Check back later for Part 2 of the senses-shattering series on sexual morality. In the meantime, this is supposed to be a review site, so here’s a review.
Yes, that means no chicken-fucking today, either. But this book comes close, my friends–very close (check out page 224).
Phoenix Volume 9: Strange Beings/Life, Osamu Tezuka. Viz, 2006. $14.99, 208 pages.
Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix is one of comics’ great unfinished epics, fit to take its place alongside such literary oeuvres incomplètes as Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. Like those works (Musil’s in particular), Phoenix is broad in scope and ambition, a vast, mad novel of ideas. Also like those works, Phoenix is not altogether incomplete. Although he may not have finished the entire series before his death, Tezuka did leave us with several relatively self-contained volumes, as vital and essential in their own right as anything else in comics.
He finished twelve volumes, in fact, between 1967 and 1988, which are being reprinted by Viz in new English translations. The latest volume, which contains the stories Strange Beings and Life, is the ninth in the series.
New readers will understandably be reluctant to pick up a series nine volumes in, but the Phoenix series is modular by design. Each volume stands alone and can be read independently of any of the others (except for the story Civil War, published by Viz in two volumes). Certain themes and characters recur from volume to volume, and Tezuka apparently planned to tie them all together in the end. But, as the series stands, there is no ongoing continuity of plot. None of the volumes spoils previous plots or assumes familiarity with what has gone before.
If anything, this ninth volume is, as marketing folks like to say, a natural jumping-on point. Its two stories perfectly illustrate the series’ range in setting, tone and genre. Strange Beings takes place in the Ashikaga shogunate (specifically, it seems, the fifteenth century), Life in the twenty-second century. Strange Beings tells the story of a young woman trapped in a temporal anomaly of which Alan Moore would be proud. After assassinating a nun for reasons not immediately obvious, Sakon no Suke must repent by developing compassion. Along the way, she will meet various strange demons out of Japanese folklore. Life, on the other hand, is an uncannily prescient bit of science-fiction, foretelling a not-so-distant future of clones and exploitative reality television. A cynical television producer, Aoi, tampers with human cloning for entertainment value. He, too, pays a terrible price and must flee civilisation to survive.
The stories are linked thematically, as Tezuka notes in a brief afterword, both featuring protagonists punished for their disrepect for life. They also both illustrate the quasi-Buddhist moral convictions of the entire Phoenix series: life demands respect, suffering demands compassion, worldly temptation leads people astray, the pursuit of immortality is folly.
Linking them further, as in all the Phoenix stories, is the mysterious figure of the Phoenix herself. Tezuka imagines the Phoenix as a sort of demi-god, representative of the life force, and cosmic moral arbitrator. In keeping with her mythic roots as symbol for immortal life, the Phoenix’ body has miraculous restorative and rejuvenating powers. These powers drive many of the Phoenix stories, as characters pursue her feathers, blood, the animal itself–a pursuit doomed to failure.
(Regular readers of the series will be pleased to note that the big nose character also appears in both stories, in different incarnations. No Mustachio, alas)
This simultaneous scope and unity is typical of the Phoenix series. Other volumes feature space travel, robots, aliens, reworking of Japanese myth, and quasi-historical incidents, all of them joined by a common philosophical core and the Phoenix herself. And as in most of Tezuka’s work, each volume itself varies in tone, with goofy slapstick, fourth-wall-breaking humour and cartoony flourishes page-by-page with psychedelic freak-outs, bloody violence and emotional heartbreak. Phoenix contains multitudes.
Tezuka wrote and drew both stories in this volume around 1980, so he’s in full command of his mature talents. There are hectic action sequences, two-page landscapes, sixteen-panel pages, violent motion that breaks the panel, cutesy character design, innovative framing and shading to mirror characters’ internal states. A special treat here are the Strange Beings themselves. Tezuka cuts loose with these bizarre, comical/sinister figures; a good comparison for Western audiences are the equally goofy/creepy demons in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
The Phoenix series is like little else in comics, with its combination of cosmic metaphysics, oddball spirituality, moral message, comic touch and genre tomfoolery. Apart from Tezuka’s own Buddha, the closest thing is Dave Sim’s and Gerhard’s Cerebus–not a combination that will endear Phoenix to many readers, but apt nonetheless. Unlike Cerebus, however, Phoenix never tries the patience of its readers, is much less polemical, and–it should go without saying–is infinitely more feminist.
Plus, it’s a billion times better than a certain other 1970s cosmic Phoenix epic.
Recommended: Absolutely. Buy this book. And then buy all the other Phoenix volumes.
IYL: Comic book epics like Cerebus or Sandman. Meaning-of-life books like Promethea or The Invisibles. Jim Starlin’s 1970s trippy, cosmic stuff.