I’ve been excited to talk about Goblin Slayer for months. Now that the anime version is finally exploding onto our screens I’m pleased that an appropriate moment has arrived, because it’s something that merits a proper introduction as the circumstances surrounding Goblin Slayer are an interesting story on top of the actual title itself.
Goblin Slayer began as a light novel in February 2016, but it was only noticed in the English-speaking world when we saw the manga version. This started up soon afterwards with a serialisation in Monthly Big Gangan in May the same year and it was snapped up by Yen Press for its “simulpub” digital manga service, like Crunchyroll’s ‘simulcasting’ releasing chapters individually for online download concurrently with their publication in Japan, rather than waiting multiple months for a tankobon to emerge. While it seems clear that Goblin Slayer was planned from the outset to be a high-profile title that could expect to get a marketing push – that the light novel and manga came out so closely together at least suggests they were developed concurrently – I don’t think that Yen Press here or Softbank & Square Enix in Japan (publishers of the light novel and manga respectively) quite anticipated just how their fantasy slasher was going to blow up into such a massive sensation. Yes, busty bishoujo babes flash their nipples in Goblin Slayer and yes, there’s plenty of cool splattering gore, but simple sexiness alone doesn’t explain why Goblin Slayer caught so many people’s attention. After all, you can get even more blood and boobs in Yen Press’s other dark fantasy Ubel Blatt, which has sex and decapitations galore and has already been in UK bookstores for years (currently up to Omnibus Vol. 10, in fact) and yet that title is so low-key and anonymous that not even the Anime News Network has been reviewing recent releases.
The secret to Goblin Slayer’s success, at least here out West, is almost preternaturally good timing. The Goblin Slayer manga came out when the hype for the 2016 remake of classic videogame FPS Doom was at its height – and the image of the Goblin Slayer, a rage-consumed faceless force ripping’n’tearing through hordes of vile creatures, was immediately compared to the Doom Slayer of the videogame giving the masters of Hell a twelvebore mouthwash. The hero of Goblin Slayer was thus taken to the internet’s heart and meme’d into “Fantasy Doomguy”, brutalising monsters and demons to the rockin’ clash of heavy metal. On the power of this image Goblin Slayer went straight for the jugular and like a spurt of arterial spray exploded into an outright multimedia franchise. Not only do we have the anime version but it’s also supporting no less than four other spin-offs - prequel series Goblin Slayer: Year One (both as a light novel and as a manga itself) and gaiden manga Goblin Slayer: Brand New Day, along with a series of audio dramas bundled with later volumes of the original light novel as a promotional lead-up to the anime’s release. Goblin Slayer has been riding the zeitgeist and with now seven different ways to experience its story it’s a wave that currently shows no sign of washing out. Whether Goblin Slayer will continue to ride high or soon wipe out, no-one can deny that it’s made a splash.
In a world where the gods play dice with human lives, monsters and demons of all kinds rove the lands and terrorise the people. Adventurers hunt these evil beings and kill them both to protect the innocent from their predations, and claim a tidy profit from the bounties. This means that the most experienced and powerful adventurers are only interested in hunting big game with hefty payouts – stuff like brawny minotaurs and mighty dragons – while the meanest monsters, the goblins, are seen as little more than minor irritants, pests only worth purse-change far beneath their notice, leaving them to low-level novice adventurers to handle.
Sadly, most newbies are brashly overconfident and the goblins’ reputation as the most pathetic and insignificant monster in the beastiary causes many new adventuring parties to fatally underestimate them. Goblins may be mere pests, but that also means that they possess rat-like verminous instinct. Animalistic and sadistic, the only thing that grants them joy is torturing others, and they are a parasitic race with no females of their own that multiply their horde by abducting and polluting women with their vile seed. Many a young have-a-go heroine who wanted to show off that she was as tough as the boys and thought that tipping over a goblin den would be as simple as scaring crows off the farm has understood her gross folly far too late. If you get overrun by goblins, you can only pray they don’t take you alive!
