SKnet: 20 Years Later

Walter

Administrator
Staff member
We're celebrating 20 years of Skullknight.NET this year, and to commemorate that, I'm telling stories of what it was like in the early years of being a Berserk fan. I'll be dropping in new posts over the coming days covering the early 1990s, the BSOM days, and SKnet's creation.




1.
Anniversaries


As 2020 marches on, it carries with it several anniversaries for this site, the first of which passed me by in March without thinking about it. It’s been 20 years since I've been part of the US Berserk community, and October will be 20 years since I started Skullknight.NET.


Here's the first thread I ever made on Black Sun Over Midland (BSOM), the community that preceded SKnet. The Y2K changeover messed with the dates on the BBS it was running on, but it's March 15, 2000.

More timely however is that today, July 28 2020, is 20 years since Episode 165. That was the first time I imported a Young Animal magazine and started following Berserk episodically. I shared that episode here, when this site was known as “Walter’s Sanctuary of Berserk,” and on BSOM. That means this month also marks 20 years since the beginning of the episodic Berserk journey for many fans of the series. Week after week, month after month—we’ve been here ever since that magazine arrived.


The orange-tinted first page of Berserk Ep 165 from Young Animal 2000 #15.

I didn’t recognize that I was doing anything special at the time, but making the latest Berserk releases available online became a turning point for the whole Berserk community—not just the handful of us gathered on BSOM. It synchronized everyone's reading rate internationally.

The series had been published in other countries, but the pace of localizations was fragmented. Italy's publisher might have been up to Volume 10, but France's had lapsed after just one volume, and Spain's was just starting out. Language barriers aside, that fragmentation made a true melting pot experience infeasible. But once word spread that the latest episodes could be found on the Internet, fans caught up quickly no matter what language they spoke, and in a very short amount of time, the world’s Berserk fanbase gathered in one place, able to drink from the same source at the same time.

In the year 2000, Berserk already had a place in the hearts of fans in several countries, just not English-speaking ones. But it was extremely fresh to most US fans. That’s the year the Dreamcast game hit the states as the first officially licensed tasting of Berserk in English. The anime, released in 1997 in Japan, had spread overseas via fansubs. But it wouldn’t be licensed and brought stateside until 2002. And importing the volumes was no simple feat. This lack of exposure and lack of access made the fanbase understandably small. There were probably 10-15 regulars on BSOM, some louder than others. This arrangement made any discussion about the latest events in Berserk impractical, because not everyone was on the same page—literally.

Some were just discovering Berserk by word-of-mouth and wanted to learn more. Some had played the game but knew nothing else. And some owned all the volumes and were hungry for more. New events were digested one volume at a time for the few who were importing them. Threads would appear on for example “Volume 20's big events,” but participation in that kind of discussion relied on everyone’s volumes being shipped overseas at the same rate. Over the course of a month, you could probably gather comments from a handful of people. But that’s not quite the same energy as having a fresh influx of new material that lands on the same day for everyone.


Though it's October 2000 here on BSOM, and we'd already "caught up" to eps 165-167 (straddling Vols 20-21), the vast majority of Volume 20 was still a gap for us, because it had only just been released in Japan.

The immediacy of online releases created a sense of urgency in our conversations that didn’t exist before, and it changed how the community developed. We could point to a calendar date and count on our discussions being re-energized twice each month. Once Skullknight.NET’s forum was launched, that brimming enthusiasm naturally spilled over into new threads beyond the current events, and soon we created a cluster of categories for them to live in.

Things moved fast — often too fast to foster quality discussions. But it was an exciting new era for fans, at any rate.

2.
Berserk on the Nascent Internet (1994-1998)


In the process of documenting what the Berserk US scene was like when I started reading, I was taken on time-traveling journey which naturally led me to consider how far back I could dive into the past. What would I find if I turned the dial back before the first English-speaking Berserk community?

I wanted to unearth the very first English post about Berserk, and I’m pretty sure I found it on Usenet:


Usenet—the first global, online distributed discussion system—is the precursor to modern forums and discussion platforms like Reddit. Whatever you are interested in, it likely has a category or subcategory you can subscribe to, known as newsgroups. The post above is from rec.arts.manga in October 1994.

I was so happy that I’d found something so early that was historically interesting, instead of meaningless. Andrew was a Berserk fan who spoke into the void in 1994 and received no reply. He was confused. He had been following Berserk in Animal House, the first magazine the series was published in. But that magazine was canceled in 1992. From Andrew's perspective, Berserk had ended prematurely. Maybe it was his local bookstore that told him the news: “Sorry pal, that weird cartoon magazine you imported was canceled.”

Where was he to turn to for news otherwise?

The internet of 1994 was not the robust, comprehensive, if-it-exists-then-people-have-drawn-it-being-fucked-by-Sonic place that it is now. There was no Google (there wasn’t even AltaVista, yet). No industry for anime/manga news. No SkullKnight.net or Reddit. Not even a webring. There was no one to say: "Andrew, all is well!" So he reached out to Usenet, at the time a pillar of the Internet, but no one ever replied.

Nothing relating to Berserk predates this post on rec.arts.manga (or .anime for that matter), and paired with the lack of a reply, this was good enough to serve as the confirmation I had been looking for — Berserk was still unfamiliar to English speaking readers in 1994. No one knew enough about the series to provide him with the obvious answer: Animal House was replaced with Young Animal a month later, and Berserk continued.

Andrew is probably fine. I'm sure he figured things out and got back on the bandwagon. Hey, maybe he's still following Berserk. Maybe he's reading this right now...? In any case, it would be years before any real discussion began about Berserk on the internet. Interest was low, because access was low.

Around 1997, Berserk got a few more namedrops. Perhaps driven by the televised anime at the time, more people had heard about it, and were curious to learn more:



Occasionally you would see Italian and French fans, who already had licensed volumes of their own, drop in to answer questions from curious fans. But through all the name drops and recommendations, I found no discussion of the contents of the story. Likely these early posters were trying to avoid spoilers for people who had not read it yet, so they could discover it for themselves. This generalized discussion could also be a result of it being a generalized manga forum instead of one dedicated to a series.


Here’s someone who had just digested Volume 13, yet refrained from hinting at its tumultuous contents.


Fansubs Hit the US

After the anime was released in Japan in late 1997, VHS/LD copies were imported from overseas, which eventually led to translated fansubs in the states. These were physical handoffs—copies of tapes mailed and passed person to person, west coast college anime club to east coast college anime club. Despite the internet's growth, the late '90s for anime fans was still an era of analog tapes, not digital files.

The distribution of large files like videos was constrained by connection speeds and rudimentary compression formats that made decent quality files very large. Many people were handcuffed to dial-up or dedicated ISDN lines that were capped at 128kbps. If you wanted to download large files, often you had to use download manager software that broke up one file into many, and chip away at an imposing 12MB .exe file over separate dial-up sessions. Such programs also eliminated the fear of someone calling your house and interrupting your download. The introduction of affordable home broadband connections would eventually become the demarcating line between the early and modern internet, but we weren’t there yet.


Source: Cisco. Note the 5x increase in bandwidth usage just between 1997-1999.

Files were traded on IRC (think Usenet, but for chat), but slow connection speeds and the lack of dedicated servers housing these files prevented the unrestrained download of large video files. Decentralized, peer-to-peer file-sharing infrastructures like Kazaa, Napster, and BitTorrent would eventually revolutionize how we distributed files. But in 1997, they were still 3-4 years shy of the home broadband connections they needed to thrive. Even in 1999, when the first known Berserk digital encoding occurred, there wasn't an infrastructure to prop it up.

That meant that between 1997-1999 there was no central, online method to distribute anime. Instead it was governed by fans themselves, who operated their own translation and distribution projects out of their homes. In their minds, they occupied a grey area between rampant piracy and sharing something they deeply loved with like-minded fans.

I crossed paths with one of those distribution operations in 2000, when I started watching Legend of Galactic Heroes. The primary way to acquire the tapes for the huge series (100+ eps) was a kind of hybrid between digital and physical. You had to locate a distributor online, print and fill out a form, then mail a 3-5 pack of blank VHS tapes to a fansub distributor. Often this was a P.O. Box owned by the translator themselves, who made VHS copies of their masters en masse. In a few weeks, your tapes would be back, filled with new episodes.


Protections Clash with Passions

Fansubbing and distribution in those days was work for those involved, and there was no profit in it, thus it didn't feel illegal. But not everyone agreed.

A respected voice in the manga translation industry was quite vocal about the legal pitfalls of fan translation and distribution. Toren Smith was the head of Studio Proteus, a professional translation outfit responsible for bringing popular manga such as Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Astro Boy, Appleseed, Blade of the Immortal and Lone Wolf and Cub to the US.

Here's what he said on the topic over on his site back in 2000 (rescued by the Internet Archive):


Toren disputed the common fan rationalization that mercenary efforts to increase access to a series would ultimately lift it from obscurity, and help the creator profit. It is notable that this exchange happened years before online anime and manga distribution really took off on P2P platforms, where it shed the last vestiges of self-regulation by fans. [Source]

The question of legality wasn't top-of-mind for most fans in 1999. Not much has changed, really. Regardless of whether distribution was prohibited, if someone wanted to watch or read something, they did what was necessary to consume it and share their enthusiasm with others. Fans filled the void in the marketplace themselves by striking out to produce translated work and used it to evangelize the series they loved. And because it was from another country, and in another language, it granted the whole endeavor a mystique that drove further interest and dedication. The hurdles of acquisition were larger then, but that same drive exists today.

The disregard for protections around copyrighted work ran parallel to the zeitgeist of the nascent internet, which propelled everyone toward the state of immediate consumption of media we now fully occupy. The largest difference between 1999 and now is that legitimate platforms like Netflix, Comixology, and Crunchyroll, have been established over the past decade to service that consumption in a way that can directly turn a profit for creators and rights holders, where fansubs were in an economic sense, simply "loss."

Twenty years later, there's not much of an excuse not to support Berserk legitimately. The walls around manga acquisition have been lowered to the ground floor. Digital distribution has been adopted by the Japanese publisher, which releases new issues of Young Animal the same day the print magazine hits store shelves, and it costs fans just $4. Dark Horse also sells digital editions of the manga volumes, which are regularly on sale for $5-6.

Following along with Berserk has never been easier. But that will never stop people from stealing it and making a free option even easier. Scanlation groups still create work that is indistinguishable from the product eventually sold in the marketplace. But they are irresponsibly taking the life of a series in their hands. Whatever their intentions, they have no right to take that business risk for the company that owns it. They have no stake in its future, and any damage their actions might incur will ultimately not affect them.

In June 2000, word first started spreading that an American company had acquired the rights to produce an English-translation of the Berserk anime. Here's Skull Knight, the admin of Black Sun Over Midland at the time, urging fansub distributors to cease operations.

Urban Vision expects to release the 1st video volume later this year, not in August as the article reports. So with this imminent domestic release of our favorite anime, I encourage all websites to cease distributing Berserk fansubs, be it in tape or downloadable (.mpg, rm, etc) format. The fansubs have already served their purpose. An american company has heard and already responded to our clamor so let's support them.
What's notable about this is that it occurred during a time in which it might have been feasible to turn off that faucet. The distribution was only in the hands of a few people. If they had respect for the series in the same way that Skull Knight did, maybe it really would have had an impact, before the advent of mass file sharing?

The distribution of fansubs raised Berserk’s stock of attention online. But it wasn’t the crescendo one would expect. There were a few more posts from people familiar with what Berserk was all about. Berserk was now starting to appear on the radar of a lot more fans, but it wasn’t a community yet.


3.
How Walter Found Berserk (1999)


Berserk and my experience with the internet are fused together. The reason I fell so hard for this one series is because I saw that it could withstand the years of scrutiny that constant discussions online invite. You could not plumb its depths in one or two passes. Re-reading brought new perspectives and talking about it with others was like returning to a well that never ran dry.

But that wasn’t my first perspective on Berserk. Initially, I wasn’t so impressed.

In 1998, I was an 18-year-old in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. Anime had been a peripheral interest of mine since 1995, when I first saw the Akira movie. A few years later, I had exhausted the available ADV Evangelion VHS tapes. Finding new anime tapes became one of my many adventures in avoiding school. I started tracking down tapes by visiting Asian supermarkets and restaurants. Store owners would often rent tapes from their home countries, likely an under-the-counter side business given the nature of things. I watched the first two seasons of Slam Dunk with Cantonese dubs and no subs thanks to this arrangement.

But more than anime, I was interested in video games.

After frequenting the local arcade and dropping way too much money on Marvel vs Capcom, I was introduced to a group of kids at my high school who played Street Fighter competitively. Every weekend was a little party, where 10-15 people would gather around a TV in a dark basement to play on an imported Sega Saturn (which had the best versions of Capcom's fighting games), passing around imported tin cans of syrupy Red Bull and arcade sticks between us. Even if it was predictable who would win based on previous skill levels, we were all getting better as we played, and that was pretty captivating for a while. Among the regulars there was someone who lived down the street from this gathering spot, who would later join SKnet as Cronus. It wasn’t long before I learned that he had more Eva tapes—fansubs. We should talk.

Cronus was two years older than me. He was taking Japanese courses at a local college, and he applied that knowledge toward translating Rurouni Kenshin chapters he scanned from Weekly Shounen Jump magazine. Dropping by his house to read his manga and watch his anime collection (much bigger and more eclectic than mine) quickly became a regular destination for me during and after school. Some days I’d stay past dinner and eat with his family. Though he was initially introduced to me as someone who could get me more Eva tapes, it wasn’t long before we became good friends. Eventually we'd room together at an apartment once I caught up to him in college, and he'd be the best man at my wedding. Earlier this year, just before the pandemic, I surprised him by flying cross-country to visit on his 40th birthday.

Cronus' primary means of distributing his translated Kenshin scans was by mailing Zip disks between his group of friends. As previously explained, in 1998 the mail was still a more feasible solution for distribution than the internet. One of these friends introduced him to Berserk untranslated in the summer of 1999. And on one of my visits to his house, he casually mentioned Berserk in the context of a conversation about badass characters, specifically naming Guts as a pretty badass dude. I put it on my list.

By this point, I had discovered a new avenue for anime tapes—a shop called House of Anime. This place was a real shithole, in retrospect. They profited from fansubbed anime by renting it to customers and sold SonMay soundtrack CDs—a Taiwanese label that distributed bootlegs in a very official-looking capacity. That’s a righteously rotten combination. All the goodwill of the fansubbers, exploited by capitalism—the natural conclusion. Still, HoA was my access point to pretty much every anime that existed in the ‘80s-90s.

