Bizarre Adventures in Criticism, Part Two: Is ‘Battle Tendency’ Any Good?
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is a hugely popular manga series written and drawn by Hirohiko Araki that began in 1984, following the supernatural adventures of a family line of characters each with names that can be abbreviated to JoJo. Since it began, it's had eight different main characters and a full-on western-comic-style reboot, and it's developed a passionate fanbase and established a unique aesthetic. But is it actually any good?
In a new series of articles looking back over the various iterations of the series, critics Ziah Grace and Claire Napier are going to offer their unvarnished and unapologetic opinions on JoJo's Bizarre Adventures, moving on into the second series, Battle Tendency.
Ziah: Okay! Let’s move on to Series Two: Battle Tendency. This one’s a pretty good one. So, the series jumps ahead to Jonathan Joestar’s grandson Joseph Joestar, who’s British and just moved to America with his still-living grandmother. The first JoJo died at the end of Series One, ostensibly to kill Dio, but we’ll see that didn’t work. The time period’s firmly in the 1930s and there’s definitely an Indiana Jones vibe with the new JoJo having to fight Nazis and supernatural creatures.
Claire: Alert, alert, Ziah is lying, this is not a good one. This one is also bad. JoJo is still, definitely, bad. It’s no good.
Ziah: Alright, well since you summed up Phantom Blood last time, I’ll take a crack at Battle Tendency. So it turns out that the creators of the Stone Mask --- that thing that turns people into vampires-- are four pre-historic supervampires called Stone Men, and the new JoJo ---Joseph Jo(e)star --- has to master the Ripple technique and beat them up before they become perfect beings. If Phantom Blood was a boring Castlevania rip-off, then BT is much more in the Shonen milieu of comics, focusing on training and mastering new techniques to defeat progressively stronger enemies, and making friends through combat.
As the series reaches the end, JoJo and the readers find out that his Ripple instructor is secretly his long-lost mother, and JoJo ostensibly gives his life to defeat a perfect version of Cars, but really he’s okay (minus a hand). Anything important I left out, Claire?
Claire: Nazis. And you didn’t give much time to why a supervampire would be in danger of becoming a perfect being… but let’s not pretend that it matters. It’s just what’s happening.
Ziah: Sunlight slows them down and makes them sleepy. They go into hibernation. Like bears!
Claire: But I would elaborate a little on the scene-setting that we begin with. JoJo is in New York with his grandmother who raised him --- Grandma Erina (or Eleanor, or---). The wife of JoJo #1. And as you did mention, the stone mask of Phantom Blood is technically relevant to the villains of this season. This is where the idea that part one relates to part two comes from: there’s family legacy involved, and the villains have owned the same trinkets.
This, let me reiterate, is a trick. Like: I own a bunch of coats that I’ve bought secondhand. A person could write a comic about my life wearing those coats, and they could name it “Coat’s Bizarre Adventure”, and my section could be part three --- after part one that follows whoever owned it in the sixties, part two about who wore it in the eighties, and when/whatever. But that wouldn’t actually make anything in my life (my section of Coat’s Bizarre Adventure) reliant on the events of the previous owners’ lives.
Even if my great aunt happened to own this coat in 1974 and by coincidence I bought it without knowing that --- it’s not more than a “haha, oh right!” moment. Their lives do not inform the events of mine, they’re not “in canon” in a meaningful way. You don’t have to read about Wendy Johnson wearing her coat to the county fair to understand why I’m doing anything I’m doing while I wear this same coat to buy carrots at Tesco. And similarly, appearances of characters and objects from previous seasons of JoJo are Easter eggs, not continuity.
Ziah: I’ll be honest, I kind of want you to make a comic about your coats and call it exactly that now.
Claire: Anyway, before we hear anything about Nazis or supervampires, we “enjoy” several chapters of JoJo existing in 1930s New York, not being racist, being a huge creep, and upsetting disgusting policemen. Supernatural elements start to creep in as Araki decides what he feels like doing this time around, I think.