One adventurer who knows this all too well is the man known only as Goblin Slayer. He’s a high-level, senior adventurer, but whereas many of his peers have moved on to join the army to find gold, girls and glory fighting the Demon Lord, he’s remained behind to grind in the starting zones, fulfilling his title by dedicating his entire life to the filthy, unedifying business of Slaying Goblins. As a child he bore witness to the base depravity of goblins when his village was destroyed in a goblin raid and he saw his entire family get raped to death in front of him – and he has devoted the rest of his existence with an all-consuming mentalists’ obsession with uprooting goblin infestations wherever they are found and ultimately purging the entire wretched race with righteous xenocide. Most senior adventurers are entirely blasé about and indifferent towards the sufferings of their juniors in the Adventurers’ Guild – the odd total-party-kill helps to winnow out the chaff in an overstaffed industry – and Goblin Slayer is one of the few who can mentor them. However, with his mechanistic, almost robotic fixation on doing nothing but terminating greenskins those adventurers who fall in behind him need to work around him rather than with him, and they still have the odds stacked against their survival in a dangerous world.
This review is going to take something of a different approach than others – Goblin Slayer is one of the big tentpole titles of this season and there will be many other people keeping time with the story beats themselves. It will suffice to say here that I thoroughly enjoyed it. The comparisons drawn to the heavy metal power of Doom are apt and they are based on more than just the happenstance of their neighbouring release dates - Goblin Slayer feels like a metal album scored out on paper, and headbanging lets you hit the manga's battles fully frontal. For as Sabbat howled in 1987's "Blood for the Blood God":
From their holes and caverns deep
Ten million Orc and Goblin feet
With hungry hearts, and sharpened knives,
They come to take
Furious, intense, shameless, iconoclastic, but giving you more than just punk's hammering indignation with a melodic, symphonic structure to it as well to make it more than just angry raving, reflected in the quieter moments of serenity that Goblin Slayer features - there's an ugly dark undercurrent to life, but one side of the coin does mean that there's another brighter one too that isn't invalidated for the mere existence of the other. I would certainly recommend Goblin Slayer as an adult dark fantasy that’s not your common-or-garden dungeon crawl: flinty and hard-edged, taut and coiled, and like the demonic creatures that it is mired in presents guises that are once seductive and then transgressive. A bleak setting on its own though might just be dismissed as a Berserk knock-off, so what makes Goblin Slayer particularly striking is that it features a hero who is insane. Literally, clinically insane.
Now my synopsis of Goblin Slayer in the previous paragraphs probably came across as that of the typical fanfic-tier edgelord, the grimdark backstory for an adolescent “pshht, nothin’ personal, kid” OC donut steel goth teleporting behind you with a Matrix trenchcoat and a Bleach katana. I ask you however to read past the summary into the manga itself and try him out. Goblin Slayer stands apart from other tragic-past also-rans because you see that he is someone who really cannot function as an ordinary human and views the world through a warped, cracked lens where the reflections are all splintered and sharp. He does not hunker down in a corner of the tavern broodily sulking about how no-one understands him – he enters the guildhall, grabs a goblin-hunting quest off the jobs board, goes back out again, comes back dripping in viscera, grabs another goblin quest and goes straight back out, like a peon in Warcraft moving between the logging camp and the town hall. He has almost been lobotomised. Conversations with other characters are a distraction and he needs to visibly exert himself to draw his mind away from goblins and participate in these discussions with clumsily incapable persuasion. The story doesn’t always take full advantage of the pit of Goblin Slayer’s obsession – one somewhat disappointing missed opportunity comes in Vol. 2 of the manga when he is confronted by an ogre; Goblin Slayer needs relatively little prompting to attack him, when it would have been a definitive statement on his insanity for him to turn his back on something that isn’t a goblin and abandon his team-mates to go searching for leftover greenskins. However, by and large it is dramatically apparent that Goblin Slayer is broken down and in front of you is rubble.