The amount of business this freebooting store managed to do was testament to the ferocious appetite in anime fans that wasn’t being served by US publishers yet. In a matter of years, it would be a much different story as more publishers took anime and manga seriously as a money maker for them. But like the broadband milestone, we were not there yet. Instead we fully inhabited the awkward adolescent years of a fandom that was only starting to show signs of maturity.

It was on the shelves of House of Anime that I found one of the early Berserk fansubs.

I wish I could say that fireworks went off. That would certainly make more sense for this 20-year retrospective. But the quality of the VHS tape was extremely low, due to being played so often (as a magnetic medium, a tape’s quality degrades slightly with each play). The colors bled together in every scene, and the audio was scratchy. My first impression was that Berserk must have been a series from the ‘80s. If so, why was I only hearing about it now..?

The first few episodes impressed me, particularly the soundtrack. I was curious about Guts’ revenge (that couldn’t be his name, right? It’s probably “Gatts”) and how he came to be the man he was. But to be perfectly honest, having only seen the first four episodes, it did not carve out a special place in my heart. I tucked the show in the back of my mind and moved on.

It wasn’t too long after I first saw Berserk that I went to Anime Weekend Atlanta ‘99, where I half-assedly cosplayed as Sakuragi Hanamichi from Slam Dunk. I did my teenaged best to dye my brown hair red. You can see the result below. But I was pretty proud of the basketball jersey at the time. I had to custom print it at a local shop, spelling each letter of the team and character’s name in a square on a carbon copy form, as the old man who ran the place just shook his head. “You just want to get ONE jersey? And who is ... Hannahmeechee? 'Zat you?”




The anime convention crowd really wasn't my scene. I wasn't interested in flaunting my anime hobby in such a flamboyant way. I was there to discover new series and meet new people. I do remember seeing Berserk Volume 18, the latest release at the time, on the shelves of the convention's merchandise area. The dramatic cover gave the impression of a final battle, so a part of me assumed the series had already wrapped up. A short while later, I dropped about $200 on all 31 volumes of Slam Dunk, carried the big box out to my car, and read through the series in the back seat.

At the convention, my group collided with another, and we stopped to talk about the series we were most into and share the names of others we’d seen at the show. One of these guys asked if anyone had seen Berserk. I said I’d seen some, and thought it was “okay.” He fixed me with a short, serious look and said that it was his favorite series. That stuck out to me. His hyperbole wasn’t delivered with the teenage bravado you’d expect. I didn’t know the guy. I don’t think I even got his name. But his candid, low-key devotion to Berserk made me reconsider my judgment of the small portion that I’d seen. So, I revisited it and acquired more tapes.

In short order, I’d exhausted House of Anime’s supply of Berserk, which tapped out at Ep 10, ending with Adonis’ death and the Primrose staircase scene (“a friend to me is…”). Those particular sequences sealed the deal for me. There was a lot more going on in this series about a guy named Guts (“Gatts” to me at the time) than was first evident to me. And I was hungry for much more than I could easily get my hands on. I picked up the soundtrack, and it probably stayed in my car stereo for a year.

Until Slam Dunk and Berserk, I had mostly ignored manga as a medium. This was partly due to the language barrier. I couldn't read any Japanese at all yet, and there was virtually nothing stateside to read that interested me. Berserk fundamentally changed that. Being brickwalled by the fansubs ceasing at Ep 10 pushed me toward the manga. And I quickly realized it suited my personal tastes far better than anime ever did. For one thing, it was pure storytelling—a graphically depicted world from the mind of one person, who served as both writer and artist. And most stories barreled forward linearly instead of looping back on themselves repeatedly and without consequence between creative teams, as was common in US comics.

Given this interest, Cronus introduced me to his manga source, Iwase Japanese Books in Atlanta, which had every Berserk volume currently available. Having seen the anime, but not necessarily knowing where to start with the manga (they were shrinkwrapped), I bought a smattering of volumes. Picking the ones I thought had cool covers, I first got 4, 5, 8, and 12-13. As a result, well before the fansubs had caught up to the anime’s version of the Eclipse, I'd already seen the full event as intended, and knew that things didn't end there.

I wanted more, but I needed to know where to start. And so it was around then that I sought more information online, finding an existing Berserk community that was just as fascinated with the series as I was.


4.
Black Sun Over Midland (1999-2001)


My earliest experiences online were in search of websites that could keep up with my appetite for new information on whatever I happened to be obsessed with. Back then, many pages were static by design. They displayed the information they intended to share, and that was it—the end. Other sites had a pulse. And in the years before notification icons and social media, you had to discover that heartbeat yourself by reloading a page and looking for site updates.

Years before I found Berserk, Squaresoft (makers of Final Fantasy) games were my primary obsession and the focus of most of my time online.

Take a peek around The UnOfficial Squaresoft Homepage to get an idea of what was, to me in 1995, the platonic ideal for what an internet site should aspire to be. It was owned and operated by a fan (Andrew Vestal, a high-schooler at the time) who had carved out a definitive niche in reporting on Squaresoft games.

In truth there wasn’t that much information to report. But Vestal had found a method of diving deep into the thin veneer of available information on an upcoming game. A new screenshot, character design, interview—each of these warranted an update. And regardless of how small these updates seemed, each one was energizing to the fans. So in 1999 when I had a desperate need to know more about Berserk, it was natural that I found a home on an authoritative site with a community that was constantly introducing new topics to discuss.

The evocatively named Black Sun Over Midland (BSOM) was a Berserk fan site launched in 1998 by a physics professor at South Carolina State University, who went by the moniker Skull Knight.


BSOM was hosted on a university subdomain (physics.scsu.edu), and featured the first English-speaking Berserk community. I’ve archived most of the site’s main content here: http://skullknight.net/BSOM

BSOM was a major turning point for Berserk online—particularly for westerners. Japanese fans naturally had their own Berserk fan sites, along with a 10-year head start on discovering the series. With a basic search, you could find a listing of English-language fan sites with a few images from the anime and scans from the 1997 artbook. But BSOM was full of practical information, not mere fluffy fan praise—full episode listings, character entries, a timeline of story events, details on how to acquire Berserk merchandise (sound familiar yet?).

The star of the site was of course the BBS (bulletin board system), a threaded mass of hundreds of conversations. Not all of it survives, but you can browse the index and get a good, general idea of the flow of discussions by scrolling through the thread titles (which could be changed upon a reply).


BBS (v1) — 512 threads: December 30, 1999- September 9, 2000

In late 2000, the BBS was upgraded to a more traditional-looking forum. But it was apparently more difficult to maintain, and eventually died in 2002.


BBS (v2) — 450 threads: October 19, 2000-June 8, 2002.

My discovery of BSOM and involvement with its community transformed Berserk from an interest into a decades-spanning hobby. I didn’t register to post on the BBS right away. I was content to lurk and read the conversations of others. There were only somewhere around five regular members, along with many transients just dropping by for a post or two. Regulars included Skull Knight, mortalfrog, Wereallmad, Godo, and Rosa. Some of these members would eventually make the leap to SKnet, but none are still around today, unfortunately. Another familiar face also made his first appearance on BSOM—Griffith—the same Griffith on this forum, of course. Which makes him about as weathered a Berserk fan as anyone on the internet.

I started posting as Walter in March 2000, adopting the namesake of a Half-Life scientist, brought to comedic life by a SomethingAwful writer. The language barrier surrounding Berserk was still very much a problem in those days, limiting everyone’s grasp of the story beyond what was covered in the anime. There was only beginning to be a few text translations of scattered episodes in circulation from a member named eirias over on Usenet.

A Light in the Darkness

Berserk was something worth diving deep into. It rewarded deeper readings. And the language barrier meant that you had to decipher its meanings more than a normal comic book, which took a community.

Reading members' descriptions of scenes I hadn’t yet seen, along with their speculations on what they might mean, was intoxicating to me. I read a thread about Gaiseric and Skull Knight based on his Volume 10 backstory before I really even knew who he was. Reading members talk about SK’s origins was a turning point for me. Through discussions like these, the quality of the series began to dawn on me, even though I was only experiencing such scenes through descriptions. These discussions to me were like when the torch was dropped into the depths of the Tower of Rebirth, casting light on the statues in the darkness, revealing the hidden world beneath.

There would be moments of rejuvenation in the future, but from that point forward, Berserk had me completely in its clutches. The true “beginning” to SKnet was the feeling I had in that moment, because it propelled all of my decisions afterward toward recapturing that excitement for discovery.

It’s extremely difficult for me to return to my older posts, because I could be pretty obnoxious. I was headstrong, I thought I was funny when I was really just random, and I weighed in on threads even though I didn’t always know what I was talking about. When I re-discover moments like these, I often joke with Aazealh that I’d probably have banned myself, were this SKnet. Would I, though…? This loud kid means so well! I'd certainly put him on quarantine until he calmed down, though.

That’s the trouble with the internet. It doesn’t preserve things as you’d like to remember them, but reflects events as they truly were—whether you like it or not. Like most people, I’m a different person at 38 from who I was at 19. Time makes fools of us all. The internet merely lets that fundamental truth accumulate receipts.

All of us on BSOM had gathered around a fire we were compelled by. And while I was participating primarily to learn more about the series, I also wanted to entertain people and liven up the otherwise scholarly atmosphere. Sometimes that meant interrupting the Episode 172 discussion thread with an update about being hospitalized.


I really did go to the hospital that night, for what it's worth (not much!)

3 Milestones

Three major moments of the BSOM days kept their hooks in me through the years.

The first was the Dreamcast game’s localized release, and how interesting it was to watch the community react to their previously unknown favorite series suddenly appearing on store shelves. I don’t think I ever heard the full story behind this, but BSOM was well-known enough to receive a “special thanks” credit in the US manual of the game. Not too shabby!

The second was in July 2000, when I started posting scans of new Berserk episodes. I’ve already reviewed how that impacted discussions in part one of this series of articles. But in short, the site quickly drew an international crowd, and the community suddenly had a lot more Berserk content to chew through than we did previously. In the span of a year, thread replies went from around 10 in June 2000 to 200+ in June 2001. Every two weeks, we were re-energized with new possibilities.

It bears mentioning that between 1999-2001, Miura was producing episodes at an unreasonably fast rate. Between those three years, he missed only six magazine deadlines, producing 20 episodes each year. By contrast, the high water mark for the past decade now was 9 episodes a year. We did not know how good we had it.

The third was the arrival of a French member, Olivier Hagué. Unlike everyone else on BSOM, who were learning something new about Berserk every day, Olivier arrived as a fully formed Berserk expert. He could read Japanese, and was a professional translator himself. So he had not only already read and understood the series thus far, but followed the latest updates on Japanese Berserk communities. That gave him a huge edge over the rest of us in discussing things on BSOM, and it resulted in his posts shedding light on the wide gulf in our grasp of the series. Initially that was a bit like the ending to Lord of the Flies.

The moment of Olivier’s arrival led to an embarrassing scenario, where he casually pointed out how wrong we were about what SK says in Volume 18 regarding Femto’s incoming incarnation ceremony. If you merely look at the images of that scene and reach a conclusion, as we did, it looks like Guts and SK are just reviewing the dangers lurking in the dark. Without translations, the direction the events in Volumes 19-20 were heading remained mysterious to us. But if you can understand the text, it’s made pretty plain what is about to occur: Femto/Griffith would return to the physical world after a once-in-1000-years event. This sounded like wild speculation to us, at the time. I rejected these notions, which was really just Olivier repeating what was on the page to us, and was justifiably (and politely!) slammed for it. Once he pointed out the truth to us, he gained immediate credibility. His future contributions fundamentally changed how we understood the series.


Moderation
To my recollection, things never got heated between members on BSOM. I was probably the loudest one there, but I was also well-intentioned. And even without any status, I did what I could do to keep the community going by answering questions and providing information to newer members. Our numbers were so small at the time that moderation needed only to be lightly applied, if at all.

The other factor in play was that it was unclear to us if anyone was around to do any moderation. The site owner, Skull Knight, had a busy life of his own. Everyone who was a regular on BSOM had a deep respect for Skull Knight, who was extremely polite and cordial with everyone, no matter how obnoxious they were. He didn't post often, but when he did it was a little celebration.

The occasional friction would crop up, but it was rare. In one instance, someone posted a link to their translations, and it had some significant problems. Olivier and Cronus pointed out the errors, which resulted in the “offended party” going on a forum-wide flaming session, calling us “full of ourselves” (See? It predates SKnet). This event led to the person email spamming various members with similar messages.

Just as it is today, people on the internet hate being told that they’re wrong, and sometimes they are willing to go to war over the perceived offense.


Decline
In July 2001, the BBS started falling apart. Posts were disappearing, dates were acting screwy, and thread titles were not linking where they were supposed to. It got to the point where new posts couldn't be seen, and were simply vanishing.



During that month-long window of opportunity, BSOM members were without a home. So I launched the forum that you’re reading this on now. The final BSOM BBS post occurred in September 2001, which we posted about here on SKnet. Skully would finally take down the community in 2002, after the discussion activity had primarily migrated to Skullknight.Net.

“I have finally removed the BBS section of the site because I cannot devote any time to perform administrative work on it,” Skull Knight wrote in a June 8, 2002 update.

My access to old-timers from BSOM is limited, so I unfortunately couldn’t pull fresh perspectives. But here’s Wereallmad’s take on those days from his own retrospective post in 2006:

“It was totally different than what you find on message boards today, smaller and much more cohesive. Discussions were surprisingly focused, though I guess it pretty much had to be, given the simplicity of the bbs software.

Skully was pretty cool too, I even played PSO [Phantasy Star Online, for Dreamcast] with him, back when you didn't have to pay a monthly fee.

The last time I spoke with him, he was super stressed out from work and sounded pretty down. Then he just dissapeared completetly, and the site never got updated afterwards (to my knowledge, I stopped checking after a while).”
After some sleuthing I tracked Skull Knight down over email in 2012, more than a decade after SKnet took off. I was excited to share with him a few updates on the series, along with our new podcast. His reply follows:

“Congratulations! Looks like you have a great thing going with your website and a surprisingly active fanbase. I doubt that I would have done a better job than what you've done. Berserk is definitely in better hands now that you are at the helm.”
I was humbled. A website dedicated to a single series was an anachronism at the time, particularly so today. Most fans have migrated to dedicated discussion platforms like Reddit and social media groups that allow them to stay in touch with multiple series simultaneously through updates dropped into their amalgamated feeds. But for discussing Berserk, I don’t think there’s ever been any better place or assemblage of personalities than the one we built together over 20 years, and it all started with his efforts.