Ziah: I can’t really disagree with any of that. Okay, well, let’s start small. The first JoJo was a terrible main character, so cookie-cutter he’s sold in bulk at supermarkets, but I really like this one! He’s cocky and actually uses his head when he fights, so there’s a lot of the villain being surprised at what’s happening and then JoJo explains it. It kind of reminded me of Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle issues, where you saw Scott Free getting out of all these situations, and then he’d explain how he did it. I guess it’s just one of those narrative tricks I really enjoy. Not so much for you?
I do not like this JoJo; to me this JoJo seems aggressively stupid. It’s what I was saying about emotional integrity and internal consistency --- he doesn’t seem like he’s there, to me. I don’t know if the impression would change if there was a different artist, or if somebody put in a different translation (I’ve read more that one, and I’ve read great series with weak translations, and still connected with them fine), but this guy seems like a fickle, glassy idiot to me. And he is cocky, as you say --- I literally want to push him away from me.
Cop the nonsense “1930s daytime New York” fashions here, incidentally.
Ziah: I think the primary reason I found this JoJo so charming is that he seems like a character aware that the world he lives in is crazy, and built on some inconsistent rules, so when a vampire almost kills his uncle and stalks him to New York, he’s prepared with a Tommy gun and an entire coat full of grenades. There’s a rubbery flexibility to his strategies with dealing with his opponents that I find really fun to read.
Claire: I’m unable to perceive this as flexibility. I can see your point, but I can see it when you make it; I don’t see it in the text. The text, as I see it, is just hacky. Just throw any old thing in, why not? The answer to that question is: because what is the story and how does the world work.
The character illustration in JoJo is so… if I didn’t like opera, I’d call it operatic. But I do! So instead I think I’ll just go with overdone --- everybody screams the f--- out of their lines, totally uncomprehending, (and nobody ever seems to really answer each other? “Conversations” happen but in actual fact it seems more like people just take turns at saying things), everybody whips about their panels like they have rubber bones and no boundaries.
Like, okay, you know that Australian advert for whichever talent show that’s just a guy in an audience e-m-o-t-i-n-g his shock and awe at whatever’s presumably happening on the stage? It’s been memey on twitter. Reading JoJo feels like being stuck in a world where everybody is that guy. Reality and I feel out of touch. It’s a feeling very similar to reading a tabloid.
Ziah: Okay, well that’s certainly a fair point. But I’ve never thought that Araki’s goal was anything even close to approaching realism. The first series is the closest the stories really get, and even then, it’s got a zombie knight swinging a sword with his hair at two mystical martial artists in a graveyard.
By Battle Tendency, Araki’s figured out what he wants, and it’s that same sense of… extreme emotion. This JoJo’s meant to be smarter than his grandfather, so his “intelligence” manifests as almost psychic abilities in predicting what people will say, and preparation that even Batman fans would shake their noses at.
That aesthetic, I think, is really the core of JoJo’s charm, and that might be why you don’t like any of the series, even as Araki improves as an artist and storyteller.
Claire: That’s the thing though: I don’t read it as actual emotion. I read it as histrionics. (When I say “I read it as,” I mean, “the message I receive as a receptive viewer is that these are.” This isn’t an active choice, me not trying to see a meaningful connection between characters; I’m unable to believe in one, thanks to the construction of the illustrated people in the story.)
To return to Hokuto no Ken (it’s not like I can escape it), there’s another series that doesn’t have realism in mind. In HnK, martial arts are maaaagiiiic. Size on page is exaggerated to express presence and malevolence, people cut other people in half with a fingertip, and sometimes horses and men just hang, paused, in midair.
But emotional and psychological realism are on the table; people’s personal connections are given dignity and solidity; and every action has a interpersonal consequence. That’s what makes it engaging and impressive; that’s what makes it moving, an enduring classic.