Beyond that defining characteristic to separate Goblin Slayer from the mass of other fantasy manga, I want this review to incorporate a more holistic appreciation of the various forms of Goblin Slayer. While this is titled as a review of a manga version, as I said in the introduction it’s only one part of a larger franchise, and the version variety makes you think about the quality of adaptations. I’m considering volumes one to three of the manga here as a single unit as it covers an equivalent amount of story to volume one of the light novel, making an equal story arc for a more even comparison.
The received wisdom about adaptation is that the comic version will inevitably be an inferior, more superficial experience to the prose original, sacrificing depth, detail and subtlety for visual frippery and truncated speech-bubbles. Some years ago, when the BBC launched its The Big Read project to assemble the country’s 100 favourite books, there was a great deal of handwringing that the exercise did precious little to get our fellow Britons actually reading and only caused an increase of purchase of the movie adaptations instead. Even further back than that in junior school when you’d get the Scholastic Book Club catalogue once a term the ‘Easy’ books were the ones with pictures and the ‘Hard’ books were all words. The comic exists as a simple summary to try and get uneducated kids experiencing a story; the pictures a substitute for those who lack the imagination to visualise the text themselves. Goblin Slayer thus fascinates me because I judge its manga to be an adaptation that runs counter to the above assumptions; it is not only a viable alternative but actively superior to the original book on which it’s based.
For a start, the art from Kousuke Kurose is simply just objectively better! And not only because the manga girls get their tits out.
There has been quite some pearl-clutching among anime commentators about the impoliticness of the Goblin Slayer anime; and I’m also not especially a fan of the show either, but not because it ain’t woke but more because it’s plain cheap. It came across clearly in Episode 2 where we first encounter the Sorceress character: in the manga, she’s a slender slinky slippery sinuous silken svelte siren whose smooth skin is perpetually in a state of sliding out of a costume as wavy as the smoke from her kiseru pipe – the anime just taped a couple of melons to her chest and called it a day. Fighter gets thrown into the wall when she's caught by a hobgoblin - in the manga it's a wincing, bone-crunching slamming impact but in the anime it's a slow, almost casual swing that probably needed fewer keyframes. I get the sense that the anime was rushed out to meet a deadline. The illustrations in the light novel also feel basic – chintzy, gaudy and bright, they look acutely like last-generation videogame models.
The manga contrasts with this starkly. Far more effort than was needed has been put into this story and that palpable belief in the project elevates the whole experience. There is a much more atmosphere, detail and texture in the art – lower goblins are mangy, liver-spotted, diseased and repellent while muscles of the goblin lords are granite-taut, tightly corded with knotted veins for bound power to be unleashed; Goblin Slayer’s armour is as scuffed, chipped and dinted with grit caked into the grooves and scrapes as his lifetime of scrabbling through lairs suggests; combat is wince-inducingly violent with blood-splatter as if the artist was himself stabbing the page with his pen and whiplashing ink across it; shadows are a stygian void through which grim, imperturbable figures loom…and yes, the girls do have lusciously languid lickable curves. The light novel tries to be circumspect about what’s going on with the goblins, only ever referring to it euphemistically or indirectly: that irritates me as a reader as it just seems craven, as though the book is embarrassed by its own concept and is trying to have its cake and eat it by wanting to have us gripped by high-stakes danger without ever following-through on the threat. There’s really only one occasion where the light novel’s self-censorship is preferred – when the Guild Girl offers an unusually large bounty for goblins, the text dryly remarks that she must have been engaging in some intense persuasion to get her guild boss to agree (if you know what I mean), but the manga omits the reference altogether which loses you a wry chuckle. In other more violent scenes you can call it exploitative if your reputation demands it but no-one can criticise the manga for the defiance of going all-in on how monsters are monstrous.
