Bizarre Adventures In Criticism, Part One: Is ‘Phantom Blood’ 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, starting with the initial arc, Phantom Blood.
Ziah Grace: So, Claire, what’s your familiarity with JoJo's Bizarre Adventures?
Claire Napier: I hate it and it’s bad. But I didn’t always think this way.
Once, there was a time before I’d read it… a time of LiveJournals and DeviantArt, when whacko poses and over-elaborate buckling looked like the raddest s--- ever, and muscle men with cute baby faces were floating my boat in Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star) --- a continuing status, in this case. JJBA looked amazing! It looked fashion, glam, gendersomething! I couldn’t wait to get stuck in, but I had nobody to explain where the entry point was. So I just thought well of it, to err on the side of optimism. Until, in 2013, somebody lent me their stash.
And it’s terrible.
Ziah: Haha, well, we’ll dig in later to get to the bottom of why you feel that way, but my history with it is that I was reading the Viz-translated manga they were putting out in the mid-2000s (which is actually series three, Stardust Crusaders), and I dug how over-the-top and weirdly-influenced it was. It felt like Araki just had WWE on in the background of his drawing table, and got the gist of what American superheroes are without being too interested beyond the aesthetic, and I loved it.
Although, funny part is that I’d read an interview where Araki talks about being inspired by Stephen King for his work, and I misread it thinking that he meant that he’d gotten the idea of “Stands” (the supernatural energy/creature characters use to fight from series three on) from King’s novel The Stand. So when I finally read the latter, it took me like half the book before I realized that the survivors of the flu weren’t going to suddenly get supernatural powers.
So, how far along in JJBA did you get before you realized you hated it? Was there a specific tipping point or just a gradual dissatisfaction?
Claire: I will answer this in one second, but first, a counter question. Which came first, JoJo or Shawn Michaels?
Ziah: Ah… Shawn Michaels?
Claire: He’s just so JoJo! Maybe Araki really did have WWE on in the background. I hold a strong dislike for Michaels too, but that’s just a coincidence (or is it).
But, to your question --- I think I knew right away. Oh! I’ve told a lie! That wasn’t the first taste I had of the Bizarre Adventures. I wasted a small portion of a New Year’s celebration on the first episode of that horrible anime. And that was when I knew I hated JoJo, but I fought against it. I didn’t want to accept the loss of the JoJo I’d imagined. I’d liked the idea for so long, and knew it was such a community-forming appreciation to enjoy (the fandom is enduring), that I didn’t want to believe that that was actually it.
Ye Olde JoJo’s girlfriend gets kissed by Dio, and I found it so insulting, the way that kiss was used was like a rape. The composition of the story, the characters reactions, created a structure of response identical to those following rape in fiction; when rape is used to motivate the men around and despite the female victim of it. Dio kisses Erina before JoJo can, which makes her feel sullied, which makes her reject JoJo --- Dio tortures JoJo via the molestation of his sweet pretty girlfriend.
I felt that it was so lazy and disingenuous for JJBA to use this archetypal rape plot, without even admitting that it was one.
Ziah: You’re talking about Series 1, Phantom Blood, and I absolutely agree that it’s almost completely trash, yeah. That part sticks out, but all the characters and motivations in the story are really lacking, and Jonathan Joestar’s the worst JoJo by a mile.
Series 3 villain Dio gets introduced, and even though he narrates like half the story, he never comes off as interesting or well-developed, and while Araki’s always had trouble with writing great female characters, this is by far the worst.
Claire: Let’s take this opportunity to give our readers a synopsis of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood.
Phantom Blood follows the teenage years of Jonathan Joestar, the first of numerous season protagonists whose names can be shortened down to “JoJo”. Jo-nathan Jo-star, you see? He’s the only son of a rich man with a big house --- this is the late 1800s --- until his father adopts Dio Brando in gratitude for a good deed that was, in fact, a lie.
Dio is evil, and so he begins to torture Jonathan by being mean (killing his dog, force-kissing his girl, beating him up, getting him in trouble with his dad, killing his dad) and making everybody believe that he’s not doing anything wrong at all. Dio also wants to steal a stone mask from Joestar Senior, because it’s a magic mask that will grant him the powers of a vampire.
