There is basically nothing in Helck you haven’t seen before. Okay, ringing endorsement over, go ahead and buy the volumes.
…Alright, but seriously, what a thing this is. Helck (ヘルク) is a fantasy manga series written by Nanao Nanaki (七尾ナナキ) that rocketed into a secure position in my top favorite manga without contest and without pause. It’s rather strange, I feel, as there are many things about Helck in concept that I ordinarily have big problems with. So, how did it win me over?
Helck is a very derivative manga, much of its inspiration fairly obviously coming from the Dragon Quest video game series and “battle manga” in general. The series opens up explaining that three months ago, a hero defeated the Demon King and the Human World celebrated a new peace. Now, in the Demon World, a generic fighting tournament is being held to decide who will be the next Demon King. However, the favorite to win the title is not a demon, but the human hero Helck.
This is where Helck begins defying some expectations. Helck is not the standard hero for a Japanese series, instead he is rather typical of Western fantasy — and older Western fantasy at that. He is a massive, muscular, barbarian-looking man who fights with his fists and easily trounces any enemy in battle. What’s more, when interviewed after another effortless win, Helck has this to say:
Helck seems to have it out for humanity.
I should say now, Helck is a funny series. Extremely so. Of course, as with any humor it’s all a matter of taste, but if Helck‘s comedy clicks with you it’s probably going to click with you hard. The higher ups managing the Demon King Tournament do not find Helck’s entry to be funny, and instead are very worried about it, and enraged that he was allowed to enter in the first place. Specifically the person in charge, Red Vamirio of the empire’s “Four Heavenly Kings” finds herself incredibly vexed by Helck’s appearance here.
Armed with explosive anger (literally, as she can create and control flames) and a frown that only ever leaves her face for a smile that isn’t exactly cute, Vamirio and her secretary for the tournament (named Hon) now want him out. In the event that he wins, they’re worried Helck will turn his strength against the demons (who are unsuspecting because they love the guy) and the empire will be in peril. Unfortunately, a magical contract forbids outsiders from harming him (and him from harming outsiders), so they can’t just kill him. What’s more very early on — within the first few pages, in fact — the series introduces “power levels” into the mix: Vamirio’s level is 78, and Helck’s is 99. She stands no chance against him.
So, a hero and a demon king, a fighting tournament, Dragon Quest video-gamey stuff, and power levels, all in about the first five pages; I should hate this series. Honestly, I was not digging the setup for a little bit, but two things pushed me forward. One was that Hon was given a “secretary level” instead of a power level, and that amused me. The other was Helck’s appearance in the tournament and Vamirio’s subsequent extreme reactions to his entry. This sold me pretty much immediately. Helck is shown to be extremely nice and friendly. He always smiles, picks up his opponents when they’ve fallen, literally frolics with other contestants in his downtime, and has earned the trust of nearly the entirety of demonkind, and yet Vamirio remains on the offensive through and through. Even Hon never suspected Helck for a second until Vamirio brought up that bringing a human hero into a tournament to become a Demon King would probably get him reprimanded.
And so, knowing Helck’s fighting prowess is quite literally unmatched, Vamirio and Hon change every proceeding event from a standard battle to something weird. It’s all a riot. The first chapter ends with Hon pulling out a deck of playing cards. I’ve read enough battle manga to expect some sort of complicated nonsense to happen. Maybe the playing cards are special somehow? Perhaps power levels factor in and strengthen the cards? Will it be a strange game of some kind? No, they’re just going to make everyone build card towers and Hon declares he will make Helck’s cards slippery. Building a tower means you move on. Wait, really? That simple?
Every round is basically something like this; card tower, a weird race, cooking, and so on. I expected a standard fight after fight scenario, and instead I got wacky hijinks. This was perfect and just what I needed. I’ve read tournament arcs before, so the complete avoidance of what’s usual for these things was great. Furthermore, even within rigged contests, Helck always won, demonstrating that he was actually absurdly perfect not just as a fighter, but as a cook and even a sculptor. This kept me laughing all the way through. I found myself falling in love with the series, and I was only four chapters in.
But it wasn’t just the fun stuff that had my interests piqued. Early on, Helck introduces the first of what will be three storylines in the series. The character pictured above is Asuta (spy level: 55), and she briefly hints at a darker tone in Helck. She was sent into the Human World by Vamirio to gather intelligence on Helck, but the human settlements she stumbles upon have no people in them at all. Still, she does learn something about the strange hero, but I won’t say what it is here. More on her later.