Nobody in JoJo seems to really care about anything much, except really strange things like sudden pop-up sweet nice innocent Nazi youths --- this JoJo reminds me of Goku in his extreme in-the-moment style of response. They both seem like hedonists with no connection to non-violent sensuality, which turns them out like perplexing a-holes. At the end, for example, JoJo turns up at his own funeral all, “LOL, couldn’t call! Tried one time! Got a wife! It’s her fault!”
What is wrong with you?! They thought you died. And the wife, Suzy, is just all, “Golly, my face doesn’t move---”
Ziah: Dragon Ball’s actually a pretty solid comparison to JoJo, since both series really focus on fights and character deaths primarily as motivation, rather than tragedy. I agree that there are definitely flaws for them both as complete stories, but both series feel like they’re more interested in delving into an aesthetic appeal, and that doesn’t bother me in small parts.
Okay, well, we’re definitely on the same page with Araki’s… let’s go with “choices” when it comes to emotional depth, but let’s talk about the fights. This arc is where Araki really starts to get good at coming up with bizarre powers and combinations, and it’s when his tic of naming characters and powers after his favorite bands, singers, and albums really becomes apparent. Claire, how do you feel about this? I find it hilarious, and pretty fun that three of the big bads of this arc are named Cars, Wham, and AC/DC, and the first Stone Man is named Santana.
Claire: How do I feel about this? I feel [hideous piercing shriek]. I feel that… it is bad. It’s annoying and I don’t like it! Comparable again to Dragon Ball, actually; messing with vegetables and undergarments is not an acceptable naming scheme. It’s lazy and it’s obvious, but the reason for it isn’t. It creates a sense of solvability and internal validation of something with no effective worth, just because it’s some kind of consistent. I find it rude.
But at least Toriyama used words that weren’t Japanese; he was playing with foreign “puns”, not torturing his audience with whatever “Kakurot” would translate to. Araki uses pop music --- which is more accessible because there’s no Japanese for AC/DC, it’s just AC/DC. You can’t not know he’s doing that. And why? Why is he doing that. Think of some proper names. Your job is to be creative!
Ziah: Wait, isn’t Gohan literally just “rice”? I don’t think Toriyama’s habit is really much more noticeable or bothersome than Araki’s, but that might just be individual reactions. Here’s a question for you: do you prefer a character’s name to relate to their personality in some way, or be almost entirely random --- or at least obscured from the reader?
Claire: I think if it’s something decodable, then something relating to the function or profile or personality is better. That way it’s an informative game, a way for readers to actually learn etymology. “Remus Lupin” kind of territory.
But generally I probably prefer names that are just names, unless they actively inform the character’s place in their world. I think if everybody in Harry Potter had a name like Lupin’s --- for the curious, basically Wolf O’Wolf --- it would get old quick; those names often have something to say on a level beyond the direct narrative but they don’t always.
Ziah: That’s fair, but isn’t it kind of fun when you know a character’s name, but don’t know their power yet? Because there’s usually a clue to the power based in the music it’s referencing. AC/DC uses flame powers. Series 5 JoJo uses a stand called The Gold Experience that creates life, like the Prince album.
Claire: The names being clues doesn’t really work for me because on the one hand you say “usually”, i.e. not always. And the names are always musical references --- the hinting scheme isn’t complete, so it seems tacked on and coincidental. And also, the so-called hints are so vague that they could easily just be coincidence, and I think that Araki uses that kind of iffy, faulty-link sort of “connection” in JoJo way too often.
Today I re-read the section towards the end in which Lisa Lisa describes JoJo as a “genius cheater”. That’s a big pointer to the core of my problem: nothing in this book has to make any sense, because whatever happens it can be “cleverly explained”. Araki can squirt out any old nonsense, and in the next chapter exactly the opposite of what seemed to happen will turn out to have happened instead, actually, with the impression given by the narrative being that this is good, because it means that JoJo did something cunning.
