set into motion.
Some of you may also know, then, of the pretty horrifying thing that happens at the end of this particular sequence, and should understand that we'll have to be ending the review before we get to that point. We'll start off, however, with a mostly spoiler-free refresher on the basic story and the villains behind the scenes...
THE GOD HAND
The "main villains" of Berserk are a small circle of exceptionally powerful demons who take obvious inspiration from the Cenobites of Hellraiser, right down to their love of weird bondage gear, the fact that an ambitious enough human can summon them through a weird bauble, and the fact that they appear to offer mortals their innermost desires in exchange for their humanity.
Void is treated like the "leader" of the God Hand before they end up adding a fifth member, and has the most visually impressive design of the whole bunch. Besides his huge, bulging brain and flayed face, his body consists of an extremely long, black, leathery cloak with two equally long arms ending in excessively large hands, and he doesn't seem to have any legs or any real body otherwise. An officially licensed figure gives him a dangling spinal column.
Void is the calmest and most serious of the God Hand, and unusually polite in his speech.
Slan is the least interesting member as a "creature design," probably because she's just designed to look human and sexy, though she does have a pretty rockin' outfit and wormy tentacle hair. Plus, she's the one who manifests a gigantic body at one point out of dead people's intestines, so, great sense of fashion all around. She's the most emotional, romantic and self-indulgent of the God Hand, the only one who messes around with human society as the false god of a cult, and a cannibalistic sex cult at that.
Conrad is the most mysterious God Hand and possibly my favorite; his intensely swollen face and perpetually puckered, toothless mouth are surprisingly skin-crawling to me, as are his almost cartoonish hands. His body is somewhat slug-like with a black, chitinous carapace and many squirming tentacles, likened by some fans to a huge woodlouse. His arms are almost allways crossed in front of him, but in the rare instance that he openes them, it exposes a curious row of sucking mouths across his chest. What a freakin' weirdie!
Conrad rarely speaks and demonstrates no personality of his own, but his domain appears to be that of pestilence and disease, and we've twice seen him manifest into the mortal realm through thousands and thousands of rats fusing together. Again, killer style. The entire God Hand knows how to show off.
Conrad is my favorite overall, but I think I like Ubik's design even more. His face is almost lifted straight from Hellraiser's "Butterball" Cenobite, complete with the sunglasses burned into his face, but with a strange little chitinous body made up mostly of those strange paddles. He's no bigger than an infant, and floats through the air at whatever angle he feels like, visually full of character compared to his more stoic friends.
Ubik is the real grifter of the band, the one who sweet talks victims into closing their deal with them, and was more than likely some sort of corrupt politician or con man back when he was human.
Finally, we have Femto, the youngest member and the only one whose entire human past is fairly intimately known to the audience. Any more than that is a spoiler for those who still wish to get into this series and can handle its more extreme content, suffice to say that it's a pretty intense, emotionally harrowing story and makes for a profoundly disturbing villain. Other series wish they could pull off this kind of darkness, but the results are often almost laughable in comparison.
It's just too bad he has the most underwhelming design of the five, just a guy in a very cool looking bird costume. It is, however, borrowed from The Phantom of the Paradise, much like several Digimon characters.
Last but not least is a character actually retconned from existence by the author, kind of, or at least put on the back-burner until further notice. An entire chapter once showed us the being the God Hand themselves answer to, which introduced itself only as The Idea of Evil, and I LOVE how weird and totally over the top this thing is. Its form is also that of a colossal human heart, pocked with eyes when seen up close, and suspended upon two fleshy, coiling stalks resembling a strand of DNA. That's all fairly pretentious and melodramatic, I have to admit, but the result is such a wildly bizarre and ominous being that I can't help but love it, and it has a fascinating concept behind it to boot - it was born from the collective imagination of humans, who basically just wanted (needed?) an evil god to explain why the world is so full of suffering.
Sadly, Miura felt that The Idea of Evil explained too much of the story and setting, and declared the entire chapter non-canon. The vague shadow of the enormous heart can still be seen in some canon chapters, however, and personally I do hope it's still a canon presence even if we never do see it again.