5.
Launching Skullknight.NET


In August 2000, I acquired my first Young Animal magazine, after signing up for a half-year subscription at a local Japanese bookstore. Inside this issue was Berserk 165, just before Guts faced off against Mozgus, towards the end of Volume 20. Of course, no one on Black Sun Over Midland (BSOM) had read Volume 20 yet. It wasn’t out yet. We were still trapped at the end of the latest volume, nine episodes before Ep 165. Nevertheless, I was about to post it online and share this futuristic-feeling Berserk episode with the world.

But how would I share it? I didn’t have a website. There was no imgur or similar image sharing service I could use.

The quickest solution was to register a free GeoCities site and host the images there. But why stop there? At that point, I had a whole 25 MB of storage to play with. The 165 scans only took up about half of that. By September, I had updated the site to be more than just an image host and came up with a name.



I drove into Atlanta every two-three weeks to pick up the latest Young Animal, and as new Berserk episodes piled up on the site, it wasn’t long before I outgrew GeoCities’ bandwidth and size restrictions. There was now a global audience gathering around the scans. So I moved to a “50megs” account, another free host with slightly more space. Naturally, I hit another wall soon afterward.


A New Domain
I had put off the inevitable long enough. I had to either abandon this side project, restrict how I operated it, or upgrade and keep building. I was enjoying bringing fresh Berserk to people. It felt good to finally give back to a community I loved. And ever since the Squaresoft days, I had aspirations of running my own site one day. I decided to make my mark on the Internet.

On October 20, 2000, I registered Skullknight.NET and parked it at a real host, which was ~$40/month at first. I chose the domain name after polling the BSOM community. Initially I wanted to land Skullknight.COM, but it was already registered earlier that year. That person contacted me via email with an offer to sell it to me for an exorbitant cost. Domain profiteering… in our little community? Years later, I'm pleased that I stuck with NET. But I learned while typing this up that whoever owned .COM actually set SKnet as a redirect. So... belated victory? Thanks!

By that point, I had far more space and bandwidth than I knew what to do with. So I started creating the kind of site I always wanted—one with constant updates. I scanned iconic Berserk scenes and colored them in Photoshop. I created a corner of the site that housed my speculations. I wrote summaries of Volumes 13-16.



Purple was my thing, I guess?

I started scanning my own Berserk volumes to help bridge the gap between the anime and the manga. I wanted to help answer some of the most common questions on BSOM—What happens after the Eclipse? How does Guts survive? Does Casca make it, too? So I created a “Post-Eclipse” section of the site that featured low-resolution, translated scans of the immediate pages after the Eclipse, leading up to the end of the Golden Age. These were terrible. They looked bad and they read even worse. They were the first and last scanlations to be hosted on this site.


Amazingly, I still sometimes see these in circulation online. Nothing on the internet disappears, even if it deserves to.

For most of its first year, Skullknight.NET was a quirky Berserk fansite that very few people visited. The main draw of the site was the new episode scans, which were linked to on BSOM threads. But in late 2000, that site’s bulletin board system (BBS) began experiencing downtime for days at a time without explanation. I knew that the admin, Skull Knight, was an adult with a life of his own. His place of work was part of the domain the site was housed on. But as a 19-year-old, it frustrated me that there seemed to be no recourse during these downtimes, even as new episodes rolled in. I wanted to read new discussions about the series every day.


Awkward Beginnings

With BSOM going dark more regularly, I started looking into creating my own Berserk BBS.


I tried to update my site with a little news item every day. The pace also pushed me to constantly be working on new content to share.

A few days later Skull Knight returned, restored the BBS, and things were back on track. I launched my little side BBS anyway. It became a useful place to turn to whenever the primary community was inaccessible. It looked like this:


While this design looks hilariously quaint now, it was pretty fun to have avatars for each post, instead of the pure text of BSOM.

There were no user accounts, or assigned avatars. This meant anyone could write whatever name they wanted before posting, and had to choose from 1 of 20 set avatars for each post. It was amusing chaos, though.

This first iteration of SKnet’s community didn’t last very long. I took it down in April 2001 as activity slowed and it was unsustainably hard to maintain. The script created HTML files, and when one page was “full” you had to manually upload it as an archive, then change your previous archive links to the older pages. It was custom-coded in Perl by a friend of mine. I didn’t know Perl, and learning it on-the-fly wasn’t quite the same as the rudimentary HTML I’d picked up by myself.

Still, the idea of running my own community was in the back of my head, and I started shopping around for better solutions.


Under a New Flag

In July, BSOM went dark—really dark. Threads would disappear after posting, the dates were wrong, and when you clicked on a new thread, often you landed somewhere else. So on August 1, I pulled the trigger on launching a new community on Skullknight.NET using YaBB,a free forum software package that was far more advanced than either BSOM or the custom Perl script I was running before. Even this early version of YaBB was essentially the same forum that SKnet would run on for the next 20 years, with slight platform and version upgrades over time. We flowed directly from YaBB into its successor, SMF.

I got the site up just in time to discuss Ep 185 with everyone, and a month before BSOM’s BBS effectively died in September.


This is not the earliest version of the forum (it launched August 2001, and this is April 2002), but it’s the earliest that’s archived on the internet and it’s pretty close to the original design.

The move from BSOM’s single, streaming feed of threads to the category and topic structure of YaBB motivated conversations to branch out more. Instead of generalized Berserk chatter, we had dedicated lanes for different types of conversation. This is when we created “Shootin’ the Breeze,” and “Speculation Nation.” Off-topic, current release discussions, and theories each had their own territories where they could thrive without “bumping” another topic too far down the stream of new threads. And all that newfound space pushed people to fill it out with new ideas.

The admins at the beginning were myself and Cronus. We shared an apartment in Athens, Georgia, where we were both in college. It was around this time that Griffith and I were having nightly AIM chats that would keep me up until daylight. And because he already pretty much shared the load in keeping conversations going on the forum, and he had become a close friend, it wasn’t long before he was added as an admin as well.

Back over at BSOM, episode conversations moved in parallel to those on SKnet for a while, until activity stopped completely in late September.



BSOM was always great! Migrating the community to Skullknight.NET was never meant to be a coup. It was meant to keep the fire alive when BSOM was down. And as conversations came alive on the new platform, it was clear that this was a community that was primed for massive growth.


6.
SKnet Milestones (2001-2020)


I modeled Skullknight.NET and the Berserk Encyclopedia on Black Sun Over Midland. Seeing that site fading away spurred me to make something of my own. I wanted this to be the destination for fans of Berserk, fostering the most informed community of people devoted to it.

Griffith returned in 2001, the same year I launched this forum. At the time I felt that Berserk could feasibly end in maybe 10 years. After all, like Guts says, now he’s within reach of his sword. I never could have imagined I’d still be running the site after 20 years—half of my life—with no clear end on the horizon. But carrying me through all those years, and all the years still to come, was a community willing to go on that journey with me.

It’s not unheard of for a website to have legs that long, but it’s certainly rare. Many communities like ours tend to last for a handful of years before disappearing, with its members scattered to the winds. And participating in a Berserk community in the way that we do is tougher than most series. Its release pace requires fans to endure through long stretches of nothing and be ready, chomping at the bit, when Miura has something new to share with fans. So it’s understandable that most people give up. Interest fades. Real life gets in the way. Priorities for their time online shift. Or they simply don’t like the direction the series has taken.

Other than creating a family of my own, helping to build and sustain the SKnet community of Berserk fans has been the thing I'm most proud of.

It’s impossible to capture all the events, drama, and excitement that occurs over 20 years of a forum. But I have tried to write down the bigger milestones for this site and forum during that time.


The Berserk Encyclopedia (2001-2007)
Once the forum took off in 2001, among the first features I added to the site was a Berserk FAQ. This was intended to provide quick-and-dirty answers to the most commonly asked questions by new fans of the series. But it eventually encompassed an expanded version of BSOM’s own character guide and timeline.

Fast-forward about two years, and I had a spare summer in college. I spent months overhauling the Berserk FAQ to turn it into the Berserk Encyclopedia. I remember writing up the structure of it and jotting notes while on road trips with friends for months. Eventually, I had added a tremendous amount of more information, including a resource I have used probably every day since I created it, the Volume and Episode listing page. I brought the character guide all the way through to Millennium Falcon with little colored pictures. And a few years later, I would end up adding a Glossary and in 2005, Guts’ Kill Roster, with PHP help from Cronus.


The Berserk Encyclopedia in 2004

The trouble with the Encyclopedia was that it was so compartmentalized in individual HTML files that it was very difficult to maintain. Adding a new character was a chore, and extraneous information like keeping up with all of the merchandise was more of a lift than I felt it was worth at a certain point. People who wanted that information could usually find it on the forum. So I pared back my own efforts in keeping the thing as updated as I had planned. Instead I focused on the resources I needed myself, like the manga listing.

Around that time, in 2007 or so, the web itself was growing and changing. Having fully baked HTML pages of information was an ancient solution. But I never gained sufficient web design savvy or coding knowledge to take this little side project to the next level. And so work languished.


The Berserk Encyclopedia in 2007, essentially the modern era.

Which brings us to today, where the Encyclopedia looks pretty much the same as it did in 2007, during the last major overhaul. It’s still worth exploring, but it hasn’t been the de facto destination source of Berserk information for well over a decade at this point.


Oekaki — Community Drawing Board (2003-2005)
For about two years, we had a web-based drawing board called Oekaki (a Japanese word for “scribble”) where anyone could submit a sketch. You couldn’t take this into Photoshop and spice it up to re-upload. You had to work with the limited tools on the digital canvas: a few colors, brushes, and effects. It democratized art submissions, because everyone was working within the same constraints, and you could create an image in a few minutes and hit post.

Some of the ideas people came up with were incredibly creative, ranging from pure comedy to dramatic and amateur to professional. They added a fresh dimension for fans’ perceptions of characters and scenarios, real and imagined, and quickly took on a life of their own. I eventually bought a Wacom tablet, because drawing with a mouse was a huge limitation. And I’m probably not the only one to take that step. You’d see other people’s art improving and think, “Man, I’ve got to up my game!”


“Beasty gots issues,” by Grail


“What she wants may not be what you want,” by Walter

I’m proud of the eclectic mix of art we amassed over those years, and I truly wish we could have kept this side area of activity alive. But like anything on the internet, as it aged, it started to fall apart, eventually becoming a security vulnerability for the site. Hundreds if not thousands of spam comments started to flood the posts every day. And with no easy way to mitigate them, the best way to protect the site was to take the board down.

You can check out the nearly 250 pieces of art that were submitted on the Oekaki here (thanks to @m for helping with this little gallery). You’ll notice a few familiar names pop up, namely Griffith, Puella, Aazealh, myself, and of course, the Oekaki MVP—Grail.


Responding to Growth (2004)
When the site started, moderation between users wasn’t a huge priority. The regulars in the early days were the same close-knit crew who had already been introduced to each other on BSOM. But as the scans picked up steam worldwide, the site grew, attracting hundreds of new users per month. Naturally, it became louder and more unmanageable.

Activity exploded between 2002-2004. At one point in 2004, the forum’s peak of activity, there were more than 4,000 posts in April alone—an average of 133 posts per day. Properly managing all that activity required reading if not participating in each of those discussions to ensure there wasn’t rampant abuse or mistreatment. This fast-paced time also struck at a time when I was extremely busy finishing up college, and didn’t even have internet access at my apartment.

We needed to be delivered from this chaos. We needed order. We needed someone like Aazealh. By September 2004, Aazealh was a relatively new presence on the forum, but he had very quickly established himself as an authority on Berserk, swooping in on threads to correct inaccuracies in much the same manner as today. So without much debate, he was promoted to admin along with me and Griffith.



What’s funny to me looking back on this is how little we really knew about Aaz at the time. We placed a lot of faith in his knowledge of the series and relied on his general “serious business” attitude to help rein things in. We needed that kind of approach, because it contrasted with how Griff and myself approached management—we were more often than not simply jokers who happened to know a lot about Berserk.


Aazealh’s Moonlight Boy Discovery (2006)



Most people who have read Berserk have closed a volume filled with excitement to share their wild, speculative ideas about where things are headed. Attempts to unravel the series’ many mysteries can often resemble conspiracy theories. But there was one instance in the forum’s history where instead of a sprawling, yarn-covered cork board, it felt like we’d seen a peek behind the curtain of what could be one of Miura’s masterstrokes.

In 2006, Aazealh discovered something that Miura had slipped into Volume 28—a new page. On its surface, it wasn’t much to speak of. But the additional page drew attention to a suspicious silhouette that had been there all along. Miura was tipping his hand, ever so slightly, about Zodd being near the beach when the Boy in the Moonlight arrived. Aazealh took that morsel and ran with it, realizing how it slotted into place for how the boy was at the center of the triangle between Guts, Griffith, and Casca, and what that said about the future for them.

Sixteen years later, we’re still talking about this idea, because other hints that have been dropped over the years bolstered, not discredited, the original idea. It was the singular moment out of all the endless speculation threads where I felt like someone had struck paydirt. It was a puzzle piece so congruent with the rest that it felt like we had been given a peek behind the curtain.


April Fools Pranks (2007- )
Throughout the 2000s, every year we’d try to do some prank on each other and the community. Naturally, after a few years you could see them coming a mile away, but we still managed to sneak a few past people. Sometimes these were simple as instigating an online feud between Aazealh and I, or switching the domain names around temporarily. But Gobolatula, Aazealh, and Griffith each created ones on their own that were absolutely legendary.

A few of the memorable ones include:

2007: Berserk “20 Years Later”
A special advertisement landed in the Ep 284 thread about a new “20 Years Later” project Miura was working on. It showed old man Guts, then later we saw Isidro as an older, wiry swordsman, Griffith on his throne, and a very tired Casca. This was all Griffith’s doing, and Puella and Aazealh helped bring it to life as an advertisement. It spread over to Japanese forums, where a few were also fooled—amazing. To this day, I see this pop up from time to time on Reddit and on 2ch, and it does still manage to catch a few people off guard. [See the full ad here]



2008: Changed domains to KnightofSkeleton.net (Dark Horse’s translation of “Skull Knight”)

2010: Berserk on PSP
A magazine clipping showing a PSP port of the Berserk Dreamcast game was posted on SKnet. We tracked it down to a Japanese blog that had a history dating back several months. This was complicated, and it was all Aazealh’s work. He had made the Japanese blog several months back to lend it credibility once he made the magazine post, a little closer to April. He got a Japanese magazine and modeled a Photoshop off of a page in the book, overlaying the text, even down to adding in a PSP blue X for the QTE in the screenshot. Magnificent!