After a lot of miscommunication and enormous efforts to evoke feelings of sympathetic injustice in his readers, JoJo tries to murder Dio in kind. He fails, so Araki has a bunch of randos show up and JoJo learns “the Ripple,” a nonsense over-explained martial arts technique that’s just shorthand for “blah blah fight scene poses whatever”.
In the end JoJo and his girlfriend get married and go off on a boat, which eventually explodes because: Dio is evil. Dio and JoJo are killed (or are they)?
Ziah: Well, you've forgotten the addition of Speedwagon, JoJo's loyal sidekick and the first of Araki's habit of using characters that don't have special abilities to motivate the hero and narrate fights. Also, while the Ripple technique is incredibly dumb, it is kind of interesting in how dumb it is. It's basically a life force/magnet/concentrated burst of sunlight, which is why it works on vampires. At one point JoJo and Zeppeli (his mentor) use it to magnetize some leaves to make a giant hang-glider.
Claire: Phantom Blood establishes a lot of what I think is bad or ugly or (I know this is a strong word. I’m using it on purpose) repellent about the series as a whole. People endlessly disbelieving characters we know are telling the truth? Hyperstylised clothing, that’s ignored by normal-looking people and never acknowledged by those wearing it? Hokuto no Ken swipes? And art with no integrity!
Although I will certainly cop that Araki’s illustrative ability improves wildly on-page and that in 2016 he is an extremely skillful artist. The illustration in Phantom Blood is... ridiculous. It created a confusing dissonance for me, which the clothing does throughout, honestly, and maybe that’s at the base of my opinion that Araki’s storytelling is without any sort of emotional integrity, or maybe it’s just a symptom.
The Hokuto no Ken reliance is really distracting for me, as a reader familiar with this older, far more confident series. HnK debuted in 1983, which is four years before Phantom Blood began. JJBA marked a pretty big change in Araki’s style, if you consider the earlier, stand-alone titles he’d done, such as Baoh (1984-85, below), and it clearly owes a huge debt to Tetsuo Hara’s work.
Hara, unfortunately, had a far better grasp on how bodies work and what people use them for; Araki, still a young artist, took what he liked (the elaborate contortions, the flamboyant personal styles) and splattered them willy-nilly all over every page, with no thought for practicality or cohesion.
Here are Raiga and Fuuga, from chapter fifty four (collected in volume seven, September 1984) of Hokuto no Ken, performing their cooperative martial art:
See how their hands are arranged very particularly? These characters move them with such specific, gentle gesture because it’s necessary for the deployment of their weapon. They essentially share the use of a very flexible cheese wire in combat, and so move their hands with care. Tthink of the matador-style movements you might use when pulling and perforating clingfilm from a boxed roll. They stand with flexed hands before a fight because that’s how one prepares the body for combative motion.
Now, what is the right hand in the image below doing? Nothing explicable.
But I think the worst thing about Phantom Blood is that it doesn’t matter. It’s not required reading for the next sections of the franchise, although it’s nominally “relevant," and it’s so very clearly a training ground for a mangaka with a lot of flair but, at that point, almost nothing else going for him. I read this thing that was 100% chore because it’s discussed as a piece of the canon --- and it’s not. It’s not in the least bit necessary.
Ziah: I couldn’t agree more. It establishes Dio’s infection of the Joestar family, and introduces the Stone Mask that’ll show up next series, and the existence of vampires/zombies/ghosts, which will last the whole comic, but doesn’t do anything really interesting or new with them the way the other series do. It also brings up The Ripple martial art technique that’ll ground Series 1 and 2, but it’s not actually used in any exciting or innovative way here.
Good catch on the debt JJBA owes to Hakuto No Ken; I knew it was a strong influence, but I'd never realized it was so extensive. I'd disagree with you slightly in that I think Araki eventually moves past the swipes and embraces the over-the-top aesthetic he'd accidentally integrated, and it becomes something very much unique to his work.
