30 in 30: Steel Ball Run

1890. The American West. A man realizes his dream of hosting a cross-country race to embrace the “Pioneer Spirit.” The prize? $50,000,000. Competitors from across the globe arrive to challenge one another for riches and glory. Among them are two notable newcomers: a mysterious cowboy who carries strange metal spheres in place of guns, and a young paraplegic boy trying to regain his lost equestrian skill and discover the secret of the cowboy’s spinning technique.

Welcome to a new era of JoJo. Welcome to Steel Ball Run.

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As I briefly touched on last week, Part 7 of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is not a not a direct continuation of the series, like the previous arcs. In fact, according to what I’ve read, when Steel Ball Run was first being printed in Ultra Jump magazine, most readers didn’t even realize it was part of the series until several chapters in! This is because after the events at the end of Stone Ocean, Araki decided to upend his original universe and start fresh. Thus Parts 7 and 8 take place in the “Steel Ball Universe,” as fans have dubbed it – not precisely a cyclical universe, but a parallel, where characters and events are loosely reimagined. It’s confusing in the abstract, so let’s dive into specifics to try and piece it apart.

Let’s start with our main cast, which is considerably smaller, this time around. Our protagonist and JoJo for this outing is one Johnny Joestar, our analog to Jonathan, in a way. Johnny is a 19-year-old from Kentucky, where he grew up rich and learned to be a talented jockey. But his is the story of a fall from grace, as the young Joestar’s life quickly begins to spiral out of control. First, after disobeying his father, Johnny accidentally causes the death of his older brother, Nicholas. Then, after having gained some reputation as a rider, his hubris gets the best of him, and in trying to impress a date, Johnny offends the wrong man outside of a busy theatre and is shot in the back, crippling him for life. With no way to race, his family already having thrown him out, and his fame now receding, he’ll do anything to claw his way back – including tracking down a strange man whose powers seem to give life back to his broken legs. He gains the Stand Tusk, which goes through Acts much like Koichi’s Echoes, and grants him the ability to rotate his fingernails and fire them like bullets, among other uses.

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The man in question? Our first main competitor in the Steel Ball Run race – Gyro Zeppeli. Yes, you read that right. It only took five arcs, but we finally got a successor to the Zeppeli line back in the Jojo universe! And he’s as wacky and lovable as all his predecessors! Gyro is a strong-willed man with a secretive past, and one that I won’t spoil here, as it’s one of the greater parts of the arc. He’s distinctive in many ways, from his wild hair to his tailored beard strips, the steel balls he uses as weapons, or the gold grills on his teeth that read, “GO! GO! ZEPPELI”. Yeah, we’re talking about one wacky dude. But, much like William, Gyro’s oddities hide a deep wisdom and a legendary technique: the Spin, this world’s analogue to Hamon. A technique handed down the Zeppeli family line, by properly rotating an object, the user is able to unleash fantastic power via the Golden Rotation, a concept brought over from the mathematical concept of the Golden Ratio. Gyro is, at first, reluctant to take on an apprentice, but after seeing Johnny’s determination and skill despite his considerable handicaps, the two become fast friends throughout the race, despite also being competition. Gyro doesn’t really have a Stand, but he does temporarily get Ball Breaker, which is sort of a Stand, sort of just a visualization of the purest form of Spin realized… it’s weird… I’ll link a video about it at the end.

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Other major players of note include the race’s patron, Steven Steel, a Civil War veteran and self-made promoter. After sifting around at the bottom of society, he had a dream of making a cross-country race as a publicity stunt, and was eventually approached by a group of men willing to help fund his idea. Steven is a passionate yet anxious man, held together by his young wife, Lucy. He’s mostly a bit-player, but he does create the framework for the story, and weaves in and out as things progress.

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Other major racers include Diego Brando, known commonly as Dio, a well-known jockey from Britain. And, yes, he’s exactly who you think he is. He harbors the same insatiable ambition as our primary-universe counterpart, albeit with a little less evil, this time around. Diego joins the race mostly for personal glory, but also to ensure that he never has to return to the life of poverty he knew growing up. He hates the rest of humanity and rarely works with others except when explicitly necessary, though we do see him team up with Johnny and Gyro a few times during the race when he’s left with no better option. Diego inherits the Scary Monsters Stand, which gives him the ability to turn into a dinosaur-like state, and can also mutate others in a similar fashion, bringing them under his control (although he is rarely seen using this part of the power, so it is debatable whether this aspect is lost when it is transferred from its original owner, Franz Ferdinand).

