JoJo's Bizarre Adventure has only recently experienced a big boom over in the English-speaking parts of the world, due to the recent anime adaptation taking off in a big way, and beforehand was merely a cult series with a small but devoted fanbase. However, in Japan, it has been huge for a very long time - it's tremendous influence spans to everything from Hunter X Hunter to Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei, and it still stands as the 9th longest manga of all time, and still going. And through all this (well-deserved) attention and acclaim, it's pretty easy to forget that this, where it all began, really just isn't very good.
The story begins in England, during the 1800s. It opens with a petty thief, Dario Brando, attempting to rob a fallen carriage and the dead nobles inside. However, it turns out that the noble in question survived - and thinks that Dario saved his life. Many years later, after Dario's death, he repays what he thinks he owes Dario by taking in his son, Dio Brando. Dio is incredibly embittered by his life in the slums and his abusive father... and upon meeting Jonathan "JoJo" Joestar, the son of the noble Dario supposedly saved, he begins to take it out on him and attempt to ruin Jonathan's life.
It's obvious that a premise like that couldn't possibly launch 107 volumes (and counting), so to say the least, the plot goes to very, VERY different places as it progresses. The strife between Jonathan and Dio doesn't last that long, relatively speaking, but it does feel pretty long at the time - it takes almost two volumes before the supernatural aspect takes over the plot. Much as I can appreciate that it doesn't baby the viewer by introducing the entire premise as fast as possible (as shonen series are oft to do), the beginning can be a real struggle to get through.
It isn't helped by how generally appalling the art is art first. By the end of this arc, it's passable, but at the very beginning, body proportions are appalling (the 12-year old Dio and Jonathan look like bodybuilders), the anatomy is ridiculous, lines are far too thick and cartoony-looking, and darker pages are very hard to follow due to how unclear and smudged-looking everything becomes. In this day and age Araki Hirohiko is one of the best artists in the business, but looking back on this you'd be hard-pressed to believe it.
While the slow start is definitely the biggest flaw with Phantom Blood, it's far from the only one. The rest of the series is littered with a number of small issues that collectively build up into something very problematic. Perhaps the most obvious is Jonathan Joestar himself. I haven't said much about him thus far in this review, and there's a very simple reason for that - there isn't much to say. The "JoJo" in the title is something of a legacy character, passing onto a new character every arc, and Jonathan is arguably the worst, and definitely the least interesting. He's little more than a generic noble and chivalrous shonen hero, complete with idiotic idealism. To make matters worse, every single fight in the series revolves around him. This is especially irritating, because his comrades, Will Zeppeli and Robert E.O. Speedwagon (I'm not making this up, that's actually his name) are actually interesting characters, and yet fail to be anything more than likeable because of how much Jonathan hogs the spotlight.
And now, I'll stop beating up on Phantom Blood, because for all it's faults there are still plenty of things it does right.
The first, and most obvious, is Dio Motherfucking Brando (expletive sorely needed). Don't get me wrong - he's not a deep character by any means. His utter nefariousness is given little reason, and his Freudian excuse does very little to explain his behaviour. He is completely, atrociously, unspeakably evil, and pretty one-dimensional for it. However, once he gains vampire powers, Dio becomes mind-bogglingly fun to watch. Perhaps the best thing about him is that unlike so many other shonen villains, Dio does not fuck around. Whether he's using his newfound superstrength to chase his Jonathan by digging his feet into the walls, or digging an entire, intact artery out of Jonathan's neck and playing with it just to let him known how easily he could kill him on the spot, Dio is unflinchingly brutal in the most disturbing, almost playful way.
And while Dio is the patron saint of this (for Phantom Blood at least), this is the key strength of Phantom Blood and one of the key strengths of JJBA as a whole - it does not pull a single punch. Looking at other shonen series after reading JJBA, it's remarkable how much the characters use their powers in utterly pedestrian and obvious ways. Let's face it - if you had anything that extraordinary, one of the first things you'd do is find out how many ways you can use it. And this is something Araki seems to truly understand - what with not only the enourmous variety of vampiric techniques that go above and beyond the generic bloodsucking bat-transforming fodder you'd usually see. Much as the setting owes itself to classic vampire horror, the vampires themselves are wholly original (Battle Tendency would later elaborate on why). Similarly, the Hamon technique (often translated as "Ripple") that the protagonists use is a wonderful slice of applied pseudoscience, effectively using breathing techniques to channel the energies of the sun, and playing around with a wonderful variety of ways to channel and conduct it.
Finally, the cherry on top is of course the naming conventions. By this point you'd have to be blind, dense, or just plain unfamiliar with rock music in it's entirety to have not noticed Araki's love for music. Almost every character is named after some sort of band or musician - JoJo himself is a reference to a certain Beatles song, Dio is named for the small man with the big voice himself, and hilariously, there is actually a character named Robert E.O. Speedwagon (as mentioned before). Then there's a pair of Hamon disciples named Dire and Straights, trained under master Ton Petti, a quartet of vampires named Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham... the list goes on. It's a colourful little addition that makes for a nice finishing touch.
So for all that... Phantom Blood is a heavily flawed manga. However, it has numerous redeeming features in of itself, and more importantly, it's the weakest arc by far - not to mention the shortest. Phantom Blood clocks in at a meagre 5 volumes, far less than most arcs. And as it is immediately followed by what is one of if not THE best of the arcs, any patience you're willing to exercise with Phantom Blood will soon be rewarded.
Final Words: Has plenty of issues but it's one hell of a worthy investment.
For fans of: Fist of the North Star, Toriko.