It’s all in the (world) mystery

Of all the media I’ve consumed, all the books and comics/manga I’ve read over the years (and it’s a whole lot) I can think of only two I’ve consistently come back to, time and time again, for near or over a decade. I love plenty of series and manga, of course–Parasyte, Ogre Battle, plenty of mecha shows, and so on–but most of those properties have been completed, so I enjoyed them and then put them away, though still re-watching them and chatting with friends about them. There are only two properties, two stories, that are just sort of a background presence in my life, not merely pastimes I pick up and put down. Only two stories that I check in on almost constantly, every few days for well over 15 years in the case of one, every month since around 2012 in the case of the other.

Those two stories are Girl Genius, by Phil and Kaja Foglio, and Berserk, by the recently-departed but forever-missed Kentaro Miura. And today, I’d like to discuss the reasoning behind my enduring love for these two stories. There’s going to be massive spoilers for both, so watch out!

-SPOILER WARNING-

It might seem odd–the two series are pretty different indeed. Girl Genius is a steampunk, or, well, “gaslamp fantasy” as the Foglios prefer, set in Europe during an unspecified industrial era where mad scientists are commonplace; as a result it’s filled with Frankenstein-like monsters, gigantic blimps that also function as sky fortresses, and robots and mechs that run on steam and clockwork rather than fusion reactors. The story takes place a few decades after a terrible war where mutant insects called slaver wasps, which looked like flies or wasps but were capable of flying down people’s throats, into their skulls, and merging with and taking control of their brains (controlled people like this are called “revenants”), managed to subjugate much of Europe at the behest of a mad and evil scientist known only as the Other. The Other and her slaver wasps were only stopped thanks to two heroic “mad” scientists, Bill and Barry Heterodyne, who disappeared in the process. The main character of Girl Genius is the daughter of Bill, Agatha Heterodyne, who shares both her father’s heroism and his incredible scientific aptitude (in this setting, mad scientists are so smart they can usually produce death rays or giant robots with materials they find on hand in moments), and the story focuses on her attempts both to survive against the many enemies of her family who want Bill’s daughter dead, find the truth about her father and uncle’s disappearance, *and* prevent the Other from returning with the slaver wasps to finish off Europe for good this time. That’s a challenging task indeed, since the Other is eventually revealed to be Bill’s wife and Agatha’s mother, Lucrezia. The story is great fun, but it’s also relatively lighthearted in tone. Some characters die and there’s some blood, but nothing too graphic, there are plenty of monsters but Phil Foglio doesn’t usually render them in a really horrifying style, and while the female (and male) characters are very attractive and fun between the covers is alluded to more than a few times, there’s no explicit sex–the whole thing is PG-13 rated in general, I’d say. There also aren’t any references to real-world politics or religion in any serious sense, aside from some Catholic train monks later in the series, but the focus isn’t on their faith or theology, much less the role the Church played (good or bad) in society.

Berserk, on the other hand, is considerably darker, as you might be able to guess from its name. It follows a man named Guts, a mighty warrior with one eye and a mechanical arm who wields a massive greatsword bigger than he is. He wanders a medieval-fantasy kingdom rather than a steampunk Europe, and constantly fights hideous demons that prey on human beings. He does this not out of benevolence or to protect humanity from the demons, but in an attempt to find the demons’ masters-five archfiends of immense supernatural power known as the God Hand, one of whom, Femto, used to be a man named Griffith who was Guts’ best friend, but sacrificed Guts as well as the other members of the mercenary band to which Guts belonged, in an evil ritual that gave him the powers of a dark god, but from which Guts (and his lover, the female warrior Casca) managed to escape. As you can tell from the description, Berserk is definitely not PG-13, and it goes well beyond an R rating. Kentaro Miura drew his demons in as horrifying a manner as possible, and they’re almost always depicting eating humans in the most stomach-turning ways you can think of. Explicit sex, and especially sexual violence, is omnipresent in Miura’s setting; again he takes from the medieval period of real-world history where cruel bands of thugs and merciless nobles terrorize women (and sometimes men too; Guts himself was raped by another mercenary in his youth) without relent, in many cases as badly or even worse than the God Hand’s demons do. Miura also makes much more explicit reference to real-world history than Girl Genius does; several parts of the story reference things like the Inquisition, making Berserk somewhat more daunting in relationship to real-world history.

So, you might ask, how is it that I happen to like both stories so much? Well, first off, while they may be trying to achieve vastly different objectives–Girl Genius is trying to be a fun gaslamp fantasy romp, while Berserk is trying to be much more intense–both of them achieve those objectives as well as you could want, and they both have excellent art too. Foglio’s characters (aided by the expert coloring of Cheyenne Wright) are sexy and appealing, and he also draws really cool “steampunk” technology, with his airships and robots having all sorts of little industrial doodads and details while still maintaining a coherent aesthetic. Kentaro Miura, of course, is one of the greatest Japanese manga artists of the 20th and 21st century, his peerless art needs no introduction even for those who don’t read Berserk, and his plotting and dialogue are just as good.