To digress for a paragraph, it makes you wonder about the hypocrises of why some stories get a pass and others don't. I've been reading Made in Abyss at the same time as Goblin Slayer and that's not received nearly so much opprobrium, despite the fact that its content could be even worse - not only recurrent child nudity but explicit torture and outright sexual abuse (tying children up publicly naked is a common punishment for unruly kids). The 2017 anime version was even widely praised as one of the best shows of last year, and while the Made in Abyss anime had some censorship so has the anime of Goblin Slayer but it hasn't stopped the bien-pensants canting about how problematic it is. It seems that Made in Abyss wins an indulgence from our moral guardians because of its colourful, detailed and imaginative depiction of an alien world whereas Goblin Slayer is treated more harshly as an outwardly generic medieval fantasy that has less ancillary detail to embed it in. It's like how I can go to the city art gallery in my home town of Manchester to see the full-body nude of Hacker's Syrinx and that is capital-A Art they take school trips to gawk at, but if I opened up The Sun to appreciate the natural human form of its Page Three Girl that's tawdry chauvinism. The level of effort invested in the depiction of the work appears to be a direct coefficient of whether its immoral sequences are seen as cheap visceral cash-ins or meaningful emotive statements; in which case even if you think that the Goblin Slayer anime is lowbrow you have to admit that the splendid high quality and moody atmospherics of the art of the Goblin Slayer manga definitely earns its praise.
Having the manga come after the light novel has also given Kousuke Kurose more time to reflect on and punch up original author Kumo Kagyu’s manuscript. There are multiple script adjustments throughout the manga, near-universally improvements. Events are more plausible – for instance, the initial attack on the goblins in the opening chapters, which is treated as a textbook exhibition of all the rookie split-the-party errors that freshman adventurers make, the errors they make have changed. In the light novel the adventurers get surrounded when the goblins tunnel behind them; in the manga their eagerness to penetrate the central nest and rescue the captives causes them to pass by side-passages which the goblins use to encircle them. The manga version at once makes more sense – the adventurers aren’t deaf, even the most inexperienced greenhorn would have been able to hear the sounds of heavy mining – while also through the adventurers’ own unforced error of failing to reconnoitre properly emphasises the fatal foolishness that’s the purpose of the sequence. The manga thus makes the story’s point better than the book itself.
Dialogue is more expressive too. I won’t give details here because they need to be seen to be believed, but Goblin Slayer comes out with some head-spinningly stupendous, blindingly deadpan one-liners pithily summing-up the action that will rock you back on your heels and tip you off your chair – and they were complete inventions for the manga too! Goblin dialogue in the light novel is also a bit comically silly for what are meant to be threatening evils – they’re written out in the text as going “GAOOO! GAR GAR!” like hooting monkeys – while the manga gives them speech bubbles filled with stormy swirls of incomprehensible but twisted tongues.
On the topic of art, the manga also gives the lie to the assumption about adaptations that comic art is necessarily less meaningful than the written word. Whether it’s the fault of Kumo Kagyu’s manuscript or Kevin Steinbach’s translation I’m unsure, but wherever it came from the published product of the light novel suffers from very simplistic, inexpressive writing. A key example is a dungeon crawl in Vol. 2 of the manga when Goblin Slayer and some allies are slitting the throats of a mob of drugged goblins. One character in the light novel assigns this slaughter the stupefyingly banal caption of “When they call the battlefield a sea of blood, they aren’t kidding” – in the manga however, her silently hollow and unblinking thousand-yard stare as she sets to grinding out the grisly task is infinitely more affecting. Another one is a section detailing the backstory of the goblin lord leading the army at the book’s climax. As a snotling he was spared by an adventurer who lets him off a ludicrously matronly finger-wagging “he’s just a child” as though it was of no more consequence of being caught with the cookie jar; the manga sensibly cuts this toweringly stupid and tone-deaf line and expands on it with a multi-page sequence that reads like a grotesque, corrupting, horrifying inversion of the Ascent Of Man sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey – instead of raising a bone which transforms into a spaceship, this Descent Of Monster raises a stone and brings it down as a club, for a much heavier impact.
