JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood (GN Vol.1-3)

Previous to the last couple of years, just about any anime and manga fan you could find would tell you the same thing: JoJo's Bizarre Adventure would never be popular in the United States. It's not like people didn't try to make it otherwise. We got some of the manga, a couple of OVAs, even a video game on the Sega Dreamcast. It's just that all of them failed to find a larger audience. Audiences were put off by the long-running continuity, the inherent weirdness of the story and art, and Hirohiko Araki's fondness for naming characters after musicians made licensing any JoJo material a balancing act between avoiding music rights issues and staying faithful to the original. JoJo's Bizarre Adventure might be a beloved franchise in Japan, but until quite recently it was relegated to a few memes, even fewer hardcore fans, and the depths of the scanlation scene. Then something truly bizarre happened: someone decided to animate it starting from the beginning. That show started to find an audience abroad as it moved in the second and third arcs, and suddenly JoJo fans were everywhere. They were talking about the show, watching it in droves, cosplaying as the characters, and they were now demanding the chance to read the original manga. Eventually Viz listened to their demands, and at long last American fans can experience the entirety of the first arc, Phantom Blood, in print.

The story starts in Victorian-era England in the home of the noble Joestar family. The latest addition to the family is a ward by the name of Dio Brando, a poor boy from a poor family with an agenda of his own. He's determined to take the Joestars' wealth and power for himself, and to do so he does his best to isolate and torment their only son Jonathan while maintaining a perfect and innocent front. After years of this treatment, the two confront one another. Then Dio uses an ancient artifact to transform himself into a vampire, and now he plans on using his powers to turn some of history's most powerful killers into minions and take over the world. Jonathan vows to stop Dio, but he's going to need help. Luckily, he meets up with a mysterious Lord and learns to harness the power of the Hamon within himself. Armed with his new allies and his new power, Jonathan sets out to stop Dio once and for all.

Phantom Blood has a lot of the great qualities that would define JoJo's Bizarre Adventure for years to come, but it also has some of the awkwardness that most inexperienced mangaka deal with at one point or another. First and foremost, he came up with a fantastic antagonist. Dio Brando is a character that captures the reader's attention from his first appearance and even when he's off-screen his presence continues to be felt. That's kind of incredible when you consider that as a villain, Dio is about as basic as you can get. From the beginning he's evil simply for the hell of it and the only thing that changes over time is the scale of his wickedness. Yet he's also a cunning, charismatic, alluring bastard. He's not quite the sort of villain you love to hate, but he's certainly an attention-grabbing one. Poor Jonathan Joestar and his friends can't help but pale in comparison, sadly. Jonathan is a good guy overall, but it's hard to ignore that he spends the first half of the story getting beat by Dio at every turn and that compared to his descendants he's kind of a blank. He's a perfectly fine hero, but sometimes he seems to almost get lost within his own story. His friends and allies don't fare much better, although easily the most useless of the lot is former street thief Robert E. O. Speedwagon. I know some people were fond of him on the show, but all he does here is state the obvious. He tends to describe whatever is going on in the scene when he's not simply panicking. At least Will Zeppeli serves as the requisite mentor and Erina helps give the story some heart. Speedwagon, though, doesn't contribute anything to Jonathan's quest, and the last thing the heroes need is another bland guy to serve as deadweight.  At least he can pull off Zeppeli's spiffy checkerboard top hat.

As for the plot itself, it really does feel like Araki is literally making it up as he goes along. It performs more than one timeskip, and each one feels like it happens just as much because he ran out of ideas for a particular story thread as it does to move things along. It's only after Dio becomes a vampire that the story finally finds its focus and moves beyond what is basically a family feud into something suitably grand and more over-the-top than it already was. The story may stray into tangents from time to time, but it keeps upping the stakes until the very end. As long as you're willing to accept Phantom Blood's particular brand of melodrama for
what it is, it can be fun, but I can see others viewing it as odd and off-putting. The same could easily be said for the artwork at times. Personally, I've always dug Araki's signature style. His style is intriguingly androgynous when compared to a lot of the shonen from the 1980s. It's got the big burly bodies that were all the rage, but he combines them with these lush, handsome faces and model-like poses that are all drawn in this beautiful, darkly inked style. It's great to see that this was present straight from the beginning, but Araki was clearly struggling with proportions in some of the earlier chapters. Jonathan and Dio are ridiculously buff even when they're teenagers and often Jonathan's head looks comically small compared to the rest of his physique. Still, he does his best to fill the frame with detail, be it the lovingly drawn backgrounds, the bursts of energy, blood, and sound effects, and even those ridiculous yet dynamic poses.

Viz clearly went all-out when it came to the presentation of these books. The books themselves are plush hardbound omnibuses, and I love the way they incorporate Araki's taste for wild color combinations through the use of brilliant greens, pinks, purples, and yellows against stately black on the covers. The translation itself is solid, although it's obvious that they struggled when it came to the catchphrases. Much like the poses, the battle noises and attack names are a signature of the JoJo franchise, and fans can rest easy knowing that Jonathan's Yellow Sunshine Overdrive and Dio's “UREEEY!” and “MUDA MUDA MUDA” are still present. The latter seemed to give the translators the most trouble; while it's left in place, they do add a translation note noting that it translates to 'useless.' I'm still torn on whether this was a good choice or not. The note gives Dio's cry some context, but then it also emphasizes the fact that this is a random bit of Japanese in an otherwise English story. On the other hand, without the note it would be a random bit of Japanese that would have no meaning to anyone other than a JoJo fan. Funny enough, while I was writing this a big debate about manga translation recently erupted on Twitter that was spurred on by this particular choice, so I'm far from the only one who took issue with this choice. Still, this is a minor quibble in what is otherwise a sterling translation.

So does Phantom Blood live up to the hype? Absolutely! Viz has done its best to accommodate both the seasoned fans and the newcomers with these books. It's not without a few bits of awkwardness, but the story and art are wild and wonderful in a way that few modern shonen series could hope to match. I've already got the first omnibus for the second arc, Battle Tendency, waiting for me on Viz's website, but I can afford to take my time reading it.  After all, we waited nearly 30 years to read this part - I can afford to wait a little bit to get to the next one.


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