Have you ever noticed that some superheroes and popular characters feel like rip-offs of other, more famous characters? For example, Shazam was clearly copied wholesale from Superman, however, the creators managed to give their own spin on the character. Shazam is actually a little kid named Billy Batson. This allowed kids in the 40’s to project themselves into the character and made him a smash hit. At one point, Shazam was even more popular than Superman because of that gimmick. To use a more modern example, look at all the Batman movies and how many other superhero movies tried to copy that same aesthetic. Well this trend isn’t exclusive to western comics. The manga scene is full of imitators and copy cats trying to get big off of an established idea. Today, I want to talk about the Shazam of the manga world, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.
To give a little bit of background, during the 80s there was an extremely popular manga series called Fist of the North Star. This series was so popular it even saw brief success in the West. A main selling point for most readers was Fist of the North Star’s extreme level of violence. For example, and I kid you not, a man gets his head blown in two but keeps it together just by holding the two halves of his head together. That’s how bonkers the manga could get, but it had an engaging story set in a Mad Max style post apocalypse.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, written and drawn by Hirohiko Araki, was clearly influenced by Fist of the North Star. The characters are unbelievably proportioned and the violence is taken up to eleven. It was a copycat series through and through, and yet JoJo is one of the most popular and long lasting manga series to date. Something about JoJo was special and it managed to claw its way into the social zeitgeist of Japan. JoJo saw little success in the West, only getting a small portion of the series translated into English and out of order. There was also a well-liked video game, but otherwise that was it. JoJo also never saw much success outside of the manga world. The series had an animated mini-series (known as an OVA in Japan), but it wasn’t well received. Until around 2012, JoJo stayed extremely popular in the manga world but didn’t really appear anywhere else. The classic series saw a huge revival with a successful TV series that created a huge media hype for more JoJo. This revival also created a push for more JoJo in the West, resulting in the release of the first two parts in English for the first time ever!
I want to focus on part 1, “Phantom Blood.” JoJo is split up into 7 parts with an 8th part still running in Japan. That’s right, this series is still going! This series is really special and I think it translates well to a western audience. Araki is a unique creator in the manga world, focusing on more international culture rather than just writing about Japan. JoJo is a globetrotting adventure and the series has visited almost every continent except for Australia and Antarctica. He’s also a huge music nerd! There are so many references to popular music in JoJo. One of the main characters in Phantom Blood is named Dio Brando (an obvious reference to Ronnie James Dio). Most of the references aren’t subtle, but it’s still fun to see them. He even references a Rihana song in part 8, so he doesn’t just limit himself to the classics. This also made it hard for the series to get translated due to copyright issues, but the good people at Viz Media have managed to do it and do it well!
Phantom Blood was the first series which premiered in 1987. The star of the manga is Jonathan Joestar (or JoJo for short. Every main character in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has the nickname JoJo). He’s a spoiled yet burly English kid and the heir to the Joestar family fortune. His relatively quiet life is halted when a boy named Dio Brando becomes his new step-brother. Dio’s father died tragically and George Joestar, JoJo’s father, takes the boy in because Dio’s father saved George’s life many years ago.
The two brothers get along like water and oil. Dio is a cold and manipulative hustler, whose sole mission is to make JoJo miserable. This is the main conflict of the series as these two boys, who soon grow into men, butt heads and fight for what they think is right and wrong. JoJo wants to be a true English gentleman while Dio strives for power and status. JoJo is hot headed and innocent while Dio is calm and had to fight to survive in a harsh world. The two are polar opposite characters and that is what makes their struggles in volume one so interesting. This series is built upon opposites and these warring themes are a major part of what makes the series interesting.
The story comes to ahead when their fate is changed forever by a mysterious mask JoJo has been studying. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say it’s amazing.
I believe JoJo is a good gateway manga for comic readers. Araki has a unique style that has grown and evolved over the years, but in this series it’s very over the top – especially with JoJo and Dio turning into muscular beasts in some of these pages. It might be a hurdle for some, but if you don’t mind over the top style then you shouldn’t be too worried. Also, the dialogue is very corny like a Saturday morning soap opera. I’ll never forget all the times Dio refers to himself as “I, Dio!” whenever he does anything nefarious. Still, the characters are developed enough that the dated dialogue kind of fits in this Victorian setting and eventually you begin to enjoy it.
Like I said in the beginning, this was inspired by an incredibly violent manga, and while JoJo isn’t quite as over the top, some of the gore is cringe worthy. People get hurt in this series and there are buckets of blood later on. There’s an especially violence scene that also manages to be very tragic. During some of these scenes, you really feel the violence. This is not like a normal comic, these scenes can get really brutal as characters beat the life out of each other. What I’m trying to say is this is not for the squeamish but I think the violence does serve a purpose of showing the real brutality of the setting.
Lest I forget, there is a little bit of racism. There’s a Chinese character that is very stereotypical and it can be uncomfortable. Still, he’s not in the series very much so it’s not that much of a deal breaker for me. It’s an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise great series. However, it does fit with the 1800s aesthetic with depictions of the Chinese at the time. Araki may have just wanted to be true to his setting as he takes a lot of influence from cartoon styles of the time to make the setting more authentic. He does do a lot of research in his series concerning his settings.
Speaking of, the Victorian setting does a lot to help new readers to smoothly transition into this eastern style of comic storytelling. There’s nothing you really need to know beforehand to understand the characters and their motivations unlike some other manga I could name. You can pick it up and enjoy the ride straight through.
As you’re reading, make sure to take note of the sound effects. Araki is very particular about his them and this was one of the difficulties in licencing the series. If the sound effects weren’t just right Araki wouldn’t let other publishers translate his work.
And that’s about it! JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is a special series I think everyone can find enjoyment in, as long as you are not squeamish. If you’re interested in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, you can find it on Amazon Kindle, Comixology, the Viz Manga App. The physical book available in your local comic book/regular bookstores is a very nice hardcover edition (exclusive to the West!) which I highly recommend if you like physical copies of your comics. All of Phantom Blood has been translated so if you like volume one, the other two volumes are available digitally right now.
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I'm James Ristig. I've been reading comics for ten years and I'm a freelance writer and editor. Follow me on twitter @RisTigger