Archive for the ‘Tezuka’ Category

I read some comics, and then I had some thoughts

October 12, 2008

These are those thoughts.

Black Jack Volume 1. Osamu Tezuka. Vertical, 2008. $16.95, 288 pages.

English-speaking fans of Osamu Tezuka have been hanging out for this series for a long time, our appetites only whetted by an abortive two-volume attempt from Viz some years ago. To live up to our expectations, Black Jack would have to cure cancer, solve world hunger and get you laid. It doesn’t quite do any of these, but it’s still pretty good. There are some bravura cartooning sequences, even if it does take the reader a while to readjust from the long-form Phoenix and Buddha to the distinctly episodic structure here. There are no great themes on display, other than Tezuka’s usual humanism and his inclusive, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink view of life. But these are reward enough, once you get back into the Astro Boy-like groove of short, unconnected stories.

The biggest misstep comes from the title character’s sidekick, named Pinoko, who makes Poochie look like the sensational character find of 1997. Someone at Vertical decided to translate her dialogue as baby-talk; presumably it’s to mirror some analogous feature in the original Japanese, but it made me want to go out and shtwangle shome widdle toddlers. I’m not sure I can take another umpteen thousand pages of that. Otherwise, it’s easy to look forward to another sixteen volumes of this.

Recommended? It’s Tezuka. Of course it’s recommended.

***

Cat-Eyed Boy Volumes 1 & 2. Kazuo Umezu. Viz, 2008.  $24.99 each, 496/594 pages.

Cat-Eyed Boy belongs to that subgenre of children’s literature where monsters, aliens, animals or otherwise inhuman creatures are made to stand in for children. The aim (explicit or not) is to capture the experience of being a child — adults too easily forget how unlike us children are, how strange their minds and changeable their character. Cat-Eyed Boy himself is as convincing a portrayal of childhood as Yotsuba from Yotsuba&!, if a little more savage. By turns, he is proud, uncaring, empathetic, kind, cruel and always, above all else, unpredictable. At times he spurns the human world, at others he helps it out. He contains multitudes, and then some.

The stories themselves, however, suffer from mirroring their hero’s fickle character a little too closely. The earlier stories* follow the same sort of disjointed logic of children’s narrative that we find in The Drifting Classroom: then this happened, then that happened, then we all turned into giant bugs, then a monster came and ate some of us, then there was a flood and then and then and then we all had ice cream and went home the end. Only there’s something missing from Cat-Eyed Boy, something that grounded The Drifting Classroom; without it these earlier stories are, at best, curiosities for Umezu buffs only, and certainly not essential. Maybe it doesn’t have the same sort of luminous horror that surrounds the kids in Classroom. Maybe it’s that the illogic of children is externalised in Classroom while the kids themselves have solid character — the events they struggle against may not make sense, but the kids can be identified with; by contrast, that same illogic is internalised in Cat-Eyed Boy, who is himself something of a cipher. Maybe it’s that, unlike Drifting Classroom, the earlier stories in Cat-Eyed Boy just aren’t for adults. Maybe it’s that the earlier stories simply aren’t as good as Classroom. Hey, even Homer nods.

Or maybe it’s some combination of all these. That solution is suggested by the later stories in volume 2, some of which are truly excellent, approaching the fevered intensity of Classroom. It helps that Cat-Eyed Boy takes a backseat in these stories while we foreground on ordinary children, to whom the usual horrible things happen. In these stories we find that old Umezu magic again, that mixture of funny and scary and uh actually no I guess it’s really not that funny OH GOD MAKE IT STOP. Those stories are well worth the price of admission; it’s just a shame that the rest of the volumes don’t match that standard.

Recommended? Volume 2 starts with a continuation of a story from Volume 1, so I can’t recommend reading Volume 2 only. People who really liked Drifting Classroom will probably find the whole experience worthwhile, provided they can lower their expectations somewhat and hold out for the really good stuff in Volume 2.

* “Earlier” in the sense that they appear earlier in the two volumes. The reader is given no clue as to original publication dates.

***

The Immortal Iron Fist: The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven. Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, David Aja and a thousand other artists. Marvel, 2008. $17.99, 216 pages.

It’s not hard to see why this book became a sleeper hit among the blogerati. It’s competent pulpish stuff — actually calling it “competent” is probably damning it with faint praise in this degraded age. This book collects a sequence of superhero comics that won’t make you want to gouge your own frontal lobe out; it wouldn’t necessarily embarrass anyone over the mental age of twelve to be caught reading it. In today’s market, I guess that makes it the graphic novel equivalent of War and Peace, only with more punching and kicking.