What I will say is that near the tournament’s end, two things are made known. First, between rounds of the tournament, Vamirio shows to be more than a joke character who rages and calls people “stupiiiid”. After ripping a poster from a wall featuring demons Helck knocked out early on, she calms down and repairs the sheet, explaining clearly that all her bluster is from genuine concern over the people of the empire. She really does not believe Helck can be trusted.
The second is that a castle within the Demon World has suddenly fallen to winged beings coming from the Human World. From here, the series begins to shift. A second Heavenly King, Azudora, comes to Vamirio and suggests the final round of the tournament be the reclamation of the recently fallen castle. If Helck fights alongside them against what seems to be the human army, he can probably be trusted. Vamirio joins the finalists of the tournament to journey on to the castle “disguised” as a staffer named Anne, and they move to confront the strange beings.
Prior to this and ever afterward, Helck suggests that there are worrying things within it hidden from both the reader and the characters. For all of Vamirio’s anger directed at Helck for comedic effect, at times it seems clear that Helck may actually be someone to worry about. The Human World is mysterious, and things about the Demon World are still unknown as of this writing. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the series a mystery, but it’s executed marvelously and in a way that invites surprise. It’s intriguing, and when reveals happen they tend to add a great deal of weight to the story. I said before that Helck is a funny series–I deliberately didn’t say it was a comedy. To call it just a comedy would be disingenuous. Balancing laughs and drama is a struggle for many series, and it can often feel like mood whiplash, but I believe Helck is paced well. When the finalists and “Anne” reach the castle, things are still very lighthearted. Even when they engage the angelic enemies, there is little sense of worry. Then, Helck steps forward.
He faces the leader of the platoon, who takes off his helmet to reveal that he’s human. The two then speak somewhat cryptically, and when another of the finalists moves to kill this person, Helck shouts that they shouldn’t. It’s a sudden turn for a character that seemed to be completely on the side of the demons, and makes you wonder what his true motivations are probably for the first time since he showed up. Soon after this, the series changes in earnest, and the two other storylines of Helck reveal themselves.
Now that I have exceeded the number of words from my first two reviews, let’s talk about what Helck is.
Helck is a battlefront story, a tale of espionage, and an adventure. After some strange things happen during the battle to reclaim the castle, Vamirio and Helck are teleported to an unknown island. This leaves Azudora to command what forces of the empire he can use to fend off the angelic human invaders. Meanwhile, the spy Asuta heedlessly moves deeper and deeper into the land of humans to unearth their plans and secrets, aiding the empire from behind enemy lines. As the manga goes on, we regularly move between these three stories.
Let’s talk about Asuta first and her spying. Well, I say that, but going into detail about her story might reveal too much. Allow me an attempt to speak somewhat vaguely. Asuta is a tomboy catgirl who is under the employ of Red Vamirio of the Four Heavenly Kings, charged with sniffing out information about the Human World all by herself. Her story mostly consists of her talking to herself as a result (although she does have a way to talk with her little sister), and I must say from point one she’s rather charming. This is actually a problem in a sense, though, since Asuta is often placed in some very dangerous situations and has no one helping her at any time. Reading parts of Helck with her as the focus are therefore rather fun, but there’s always a sense that something very bad could happen. Her tendency to be reckless, “for the peace of the empire”, also makes myself and the other characters in the series worry. Nonetheless, I have ultimately found every one of her chapters pleasant.
Secondly I’ll mention the storyline that focuses on the raging war between humans and demons. With hardly any rest, the demons must fend off endless waves of incredibly powerful foes and increasingly problematic monsters that spawn from the land itself. All the while, Azudora desperately tries to find the missing Vamirio and must come up with deceptions and strategies to quell the human threat that becomes more and more dangerous with each passing battle. This is probably the storyline most similar to how the manga starts out, it’s hardly serious at all. So, there’s not too much to say about this portion of Helck. Once more, explaining too much about it would just be no fun.
Lastly, let’s discuss the most important story of all: Helck’s.
When Vamirio arrives on that unknown island, she still doesn’t trust Helck. Now, it should be no surprise that she eventually WILL, but what might actually surprise you is exactly how long that’s going to take. It’s well done, and doesn’t feel like she’s just being bitter and mean (rather, concerned and wary), but you’re going to be wondering just when she’ll have Helck stop calling her “Anne” for a while.