2011: Fake Episode 319 leak, complete with fake art teaser featuring a God Hand appearance
2011: We made a temporary forum theme (design and colors) after the site was taken over by a Reaper from Mass Effect, complete with a new admin, Harbinger.
2013: Gobolatula landed the scoop of the century—an exclusive interview with Miura’s cousin, Ricardo Miura, on camera!



2015: I posted one of my 2000-era Skull Knight speculations verbatim, and Aazealh gave me The Treatment.


Warnergate (2006)
We couldn’t have operated a forum for 20 years if the admins didn’t agree on most things. Over all the years we’ve worked together, there’s only one moment when Aazealh, Griffith, and myself were not in sync with a moderation decision, and it resulted in a black eye. It’s still a little awkward to discuss even though it’s been 15 years, but it’s definitely a milestone worth retelling in the context of the forum’s history.

In 2005 the editor of Dark Horse’s Berserk localization, Chris Warner, joined our forum. His posts provided insight on some of the translation decisions they made, and he shared the publishing business realities they faced as a company. This was unique, valuable information for any fan community to have access to, and we collectively felt grateful that he’d cross the aisles and help fans understand the company’s perspective.

But around the time of Volume 13’s release, DH’s choice to include sound effect boxes on top of the art ripped a hole in the delicate balance between our desire to support the official localization and our desire to see Berserk properly represented. Members were talking about boycotting the series, and a negative atmosphere was building around DH. Warner was suddenly nowhere to be found.

After a few weeks of these mounting criticisms, Griffith posted a sarcastic jab at Warner’s lack of response to the sound effects discussion. This was a bit much, but anyone who knew Griff’s personality knew it shouldn’t be taken seriously. Warner didn’t, though. Just a few hours later, he reappeared on the forum and posted an impassioned response over what he perceived as an insult.

“...One thing I can do, though, is make damn sure I don't respond to insults, particularly from those who bravely hide in cyberspace behind pseudonyms.” —Chris Warner
Recognizing that Warner wasn’t just any member, Aazealh did his level-headed best to mediate things and return civility to the conversation. That’s probably what any good moderator should have done if the objective was to calm the waters.

“Hi Chris, and thanks for taking time to come over here and address some of our members' concerns. First off I'd like to state that the post that offended you is merely the expression of an individual member's opinion and is in no way representative of our community's stance on this matter.” —Aazealh
But that tactic struck a nerve in me. Not only was Griffith a close friend of mine, I found Warner’s response unprofessional and not in character with someone in a position of leadership—even if he was provoked unnecessarily by one of our members. As the representative of a company, he had a responsibility to maintain civility when speaking to customers.

So I overruled Aazealh by playing my ownership card.

“I'd like to state that Griffith's post DOES represent the opinion of Skullknight.net, since I own it and agree with him. I find it reprehensible that Chris decided to appear now, only when he was mock-insulted by Griff. Really, great work supporting the readers by ignoring us these past months during the SFX crisis, but magically appearing the ONE TIME someone makes a jab at your position.” —Walter
That was all it took. Infighting among admins and disputing the good name of his company? Warner was out. That was the last we saw of him. With fifteen years between that event and now, would I have responded any differently? Despite the bad outcome overall, I don’t think I’d feel any differently, for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned. But we definitely should have grouped together before each one of us made such bold declarations.


The Miura Interview (2009)
Around the time of my wedding in 2008, I reached out to a band I had been following for a number of years via email to let them know I was planning on playing a song of theirs at my ceremony. Surprisingly, I got a response—and a good one. This led to a series of emails back and forth. The experience of reaching out on a longshot and getting a response left me with a sensation of anything being possible. If some obscure band would respond to my heartfelt message, why not Miura himself? If so, what would I ask him?

So I pitched it to the forum, and together over a series of months, we cobbled together nine questions that we’d like answers to. Coming up with these wasn’t easy, because we didn’t want to repeat what had already been covered in interviews. We had to jab into new areas, and be slightly bold yet not so bold that he wouldn’t respond. Aazealh edited in some politeness and tone, and Puella lended her translating skills to turn it into a letter in Japanese to ensure that it didn’t just get tossed in the garbage. I mailed the letter in March 2009 and only sort of hoped for a response.

On April 2, I got a call from my wife at work. The post office had left a note on our door, saying a package from Japan required a signature for hand delivery. But with no one home, it was sent back to the post office. I immediately ditched work and arrived panting at the post office a half-hour later. It was in a pristine plastic sleeve, and though I didn’t know Japanese, seeing the “60-70%” in one of the answers, told me that I was looking at genuine answers to our questions.



I raced home, scanned it, and let everyone on the forum know the good news. I also phoned Aazealh’s home, which I’d only ever done once before. He answered sleepily. I excitedly told him the good news, but he acted suspiciously nonchalant: “Oh yeah…? Uh huh, sure...” Why was he being like this? Fuck! Of course, it’s April 2! We’re still in the April Fools Day window! I assured him in my most earnest tones that this was Serious Fucking Business. But I don’t think he believed me until he saw the images I took of the envelope. And so, even though it was late at night in Paris, Puella and Aazealh went to work translating Miura’s reply.

As we soon learned, Miura’s letter was actually from his editor at the time, Akira Shimada— Miura’s right-hand-man in his day-to-day affairs for more than a decade. Shimada said he recorded Miura’s answers to each question, and let us know this was a very special occasion indeed:

“It’s very rare for Miura to answer these kinds of questions. It would be good if you could think of it as his service for foreign fans like you.”
Read the fully translated interview here. Needless to say, getting an actual response from Miura himself was validating for our little community—like being blessed by the Pope. It sent a jolt through everyone who was there, and it easily remains the most significant event in our long history.

To show our appreciation, we sent a response letter back to Miura, along with a super cute gift—a bookmark with a few of our Berserk emoticons cross-stitched by a member’s 9-year-old daughter. I never got a reply, and I never expected one. It’s enough for me to know that if the first letter landed on Miura’s desk, the special effort of a bookmark would also have made it through.


The SkullKast (2012-current)
Credit where credit is due—we should have done a podcast much sooner. Check out Yota821 over here, recording a solo podcast with his Episode 295 commentary four years before we launched our own podcast! Why didn’t I recognize the potential for this at the time?

I have been listening to various podcasts since about 2009, when my commute to work was about 50 min each way, every day. Listening to GFW Radio and the Giant Bombcast made those trips no big deal. But more than entertainment, what was interesting about these podcasts was that hearing the hosts talk exposed their personalities in ways reading their thoughts in articles simply couldn’t achieve. After a few years, it seemed obvious to me—I’d love to hear people talking about Berserk, but no one has done that yet. What’s stopping us from doing it ourselves?

So one afternoon in February 2012, I posted a poll on the forum to gauge interest in a Berserk-themed podcast. All signs said go. So that afternoon, Griffith, Aazealh, and I gathered around microphones to record the first podcast based on our review of Ep 326 and a 10-min teaser of the first Golden Age movie. It’s a rough recording. But about halfway through it, I realized the potential with this group and all the topics we could pull from. That first year, we recorded a podcast every week. Then my son was born in November 2012, and we had to scale things back a bit. We went down to about a month at a time.

Good podcasts are about chemistry between speakers. How well do they know each other? Can they bounce off of what they say seamlessly? Do they know the topic well enough to weigh in authoritatively? Our years of experience together on the forum eliminated these challenges. And talking in real-time opens up completely new avenues for conversation that just don’t happen due to the nature of asynchronous forum post replies. In doing so, we exposed previously undiscovered gulfs in our agreements about certain series events (why did Zodd throw his sword to Guts?) It was exciting!

Our biggest challenge? Miura went on a year-long Berserk hiatus in 2013. What a time to launch a podcast! By the time we reached our second year, we had only talked through nine Berserk episodes. For the rest of those 40-something podcasts, we had to think outside-the-box. I feel like some of my best Berserk writing happened in podcast notes that ended up thrown out so that I could speak into a microphone in a summary format for the show. But I also came out of those experiences feeling like I understood the series better as a result, and I hope some of that is imparted to listeners.

The podcast is the one project I’ve launched on SKnet where I can never get enough. We’re 8 years and 107 episodes in (much more if you include all the side projects) at this point, and at the end of each one, I’m immediately ravenous to record more. It’s only real-life that gets in the way of us doing these every single week.


7.
Friendships and the Future


Over these 20 years, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several members of SKnet in person, though not as many as you might expect.

Each visit in person has reinforced to me the power of the internet to shrink distances down to milliseconds. Crossing these geographic boundaries in person is an expensive undertaking. In practical life, balancing personal life with work life, these are once or twice-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

The SKnet admin alumni is the perfect example of this geographic problem. Griffith lives in California, I live in Maryland, and Aazealh lives in France. This 5,000-mile coastal discrepancy makes scheduling a podcast across the time zones a bit of a crunch. Griff will just be waking up, and Aazealh will have just finished dinner. As a result of this distance, the three of us have never been in the same place at the same time. I’ve met Griffith only once and Aazealh twice—though the last was just for a few hours (but we still managed to record a podcast!).


Griffith in Georgia (2003)

Griffith and I had talked so much online over the years that finally meeting him in person one night in Georgia in 2003 seemed merely like formality. We slipped right into the same groove without issue.

Griffith happened to be in Georgia because he was visiting a friend of his in Atlanta, which was just a hop away from Athens, where I was going to college. So we arranged to meet up—at the premiere of X-Men 2. Why X-Men 2? Well, we were both going to see it anyway, may as well make that the drop-zone. Afterward, we crashed at a nearby friend’s house who had an actual cabinet of TMNT The Arcade Game. The next day we drove to Athens for one of the many weekend parties with my friends, listening to the Mario RPG soundtrack on the trip (“you have this in your CAR?!”).

As the years have piled up, it feels insane that we’ve only met once. But that’s how things go when you’re across coasts.

Griffith:

"Like Walter, I've also had the good fortune of meeting the SK.net admins in person. Walter and Cronus in Georgia back in 2002, and Aaz this last year, who also met my family and joined us for a meal together (oven pizza, made it myself =).
This retrospective project by Walter has been an awesome trip down memory lane. I first heard about Berserk from a guy in high school that basically described it as this killer black knight with a sword the size of a tree. I imagined Nightmare from SoulCalibur, whose best friend becomes a demon, cuts his arm off and rapes his girlfriend. What!? Well then, that sure sounded heavier than the next Super Saiyan power level. I recall specifically being intrigued by how characters could suffer the kind of trauma described and... continue on (shouldn't the story be over =)? So he let me borrow the Chinese sub VCDs and the rest was history. There's probably thousands of stories like that for Berserk fans, if not more.
Berserk, BSOM, and SK.net have been such a prominent part of my daily life for decades now. I feel like it's as much about ourselves, our personal online journey, gross as that sounds, as it is about Berserk. Our history in this community is also our history on the internet and growing up on it. I'm not an active member of any other message board. In general I find them all to be either too big or too small, which sometimes SK.net can feel like when I really want to shoot the shit on something and nobody's home, but usually it's just right, especially for those times I want to be away and not miss too much.
I think SKnet succeeded where others have failed because we simply had and have the goods: Scans (back in the day), translations, summaries, analysis, discussion, and speculation. The long answer of what keeps this ship afloat is FRIENDship and the community itself—Walter most of all. It's not an accident we're still here while even other hyper-focused and deeply influential members, ones that know far more about Berserk than I ever will, aren't. Walter has kept it interesting and moving, even as he was moving into different phases of his life. He never just dropped it and us, like most of us would have for one good reason or another. His limitless passion for the series and this community around it, up to and including this project, explains why he and therefore we have lasted this long."


SKnet Meetup in Paris (2005)

In 2005, I visited Puella and Aazealh at their home near Paris, staying with them for a little more than a week. They met on Skullknight.NET and later married, which made me an indirect matchmaker. Aaz graciously served as my tour guide around the country’s typical spots: The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame cathedral, Versailles. And when we returned each night, Puella had cooked dinner for us.

Puella:

"I came to Skullknight.net in 2001 while searching for a good international community to talk about Berserk. While I'm less active than I used to be, I still check the forum regularly to stay up to date and read what others have to say. I believe that great works of art can be enjoyed throughout the different stages of one's life and the different perspectives they bring. I still find interesting new things in Berserk that I didn't 20 years ago, and I expect I still will 20 years from now.
Of course, SKnet is also where I met my husband and that makes it extra special for me. I've been translating Berserk for some years now, and while it's a lot of work I enjoy diving into Miura's words. To me he really is a great storyteller as well as a great mangaka. So I try to convey his original meaning as much as possible, and I hope our members also cherish those lines, down to the elves' little comments. This thread has been about the past, but for the future, I hope both the manga and SKnet will be brought to the next generation of readers."

On that same trip, we also made a surprise visit to Olivier Hagué, who I’ve already written about in Part 4. By this time, he had already left the forum in 2004, upset over how we handled a troll. I wanted to apologize, because his presence on the forum in the early years was important to me. Olivier had no idea we were coming, and was initially a little reserved (who wouldn't be in that scenario?). We visited a local restaurant in Paris. I got Screwdrivers for the table. And once the drinks mellowed us out, we had a great afternoon.

Aazealh and I would eventually become best friends. With only a few exceptions, we’ve chatted online about SKnet, Berserk, the state of the world, and our lives every day for the past 15 years. And it wasn’t long before I realized that the authority he wielded on Berserk was the exact thing I had been searching for with Olivier—with one big difference. Aazealh stuck around through all the drama over the years, dedicating himself to this community as much as I did.

Aazealh:

"SK.net has been a part of my life for a long time now, so much so that it’s hard to know where to begin talking about it. While it’s a little frustrating to not have been there at the very beginning, it was great to find what already felt like the definitive Berserk community when I joined in late 2002. And it has been my honor and pleasure to contribute what I could to it ever since then.
Obviously at the heart of it is my love for Berserk, a work of art that I believe should go down in history as a once-in-a-thousand-years masterpiece that transcended its medium. But beyond that, SK.net itself has given me lifelong friends and even allowed me to meet my wife. I couldn’t have asked for more.
SK.net has also been the one community that has done justice to Berserk’s greatness over the years. While it slumbers now during the long periods in-between episodes, beneath the embers lies an everlasting flame, always ready to spring back to life. Thanks, all of you, for your passion."