THE LESSER APOSTLES
So the God Hand go around doing that whole "tempting mortals" thing typical of demons and devils, but to what end? The setting doesn't have a Christian-style hell, but it does have a netherworld populated by beings known only as apostles. These are the humans who have sold their souls over to the God Hand (and presumably to the Idea of Evil), and in return they have transcended their humanity to become much more powerful creatures. It's implied that the forms they take reflect who they are in some way, and they're canonically all pretty pleased with those forms, too, though that may simply be another effect of the corruption they've gone through.
This is where our review really kicks off - over a hundred unique apostles are seen in the same couple of chapters that mark the creation of Femto, and we're not going to review every one of them, but I'm going to pick out some of my personal favorites to highlight and review, beginning with this very page. You can right click and "view image" to see these scenes in their original resolution, and in some cases have fun trying to find each of these demons. You're also more than welcome (encouraged, in fact) to mention any you personally find cool that I didn't go over! As for this page...
While most of the monsters in this scene are HUGE, the ones that stick out to me the most are the smaller specimens. This lanky figure has tattered looking bat or bird wings and an oversized stag-beetle head! We happen to see a whole horde of all-arthropod apostles later in the manga, but those are generally just completely accurate giant insects and arachnids with a few humanoid facial features.
This goat-legged, fish-headed, bat-winged demon feels like it comes straight from the paintings of Bosch and his contemporaries, which is the case for surprisingly only a handful of monsters in the manga until much, much later, when one scene just literally brings Bosch's depiction of hell to life.
This one is even more fish-like, and with more realistic bat wings, but with a whole lot of little tangly spidery legs along its underbelly.
Then we've got this oddball, just a fat pear-shaped monster with a single set of long legs and a pair of facial tentacles, almost harmless looking in comparison to some of the others.
And even more harmless looking is this goofy little caterpillar straight out of a children's book, held aloft by multiple pairs of paddle-shaped insect wings. This does NOT look like somebody sold their soul to become a more formidable demon. This looks like...kind of a loser. A cute loser, but a loser nonetheless.
Much scarier, and easy to miss, is this bat-bird figure whose original, human face forms its body, leaving the "head" and "beak" of the bird as more of a faceless claw! As a matter of fact almost every Apostle incorporates its face or body from when it was human, somewhere, but it can sometimes be much more hidden than this.
We've got a nice looking vertical shot here, and one of the larger ones that stick out to me is this thing at once resembling a shark, a crab and a bat, so, a SHARKRABAT! I don't know how intentional it was this time, but I kind of see a very faint human figure where we zoomed in here; like those are "shoulders" above the nostrils, and its pointed snout may have once been this person's head???
This swooping, boneless figure is quite eerie, and it's hard to tell whether it continues into a humanoid body of bladed tentacles or it's connected to the similar organic shapes just below it, which sport another complete face!
My favorite on this page might be this being, who has a sinister "cloaked reaper" sort of form with "wings" that end in wicked looking hooks, but its torso is just sort of a fat bumblebee but with two tentacle legs, its face looks kind of pitiful, and its "hood" appears to have its own set of googly eyes.
This one's just plain funny. It looks like a medeival bestiary's misunderstanding of a bottlenosed dolphin, or an angry cartoon duck fused into a flying fish, but it's also one of the few whose human form is this complete. Just a buff dude whose crotch is an angry duck-porpoise. It's fine. IT'S FINE! He's beautiful now.
While I already named a "favorite" of mine, I think this one is objectively the coolest and even scariest here. A one-eyed martian looking critter with a whole human head on each shoulder. Does that mean this one used to be two people? What's their story???
My, the God Hand certainly look imposing in the background there, don't they? You know who doesn't look imposing? Melvin here. He just looks like a Melvin.
Melvin's friend Ralphie isn't striking all that much terror into any mortal hearts anytime soon either, seemingly unable to even keep his bloated, floating body upright. He's like a swollen frog that traded its forearms for little, nubby caterpillar ones!
I could actually see this figure being kind of frightening, though. I really like the little round head dominated by one big eyeball and a pair of bat wings. Can it fly with those? It seems like it has too much body to be lifted by those little things, but it's a pretty thin and spindly body.
I also think this insect-winged giant frog is scarier than Melvin or Ralph, too. I mean, Melvin and Ralph would be pretty terrifying to encounter in real life if you hadn't already seen any of the other Apostles, but I think the fly-frog is still one of the scary ones. It's that blank stare that does it, and big frogs are scary anyway because you know they eat by swallowing you whole and digesting you alive. We don't know if Melvin can do that. If he's anything like an actual snail, then he has to wait for you to stay still long enough to rasp you to death.