Personally, it didn’t quite float my boat the way it has many other people’s. A lot of the style seems lifted from Alan Moore — the fictitious backstory and period counterparts from (e.g.) Promethea, the steampunk ancestor stumbling across the natives from Tom Strong, the use of multiple artists from both those (not to mention Supreme).** There’s also a touch of the Bendis/Mack Daredevil, albeit without Bendis’ logorrhea or his inept plotting; like Mack, Aja and his colourists favour static, photo-referenced monochromes. I guess they think it looks mature?

To this are added various tropes from the tournament style of shonen manga. Indeed, the overarching structure is pure tournament: seven characters fight each other in a round-robin competition, using elaborate moves with fanciful names. It’s the most original thing the series does, to introduce these tropes (plus a couple of later plot twists which will be familiar to readers of Iron Wok Jan, Ultimate Muscle, Yakitate!! Ja-pan or any other tournament manga) to an audience presumably weaned on superhero comics and so unfamiliar with them. Frankly, I think I would have enjoyed this a lot more had they dropped the pretense of superheroics altogether and gone all the way with the tournament stylings. Give us 200 pages covering one duel, not to mention the hundred pages of training beforehand and dozens of pages for reaction shots. Now there’s a martial arts comic I could get behind.

Recommended? Way over-hyped, but enjoyable enough in its own right.

** I know Moore didn’t invent these, but they’re closely associated with his work.

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Buy This Book: Phoenix Volume 9

February 16, 2007

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 incompl√®tes 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.

Lost World, by Osamu Tezuka

February 5, 2007

We always vaguely knew that Osamu Tezuka was the father of manga. After all, he created Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. But recent translations of Tezuka’s more “adult” manga, like Phoenix, Buddha, Adolf and Ode to Kirihito, have boosted Tezuka’s reputation in the English-speaking world. Such scope–in theme, setting, genre! Such bravura cartooning! And what the hell was he on when he drew Kirihito, that delirious mix of medical drama, Christian imagery and people turning into dogs (not to mention the woman who bakes herself in a giant pancake)?

Now that we’re starting to see a lot more of Tezuka’s adult work in English, it’s a good time to look back at some of his…not-so-adult work. Such as the 1948 oddity Lost World, translated and published by Dark Horse in 2003. Here are some of the plot elements that make up Lost World. A secret spy-ring. A Dr Moreau-style laboratory, with dozens of anthropomorphized talking critters. Plants in the shape of people. A trip to outer space, and the eponymous lost world. Dinosaur fights. All this, plus Mustachio!

(For the non-cognoscenti: Mustachio is a private detective who recurs throughout Tezuka’s work, including Astro Boy and Buddha. He has a big moustache; hence the name.)

It’s all a bit of a mess, in other words, a hodge-podge of a stew that’s been whipped through a blender and then mixed up some more. The plot revolves around a “planet” that roams through the universe, occasionally getting closer to Earth. (That sounds more like a comet than a planet, but who’s to quibble?) When meteors from the planet are found to possess miraculous powers, an expedition is launched to recover more.

And that’s about as much of the plot as you need to know, really. There’s no point in reading Lost World for the story, cobbled together as it obviously is from half a dozen sources that the young Tezuka must have liked. Tezuka was 20 at the time it was first published, and he says in an afterword that Lost World was originally created even earlier.

You can, however, enjoy Lost World for the cartooning, and for the hints of future Tezuka motifs. Tezuka is a long way from his later style, and shows a heavy influence from Disney and Western comic strips of the 1930s. The Silly Symphonies, in particular, inform the way he draws the humans and dinosaurs. But even if Tezuka’s draughtmanship has a ways to go before developing into his own distinctive style, he already shows a strong sense for panel composition and how to pace a scene.

Better still is the impression you get from Lost World of a young artist at the start of his career, already determined to tell his own kind of stories. In his later manga “for kids”, Tezuka didn’t pull his thematic punches. His Astro Boy stories, for instance, often end tragically, with robots destroyed through human folly, cruelty, greed or indifference. Lost World doesn’t skimp on the harsh life lessons, either. Given that this is a fast-paced sci-fi adventure story with funny animals, there’s a lot of death. And not all of it heroic.

So the next time you want to pontificate learnedly on the first serious graphic novel, don’t forget about Tezuka. Biff! Pow! Manga aren’t just for kids any more, even when they are.

Recommended: An interesting and worthy piece of juvenilia if you’re already into Tezuka, but not as your first exposure

IYL: Tezuka’s other work (duh).

The skinny: Lost World, Osamu Tezuka, Dark Horse 2003. $17.95, 248 pages