So then the question becomes, “what’s kept me coming back to both of those stories specifically for so long, as opposed to putting them down, or checking out others?” And I think the answer to that question is, if you’d forgive me for creating a neologism, “world-mystery.”

See, at the heart of both Girl Genius and Berserk are mysteries. And not mysteries pertaining to individual characters, like “who killed who” or “why did this person betray the good guys” and so on. No, both stories feature mysteries that are at the heart of their entire settings. And not only that, for every step closer the protagonists get to unveiling those mysteries, they also uncover even deeper ones behind them. And that, I think, is why I’ve found both so compelling, and why I’ve always, always returned to both stories over the years.

A slightly longer description of both stories is in order. In the case of Girl Genius, when the story starts, most of Europe is controlled by Baron Wulfenbach, another super-scientist and a friend of Bill Heterodyne who rules it as an autocrat, but a pretty stable one who cares more about ensuring order than oppressing people as a tyrant. The reason he came to power is because Bill and Barry didn’t return after (assumedly) beating The Other, meaning all of Europe was just a wasteland devastated by the Other’s attacks and revenants without the heroic Bill (or his brother Barry) to pick things back up. As you’ll note, I haven’t described why the Other wanted to exterminate Europe, and indeed all of humanity if Bill and Barry hadn’t stopped her. That’s the mystery: If the Other was the protagonist’s mother, who was described as a villainous person who Bill had genuinely reformed, why did she go back to evil (and indeed, as the Other she was much more evil than she ever was before) and try to destroy the world? And how could she gain the power to do so?

The reason I call this a world-mystery, and the reason I say it’s at the heart of the setting, is that these questions relate to much more than the individual characters involved (the protagonist and her mother, as well as Bill and Barry and their friend, Baron Wulfenbach). They involve the entire world in which Girl Genius takes place. Every single character we meet across the course of the story, and indeed, all the fictional inhabitants, the many civilians and random people in every city across the fictional world the Foglios created, have an interest in getting answers to those questions, because if it wasn’t for the humongous war the Other started, the entire world would look completely different (there would have been a lot less death and devastation, the Heterodyne Brothers rather than Wulfenbach would be in charge, people wouldn’t still be worrying about the slaver wasps coming back and finishing the genocide of humanity, etc). From the reader’s perspective, as interesting as individual mysteries may be (Sherlock Holmes type, who-killed-who), when the settings of such stories don’t revolve around those mysteries, seeing the answers to them doesn’t feel quite as important (at least speaking for myself) because those answers won’t also explain why the entire history of whatever world (fictional or otherwise) ended up as it did.

The exact same applies to Berserk. As I mentioned above, Griffith becomes an archdemon by sacrificing all of his mercenary former friends in a bloody, horrifying dark ritual (from which only Guts and Casca escaped). However, the only reason Griffith was able to start the ritual in the first place was because he possessed a strange, mysterious artifact called a red behelit, which he had lost at one point but suddenly came back to him just when he needed it to summon the other four members of the God Hand. Was it luck? In a sense–but mandated luck. The leader of the God Hand, a skeletal archdemon with a pulsing, exposed brain named Void, tells Griffith that the God Hand manipulates causality so that even chance events or coincidences (like Griffith finding his red behelit conveniently in a river) achieve their evil goals. Not only that, but the God Hand has been doing this throughout history: The entire history of the fictional version of Europe in which Berserk takes place, including the events that allowed Griffith to be born and to meet Guts, was guided through these changes of causality and manipulations of coincidences by the God Hand. You will again note that I haven’t described why the God Hand is doing this–why they needed Griffith to join them if they’re already so powerful, and what exactly their intentions for humanity are if they’ve been manipulating human history for all this time. Those are the mysteries that have not yet been revealed…and alas, due to Miura’s death, might never be revealed 😦

In other words, the very heart of Berserk’s setting, the foundation upon which the entire world rests, are the mysteries the reader is now pondering in regards to the God Hand. What, exactly, are they? What do they hope to gain by manipulating humanity and human destiny in this way? Now that Griffith has joined them, what is their plan? And what is their ultimate goal?

Everything I mentioned about the mysteries involving the Other in Girl Genius applies to the God Hand in Berserk. Their machinations involve more than just Griffith and Guts, but the entire world, which would look entirely different if they hadn’t been working behind the scenes. By the same token, if it had ever been to revealed to us why the God Hand was doing what they did, why they wanted to turn Griffith into one of them, and what their ultimate goals were, it would have explained not only the relationships between the protagonist and antagonist as individuals, but why the history of the world of Berserk itself played out as it did, which (again IMO) makes such mysteries even more compelling to the reader, and impossible to put down until we’ve gotten answers.