Vamirio and Helck’s stay on the island isn’t for a “while”, though. They actually set off rather quickly, which will come to be something of a trend in this storyline. The end goal for Vamirio and Helck is to return to the empire, especially now that it’s facing a crisis, so it makes sense that they never dally in one place too long. They DO end up seeing quite a few places, however. It turns out they were teleported very far from the empire. Thus, this part of the manga is almost episodic in design. Starting on the island, they will meet the strange inhabitants of various lands, learn those lands’ stories, and help out on occasion when things look bad. While still very funny (this is the part that contains the jokes I laughed at the hardest), this is without a doubt an adventure before a comedy, and a very nice one at that. I know that I’m not the first to call this part of the manga “comfy”, and the paneling used suggests to me that’s just the feeling the mangaka was going for.
Right, I should say that during Vamirio and Helck’s stay on the island, they come across…well, it’s not a bird? It’s some sort of strange creature. A mascot character? So, this is what brings the series down, huh?
After leaving that island, the party is increased by one with the addition of Piuy/Piwi, a blatant mascot character. I usually hate these. Frankly, I couldn’t name a good mascot character if you offered to eliminate my student loans. Or, well, I couldn’t before reading Helck, but Piuy is just amazing. Piuy is not some cutesy character that has an odd verbal tick. He’s cute, yes, but he lacks the aspects of the typical mascot character that just make you groan. Surprisingly, Piuy is really deadpan, and quite often. Also, he can be a bit dumb and he’s honest without hesitation, but if something’s actually dangerous he’ll make himself scarce and if he can help out in a situation he’ll help out. Just looking at him makes me laugh. He has a habit of shouting “hello!” to new faces with a bit of a stutter and…well goodness, I just think he’s great. A+, congratulations and well done, Nanao-sensei.
There is not one single character I do not like (villains aside) in Helck. The world is inhabited by a bunch of weirdos (both weird-looking and with weird habits) and the vast majority are incredibly friendly. The demon world in particular seems to be almost exclusively comprised of quirky, fun-loving, big hearted folk. While Vamirio is not what I’d call fun-loving, the big heart still applies to her. I won’t say Vamirio grows as a character in this series, but I will say that that doesn’t make her bad in the slightest. It is my strong and obviously factual opinion that static characters are sometimes the best in fiction. Vamirio never really changes from the start, what changes is what we know about her. Her putting back up a poster she tore down was just the start. As the story continues, we see that Vamirio may in fact be THE most compassionate and caring character in the series, having a powerful sense of camaraderie, loyalty, and justice; and having that revealed to you — seeing the cuter and gentler aspects of her personality beneath her permanent glare — is just wonderful.
And of course there’s Helck himself. Helck’s character is a similar case to Vamirio’s, except he most definitely does change. Also, there is definitely more to him than the surface-level smiling muscle-man. Helck is not simple; this is made clear early on by other characters with good intuition, but the full breadth of his character is not handed to us all at once. Like Vamirio, it takes us a while to really get to know him, and once we do a lot of things about him start to make sense. Helck is a standout protagonist for every reason, and I appreciate that he exists. It’s also definitely worth noting that he’s not invincible, and he can be hurt. Seeing his travels and learning his story is nothing short of moving.
And on that note, I’ll begin to wrap up. Helck is ultimately a really well done series. I would not call it perfect and I definitely don’t believe it’s for everyone, but I believe with my heart of hearts that it is all executed marvelously. Helck will make you laugh, make you cry, make you laugh after you cry, cry after that, and make you laugh so much you’re left in tears; Nanao Nanaki-sensei knows how to bring forth the right emotion on any page. While I’d say this series’ art is far from the best, it’s my opinion that the author still conveys action and dramatic moments superbly. The fights are hype and the somber scenes feel deep. There is also no fanservice (sexualization of characters) in Helck. If you’ve read a lot of manga or watched a lot of anime, you should know that that is INCREDIBLY rare. I actually like fanservice myself, for the most part, but I definitely have respect for a series that doesn’t try to sell itself with sex. Furthermore, no chapter of Helck feels lacking in content, and this is even including the very many that switch perspective and storyline partway through. This is definitely a well-crafted series.
I love Helck. I love, love, LOVE Helck. Helck fills me with a sense of adventure, brings a big smile to my face, and makes me emotional. I am so glad someone told me about this series. Helck is the reason I decided to write reviews. I have a lot to say about it, and other series, and I want to just dump loads of text on the Internet to that effect. I look forward to it every week, I’m buying the volumes from Japan (which, by the way, are a delightful example of having omake pages (extra pages) that are actually significant, rather than just silly extra comics), I’m all in. I’m eager to see where the adventure takes us, and perhaps anything beyond (there are quite a few hints that the story won’t be over when the angelic humans are dealt with). What a fine series. Read it, and see if you like it.