He didn’t! It’s messy and frustrating and I find it very deflating, as a reader, because it doesn’t seem like the creator is either trying to communicate with me sincerely, or trusting me to pay attention to his work.
Ziah: Okay, well before we move on past the music references, that vagueness actually works really well for me, because if it was overly obvious or specific, it’d get really boring. A character in Series Four gets three variations of a Stand because it’s named after Echoes, which has three distinct parts to it, while Part Five has a Stand called Oasis, because… he can move through the ground like an oasis? It’s silly and vague, and I don’t think he’s really trying to establish anything more than a fun pattern, one which personally works for me pretty well.
As to your second point, isn’t that… kind of a really common storytelling device in weekly manga? It’s like the old Goosebumps books where every chapter ending is a cliffhanger, even if some of those cliffhangers turned out to be lies.
I feel like Battle Tendency is the most Shonen-y of the JoJo books, and that’s for good and for bad. The characterization, the progression of the story, the weekly storytelling are all going to get improved (we’ll argue next time about how much, but the improvement’s inarguable), but this is very much still a manga-ka finding his voice.
Claire: It’s a common device, sure, but that’s not an especial mitigator. On the one hand I think that JoJo turns the, "Oh well you see I actually…!” up to eleven, much further than the average title. And of course there’s nothing keeping me happy elsewhere in the comic so it’s harder to avoid noticing.
And on the other --- a heavy reliance on shock, or "a-ha" storytelling in weekly manga seems more like an indictment of the industry than anything else. We all know the pressures of weekly manga production --- they’re awful, they provoke injury and total submersion of social life, they lead to massive quality drops in ongoing series with observable regularity. It’s a hard business to survive in, just like making comics is in a lot of places. But that doesn’t make the work, or the product, any better!
Ziah: Great points! I think it just works for me because the emphasis on these scenes are rarely, “Look at how tough he is,” and more emphatically comedic. Whether the joke lands for you or not, I don’t think you can argue that Araki’s doing it entirely without guile.
When the vampire shows up and immediately gets shot in the opening chapters, JoJo’s backup-backup plan is to run away. When Cars becomes a “perfect being”, JoJo steals a Nazi plane and then immediately remembers that it’s not going to make much of a difference. Because Araki spends a few panels, which is an eternity for Araki comics, focusing on JoJo realizing he screwed up and his perfect plan isn’t even that good, it makes it a little easier to digest for me.
Claire: I’m afraid I am gonna argue that it’s done without guile (though not Guile ha ha Stroheim joke).
Ziah: Good one
Claire: Because I don’t think I’d argue that Araki is trying to make JoJos look good. This JoJo grows up to cheat on his wife with a student, and father an illegitimate, spare JoJo. His grandson within wedlock (JoJo #3) grows into a deadbeat dad himself.
JoJo's Bizarre Adventure timeline one, isn’t about creating the best heroes ever. I honestly think it’s just about spending time getting paid to draw comics. I think that Araki was consciously just doing whatever, because it was working for him and bringing in the $$ --- it’s been working for, what, almost thirty years now?
I think that making JoJo look clever, or rather creating the idea that JoJo is clever, and is able to do clever things, is a way of legitimizing the comic and the time it's spending on blah-blah-blah; if the blah was actually a secretly brilliant plan, then it’s right that it’s there on the page, fooling the audience like it fooled the bad guy. Spending time on the parts of-scene auteur. There’s a decent wordless horror sequence in this season, a vampire slowly reconstituting itself in a dark room. But his anatomical bulls--- is still outperforming his panel-to-panel readability.
Ziah: Hmm, that’s a good point you bring up about the various JoJos not really being intrinsically likable. I think Araki definitely becomes more invested in the side characters as relatable and interesting characters, but I never really considered that he might be actively ignoring them but for the sake of “cool” moments.