I was wondering in what order you’d read the series, because when I was brushing up on the series for review, I was reminded about how just completely terrible and immature the storytelling is. If I’d started here instead of Series 3, I don’t think I’d have bothered to keep going. It’s three full volumes, and it drags the whole way.
It definitely establishes his worst tics --- which I think get pulled back as the comic goes, but we’ll get there --- like animal torture, bad or non-existent roles for women, a vague, undefined power that works in unclear ways, and a villain that is just completely evil for no real reason. But in its defense… it gives us Series 2, which I liked a lot, and I liked when Jonathan lights his gloves on fire to punch Dio out. That’s it. That’s my full defense.
Claire: I will tell you why I kept going. I kept going because I knew that if I stopped, people would say, “Oh, you stopped there? It gets much better when you get to…”
So I slogged on through however many seasons (seasons? Is there a better word for the different waves of JJBA?) until I really couldn’t go on, until I’d rather die than continue, for the simple dogged reason that I wanted to hate it with full authority. I’ve literally never seen JJBA criticised --- not seriously, not analytically, not in fandom. And oh my god, I hate it so bad! So that’s why I poisoned myself. For knowledge. Call me Odin.
Ziah: How truly noble. Well, it’s happening, your sacrifice wasn’t in vain. So, since we both hate Series/Season 1, anything else we should talk about here, or just move on to the next one where I’ll actually start defending it?
Claire: Hmm. I’m kind of out of breath. Is there anything you think’s alright about Phantom Blood?
Ziah: I think that even though the art’s pretty bad, it does establish the things that he likes drawing and gets pretty good at: scenic countrysides and landmarks, very unique fashion for each character. That’s about it.
Like I mentioned, I’d never seen a dude light his hands on fire to punch a freezing vampire, so even though I’d hated the comic the whole way, that one scene was pretty great for me. I’m more on the liking side of this JoJo debate, but even I won’t recommend Phantom Blood to anyone. Skip it. Just read the wiki summary, and you’ve had a better time with it.
Claire: Look, I’m not a monster. Art is hard, and to start with, you’re bad at it. Even Araki, who today produces images of great quality, used to pretty much suck. That’s fine, it’s totally necessary, it’s good. It’s good that a master used to be bad! That’s encouraging! Put it out in a harshly abridged sketchbook retrospective, or something.
What is not good is the tricking of new audiences into experiencing these baby steps --- paying for them --- as if they were great masterworks, and as if they had any impact on the stories being produced today. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure was rebooted, reader. Part seven, Steel Ball Run, began an alternate timeline that overran the original one. In 2004 Araki began negating his own back catalogue. He knows too. There is no reason to republish, as recently as 2015, this meaningless junk.
Ziah: We're probably not going to get into the reboot --- or at least talk about it in a later article --- but I find that absolutely fascinating as it relates to his influences and his goals with the JoJo comics. As it relates to the subject at hand? I agree. This is a bad comic, and it's barely even enjoyable as an element of comic history.
Claire: Does anybody eat actual feces in this season? Or is that a motif that was added later?
Ziah: This is only going to make my job harder later, but ah… JoJo’s love interest Erina washes her mouth out in the gutter after Dio kisses her, so Araki’s weird obsession with that stuff is at least on the periphery.
Claire: I’m very bothered by the way the germ horror is used, the way it’s… everything in JJBA seems to happen without emotional (or maybe I mean psychological?) consequence to me, and this is firmly in that same column. But I suppose I can see, at least, how “people licking fecal/gutter matter” might be a motif that would draw an audience invested in certain types of horror or… poetic taboo?
Ziah: I don’t know… Maybe? You’re actually being kinder than I am to that, because I just think sometimes ideas or motifs just get stuck in artists’ craw sometimes, and just keep showing up. Like Grant Morrison and transcendent drug use. I’d be inclined to think it’s just something that freaks Araki out, so he needs to excise it every few years.
The horror does get better as we continue though, because again, Phantom Blood does nothing well. It’s a story you could write yourself and do a better job at, and its off-brand Castlevania vibe is definitely the series at its worst.
Final Verdict: Claire and Ziah agree; Phantom Blood is not good. Do not read it.