This last one from this scene is something I MISSED every single time I ever saw this page, and as a monster design nerd, I looked through these scenes quite a bit more than most people ever would have. Don't you just LOVE this little guy, though!? Just merrily running around with his big, giant teeth and gums in the air, and basically nothing else to him.
Okay, this one has some similarities to Ralph up there, being a sort of fat, balloon-like Apostle with a sad little face on top, but at least this one is pointing the right way up, and its open posterior trails a cluster of tentacles and a tail that looks very much like it's equipped especially to ensnare prey and drag them up inside its saclike torso. Nasty!
I really like this monster's two comical antennae, ending in sticky-looking pom poms. Another adaptation whose function is unknown to us, but has to do something special, right? Maybe they sting!
I like this pretty, spiny scales of this fishlike entity, and how its face just erupts into tons of small, dark feelers. Very "Lovecraftian," but in a good way! Not a generic hipster way this time!
This one's just a little fly whose abdomen is a face, but look how content that face is! "This is it" he seems to be saying. "I really made it." Yeah man, I bet your mom's really proud of whatever this is.
EEEEUUGH! Out of every single seething, screaming heap of demons I've ever seen come out of Berserk, it's this stretched-out, dopey goat-dog man that actually, genuinely gives me the willies to contemplate. If I saw any of these other monsters coming towards me I'd feel probably the same way I'd feel seeing a pissed-off polar bear or a runaway wheat thresher barreling in my direction, just that "I'm about to be violently killed" sort of fight-or-flight fear, but I could run across this guy just standing around doing nothing in particular and I'd never sleep again.
This page already gives us nothing but a handful of closeups to enjoy, so let's go through them in "manga reading" order:
1) This multi-mouthed demon has the feel of those sea monsters you see on very old maps, and I really love the innermose face especially, like a happy, beady-eyed platypus with rat teeth.
2) Multiple demons stuffed into this panel, all with a human face dirctly above or below their mouth. The jagged-jawed slug in the front is fairly cool and so is the horrible bird behind it, but the one farthest in the background intrigues me the most. It appears to have a toothless mouth above an extremely eerie, almost caved-in looking face. It's the monsters without sharp parts you really have to watch out for.
3) Not much we can infer from just a human face and a monster eye, except for them both being part of the same creature with what looks to be a crablike exoskeleton.
4) A D O R A B L E. Oh my GOD this thing. A bony little gargoyle with a big bulbous fetus head, giant gecko eyes and a cute little beak?! It's like an infant Chozo from Metroid. It's like a demonic budgie.
5) So very, very much ging on with this last. An entire nude woman forms its face, which we know would have been the apostle's original self, with her legs constituting its upper jaws in a very novel way. The positioning of its long, monstrous tongue and the way she's about to lick it with her old human tongue is all so absurdly lewd, but I guess she's having a good time at least.
Hey, another snail! This one's quite a bit more menacing than Melvin, though, isn't it? Well...it's currently swallowing a human being whole, so that's something, but I guess it doesn't have legs and probably can't move much faster than an actual snail, so I guess technically Melvin is quite a bit more dangerous.
Easiest to miss in this shot is the creature with the huge, jagged, toucan-like beak for a face, who not only looks cool as heck but like it's just having the time of its life right now. I don't think any Apostle has ever looked this delighted before or since.
The monster central to this scene has so much going on, you can almost mistake it for multiple monsters at a glance. It's got a set of jagged, crocodilian fly-trap jaws and they've got snail-like eye stalks, but it also has a pair of giant insect-like limbs that end in flexible tendrils, a human face inside its jaws, and another human figure growing from its underside, with one more set of eyes for good measure!
I really love everything about this one, as simple as it is, because it seems to smoothly combine a pangolin and a flea into one beautifully scaly, prickly, hunch-backed humanoid brute with the most delightful fishy eyes to tie it all together. I'm honestly so envious of how Miura can draw chitinous plates and gorgeous organic patterns like this, and he makes it all look so dang good with nothing but black ink to work with. INFURIATING.
We're actually going to stop after this one, but only briefly; we'll pick this back up later in the month, and keep going until I've finished combing through these scenes. There are several interesting ones in this panel, but there's only one Apostle I want to end on here, and a pretty pressing question I have for him.
..........Was it worth it, dude?
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