Matchmaking

The community has become a fated meeting spot more than I ever would have expected. Aazealh and Puella met through the site back in 2003. And longtime regulars Grail and Gobolatula also met through the forum and eventually fell for each other. I felt it was important to include their thoughts on the site, since it has a special significance for each of them. So, in their own words:

Grail and Gobolatula:

"Skullknight.net has been an extremely special site to us for nearly 15 years now; it's a digital space where sharing our love of Berserk has not only brought us joy and the opportunity to cultivate new friendships, but it's also brought us together as a couple.
Back in 2009, we first got in touch via the old oekaki board and the site's ancient Flash chatroom, and it wasn't long before we met in person. With some help from "the smooth Frenchman Aaz" (Gob's words), we began dating in 2010, and the rest is history! We both continue to check the site every day for discussion, and still feel very connected to everything going on here.
To us, it's more than just talking about the storyline of a comic, it's really about sharing enthusiasm for a life-changing story that has been a huge positive force to both of us."
The Future of Skullknight.net

This retrospective was focused on the life of the community we’ve formed over the past 20 years. But what about the next 20 years? From that vantage point, we could be beyond the ending of the series. I have been asked before, "What will you do with Skullknight.net once the series is over?"

SKnet will always be around in some form. Well after its conclusion, I will probably pack it away in a publicly explorable archive and continue to pay the bills on it until I die. A founding principle of this site was carrying the torch for Berserk when others couldn’t or wouldn't. I would never allow the accumulation of these memories to simply vanish. And besides, Aazealh and I now share Skullknight.net through a combination of domain ownership and hosting. This arrangement reflects that Aazealh has as much stake in the site as I do at this point.

I don’t think the conversation will ever be over for Berserk. The legacy of Berserk is so much bigger than the moment we’re trapped in now. It’s a series that will have an impact of 100 years or more, reaching millions of new readers in that span of time. I feel proud to have helped usher some of that enthusiasm for a brief part of its life.

One of the primary qualities of Berserk that I’ve found so special is that it has endured for so long without losing its vitality. I believe a key reason for the retention of the series’ glow was mentioned by Miura in a 2019 interview around Duranki’s release (translation courtesy of Puella):

“I've never been bored with Berserk, and no episode has made me think ‘this episode has been imperfectly (poorly) done.’ It's probably because it's not a manga where the same patterns are repeated. I draw the essential themes with ‘hard work’ (he uses an onomatopoeia) and then go to the next theme. I mean I challenge myself to do something new each time.”

At the core of Berserk is a fire that doesn’t burn out. It endures because Miura has dedicated his life to keeping it lit by never settling in a formulaic pattern. I don’t think it’s mere obsession that keeps me and others hooked on Berserk. Despite our scrutiny, Miura still finds creative ways to surprise us.

Skullknight.net has its own fire that doesn't burn out—our community. We would have no reason to continue operating this site for 20 years if the community stopped creating thought-provoking companion discussions for the series. Members of new and old blood mix together in the new episodes thread, and it will until the series ends.

At the end of this long recap of everything SKnet, I want to thank each and every one who has helped by contributing their love and passions for Berserk to our site over the years. You’re the reason we’re still around, and will stay vital until the series is finally over. And after that, we'll do our best to help keep the flame alive.
 
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Here's the first thread I ever made on Black Sun Over Midland (BSOM), the community that preceded SKnet. The Y2K changeover messed with the dates on the BBS it was running on, but it's March 15, 2000.
Damn, feels like more than lifetime ago to me :ganishka:. All jokes aside, it's very interesting to discover how things were in those days. Looking forward to the next post!
 

jackson_hurley

even the horses are cut in half!
Oh cool, this is a thread that I'll follow! I love hearing stories about the beginning of this site. I've discovered it in 2003 but only subscribe in 2005 after remembering it's existence. Wish I could have been here day number 1 but I was not that much of an internet guy (and I did not know the series until 2002/2003).

Good read and keep them coming!
 
Just a week or so ago I was looking at older versions of the site on the Wayback Machine and wondering how it was like during the golden age of the internet, then Walter mentions on the podcast he's preparing a post specifically about that.

You should have kept the oekaki section. :guts:
 

Aazealh

Administrator
Staff member
You should have kept the oekaki section. :guts:
It hadn't been used in years and was getting spammed relentlessly (hundreds of messages per day). Legacy web technologies aren't sustainable, which is why we've regularly upgraded the forum over the years.
 
It hadn't been used in years and was getting spammed relentlessly (hundreds of messages per day). Legacy web technologies aren't sustainable, which is why we've regularly upgraded the forum over the years.
Yeah, I was just kidding. There are some applications out there that support modern web standards, but I know it's a bygone era.
 
Such a big anniversary! Congrats to the community as a whole but a special thanks to our wonderful mods and Walter for kicking all this off. Here's to another 20 years!

"Walter's Sanctuary of Berserk"....ever thought of changing the name back?? I mean it is issss a little more all-encompassing than just "Skullknight" :carcus:
 

Walter

Administrator
Staff member
"Walter's Sanctuary of Berserk"....ever thought of changing the name back?? I mean it is issss a little more all-encompassing than just "Skullknight" :carcus:
Well it’s a bit too “Dave Matthews’ Band” for my tastes. It’s a commmunity after all. But I get into how I settled on the name in one of the future sections. Sneak peek: NO REGRETS.
 

Walter

Administrator
Staff member
2.
Berserk on the Nascent Internet (1994-1998)


In the process of documenting what the Berserk US scene was like when I started reading, I was taken on time-traveling journey which naturally led me to consider how far back I could dive into the past. What would I find if I turned the dial back before the first English-speaking Berserk community?

I wanted to unearth the very first English post about Berserk, and I’m pretty sure I found it on Usenet:


Usenet—the first global, online distributed discussion system—is the precursor to modern forums and discussion platforms like Reddit. Whatever you are interested in, it likely has a category or subcategory you can subscribe to, known as newsgroups. The post above is from rec.arts.manga in October 1994.

I was so happy that I’d found something so early that was historically interesting, instead of meaningless. Andrew was a Berserk fan who spoke into the void in 1994 and received no reply. He was confused. He had been following Berserk in Animal House, the first magazine the series was published in. But that magazine was canceled in 1992. From Andrew's perspective, Berserk had ended prematurely. Maybe it was his local bookstore that told him the news: “Sorry pal, that weird cartoon magazine you imported was canceled.”

Where was he to turn to for news otherwise?

The internet of 1994 was not the robust, comprehensive, if-it-exists-then-people-have-drawn-it-being-fucked-by-Sonic place that it is now. There was no Google (there wasn’t even AltaVista, yet). No industry for anime/manga news. No SkullKnight.net or Reddit. Not even a webring. There was no one to say: "Andrew, all is well!" So he reached out to Usenet, at the time a pillar of the Internet, but no one ever replied.

Nothing relating to Berserk predates this post on rec.arts.manga (or .anime for that matter), and paired with the lack of a reply, this was good enough to serve as the confirmation I had been looking for — Berserk was still unfamiliar to English speaking readers in 1994. No one knew enough about the series to provide him with the obvious answer: Animal House was replaced with Young Animal a month later, and Berserk continued.

Andrew is probably fine. I'm sure he figured things out and got back on the bandwagon. Hey, maybe he's still following Berserk. Maybe he's reading this right now...? In any case, it would be years before any real discussion began about Berserk on the internet. Interest was low, because access was low.

Around 1997, Berserk got a few more namedrops. Perhaps driven by the televised anime at the time, more people had heard about it, and were curious to learn more:



Occasionally you would see Italian and French fans, who already had licensed volumes of their own, drop in to answer questions from curious fans. But through all the name drops and recommendations, I found no discussion of the contents of the story. Likely these early posters were trying to avoid spoilers for people who had not read it yet, so they could discover it for themselves. This generalized discussion could also be a result of it being a generalized manga forum instead of one dedicated to a series.


Here’s someone who had just digested Volume 13, yet refrained from hinting at its tumultuous contents.


Fansubs Hit the US

After the anime was released in Japan in late 1997, VHS/LD copies were imported from overseas, which eventually led to translated fansubs in the states. These were physical handoffs—copies of tapes mailed and passed person to person, west coast college anime club to east coast college anime club. Despite the internet's growth, the late '90s for anime fans was still an era of analog tapes, not digital files.

The distribution of large files like videos was constrained by connection speeds and rudimentary compression formats that made decent quality files very large. Many people were handcuffed to dial-up or dedicated ISDN lines that were capped at 128kbps. If you wanted to download large files, often you had to use download manager software that broke up one file into many, and chip away at an imposing 12MB .exe file over separate dial-up sessions. Such programs also eliminated the fear of someone calling your house and interrupting your download. The introduction of affordable home broadband connections would eventually become the demarcating line between the early and modern internet, but we weren’t there yet.


Source: Cisco. Note the 5x increase in bandwidth usage just between 1997-1999.

Files were traded on IRC (think Usenet, but for chat), but slow connection speeds and the lack of dedicated servers housing these files prevented the unrestrained download of large video files. Decentralized, peer-to-peer file-sharing infrastructures like Kazaa, Napster, and BitTorrent would eventually revolutionize how we distributed files. But in 1997, they were still 3-4 years shy of the home broadband connections they needed to thrive. Even in 1999, when the first known Berserk digital encoding occurred, there wasn't an infrastructure to prop it up.

That meant that between 1997-1999 there was no central, online method to distribute anime. Instead it was governed by fans themselves, who operated their own translation and distribution projects out of their homes. In their minds, they occupied a grey area between rampant piracy and sharing something they deeply loved with like-minded fans.

I crossed paths with one of those distribution operations in 2000, when I started watching Legend of Galactic Heroes. The primary way to acquire the tapes for the huge series (100+ eps) was a kind of hybrid between digital and physical. You had to locate a distributor online, print and fill out a form, then mail a 3-5 pack of blank VHS tapes to a fansub distributor. Often this was a P.O. Box owned by the translator themselves, who made VHS copies of their masters en masse. In a few weeks, your tapes would be back, filled with new episodes.


Protections Clash with Passions

Fansubbing and distribution in those days was work for those involved, and there was no profit in it, thus it didn't feel illegal. But not everyone agreed.

A respected voice in the manga translation industry was quite vocal about the legal pitfalls of fan translation and distribution. Toren Smith was the head of Studio Proteus, a professional translation outfit responsible for bringing popular manga such as Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Astro Boy, Appleseed, Blade of the Immortal and Lone Wolf and Cub to the US.

Here's what he said on the topic over on his site back in 2000 (rescued by the Internet Archive):


Toren disputed the common fan rationalization that mercenary efforts to increase access to a series would ultimately lift it from obscurity, and help the creator profit. It is notable that this exchange happened years before online anime and manga distribution really took off on P2P platforms, where it shed the last vestiges of self-regulation by fans. [Source]

The question of legality wasn't top-of-mind for most fans in 1999. Not much has changed, really. Regardless of whether distribution was prohibited, if someone wanted to watch or read something, they did what was necessary to consume it and share their enthusiasm with others. Fans filled the void in the marketplace themselves by striking out to produce translated work and used it to evangelize the series they loved. And because it was from another country, and in another language, it granted the whole endeavor a mystique that drove further interest and dedication. The hurdles of acquisition were larger then, but that same drive exists today.

The disregard for protections around copyrighted work ran parallel to the zeitgeist of the nascent internet, which propelled everyone toward the state of immediate consumption of media we now fully occupy. The largest difference between 1999 and now is that legitimate platforms like Netflix, Comixology, and Crunchyroll, have been established over the past decade to service that consumption in a way that can directly turn a profit for creators and rights holders, where fansubs were in an economic sense, simply "loss."

Twenty years later, there's not much of an excuse not to support Berserk legitimately. The walls around manga acquisition have been lowered to the ground floor. Digital distribution has been adopted by the Japanese publisher, which releases new issues of Young Animal the same day the print magazine hits store shelves, and it costs fans just $4. Dark Horse also sells digital editions of the manga volumes, which are regularly on sale for $5-6.

Following along with Berserk has never been easier. But that will never stop people from stealing it and making a free option even easier. Scanlation groups still create work that is indistinguishable from the product eventually sold in the marketplace. But they are irresponsibly taking the life of a series in their hands. Whatever their intentions, they have no right to take that business risk for the company that owns it. They have no stake in its future, and any damage their actions might incur will ultimately not affect them.

In June 2000, word first started spreading that an American company had acquired the rights to produce an English-translation of the Berserk anime. Here's Skull Knight, the admin of Black Sun Over Midland at the time, urging fansub distributors to cease operations.

Urban Vision expects to release the 1st video volume later this year, not in August as the article reports. So with this imminent domestic release of our favorite anime, I encourage all websites to cease distributing Berserk fansubs, be it in tape or downloadable (.mpg, rm, etc) format. The fansubs have already served their purpose. An american company has heard and already responded to our clamor so let's support them.
What's notable about this is that it occurred during a time in which it might have been feasible to turn off that faucet. The distribution was only in the hands of a few people. If they had respect for the series in the same way that Skull Knight did, maybe it really would have had an impact, before the advent of mass file sharing?

The distribution of fansubs raised Berserk’s stock of attention online. But it wasn’t the crescendo one would expect. There were a few more posts from people familiar with what Berserk was all about. Berserk was now starting to appear on the radar of a lot more fans, but it wasn’t a community yet.


NEXT: How Walter Found Berserk
 
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Walter

Administrator
Staff member
3.
How Walter Found Berserk (1999)


Berserk and my experience with the internet are fused together. The reason I fell so hard for this one series is because I saw that it could withstand the years of scrutiny that constant discussions online invite. You could not plumb its depths in one or two passes. Re-reading brought new perspectives and talking about it with others was like returning to a well that never ran dry.

But that wasn’t my first perspective on Berserk. Initially, I wasn’t so impressed.

In 1998, I was an 18-year-old in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. Anime had been a peripheral interest of mine since 1995, when I first saw the Akira movie. A few years later, I had exhausted the available ADV Evangelion VHS tapes. Finding new anime tapes became one of my many adventures in avoiding school. I started tracking down tapes by visiting Asian supermarkets and restaurants. Store owners would often rent tapes from their home countries, likely an under-the-counter side business given the nature of things. I watched the first two seasons of Slam Dunk with Cantonese dubs and no subs thanks to this arrangement.

But more than anime, I was interested in video games.

After frequenting the local arcade and dropping way too much money on Marvel vs Capcom, I was introduced to a group of kids at my high school who played Street Fighter competitively. Every weekend was a little party, where 10-15 people would gather around a TV in a dark basement to play on an imported Sega Saturn (which had the best versions of Capcom's fighting games), passing around imported tin cans of syrupy Red Bull and arcade sticks between us. Even if it was predictable who would win based on previous skill levels, we were all getting better as we played, and that was pretty captivating for a while. Among the regulars there was someone who lived down the street from this gathering spot, who would later join SKnet as Cronus. It wasn’t long before I learned that he had more Eva tapes—fansubs. We should talk.

