It is a rule of the internet that, when a fandom is taken too seriously, it will develop its own special brand of self-mockery. But how does that happen exactly? In the case of dark fantasy manga Berserk's 26-year-old fandom, it happened when the stale franchise's subreddit fell into the hands of an over-pious fan. When that self-mockery took form, it congealed into /r/Berserk's shitposting offspring, /r/Berserklejerk. Illustration by Sam Woolley
A primer: /r/Berserk is dedicated to Berserk, the chronicles of the one-eyed mercenary Guts as he cuts through his haunted past with the enormous bastard sword Dragonslayer. Demons, graphic violence, transgressive sexual behaviour and over a thousand dead bodies have established the manga as one of the darkest of all time. Its medieval, Christian-tinged landscape is ripe for exploring questions of morality and sacrifice. With 38 manga volumes, a '90s anime series, three movies, a video game and a new 2016 anime, fans have been asking those questions since 1989.
On /r/Berserk, Redditors debate weighty topics such as the depiction of religion or duality of evil in the series. And, with increasing intensity, they do it and have done it, at length, for over two decades. (Lately, they also post about developments in Berserk, which is recently flush with new content). Even the most devout Berserk fans have come to call the community a "circle jerk", referring to the Reddit trope that over-earnest subreddits often devolve into caricatures of themselves. Thus: /r/Berserklejerk, the fandom's freak cousin, a non-stop trickle of unintelligible posts and tasteless memes that run contrary to the spirit of Berserk:
"dis has to be bumserk refren," reads one post.
"i kild fitty men," reads another.
/r/Berserklejerk is the scum that aggregated above a stagnant content pond, a loving but irreverent tribute to a fiercely traditionalist fandom. Compared to Berserk's 20,000-strong subreddit, /r/Berserklejerk's 1600 regular posters are but a small, derpy army. But the bubbling-over of Berserk's grave, esoteric culture into /r/Berserklejerk is an interesting lesson in how one fan community has made something new out of decades of frustrated fandom.
Berserk fans are passionate, in part because they have to be. True devotees have stuck with Berserk through the manga's significant and unpredictable delays, ranging from several months to years. During one of those manga breaks in 2015, WalterBennet, 35, was tapped to mod /r/Berserk. WalterBennet is known among the community for his conservative approach to the series -- he can quote the manga by memory, and often does when fan speculation deviates at all from the original material, which was being sparsely released during his mod-ship. Since 2000, he's been in charge of SkullKnight.net, one of the biggest and most devoted Berserk fan communities. His reign on /r/Berserk, which ended last June, was certainly memorable.
"I'm kind of authoritative," WalterBennet explained to me over Skype. "Most people who read Berserk have read it through once or twice. I've read it maybe 15 or 20 times. I know a lot about Berserk."
Berserk 2016 anime
WalterBennet stumbled upon Berserk in 1999 and hasn't looked back. It's the only manga series he follows. When he found Berserk, he says, "It was like I'd stumbled onto the kind of story I was looking for my whole life. It constantly evolves and never goes back on its decisions. I think that once Berserk finishes, it will be legendary."
Once WalterBennet assumed the reins, /r/Berserk's tolerance for frivolous theorising became very low.
When posters in the Berserk subreddit offered fan theories that WalterBennet deemed redundant, off-base or "low-effort", he had no qualms about shutting them down. Users who referred to the "Beast of Darkness" -- a representation of the protagonist Guts' evil inclinations -- as a "hellhound" were swiftly informed of the inaccuracy. Fans who speculated that the series' breaks were due to Kentaro Miura's alleged video game addiction faced no-holds-barred fact-checking ("Go to your room," he once commented on a post alleging that Miura is addicted to Idol Master).
WalterBennet wanted to explain the series' deeper, darker notes, like religious allegory and sexuality. He wanted Berserk fans to understand why they were wrong. He also believes /r/Berserklejerk was created in response to his stern presence on Reddit, as a refuge for the irreverent shitposting he reviled.
Last July, a /r/Berserk regular asked, "Do you guys think we'll ever be able to be brooding and contemplative again?" It was nearing the last few weeks of a 43-week manga break. In the post's title, he describes the subreddit as a "Berserklejerk". In response, a Redditor named HomoVehkuel turned the joke into reality by establishing /r/Berserklejerk, a space for Berserk's intensely solemn, devoted fans to engage in some gross self-mockery.
/r/Berserklejerk is where Berserk fans come to blow off steam when their favourite franchise's release schedule is cruel, or when the community is being too navel-gazey. The subreddit is so unhinged that regulars have their own dialect of English ("hee reechd hez foinal furm!," "fishal scen of berserku splained"). "Guts" is "Gattts" or "Gattsu"; The Dragonslayer sword is simply "CLANG", sometimes "C;LANG", referring to the metallic sound it makes in the new anime. The God Hand, five reality-warping apostles of the Idea of Evil, a sort of god, are in /r/Berserklejerk the "godfoot", also the name of the subreddit's mods. In /r/Berserklejerk, "Do your worst" is the mantra.
