By Matthew Silkin, Staff Writer
(Spoilers for JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, both the manga and the anime.)
Let me paint you a quick picture of the plot of my most recent read. A disgraced paraplegic American jockey and the son of a prominent Neapolitan family of executioners enter a cross-country horse race. Over the course of the race, the Neapolitan teaches the American how to harness the power of the golden ratio and Fibonacci sequence to unlock the power to shoot his fingernails at his enemies. The race is sponsored by the 23rd President of the United States of America, named Funny Valentine, and is actually a front for him to gather the scattered remains of Jesus across the continent and bury them under Trinity Church in Manhattan to protect America for the rest of time. He has the power to travel between multiple dimensions by putting himself between two objects, and this power, which looks like a light blue human with giant rabbit ears and stitching reminiscent of a baseball’s, is named Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, after the AC/DC song of the same name.
And folks, I gotta tell you all, it all made perfect sense in context, and was hands down one of the most heart-pounding, nail-biting, all-around best things I ever read.
It was the seventh part of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, a long-running manga series by writer and illustrator Hirohiko Araki. The story is the saga of the Joestar bloodline throughout history and their encounters with the forces of evil, starting with Jonathan Joestar’s feud with the charismatic and sadistic Dio Brando in the late 1800s in Part 1. As the parts go on, the story shifts focus and genre to other members of the Joestar family — Part 2’s Jonathan Joestar embarks on an Indiana Jones-esque quest to destroy an ancient stone before the evil Pillar Men get it, Part 3’s Jotaro Kujo participates in a round-the-world adventure to reach a resurrected and now certifiably insane DIO, Part 4’s Josuke Higashikata spends the summer hanging out with friends and looking for serial killer Yoshikage Kira, Part 5’s Giorno Giovanna seeks to usurp the Italian mob from reclusive and dissociative boss Diavolo, and Part 6’s Jolyne Cujoh must break out of prison before the chaplain, DIO’s secret disciple Father Enrico Pucci, gains an esoteric new power and resets the world. In an alternate timeline, Part 7’s Johnny Joestar goes on the aforementioned cross-country Steel Ball Run horse race and tries to collect the parts of Jesus, and in the ongoing Part 8, Josuke Higashikata must regain his memory and stop a group of rock humans from smuggling a mysterious fruit into Japan for their own nefarious purposes.
Beginning as a humble vampire story homage with traces of the brawny shōnen (Japanese for “young boy,”), teen guy-targeted titles of the early and mid-80s, such as Fist of the North Star and Dragon Ball, Araki quickly cemented JoJo’s as one of the most unique stories to come out of the Japanese publishing houses of Jump Comics, mainly by doing two things. First, Araki made the bold decision, as Part 1 came to an end, to kill off his protagonist and essentially restart the story. Whereas other manga had to constantly raise the stakes to keep readership invested, by introducing a brand new story with every major arc, Araki saved himself from writing himself into a corner with impossibly high stakes that even he couldn’t top. The second thing Araki did was introduce the concept of Stands — metaphysical representations of a character’s fighting spirit, named so because — I kid you not — they… stand next to their user. Silly name aside, until their introduction in Part 3, Araki had followed the generic combat-related power system of his predecessors, a system that works fine enough until, much like the first problem solved, the stakes get too high to raise. Stands, with their niche powers that range from “creates fire” to “is a lock that gets heavier the guiltier you feel” to “puts zippers on things” to “uses feng shui to make you luckier in battle,” allow not only for Araki to avoid having to raise the stakes by forcing himself to come up with enemies that rely on pure power, but also lets him create some truly, dare I say, bizarre encounters and fights throughout the series.
It must not be overstated just how much of a treat for the eyes Araki’s artwork is. His artwork was featured in the Louvre in 2009, the first ever mangaka to receive the honor — no small feat indeed! His eye for panel composition, character detail and design, and facial expression, especially in later parts — and ESPECIALLY in Parts 7 and 8, when he switched from shorter weekly chapters to longer monthly chapters — is something that words cannot in themselves contain, and must be personally beheld to be experienced.
I think a strength of the series is that Araki both warns the reader about the bizarre nature of the series from the outset — the title has the word Bizarre in it, after all — but also eases the reader into some of the more out-there concepts as the series goes along. Sure, he stumbles from time to time — Part 6 goes from a simple jailbreak story to race against the clock before Pucci uses his new Stand to reset the universe at pretty much the drop of a hat, for example. For the most part, though, he keeps his cards close to his chest, only amping up the truly bizarre aspects of his story once the reader is fully invested in the characters.
And the characters are true delights in and of themselves. Each character, from the main titular JoJo to the briefest of side characters, have their own quirky personalities that make them stand out as fleshed-out people in their own worlds. Yes, there is some lack in this department, especially in the early parts, as Araki was still working out the kinks in his own ability as a writer and story crafter. However, once he hits his stride, it truly shows just how much he cares for each character he writes, and you would be hard-pressed to find any two people who share the same favorite character or Stand.
Let’s talk about the Stands for a moment. Like with the characters, when they’re first introduced, they’re a little basic. They’re named after the major arcana in tarot cards and have fairly straightforward abilities — Star Platinum punches really well, Magician’s Red can make fire, Silver Chariot has a sword, The World can stop time. It’s once Araki gets comfortable with his own power system, and decides to flex his love of Western music — specifically 70s and 80s rock — a little more, in the later parts when the abilities start getting wilder, more niche, and overall better. Pearl Jam, for example, imbues food with the ability to heal the person who eats it of preexisting conditions, while Aerosmith is a miniature plane that can track people based on carbon dioxide emissions, while Tubular Bells allows the user to blow metal into deadly balloon animals.
If there’s one criticism I can lobby against the series, it’s that Araki has a tendency for his weirdness to cross a line every once in a while into straight up creepiness, from his penchant for having his villains demonstrate their villainy by killing animals, to how sexualized a few of the younger girls in the later parts are treated sometimes. It’s something that should be noted going in, so that should you decide to start reading for yourself, you will be prepared.
Personally, one of the best things this series has done for me is boost my creativity. It’s been a fun time with friends who are also fans of the series to come up with our own wacky Stands and powers, and to explore music I never would have looked to otherwise for inspiration. My Spotify playlist is almost 400 songs and 29 hours long – and I have JoJo to thank for it.
Photo: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Manga