Cronus was two years older than me. He was taking Japanese courses at a local college, and he applied that knowledge toward translating Rurouni Kenshin chapters he scanned from Weekly Shounen Jump magazine. Dropping by his house to read his manga and watch his anime collection (much bigger and more eclectic than mine) quickly became a regular destination for me during and after school. Some days I’d stay past dinner and eat with his family. Though he was initially introduced to me as someone who could get me more Eva tapes, it wasn’t long before we became good friends. Eventually we'd room together at an apartment once I caught up to him in college, and he'd be the best man at my wedding. Earlier this year, just before the pandemic, I surprised him by flying cross-country to visit on his 40th birthday.

Cronus' primary means of distributing his translated Kenshin scans was by mailing Zip disks between his group of friends. As previously explained, in 1998 the mail was still a more feasible solution for distribution than the internet. One of these friends introduced him to Berserk untranslated in the summer of 1999. And on one of my visits to his house, he casually mentioned Berserk in the context of a conversation about badass characters, specifically naming Guts as a pretty badass dude. I put it on my list.

By this point, I had discovered a new avenue for anime tapes—a shop called House of Anime. This place was a real shithole, in retrospect. They profited from fansubbed anime by renting it to customers and sold SonMay soundtrack CDs—a Taiwanese label that distributed bootlegs in a very official-looking capacity. That’s a righteously rotten combination. All the goodwill of the fansubbers, exploited by capitalism—the natural conclusion. Still, HoA was my access point to pretty much every anime that existed in the ‘80s-90s.

The amount of business this freebooting store managed to do was testament to the ferocious appetite in anime fans that wasn’t being served by US publishers yet. In a matter of years, it would be a much different story as more publishers took anime and manga seriously as a money maker for them. But like the broadband milestone, we were not there yet. Instead we fully inhabited the awkward adolescent years of a fandom that was only starting to show signs of maturity.

It was on the shelves of House of Anime that I found one of the early Berserk fansubs.

I wish I could say that fireworks went off. That would certainly make more sense for this 20-year retrospective. But the quality of the VHS tape was extremely low, due to being played so often (as a magnetic medium, a tape’s quality degrades slightly with each play). The colors bled together in every scene, and the audio was scratchy. My first impression was that Berserk must have been a series from the ‘80s. If so, why was I only hearing about it now..?

The first few episodes impressed me, particularly the soundtrack. I was curious about Guts’ revenge (that couldn’t be his name, right? It’s probably “Gatts”) and how he came to be the man he was. But to be perfectly honest, having only seen the first four episodes, it did not carve out a special place in my heart. I tucked the show in the back of my mind and moved on.

It wasn’t too long after I first saw Berserk that I went to Anime Weekend Atlanta ‘99, where I half-assedly cosplayed as Sakuragi Hanamichi from Slam Dunk. I did my teenaged best to dye my brown hair red. You can see the result below. But I was pretty proud of the basketball jersey at the time. I had to custom print it at a local shop, spelling each letter of the team and character’s name in a square on a carbon copy form, as the old man who ran the place just shook his head. “You just want to get ONE jersey? And who is ... Hannahmeechee? 'Zat you?”




The anime convention crowd really wasn't my scene. I wasn't interested in flaunting my anime hobby in such a flamboyant way. I was there to discover new series and meet new people. I do remember seeing Berserk Volume 18, the latest release at the time, on the shelves of the convention's merchandise area. The dramatic cover gave the impression of a final battle, so a part of me assumed the series had already wrapped up. A short while later, I dropped about $200 on all 31 volumes of Slam Dunk, carried the big box out to my car, and read through the series in the back seat.

At the convention, my group collided with another, and we stopped to talk about the series we were most into and share the names of others we’d seen at the show. One of these guys asked if anyone had seen Berserk. I said I’d seen some, and thought it was “okay.” He fixed me with a short, serious look and said that it was his favorite series. That stuck out to me. His hyperbole wasn’t delivered with the teenage bravado you’d expect. I didn’t know the guy. I don’t think I even got his name. But his candid, low-key devotion to Berserk made me reconsider my judgment of the small portion that I’d seen. So, I revisited it and acquired more tapes.

In short order, I’d exhausted House of Anime’s supply of Berserk, which tapped out at Ep 10, ending with Adonis’ death and the Primrose staircase scene (“a friend to me is…”). Those particular sequences sealed the deal for me. There was a lot more going on in this series about a guy named Guts (“Gatts” to me at the time) than was first evident to me. And I was hungry for much more than I could easily get my hands on. I picked up the soundtrack, and it probably stayed in my car stereo for a year.

Until Slam Dunk and Berserk, I had mostly ignored manga as a medium. This was partly due to the language barrier. I couldn't read any Japanese at all yet, and there was virtually nothing stateside to read that interested me. Berserk fundamentally changed that. Being brickwalled by the fansubs ceasing at Ep 10 pushed me toward the manga. And I quickly realized it suited my personal tastes far better than anime ever did. For one thing, it was pure storytelling—a graphically depicted world from the mind of one person, who served as both writer and artist. And most stories barreled forward linearly instead of looping back on themselves repeatedly and without consequence between creative teams, as was common in US comics.

Given this interest, Cronus introduced me to his manga source, Iwase Japanese Books in Atlanta, which had every Berserk volume currently available. Having seen the anime, but not necessarily knowing where to start with the manga (they were shrinkwrapped), I bought a smattering of volumes. Picking the ones I thought had cool covers, I first got 4, 5, 8, and 12-13. As a result, well before the fansubs had caught up to the anime’s version of the Eclipse, I'd already seen the full event as intended, and knew that things didn't end there.

I wanted more, but I needed to know where to start. And so it was around then that I sought more information online, finding an existing Berserk community that was just as fascinated with the series as I was.


NEXT: Black Sun Over Midland
 

Walter

Administrator
Staff member
4.
Black Sun Over Midland (1999-2001)


My earliest experiences online were in search of websites that could keep up with my appetite for new information on whatever I happened to be obsessed with. Back then, many pages were static by design. They displayed the information they intended to share, and that was it—the end. Other sites had a pulse. And in the years before notification icons and social media, you had to discover that heartbeat yourself by reloading a page and looking for site updates.

Years before I found Berserk, Squaresoft (makers of Final Fantasy) games were my primary obsession and the focus of most of my time online.

Take a peek around The UnOfficial Squaresoft Homepage to get an idea of what was, to me in 1995, the platonic ideal for what an internet site should aspire to be. It was owned and operated by a fan (Andrew Vestal, a high-schooler at the time) who had carved out a definitive niche in reporting on Squaresoft games.

In truth there wasn’t that much information to report. But Vestal had found a method of diving deep into the thin veneer of available information on an upcoming game. A new screenshot, character design, interview—each of these warranted an update. And regardless of how small these updates seemed, each one was energizing to the fans. So in 1999 when I had a desperate need to know more about Berserk, it was natural that I found a home on an authoritative site with a community that was constantly introducing new topics to discuss.

The evocatively named Black Sun Over Midland (BSOM) was a Berserk fan site launched in 1998 by a physics professor at South Carolina State University, who went by the moniker Skull Knight.


BSOM was hosted on a university subdomain (physics.scsu.edu), and featured the first English-speaking Berserk community. I’ve archived most of the site’s main content here: http://skullknight.net/BSOM

BSOM was a major turning point for Berserk online—particularly for westerners. Japanese fans naturally had their own Berserk fan sites, along with a 10-year head start on discovering the series. With a basic search, you could find a listing of English-language fan sites with a few images from the anime and scans from the 1997 artbook. But BSOM was full of practical information, not mere fluffy fan praise—full episode listings, character entries, a timeline of story events, details on how to acquire Berserk merchandise (sound familiar yet?).

The star of the site was of course the BBS (bulletin board system), a threaded mass of hundreds of conversations. Not all of it survives, but you can browse the index and get a good, general idea of the flow of discussions by scrolling through the thread titles (which could be changed upon a reply).


BBS (v1) — 512 threads: December 30, 1999- September 9, 2000

In late 2000, the BBS was upgraded to a more traditional-looking forum. But it was apparently more difficult to maintain, and eventually died in 2002.


BBS (v2) — 450 threads: October 19, 2000-June 8, 2002.

My discovery of BSOM and involvement with its community transformed Berserk from an interest into a decades-spanning hobby. I didn’t register to post on the BBS right away. I was content to lurk and read the conversations of others. There were only somewhere around five regular members, along with many transients just dropping by for a post or two. Regulars included Skull Knight, mortalfrog, Wereallmad, Godo, and Rosa. Some of these members would eventually make the leap to SKnet, but none are still around today, unfortunately. Another familiar face also made his first appearance on BSOM—Griffith—the same Griffith on this forum, of course. Which makes him about as weathered a Berserk fan as anyone on the internet.

I started posting as Walter in March 2000, adopting the namesake of a Half-Life scientist, brought to comedic life by a SomethingAwful writer. The language barrier surrounding Berserk was still very much a problem in those days, limiting everyone’s grasp of the story beyond what was covered in the anime. There was only beginning to be a few text translations of scattered episodes in circulation from a member named eirias over on Usenet.

A Light in the Darkness

Berserk was something worth diving deep into. It rewarded deeper readings. And the language barrier meant that you had to decipher its meanings more than a normal comic book, which took a community.

Reading members' descriptions of scenes I hadn’t yet seen, along with their speculations on what they might mean, was intoxicating to me. I read a thread about Gaiseric and Skull Knight based on his Volume 10 backstory before I really even knew who he was. Reading members talk about SK’s origins was a turning point for me. Through discussions like these, the quality of the series began to dawn on me, even though I was only experiencing such scenes through descriptions. These discussions to me were like when the torch was dropped into the depths of the Tower of Rebirth, casting light on the statues in the darkness, revealing the hidden world beneath.

There would be moments of rejuvenation in the future, but from that point forward, Berserk had me completely in its clutches. The true “beginning” to SKnet was the feeling I had in that moment, because it propelled all of my decisions afterward toward recapturing that excitement for discovery.

It’s extremely difficult for me to return to my older posts, because I could be pretty obnoxious. I was headstrong, I thought I was funny when I was really just random, and I weighed in on threads even though I didn’t always know what I was talking about. When I re-discover moments like these, I often joke with Aazealh that I’d probably have banned myself, were this SKnet. Would I, though…? This loud kid means so well! I'd certainly put him on quarantine until he calmed down, though.

That’s the trouble with the internet. It doesn’t preserve things as you’d like to remember them, but reflects events as they truly were—whether you like it or not. Like most people, I’m a different person at 38 from who I was at 19. Time makes fools of us all. The internet merely lets that fundamental truth accumulate receipts.

All of us on BSOM had gathered around a fire we were compelled by. And while I was participating primarily to learn more about the series, I also wanted to entertain people and liven up the otherwise scholarly atmosphere. Sometimes that meant interrupting the Episode 172 discussion thread with an update about being hospitalized.


I really did go to the hospital that night, for what it's worth (not much!)

3 Milestones

Three major moments of the BSOM days kept their hooks in me through the years.

The first was the Dreamcast game’s localized release, and how interesting it was to watch the community react to their previously unknown favorite series suddenly appearing on store shelves. I don’t think I ever heard the full story behind this, but BSOM was well-known enough to receive a “special thanks” credit in the US manual of the game. Not too shabby!

The second was in July 2000, when I started posting scans of new Berserk episodes. I’ve already reviewed how that impacted discussions in part one of this series of articles. But in short, the site quickly drew an international crowd, and the community suddenly had a lot more Berserk content to chew through than we did previously. In the span of a year, thread replies went from around 10 in June 2000 to 200+ in June 2001. Every two weeks, we were re-energized with new possibilities.

It bears mentioning that between 1999-2001, Miura was producing episodes at an unreasonably fast rate. Between those three years, he missed only six magazine deadlines, producing 20 episodes each year. By contrast, the high water mark for the past decade now was 9 episodes a year. We did not know how good we had it.

The third was the arrival of a French member, Olivier Hagué. Unlike everyone else on BSOM, who were learning something new about Berserk every day, Olivier arrived as a fully formed Berserk expert. He could read Japanese, and was a professional translator himself. So he had not only already read and understood the series thus far, but followed the latest updates on Japanese Berserk communities. That gave him a huge edge over the rest of us in discussing things on BSOM, and it resulted in his posts shedding light on the wide gulf in our grasp of the series. Initially that was a bit like the ending to Lord of the Flies.

The moment of Olivier’s arrival led to an embarrassing scenario, where he casually pointed out how wrong we were about what SK says in Volume 18 regarding Femto’s incoming incarnation ceremony. If you merely look at the images of that scene and reach a conclusion, as we did, it looks like Guts and SK are just reviewing the dangers lurking in the dark. Without translations, the direction the events in Volumes 19-20 were heading remained mysterious to us. But if you can understand the text, it’s made pretty plain what is about to occur: Femto/Griffith would return to the physical world after a once-in-1000-years event. This sounded like wild speculation to us, at the time. I rejected these notions, which was really just Olivier repeating what was on the page to us, and was justifiably (and politely!) slammed for it. Once he pointed out the truth to us, he gained immediate credibility. His future contributions fundamentally changed how we understood the series.


Moderation
To my recollection, things never got heated between members on BSOM. I was probably the loudest one there, but I was also well-intentioned. And even without any status, I did what I could do to keep the community going by answering questions and providing information to newer members. Our numbers were so small at the time that moderation needed only to be lightly applied, if at all.

The other factor in play was that it was unclear to us if anyone was around to do any moderation. The site owner, Skull Knight, had a busy life of his own. Everyone who was a regular on BSOM had a deep respect for Skull Knight, who was extremely polite and cordial with everyone, no matter how obnoxious they were. He didn't post often, but when he did it was a little celebration.

The occasional friction would crop up, but it was rare. In one instance, someone posted a link to their translations, and it had some significant problems. Olivier and Cronus pointed out the errors, which resulted in the “offended party” going on a forum-wide flaming session, calling us “full of ourselves” (See? It predates SKnet). This event led to the person email spamming various members with similar messages.

Just as it is today, people on the internet hate being told that they’re wrong, and sometimes they are willing to go to war over the perceived offense.


Decline
In July 2001, the BBS started falling apart. Posts were disappearing, dates were acting screwy, and thread titles were not linking where they were supposed to. It got to the point where new posts couldn't be seen, and were simply vanishing.



During that month-long window of opportunity, BSOM members were without a home. So I launched the forum that you’re reading this on now. The final BSOM BBS post occurred in September 2001, which we posted about here on SKnet. Skully would finally take down the community in 2002, after the discussion activity had primarily migrated to Skullknight.Net.

“I have finally removed the BBS section of the site because I cannot devote any time to perform administrative work on it,” Skull Knight wrote in a June 8, 2002 update.