You brought up the thirty years detail, and that’s one of the most impressive things about Araki, for me anyway. This is a guy with a very clearly defined aesthetic and influences (whether or not it appeals to you, it’s definitely there) who’s been getting his work on the page for thirty years straight. Not all of it’s good, and he’s definitely got a habit of blatantly retelling his favorite movies and stories (if you want a drinking game that will probably kill you, take a drink every time there’s a Stephen King reference), but it’s pretty amazing that for… let’s say 20-22 years he’s been making comics that don’t look like anything else on the market. (We’ll knock off the first eight years, because like you said, the Hokuto no Ken swipes, et cetera, et cetera.)
Claire: Yeah, I mean, the clearly defined influences are kind of my problem… But it’s perfectly true that practicing a discipline for multiple decades is physically and conceptually admirable, and interesting. I just don’t think that doing it in public is necessarily more impressive than doing it in private. And I don’t see much value in the product, which is an example of graphic storytelling. Had he managed to make a living wage or a similarly decent income as an illustrator, or a character designer, or a conceptual artist, I’d probably be an enormous fan. But he didn’t! So I’m not.
(I don’t know when the money really started rolling in, and honestly I’m only assuming the the man is rich, instead of just surviving, because JoJo is so multi-media successful and so long-running --- what else would make it worth it?)
Ziah: That is totally fair. So is there anything you like in Battle Tendency? Any bright spots, or was it all a slog through?
Claire: No. This part loves Nazis. What is up with that?
Ziah: It is weirdly sympathetic to the two Nazis that appear, yeah. That was odd.
Claire: JoJo is inspired to fight hard after seeing Mark the Happy Nazi get killed (killed even though, no! The Nazi has a girlfriend!), right?
Ziah: No, that’s Zeppeli, which is slightly better? I think they were friends, so it sort of works in a vacuum (it’s still pretty terrible).
Claire: I mean… I guess… you could call that better. But Stroheim, a Nazi officer who sort of becomes "good" by liking JoJo and pals but remains a Nazi, arrives at the end with some more Nazis to save JoJo and the day. That’s… What is that? It’s morally empty and it’s very strange to me. Nazis don’t seem to be used to make any points about anything, they’re just there, because this section of JoJo is set during a time in which there were Nazis.
Okay. Here’s something I liked from Battle Tendency! Yeah! There was something!
I like that Kars, the final immortal villain who gets launched into space, “eventually stopped thinking”. It sounds very peaceful.
Ziah: Yeah, I guess he just…. spaced out eventually. Because he was stuck in space, you see.
Claire: Good one. Here, I made a thing:
Ziah: Oh, this is delightful. Yeah, that’s about right.
Claire: What about you, is there anything you like a lot that we haven’t covered?
Ziah: Well, I enjoy the fights (most of them), and most of the jokes worked for me, but we’ve mostly covered the big problems we both have with the arc. Oh! I like that there was a Jostar that was just a solid dude who didn’t have mystical powers and got killed by a vampire. I like that some JoJos just have bad luck.
Claire: Wait though, which jokes
Ziah: Mostly that bit with the vampire and the coat of grenades. I like how snotty JoJo gets when a plan works, and that’s about it. I consider those jokes? Otherwise they’re just poor storytelling, and that kind of ruins our debate, so. Jokes.
I like the (REO) Speedwagon became a billionaire and probably hooked up with his best friend’s wife after JoJo exploded to kill a vampire. He seems like he’s lived an interesting couple of decades.
Claire: Hm. You mentioned the fight sequences, though. If I hadn’t already read Hokuto and Souten no Ken, maybe I would have responded to JoJo’s sequential violence? I like fights. I don’t like the Ripple, and I didn’t enjoy JoJo winning. I didn’t enjoy his enemies winning either. Everybody is so emotionally shallow and inaccessible that I found it impossible to root for anyone; my overwhelming impression of this part of the series was that it took forever.
I honestly just wanted it to be over. I wanted the bluffed explanations to stop, and the shouting to stop. I felt no sense of momentum or goal, really. I didn’t feel well-located within the story.