/r/Berserklejerk mirrors the seriousness with which WalterBennet-type fans approach Berserk, collecting the sort of posts that he would instantly delete and the people he would merrily perma-ban (or, in /r/Berserklejerk-speak, "benn"). Fittingly, on /r/Berserklejerk, a ridiculous WalterBennet shadow persona materialised: WalterPeanut.
"Oh yeah, I wanted to make fun of him," WalterPeanut explained over Gchat. WalterPeanut was an original champion of /r/Berserklejerk, which, he said, came about to fill the emotional gaps left by the manga's frequent hiatuses and the severity of WalterBennet's reign over Berserk fandom. WalterPeanut loves the series, but he reviled the community's so-called "constant" circle-jerking, a result of the its seriousness and the manga's slow releases. On a Reddit post, WalterPeanut described the inception of /r/Berserklejerk as "the best day of [his] life".
Berserk's 2016 anime
By the subreddit's rules, he explained to me, "every post must be a shitpost," meaning that it has to be spammy, derail the conversation or mean nothing at all.
Gabrielfhelm, one of /r/Berserklejerk's God Feet, describes the subreddit as a place where Berserk fans can chill out after engaging in /r/Berserk's detailed and speculatory discussions. "It is here that we make light of an otherwise dark, tragic manga, with the intent of relaxing one's mind," he told me.
For instance, in Berserk chapter 124, a demonically-possessed horse attempts to rape noblewoman Farnese de Vandimion. It's one of the manga's most painful and horrifying moments, one that WalterBennet describes as "a consequence of Berserk's brutal world". In /r/Berserklejerk, that horse is referred to as "rapehorse", or "raephors", daily, reflecting the subreddit's trollish tastelessness.
/r/Berserklejerk's rules enforcing shitposts stand in direct contrast to /r/Berserk's moderation policies, which ban "trolling, shit posts, spam, or repeated topics". In /r/Berserklejerk, nobody breaks that rule. On July 30, /r/Berserklejerk concluded the third round of its "Best Shitpost" tournament. The results:
There's significant crossover in the subreddits, a byproduct of the strength of the Berserk community. Berserk fans will, one day, muse on the nature of vengeance, and the next, post supremely awful "Gattz" memes on /r/Berserklejerk. Many fans have /r/Berserklejerk alter egos, the darker sides of their dark manga fandom.
"A lot of people have alternate /r/Berserklejerk accounts, so they can troll each other," former /r/Berserklejerk mod and current /r/Berserk mod VolatileCurry explained. For the most part, the same people populate both subreddits. It's easy to forget that they're all a part of the same fandom and that, aside from the degrees of reverence with which they approach Berserk, the two communities are in fact one.
Because of this, /r/Berserklejerk has planned a few raids on /r/Berserk that never transpired. One month ago, a poster announced that it was "tiem to claim /r/berserk as our slaves and servants". Although smaller instances of cross-forum trolling occur every now and then, a larger raid had never gone down. Berserklejerkers were ramping up to smear their shitposts all over the pristine Berserk subreddit, until, strangely, Gabrielfhelm put his God Foot down:
"We do not wish to put /u/VolatileCurry (friend and former God Foot) in an undesirable position seeing as he is a moderator at /r/Berserk," he wrote in decipherable English.
Berserk 2016 anime
Love for Berserk can transcend fans' beliefs on shitposting. Even the superserious WalterBennet isn't immune: Once he connected with his shadow persona WalterPeanut, he realised that they actually got along. WalterPeanut's appreciation for the series, somehow, shone through the shitposting -- to be a real troll, you need to know your subject matter, a trait that WalterBennet admires.
"He's a parody of me," WalterBennet said, "but is also a decent user. He's a regular dude." Although he considers /r/Berserklejerk's "sense of humour to be depreciating the series", he understands that fans find value in /r/Berserklejerk. "The conflict between the Berserk and Berserklejerk subreddits is a conflict of opinion about tone," he concluded.
As of recently, the Berserk franchise has started picking up a lot more steam. Kentaro Miura is releasing manga chapters. A new anime adaption launched a few months ago. The hack-and-slash video game Berserk Musuo will be released this spring for PlayStation 4 and PC. Recently, /r/Berserk saw an influx of "casuals", in VolatileCurry's words, referring to new fans brought on by the 2016 anime, which the community has, generally, found overwhelmingly disappointing. A few days ago, /r/Berserk exceeded 20,000 members.
Without the staleness that has plagued Berserk fandom for years, and with new blood in the fandom, /r/Berserklejerk may wither and dry up, an infected inside joke. Or, with more content to feed the circlejerking machine, maybe it will continue to thrive.