The manga of Goblin Slayer has also successfully made me reassess my established policy of ‘more is more’. I’ve written before about how I dislike cuts, and want to maximise content as more bang for your buck, but I have to admit that the manga’s edits make it more lean and mean. The light novel has some “interlude” sequences where other adventurers are interviewed about their thoughts on Goblin Slayer, as well as a side-story which contrasts with Goblin Slayer’s grimdark campaign with a Chosen One Of The Light (with a suspicious resemblance to the archetypal flight-of-fantasy girl herself, Haruhi Suzumiya – no really, look at the illustration in the light novel) having an explicitly anime-style heroic triumph over the Demon Lord. These are also cut completely from the manga and to be honest Goblin Slayer is better for it – the interviews full of adoring praise made Goblin Slayer come across as a Gary Stu, whereas the extreme giggling difference in tone between the trope-filled Haruhi quest and Goblin Slayer’s trope-breaking excursion was patronisingly didactic.
There’s also an interesting change of perspective that comes from altering the framing of the story. “A world where the gods play dice with human lives” was not just for effect – characters are only known by their class (Elf Archer, Lizardman Shaman etc.) because they are literally just playing pieces in a cosmic game. The light novel book-ends the action with references to the game of the gods, but the manga drops the prologue and doesn’t mention the gods until tying off the story arc at the end of volume 3. The light novel makes Goblin Slayer seem more dimunitive – even if he’s a min-maxed rules-lawyering twinked-out grognard he’s still been part of the game from the start – whereas the small change of the manga has far-reaching consequences, making Goblin Slayer seem even more significant as if his Herculean efforts break him out of his dimensional confines to elevate himself to the gods’ attention.
Finally, as we’ve been talking about different editions of Goblin Slayer there also needs to be a thought about its publication style. I’ve been reading printed volumes of the manga but as mentioned earlier Goblin Slayer is a marquee title for Yen Press’s e-publishing service. While admittedly simulpublishing was essential to Goblin Slayer’s early success – it needed to sting people with the buzz of Doom and the moment would have passed if we had to wait for the tankobon – personally I’m not a fan of the scheme. There may be a wait of many months between full volumes which may only come out two or three times a year, but at least you are getting a satisfyingly meaty chunk of story all at once. Even if chapter-by-chapter simulpublishing is technically more frequent it actually feels soooooo muuuuucccchhh slooooooooower because you’re just about getting back into the swing of a story when the chapter ends, the brakes slam on and you lose even more momentum again, the stop-start experience becoming exasperating. Western comics publishers – Marvel, DC, Image and so on – frequently struggle with the “wait for trade” mindset, where tens of thousands of wasted copies of the monthly ‘floppies’ go unsold because many readers would rather wait six months for a greater convenience of the trade paperback collection instead of sorting piles of individual instalments. Simulpublishing risks the exact same attitude being contracted in manga too: while simulpublishing worked for Goblin Slayer as an individual title that may not repeat for others and I’d rather Yes Press not waste resources on single chapter updates.
That a wait for a new chapter is frustrating though shows how attractive the story is when you’re impatient for more. Goblin Slayer has been an absorbing read throughout, and my only concerns with it looking to the future is that its sharp edges get worn down over time – I earnestly hope that Kumo Kagyu gets to retain his distinctive voice that has so enhanced the manga experience and that editorial doesn’t yank his chain back and tie him down to a straight copy of the light novel; and I am worried that as he ‘heals’, Goblin Slayer’s insanity will get toned down so far that he loses the memorable core of his character, as there were some displeasing signs of that in volumes two and three. That will be for the future, though – for now, I eagerly agree that real passion has been invested in making the mini-trilogy of Vols. 1-3 of the Goblin Slayer manga a thrilling dark fantasy adventure.