In addition to that, those world-mysteries, throughout the both series, have expanded on themselves, so that every time the reader comes close to an answer, another layer of it is revealed. In Girl Genius, the first answer to the mystery of the Other’s identity and motivations comes when it’s revealed she was Lucrezia, the protagonist’s mother. This comes when a copy of the Other’s mind is loaded into Agatha’s body, gaining control of her if not for Agatha’s strong and heroic will. So much of the series after that is dedicated to removing her ghost from Agatha’s body. When that happened, however, we learned of even more bizarre events involving Lucrezia. According to the ancient history of the Girl Genius setting, in the pre-historic period, tens of thousands of years ago, there was an ancient civilization ruled by immortal God-Queens that collapsed when all the Queens disappeared; only two of them (Albia, who rules the Girl Genius version of England, and Ishtar-Re, who’s mentioned in an offhand comment but so far plays no role in the story) is alive at the time of the story. Albia helps Agatha create the technologies necessary to get the Other out of her mind, but in the process realizes that she’s met Lucrezia before–somehow, Lucrezia was the one who killed all the other God Queens thousands of years ago!

In other words, over the course of solving one world-mystery–who the Other was that attacked Europe a couple of decades ago, setting the stage for the rise of the Wulfenbach empire and the story’s present setting–another, even bigger world-mystery was shown to the reader, which demands answers: How could the Other travel through time, and why did she kill the God-Queens, which has even more ramifications for the course of the entire world’s history (if it weren’t for the Other’s war on the Queens, there wouldn’t have been even a Wulfenbach empire since history would have turned out so differently).

The same applies to Berserk. The ceremony which turned Griffith into a member of the God Hand (called the Eclipse) was implied to have occurred 4 times before, one for each other member of the archdemon’s council. These Eclipses take place about once every 200 years, meaning the first took place 1000 years ago, and involved the destruction of the first great empire seen in Berserk’s version of Europe–its destruction set the stage for all the other kingdoms we see in the series to rise. One of Guts’ allies against Femto and the God Hand, a dead warrior whose spirit animates an empty suit of skeletal armor (giving him the fitting name of Skull Knight) was heavily implied to be the former emperor of the thousand-year-old empire, who was motivated to fight the God Hand for a millennium because of the destruction of his country. Well, in the most recent chapters of Berserk released before Miura’s death, we received confirmation of this: A flashback reveals the very first Eclipse 1000 years ago, showing the Skull Knight while he was still alive, trying (but failing) to reach the hideous leader of the God Hand, Void, who would induct Griffith into his ranks a millennium later. But even if one mystery concerning the God Hand was revealed (i.e what happened during the first Eclipse), another one opened itself. During the ancient Eclipse, Void wasn’t alone–there were four other figures next to him, and most importantly, those four were not the same ones seen during Griffith’s eclipse, implying there was a previous God Hand that the present one Griffith/Femto joined replaced!

So now, with a part (though far, far from all) of one world-mystery solved, another world-mystery is revealed: Who were the original 4 members of the God Hand, and why did Void apparently replace them with the others seen in Griffith’s ascension? Again, this is certainly a world-mystery, since the God Hand is the collective entity responsible for the development of the world of Berserk‘s history; any changes in its combination would have drastically changed the whole world of the story. And when you haven’t exhausted all the world-mysteries, especially when the original one was more compelling than regular mysteries for the reasons given above, you just have to keep coming back and back again to the stories you’ve been reading, no matter how long they are and no matter how many years they’ve been going.

This, I think, is what’s kept me coming back and back again to both Girl Genius and Berserk, month after month, year after year after year, despite how profoundly different the two stories are. Mysteries alone are compelling enough, but mysteries at the hearts of entire worlds even more so, and when those mysteries unravel into even more mysteries? I just can’t get enough, and I figure a lot of other folks feel the same.

Still, there is a drawback to those sorts of stories…they take a long, long, long time to complete. Girl Genius was technically first released in 2000, but the protagonist had been around as part of a GURPS RPG since 1995, while Berserk is 8 or 9 years older, having begun in 1987. And the longer a story goes on, the greater the risk of the author not being able to finish it for one reason or another 😦 Kentaro Miura died very, very suddenly in early May–from what I understand, it was an “acute aortic dissection;” the sort of thing that’s very hard to predict even if you’re healthy but also almost always fatal, with something like a 90% death rate. And Miura was pretty young, too; only 54 years old. So, like I said earlier, we may never get an answer to the mysteries of the God Hand and their ultimate plans for the world of Berserk. But at least Phil and Kaja Foglio are still around, meaning there’s still hope at least I’ll get to see all of the mysteries of Girl Genius wrapped up. Just pray those two live for a very, very, very long time ;_;

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