Ah, there’s nothing like the Old West. Saloons, cattle rustling, shootouts at high noon, gambling, a president that can make clones of himself, the scattered remains of a holy man, global conspiracies…..wait a minute, what?
I think that’s a good way to sum up Steel Ball Run, a very, very odd Japanese comic book series by author Hirohiko Araki- who is better known for his cult classic action manga JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and also for seeming to never age (seriously, the dude’s 50-something now and he doesn’t look a day over 27). I’m going by a fan translation as it has yet to be officially released in America, and I can attest it has all of the trademark elements of the JoJo universe in tact despite the change in setting. This includes the flamboyant character designs, innovative but extremely violent battles, politically incorrect humor and themes of perseverance that Araki is often known for.
(For the record, all of the preview images in this review are meant to be read from right to left.)
Our story revolves around a cross country horse race from San Diego to New York City for a $50,000,000 cash prize arranged by Stephen Steel, an eccentric rich guy with a jagged looking bowl cut and a 14-year old wife named Lucy. Everyone in the story understandably finds their marriage incredibly creepy, but there’s a reason as to how that came to be that’s revealed later.
The main character is Gyro Zeppeli, a swaggering cowboy originally from Italy who worked as a Vatican guard. Hoping to pay off the bail of a wrongfully imprisoned child with the winnings, he enters the race armed with a set of steel balls he can throw at astonishing bullet like speeds, often with results beyond human. His partner is one Johnny Joestar, a former hotshot jockey crippled from the waist down after taking a bullet. After touching one of Gyro’s balls (this comic’s not exactly subtle with the innuendo), he regains a slight amount of feeling in his legs and then follows Gyro into the contest in an attempt to discover their secret. Eventually he develops his own special skill, involving his fingernails.
Diego “Dio” Brando, an arrogant British racer (based on the main villain from the third JoJo storyarc) serves as their primary opposition, eventually getting involved with the villainous masterminds behind the race. However, he eventually starts to wonder if he’s bit off more than he can chew (and with his powers, let’s just say he most definitely can “chew”) . Other competitors include Pocoloco, the goofy son of a sharecropper who mostly relies on the luck provided by his stand power, “Hey Ya!”, and Sandman, a Native American who can outrun most horses on foot.
In truth, the Steel Ball Run race is actually a cover for a hunt for the ancient mummified remains of a great historical figure (I won’t say who it is, because it becomes pretty apparent over time), which provide those who find them with superpowers. It’s all initiated by Funny Valentine, the vain and egotistical President of the United States, aiming to use them to turn America into a global power. His stand ability, as is par for the course with Araki’s works, is extremely powerful, rather creative and provides our heroes with a lot of frustration and bloodshed. Throughout all this, his perfectly curled hair is almost never mussed.
Yeah, for some reason he’s really big on “napkin” analogies.
SBR’s story unfolds at a decent pace both by manga or any standard, and Araki tries to be a little more philosophical with characters having discussions on the nature of good and evil during the races and battles. There’s a very appealing naivety to the whole thing, even with the massive amount of gore and trash talking, and in his typical fashion many characters and “stands” (psychic entities that assist our gang of weirdos in their fights) are named after American music acts or films.
Like most of the JoJo stories from Part 3 onward, the art is masterfully good. It’s spearheaded by some very off kilter, often glam rock influenced characters with some clever details (Johnny’s stars and stripes attire, Valentine’s vaguely Victorian/powdered wig appearance). In fact, as Araki’s style has evolved, it barely looks like manga anymore, appearing more like an American comic book at times. His sense of movement and perspective is wild and may take the uninitiated some getting used to, but for the most part it’s not too hard to pick up on things. If I had one minor complaint though, it would be that sometimes the facial expressions on the characters are a bit passive, as Araki occasionally seems focused on making his cast look badass and attractive as opposed to reacting properly to situations. For example, take Mountain Tim here, a rancher with the ability to turn himself into a human lasso.
Still, that’s not to say Araki isn’t capable of making his characters look lively anymore, as you can see by this little exchange on a random song Gyro comes up with to pass the time.
Steel Ball Run is probably the epitome, or at least the manga epitome, of the “weird west” genre. Underneath all of the graphic action, constantly twisting plot, insane concepts and over-the-top “fabulousness” of the visuals, there’s a surprising amount of humor and heart to it. If you can saddle up and find a decent translation, it’s well worth a peek. Just be prepared for a lot, and I mean a lot, of strangeness.