My access to old-timers from BSOM is limited, so I unfortunately couldn’t pull fresh perspectives. But here’s Wereallmad’s take on those days from his own retrospective post in 2006:

“It was totally different than what you find on message boards today, smaller and much more cohesive. Discussions were surprisingly focused, though I guess it pretty much had to be, given the simplicity of the bbs software.

Skully was pretty cool too, I even played PSO [Phantasy Star Online, for Dreamcast] with him, back when you didn't have to pay a monthly fee.

The last time I spoke with him, he was super stressed out from work and sounded pretty down. Then he just dissapeared completetly, and the site never got updated afterwards (to my knowledge, I stopped checking after a while).”
After some sleuthing I tracked Skull Knight down over email in 2012, more than a decade after SKnet took off. I was excited to share with him a few updates on the series, along with our new podcast. His reply follows:

“Congratulations! Looks like you have a great thing going with your website and a surprisingly active fanbase. I doubt that I would have done a better job than what you've done. Berserk is definitely in better hands now that you are at the helm.”
I was humbled. A website dedicated to a single series was an anachronism at the time, particularly so today. Most fans have migrated to dedicated discussion platforms like Reddit and social media groups that allow them to stay in touch with multiple series simultaneously through updates dropped into their amalgamated feeds. But for discussing Berserk, I don’t think there’s ever been any better place or assemblage of personalities than the one we built together over 20 years, and it all started with his efforts.


NEXT: Launching Skullknight.NET
 
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Reading through this last update really shows the excitement you probably relived, while writing this text:ubik:

I think I somewhere read (or heard about in the podcast) a bit more about the BSOM founder Skull Knight, did he mention if he’s still following the series or his reason not to be part of an/this online community? Can’t remember.
 

Walter

Administrator
Staff member
Reading through this last update really shows the excitement you probably relived, while writing this text:ubik:

I think I somewhere read (or heard about in the podcast) a bit more about the BSOM founder Skull Knight, did he mention if he’s still following the series or his reason not to be part of an/this online community? Can’t remember.
Yep, the email I reference in the latest part has another paragraph where he said he checks in on Berserk from time to time, just not to discuss it.
 

Fancypantaloons

Trapped in time. Surrounded by evil. Low on gas.
I deeply enjoy reading stuff like this. This is exactly what I was talking about in the Forum Nostalgia thread. I do not know exactly why I enjoy this kind of thing, maybe it makes me feel part of it. I think about where I was in the years you point, it makes me think a lot. I really connected with this part you wrote:

It’s extremely difficult for me to return to my older posts, because I could be pretty obnoxious. I was headstrong, I thought I was funny when I was really just random, and I weighed in on threads even though I didn’t always know what I was talking about. When I re-discover moments like these, I often joke with Aazealh that I’d probably have banned myself, were this SKnet. Would I, though…? This loud kid means so well! I'd certainly put him on quarantine until he calmed down, though.

That’s the trouble with the internet. It doesn’t preserve things as you’d like to remember them, but reflects events as they truly were—whether you like it or not. Like most people, I’m a different person at 38 from who I was at 19. Time makes fools of us all. The internet merely lets that fundamental truth accumulate receipts.
I got into the internet at 11 years old, and man, it's difficult to look back at things I done, wrote and said in the past, in forums and videogame clans. But it is a good thing, it shows self-growth. We are all flawed, so if you look back at your life and you don't feel that cringe the deeper you go, it may mean you did not grow much.

So let me raise my cup for you, Walter. I know you wrote about a lot of stuff, but I got to stop at this particular spot for a moment. It feels nice to read something I've been thinking about for a long time, even though I know we all felt this at some point.

Cheers.
 

Walter

Administrator
Staff member
5.
Launching Skullknight.NET


In August 2000, I acquired my first Young Animal magazine, after signing up for a half-year subscription at a local Japanese bookstore. Inside this issue was Berserk 165, just before Guts faced off against Mozgus, towards the end of Volume 20. Of course, no one on Black Sun Over Midland (BSOM) had read Volume 20 yet. It wasn’t out yet. We were still trapped at the end of the latest volume, nine episodes before Ep 165. Nevertheless, I was about to post it online and share this futuristic-feeling Berserk episode with the world.

But how would I share it? I didn’t have a website. There was no imgur or similar image sharing service I could use.

The quickest solution was to register a free GeoCities site and host the images there. But why stop there? At that point, I had a whole 25 MB of storage to play with. The 165 scans only took up about half of that. By September, I had updated the site to be more than just an image host and came up with a name.



I drove into Atlanta every two-three weeks to pick up the latest Young Animal, and as new Berserk episodes piled up on the site, it wasn’t long before I outgrew GeoCities’ bandwidth and size restrictions. There was now a global audience gathering around the scans. So I moved to a “50megs” account, another free host with slightly more space. Naturally, I hit another wall soon afterward.


A New Domain
I had put off the inevitable long enough. I had to either abandon this side project, restrict how I operated it, or upgrade and keep building. I was enjoying bringing fresh Berserk to people. It felt good to finally give back to a community I loved. And ever since the Squaresoft days, I had aspirations of running my own site one day. I decided to make my mark on the Internet.

On October 20, 2000, I registered Skullknight.NET and parked it at a real host, which was ~$40/month at first. I chose the domain name after polling the BSOM community. Initially I wanted to land Skullknight.COM, but it was already registered earlier that year. That person contacted me via email with an offer to sell it to me for an exorbitant cost. Domain profiteering… in our little community? Years later, I'm pleased that I stuck with NET. But I learned while typing this up that whoever owned .COM actually set SKnet as a redirect. So... belated victory? Thanks!

By that point, I had far more space and bandwidth than I knew what to do with. So I started creating the kind of site I always wanted—one with constant updates. I scanned iconic Berserk scenes and colored them in Photoshop. I created a corner of the site that housed my speculations. I wrote summaries of Volumes 13-16.



Purple was my thing, I guess?

I started scanning my own Berserk volumes to help bridge the gap between the anime and the manga. I wanted to help answer some of the most common questions on BSOM—What happens after the Eclipse? How does Guts survive? Does Casca make it, too? So I created a “Post-Eclipse” section of the site that featured low-resolution, translated scans of the immediate pages after the Eclipse, leading up to the end of the Golden Age. These were terrible. They looked bad and they read even worse. They were the first and last scanlations to be hosted on this site.


Amazingly, I still sometimes see these in circulation online. Nothing on the internet disappears, even if it deserves to.

For most of its first year, Skullknight.NET was a quirky Berserk fansite that very few people visited. The main draw of the site was the new episode scans, which were linked to on BSOM threads. But in late 2000, that site’s bulletin board system (BBS) began experiencing downtime for days at a time without explanation. I knew that the admin, Skull Knight, was an adult with a life of his own. His place of work was part of the domain the site was housed on. But as a 19-year-old, it frustrated me that there seemed to be no recourse during these downtimes, even as new episodes rolled in. I wanted to read new discussions about the series every day.


Awkward Beginnings

With BSOM going dark more regularly, I started looking into creating my own Berserk BBS.


I tried to update my site with a little news item every day. The pace also pushed me to constantly be working on new content to share.

A few days later Skull Knight returned, restored the BBS, and things were back on track. I launched my little side BBS anyway. It became a useful place to turn to whenever the primary community was inaccessible. It looked like this:


While this design looks hilariously quaint now, it was pretty fun to have avatars for each post, instead of the pure text of BSOM.

There were no user accounts, or assigned avatars. This meant anyone could write whatever name they wanted before posting, and had to choose from 1 of 20 set avatars for each post. It was amusing chaos, though.

This first iteration of SKnet’s community didn’t last very long. I took it down in April 2001 as activity slowed and it was unsustainably hard to maintain. The script created HTML files, and when one page was “full” you had to manually upload it as an archive, then change your previous archive links to the older pages. It was custom-coded in Perl by a friend of mine. I didn’t know Perl, and learning it on-the-fly wasn’t quite the same as the rudimentary HTML I’d picked up by myself.

Still, the idea of running my own community was in the back of my head, and I started shopping around for better solutions.


Under a New Flag

In July, BSOM went dark—really dark. Threads would disappear after posting, the dates were wrong, and when you clicked on a new thread, often you landed somewhere else. So on August 1, I pulled the trigger on launching a new community on Skullknight.NET using YaBB,a free forum software package that was far more advanced than either BSOM or the custom Perl script I was running before. Even this early version of YaBB was essentially the same forum that SKnet would run on for the next 20 years, with slight platform and version upgrades over time. We flowed directly from YaBB into its successor, SMF.

I got the site up just in time to discuss Ep 185 with everyone, and a month before BSOM’s BBS effectively died in September.


This is not the earliest version of the forum (it launched August 2001, and this is April 2002), but it’s the earliest that’s archived on the internet and it’s pretty close to the original design.

The move from BSOM’s single, streaming feed of threads to the category and topic structure of YaBB motivated conversations to branch out more. Instead of generalized Berserk chatter, we had dedicated lanes for different types of conversation. This is when we created “Shootin’ the Breeze,” and “Speculation Nation.” Off-topic, current release discussions, and theories each had their own territories where they could thrive without “bumping” another topic too far down the stream of new threads. And all that newfound space pushed people to fill it out with new ideas.

The admins at the beginning were myself and Cronus. We shared an apartment in Athens, Georgia, where we were both in college. It was around this time that Griffith and I were having nightly AIM chats that would keep me up until daylight. And because he already pretty much shared the load in keeping conversations going on the forum, and he had become a close friend, it wasn’t long before he was added as an admin as well.

Back over at BSOM, episode conversations moved in parallel to those on SKnet for a while, until activity stopped completely in late September.



BSOM was always great! Migrating the community to Skullknight.NET was never meant to be a coup. It was meant to keep the fire alive when BSOM was down. And as conversations came alive on the new platform, it was clear that this was a community that was primed for massive growth.


NEXT: Milestones (final?)
 

Walter

Administrator
Staff member
Walter, those scans and the post-Eclipse content you created were my first exposure to the Berserk manga. I had no idea that stuff came directly from you. Thank you so much!
It’s a dubious honor, to be sure. :farnese: The translations were based on work from a guy named eirias/McGuffin (went by both names depending on the community) that could be found pretty easily back then. And I say “based on” because I took certain uhh liberties with the writing to spice it up to my liking. Very responsible.
 
It’s a dubious honor, to be sure. :farnese: The translations were based on work from a guy named eirias/McGuffin (went by both names depending on the community) that could be found pretty easily back then. And I say “based on” because I took certain uhh liberties with the writing to spice it up to my liking. Very responsible.
No need to be embarrassed. I always took scanlations with a grain of salt back in the day. It was just neat seeing the art and reading about what happened.
 

Oburi

All praise Grail
Already the final huh. Damn. This was excellent. I love the history of Sk.net. I only visited Sk.net once before finding a superior Berserk site, Yong's Berserk Page :troll: However it wasn't too long before I came lurking back.
 

Walter

Administrator
Staff member
I only visited Sk.net once before finding a superior Berserk site, Yong's Berserk Page :troll: However it wasn't too long before I came lurking back.

YONNNNNNGGGGGGGGGG!!!!
Yeah dude, that is not a joke that has transcended time. For the uninitiated, in 2002 a guy named Yong had his own Berserk site. While it was prettier to look at than SKnet at the time, Yong cultivated a reputation for himself as a plagiarist by taking some of our content (episode scans, translations, even encyclopedia stuff) and repurposing it into some genuine necromancer shit—full volume scanlations. We didn't even get a mention in his Special Thanks page! What a guy!
 

Walter

Administrator
Staff member
6.
SKnet Milestones (2001-2020)


I modeled Skullknight.NET and the Berserk Encyclopedia on Black Sun Over Midland. Seeing that site fading away spurred me to make something of my own. I wanted this to be the destination for fans of Berserk, fostering the most informed community of people devoted to it.

Griffith returned in 2001, the same year I launched this forum. At the time I felt that Berserk could feasibly end in maybe 10 years. After all, like Guts says, now he’s within reach of his sword. I never could have imagined I’d still be running the site after 20 years—half of my life—with no clear end on the horizon. But carrying me through all those years, and all the years still to come, was a community willing to go on that journey with me.

It’s not unheard of for a website to have legs that long, but it’s certainly rare. Many communities like ours tend to last for a handful of years before disappearing, with its members scattered to the winds. And participating in a Berserk community in the way that we do is tougher than most series. Its release pace requires fans to endure through long stretches of nothing and be ready, chomping at the bit, when Miura has something new to share with fans. So it’s understandable that most people give up. Interest fades. Real life gets in the way. Priorities for their time online shift. Or they simply don’t like the direction the series has taken.

Other than creating a family of my own, helping to build and sustain the SKnet community of Berserk fans has been the thing I'm most proud of.

It’s impossible to capture all the events, drama, and excitement that occurs over 20 years of a forum. But I have tried to write down the bigger milestones for this site and forum during that time.


The Berserk Encyclopedia (2001-2007)
Once the forum took off in 2001, among the first features I added to the site was a Berserk FAQ. This was intended to provide quick-and-dirty answers to the most commonly asked questions by new fans of the series. But it eventually encompassed an expanded version of BSOM’s own character guide and timeline.

Fast-forward about two years, and I had a spare summer in college. I spent months overhauling the Berserk FAQ to turn it into the Berserk Encyclopedia. I remember writing up the structure of it and jotting notes while on road trips with friends for months. Eventually, I had added a tremendous amount of more information, including a resource I have used probably every day since I created it, the Volume and Episode listing page. I brought the character guide all the way through to Millennium Falcon with little colored pictures. And a few years later, I would end up adding a Glossary and in 2005, Guts’ Kill Roster, with PHP help from Cronus.


The Berserk Encyclopedia in 2004

The trouble with the Encyclopedia was that it was so compartmentalized in individual HTML files that it was very difficult to maintain. Adding a new character was a chore, and extraneous information like keeping up with all of the merchandise was more of a lift than I felt it was worth at a certain point. People who wanted that information could usually find it on the forum. So I pared back my own efforts in keeping the thing as updated as I had planned. Instead I focused on the resources I needed myself, like the manga listing.

Around that time, in 2007 or so, the web itself was growing and changing. Having fully baked HTML pages of information was an ancient solution. But I never gained sufficient web design savvy or coding knowledge to take this little side project to the next level. And so work languished.


The Berserk Encyclopedia in 2007, essentially the modern era.

Which brings us to today, where the Encyclopedia looks pretty much the same as it did in 2007, during the last major overhaul. It’s still worth exploring, but it hasn’t been the de facto destination source of Berserk information for well over a decade at this point.