Ziah: Yeah, you’re definitely right that the Ripple is used in a really inconsistent and frankly uninteresting way a lot of the time. The Ripple basically exists just to give credence to why regular punches and weapons are able to hurt or kill supervampires, and while that’s understandable in a regular shonen comic, that doesn’t make it good. Still, the chariot race against Cars was really fun for me! I liked how it was basically a way to make the guy who’s fought the hero team, like, three times, different and interesting, and it worked for me.
Claire: I should mention that Lisa Lisa is a matter apart from the over-acting and general contortions of this season. This is because her face doesn’t move at all, which is best illustrated in the short fight she is allowed before being used as an unconscious victim body to make things harder for JoJo (this time she’s his mother, instead of his girlfriend; she’s groped to make him cross and she’s strung up by her feet --- with a rope through her feet --- to make him disadvantaged). It’s not what I’d call a welcome break, unfortunately.
Ziah: Yeah… Araki is just terrible at giving female characters things to do, and this is some of his worst work. Lisa Lisa’s surprise appearance as his mom really only exists to give him more reason to fight Cars, but it’s pretty nonsensical. The physics of this fight are both dumb and gross, and that’s almost impressive for JoJo standards.
Claire: You know, I read a section of an interview somewhere, and Araki says he didn’t start to understand women (or subsequently what to do with woman characters) until he got married. When did he get married? I can’t find out.
Ziah: If I had to guess, it would be halfway through Series Five, since that’s when a female character gets a personality and stand to use in combat that’s not first made fun of for being a jealous harpy. Maybe Series Six? It’s almost all female characters, and although he has a tendency to kind of write them similarly to the male characters, it cuts down on a lot of the misogyny.
Claire: It’s pretty funny that we’ve gone this whole time without really discussing the Ripple, the whole unique JoJo fighting trademark! Maybe we’ll discuss it deeply when it appears in later seasons. Ha ha ha ha.
Ziah: Good one. Yeah, we’ve avoided talking about it because it’s stupid. It’s always been stupid, and this arc’s revelation that vegetable oil makes it stronger is still less stupid than the martial art itself. There’s a reason every arc after this uses Stands and not this baloney.
Claire: Yesss. Yess, give in to the hate! I’m pouring Ripple oil on the flames of your disdain! Buuuurnnnnnn JoJo burn
Ziah: Speaking of disdain, how’re we doing on Eating Poop Watch? I only caught that moment when JoJo put that Ripple-controlled pigeon in that woman’s mouth when he met Zepelli (III, for the record. It’s his grandson).
Claire: There’s the cop picking his nose to wipe snot on JoJo’s cheek, during the sequence in which he meets Smokey. I don’t recall any specifics other than that… but I didn’t note the pigeon, either, so that’s one for the reader I-spy.
There is a still-talking decapitated head, of course, which is a repeat visual from part one. It’s even blond again. And JoJo threatens a woman who’s screaming, during a public fight, that if she doesn’t shut up he’ll French her. Kisses are so precious, in the world of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure---
Ziah: Yeah, jeez, this arc might be the worst towards women, which is saying something.
Claire: A stand-off between JoJo and Straights is dominated by the latter sliding/jamming his fingers into and out of the mouth of a kidnapped civilian/aspiring reporter as she cries. JoJo “tries to save her” by calling her ugly and, possibly worse, depending on the translation. It’s really not must-read stuff.
Ziah: Yeah okay.
Final Verdict: Hard 'No" from Claire, and a soft 'Maybe' from Ziah. Read Battle Tendency if you already like the JoJo you've already read, or if you're really desperate for some better-than-average fight manga. But don’t start with this.
Claire: Instead of reading this, maybe just actually get into a fight! That’s my advice.
Ziah: Good advice, generally.
Disclaimer: ComicsAlliance does not advocate getting into fights.