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The final recurring racer is one Hot Pants, a mysterious figure who joins partway and chases Johnny and Gyro, claiming that they caused a terrible misdead against him earlier in the event. He uses this excuse to trail the two for a ways while seemingly searching after some ulterior motive. His Stand is Cream Starter, a strange canister-like object that allows the user to “spray” either their own flesh or that of someone they are in contact with onto a target, creating tools or bonding agents. It’s horrific in thought, but also highly useful in act.

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So Steel Ball Run has a lot going for it – it’s the first arc in a new series, and also the first run Araki did in a new magazine, meaning he got to bump his page count up to 45 per chapter, giving him a lot more room to breathe. You’ll also notice that his art style improved considerably, becoming much more detailed, which is saying something from a man already putting out such impressive work.

On top of that, you have an intricately layered story: not only are we being introduced to an entirely different world, we’re going through Johnny’s growth to being a better-rounded person, Gyro coming to terms with the sins of his past, the adventure across the Wild American West, a mystery plot about the true intentions of the race… there’s a lot to unload here! And Araki balances it all with stunning aplomb!

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So I’m going to tilt the hand a little bit in order to better explain how masterful this all is. You see, the race isn’t really just to see who can make it cross-country: it’s actually about finding the seven scattered parts of a “Holy Corpse” of a saint lost somewhere across the United States, each of which increase the latent Stand powers when they are absorbed into the body of a host. Because in this universe, you don’t get a Stand via an arrow or bloodline. No, here, it’s (possible) Jesus body or a roving landform known as a Devil’s Palm, which alters your body and soul in such a way to unleash your latent spiritual manifestation. And talking about Corpse Parts and their collection means we need to bring in one last player… This guy:

Funny Valentine

Yes, we cannot talk about Steel Ball Run without discussing our primary antagonist, President Funny Valentine. A man who fully lives up to his titles, it’s revealed that Valentine helped fund the race in secret in order to procure the Holy Corpse Parts in a bid to secure America’s future power. And that’s really his schtick – he’s just a man looking out for the good of kin and country. He’s not a maniacal villain trying to kill people or change the world, he just wants to execute faithfully the duties of his office to the fullest extent of his capabilities… Unfortunately that just puts him at odds with Johnny and Gyro and also means that he’s exploiting and killing plenty of others to get what he needs. But this well-rounded nature plus a clear goal makes him a very well-crafted opposition to our leading crew. Not only that, but if the tables were just a little askew, you could almost see him being the forefront of the story. Funny Valentine is another notch in Araki’s triumphant work, a man who knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to do what it takes to get it.

This is further exemplified through his Stand, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, or D4C for short. This imposing figure harbors an even more impressive power: wherever two objects touch, the Stand can allow Valentine to jump between and cross into an alternate dimension. And not just some Hanged Man-style “mirror world of my own creation” alternate dimension. No, D4C literally takes its user into a parallel world and can bring things back to its own. For instance, Valentine can slide out of his reality, then come back with a fully-loaded revolver in hand and shoot his assailant without warning. And that’s not even getting into the terrors that happen if he brings back an alternate-reality version of an object or person currently near him… D4C is easily one of the most menacing Stands ever conceived, behind only Pucci’s Maid In Heaven and Giorno’s Gold Experience in full Requiem. If this thing can go toe-to-toe with as BS of a Stand as that, you know I’m not screwing around here.

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I could go on and on for ages about this arc. It’s not my favorite, but it’s hands down the best Araki has written to date. What’s even better is the fact that it’s a brand new world, so even people intimidated by the 30-year history of Jojo can jump in without fear and learn the glory for themselves. Sure, you’ll miss out on some in-jokes, and maybe the Stand stuff will fly a bit too fast, but the story is brilliantly paced, the characters are all fantastically realized, and despite it being about a bunch of wacky personalities fighting each other with weird super-ghosts, at its core it’s a story of human experience that anyone can relate to.

Plus, hey, it’s great on comedy and drama, and it’s got both Bowie and Franz Ferdinand references, so what more could you really want?

So seriously, if you’ve been holding out at all on Jojo, I can’t recommend Steel Ball Run enough. Give it a read, and if you like what you’ve found, go back and see where it all started. Plus, that’ll give you a good head start to catching up for us next week, when we finally arrive in the current day as we go back to the future of Morioh-cho! See you there!

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[Oh also here’s that Ball Breaker thing]

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