Oekaki — Community Drawing Board (2003-2005)
For about two years, we had a web-based drawing board called Oekaki (a Japanese word for “scribble”) where anyone could submit a sketch. You couldn’t take this into Photoshop and spice it up to re-upload. You had to work with the limited tools on the digital canvas: a few colors, brushes, and effects. It democratized art submissions, because everyone was working within the same constraints, and you could create an image in a few minutes and hit post.

Some of the ideas people came up with were incredibly creative, ranging from pure comedy to dramatic and amateur to professional. They added a fresh dimension for fans’ perceptions of characters and scenarios, real and imagined, and quickly took on a life of their own. I eventually bought a Wacom tablet, because drawing with a mouse was a huge limitation. And I’m probably not the only one to take that step. You’d see other people’s art improving and think, “Man, I’ve got to up my game!”


“Beasty gots issues,” by Grail


“What she wants may not be what you want,” by Walter

I’m proud of the eclectic mix of art we amassed over those years, and I truly wish we could have kept this side area of activity alive. But like anything on the internet, as it aged, it started to fall apart, eventually becoming a security vulnerability for the site. Hundreds if not thousands of spam comments started to flood the posts every day. And with no easy way to mitigate them, the best way to protect the site was to take the board down.

You can check out the nearly 250 pieces of art that were submitted on the Oekaki here (thanks to @m for helping with this little gallery). You’ll notice a few familiar names pop up, namely Griffith, Puella, Aazealh, myself, and of course, the Oekaki MVP—Grail.


Responding to Growth (2004)
When the site started, moderation between users wasn’t a huge priority. The regulars in the early days were the same close-knit crew who had already been introduced to each other on BSOM. But as the scans picked up steam worldwide, the site grew, attracting hundreds of new users per month. Naturally, it became louder and more unmanageable.

Activity exploded between 2002-2004. At one point in 2004, the forum’s peak of activity, there were more than 4,000 posts in April alone—an average of 133 posts per day. Properly managing all that activity required reading if not participating in each of those discussions to ensure there wasn’t rampant abuse or mistreatment. This fast-paced time also struck at a time when I was extremely busy finishing up college, and didn’t even have internet access at my apartment.

We needed to be delivered from this chaos. We needed order. We needed someone like Aazealh. By September 2004, Aazealh was a relatively new presence on the forum, but he had very quickly established himself as an authority on Berserk, swooping in on threads to correct inaccuracies in much the same manner as today. So without much debate, he was promoted to admin along with me and Griffith.



What’s funny to me looking back on this is how little we really knew about Aaz at the time. We placed a lot of faith in his knowledge of the series and relied on his general “serious business” attitude to help rein things in. We needed that kind of approach, because it contrasted with how Griff and myself approached management—we were more often than not simply jokers who happened to know a lot about Berserk.


Aazealh’s Moonlight Boy Discovery (2006)



Most people who have read Berserk have closed a volume filled with excitement to share their wild, speculative ideas about where things are headed. Attempts to unravel the series’ many mysteries can often resemble conspiracy theories. But there was one instance in the forum’s history where instead of a sprawling, yarn-covered cork board, it felt like we’d seen a peek behind the curtain of what could be one of Miura’s masterstrokes.

In 2006, Aazealh discovered something that Miura had slipped into Volume 28—a new page. On its surface, it wasn’t much to speak of. But the additional page drew attention to a suspicious silhouette that had been there all along. Miura was tipping his hand, ever so slightly, about Zodd being near the beach when the Boy in the Moonlight arrived. Aazealh took that morsel and ran with it, realizing how it slotted into place for how the boy was at the center of the triangle between Guts, Griffith, and Casca, and what that said about the future for them.

Sixteen years later, we’re still talking about this idea, because other hints that have been dropped over the years bolstered, not discredited, the original idea. It was the singular moment out of all the endless speculation threads where I felt like someone had struck paydirt. It was a puzzle piece so congruent with the rest that it felt like we had been given a peek behind the curtain.


April Fools Pranks (2007- )
Throughout the 2000s, every year we’d try to do some prank on each other and the community. Naturally, after a few years you could see them coming a mile away, but we still managed to sneak a few past people. Sometimes these were simple as instigating an online feud between Aazealh and I, or switching the domain names around temporarily. But Gobolatula, Aazealh, and Griffith each created ones on their own that were absolutely legendary.

A few of the memorable ones include:

2007: Berserk “20 Years Later”
A special advertisement landed in the Ep 284 thread about a new “20 Years Later” project Miura was working on. It showed old man Guts, then later we saw Isidro as an older, wiry swordsman, Griffith on his throne, and a very tired Casca. This was all Griffith’s doing, and Puella and Aazealh helped bring it to life as an advertisement. It spread over to Japanese forums, where a few were also fooled—amazing. To this day, I see this pop up from time to time on Reddit and on 2ch, and it does still manage to catch a few people off guard. [See the full ad here]



2008: Changed domains to KnightofSkeleton.net (Dark Horse’s translation of “Skull Knight”)

2010: Berserk on PSP
A magazine clipping showing a PSP port of the Berserk Dreamcast game was posted on SKnet. We tracked it down to a Japanese blog that had a history dating back several months. This was complicated, and it was all Aazealh’s work. He had made the Japanese blog several months back to lend it credibility once he made the magazine post, a little closer to April. He got a Japanese magazine and modeled a Photoshop off of a page in the book, overlaying the text, even down to adding in a PSP blue X for the QTE in the screenshot. Magnificent!



2011: Fake Episode 319 leak, complete with fake art teaser featuring a God Hand appearance
2011: We made a temporary forum theme (design and colors) after the site was taken over by a Reaper from Mass Effect, complete with a new admin, Harbinger.
2013: Gobolatula landed the scoop of the century—an exclusive interview with Miura’s cousin, Ricardo Miura, on camera!



2015: I posted one of my 2000-era Skull Knight speculations verbatim, and Aazealh gave me The Treatment.


Warnergate (2006)
We couldn’t have operated a forum for 20 years if the admins didn’t agree on most things. Over all the years we’ve worked together, there’s only one moment when Aazealh, Griffith, and myself were not in sync with a moderation decision, and it resulted in a black eye. It’s still a little awkward to discuss even though it’s been 15 years, but it’s definitely a milestone worth retelling in the context of the forum’s history.

In 2005 the editor of Dark Horse’s Berserk localization, Chris Warner, joined our forum. His posts provided insight on some of the translation decisions they made, and he shared the publishing business realities they faced as a company. This was unique, valuable information for any fan community to have access to, and we collectively felt grateful that he’d cross the aisles and help fans understand the company’s perspective.

But around the time of Volume 13’s release, DH’s choice to include sound effect boxes on top of the art ripped a hole in the delicate balance between our desire to support the official localization and our desire to see Berserk properly represented. Members were talking about boycotting the series, and a negative atmosphere was building around DH. Warner was suddenly nowhere to be found.

After a few weeks of these mounting criticisms, Griffith posted a sarcastic jab at Warner’s lack of response to the sound effects discussion. This was a bit much, but anyone who knew Griff’s personality knew it shouldn’t be taken seriously. Warner didn’t, though. Just a few hours later, he reappeared on the forum and posted an impassioned response over what he perceived as an insult.

“...One thing I can do, though, is make damn sure I don't respond to insults, particularly from those who bravely hide in cyberspace behind pseudonyms.” —Chris Warner
Recognizing that Warner wasn’t just any member, Aazealh did his level-headed best to mediate things and return civility to the conversation. That’s probably what any good moderator should have done if the objective was to calm the waters.

“Hi Chris, and thanks for taking time to come over here and address some of our members' concerns. First off I'd like to state that the post that offended you is merely the expression of an individual member's opinion and is in no way representative of our community's stance on this matter.” —Aazealh
But that tactic struck a nerve in me. Not only was Griffith a close friend of mine, I found Warner’s response unprofessional and not in character with someone in a position of leadership—even if he was provoked unnecessarily by one of our members. As the representative of a company, he had a responsibility to maintain civility when speaking to customers.

So I overruled Aazealh by playing my ownership card.

“I'd like to state that Griffith's post DOES represent the opinion of Skullknight.net, since I own it and agree with him. I find it reprehensible that Chris decided to appear now, only when he was mock-insulted by Griff. Really, great work supporting the readers by ignoring us these past months during the SFX crisis, but magically appearing the ONE TIME someone makes a jab at your position.” —Walter
That was all it took. Infighting among admins and disputing the good name of his company? Warner was out. That was the last we saw of him. With fifteen years between that event and now, would I have responded any differently? Despite the bad outcome overall, I don’t think I’d feel any differently, for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned. But we definitely should have grouped together before each one of us made such bold declarations.


The Miura Interview (2009)
Around the time of my wedding in 2008, I reached out to a band I had been following for a number of years via email to let them know I was planning on playing a song of theirs at my ceremony. Surprisingly, I got a response—and a good one. This led to a series of emails back and forth. The experience of reaching out on a longshot and getting a response left me with a sensation of anything being possible. If some obscure band would respond to my heartfelt message, why not Miura himself? If so, what would I ask him?

So I pitched it to the forum, and together over a series of months, we cobbled together nine questions that we’d like answers to. Coming up with these wasn’t easy, because we didn’t want to repeat what had already been covered in interviews. We had to jab into new areas, and be slightly bold yet not so bold that he wouldn’t respond. Aazealh edited in some politeness and tone, and Puella lended her translating skills to turn it into a letter in Japanese to ensure that it didn’t just get tossed in the garbage. I mailed the letter in March 2009 and only sort of hoped for a response.

On April 2, I got a call from my wife at work. The post office had left a note on our door, saying a package from Japan required a signature for hand delivery. But with no one home, it was sent back to the post office. I immediately ditched work and arrived panting at the post office a half-hour later. It was in a pristine plastic sleeve, and though I didn’t know Japanese, seeing the “60-70%” in one of the answers, told me that I was looking at genuine answers to our questions.



I raced home, scanned it, and let everyone on the forum know the good news. I also phoned Aazealh’s home, which I’d only ever done once before. He answered sleepily. I excitedly told him the good news, but he acted suspiciously nonchalant: “Oh yeah…? Uh huh, sure...” Why was he being like this? Fuck! Of course, it’s April 2! We’re still in the April Fools Day window! I assured him in my most earnest tones that this was Serious Fucking Business. But I don’t think he believed me until he saw the images I took of the envelope. And so, even though it was late at night in Paris, Puella and Aazealh went to work translating Miura’s reply.

As we soon learned, Miura’s letter was actually from his editor at the time, Akira Shimada— Miura’s right-hand-man in his day-to-day affairs for more than a decade. Shimada said he recorded Miura’s answers to each question, and let us know this was a very special occasion indeed:

“It’s very rare for Miura to answer these kinds of questions. It would be good if you could think of it as his service for foreign fans like you.”
Read the fully translated interview here. Needless to say, getting an actual response from Miura himself was validating for our little community—like being blessed by the Pope. It sent a jolt through everyone who was there, and it easily remains the most significant event in our long history.

To show our appreciation, we sent a response letter back to Miura, along with a super cute gift—a bookmark with a few of our Berserk emoticons cross-stitched by a member’s 9-year-old daughter. I never got a reply, and I never expected one. It’s enough for me to know that if the first letter landed on Miura’s desk, the special effort of a bookmark would also have made it through.


The SkullKast (2012-current)
Credit where credit is due—we should have done a podcast much sooner. Check out Yota821 over here, recording a solo podcast with his Episode 295 commentary four years before we launched our own podcast! Why didn’t I recognize the potential for this at the time?

I have been listening to various podcasts since about 2009, when my commute to work was about 50 min each way, every day. Listening to GFW Radio and the Giant Bombcast made those trips no big deal. But more than entertainment, what was interesting about these podcasts was that hearing the hosts talk exposed their personalities in ways reading their thoughts in articles simply couldn’t achieve. After a few years, it seemed obvious to me—I’d love to hear people talking about Berserk, but no one has done that yet. What’s stopping us from doing it ourselves?

So one afternoon in February 2012, I posted a poll on the forum to gauge interest in a Berserk-themed podcast. All signs said go. So that afternoon, Griffith, Aazealh, and I gathered around microphones to record the first podcast based on our review of Ep 326 and a 10-min teaser of the first Golden Age movie. It’s a rough recording. But about halfway through it, I realized the potential with this group and all the topics we could pull from. That first year, we recorded a podcast every week. Then my son was born in November 2012, and we had to scale things back a bit. We went down to about a month at a time.

Good podcasts are about chemistry between speakers. How well do they know each other? Can they bounce off of what they say seamlessly? Do they know the topic well enough to weigh in authoritatively? Our years of experience together on the forum eliminated these challenges. And talking in real-time opens up completely new avenues for conversation that just don’t happen due to the nature of asynchronous forum post replies. In doing so, we exposed previously undiscovered gulfs in our agreements about certain series events (why did Zodd throw his sword to Guts?) It was exciting!

Our biggest challenge? Miura went on a year-long Berserk hiatus in 2013. What a time to launch a podcast! By the time we reached our second year, we had only talked through nine Berserk episodes. For the rest of those 40-something podcasts, we had to think outside-the-box. I feel like some of my best Berserk writing happened in podcast notes that ended up thrown out so that I could speak into a microphone in a summary format for the show. But I also came out of those experiences feeling like I understood the series better as a result, and I hope some of that is imparted to listeners.

The podcast is the one project I’ve launched on SKnet where I can never get enough. We’re 8 years and 107 episodes in (much more if you include all the side projects) at this point, and at the end of each one, I’m immediately ravenous to record more. It’s only real-life that gets in the way of us doing these every single week.


NEXT: From in-person to real life
 
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Grail

Feel the funk blast
Damn, now we're getting to the part that I recognize! :slan:

It's a trip looking back on all of these moments... and an even greater trip to realize that I've been on the site for almost 15 years!

One particular bit not mentioned in your summary (probably rightfully so) was the ancient, glitchy Flash chatroom. By today's standards, it was almost impossible to use, but that is where I feel like I made the most immediate connections with other users. I have very fond memories of spending my 2006 summer vacation chatting (literally the ENTIRE day), with fellow SK folks, eagerly awaiting the new episodes, and attempting to break the chat bot that you guys let loose in there every once in a while - when you stumped it, it would often try to reset the conversation by saying "enough about that, let's talk about my dress!" :ganishka: We would use the chatroom to play trivia games, had Q&A sessions with Aaz (this was years before the podcast, so it was cool to see him display his encyclopedic knowledge in real time), and generally just blabbing about your day. I really treasure those memories! It makes me wish that more regulars would hang out in our SK Discord, but it doesn't seem to have picked up steam in the time it's been around. I hope folks will drop by so that someday, we can relive the old glory days of the chat.
 
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