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Comics College: Osamu Tezuka

Phoenix Vol. 4

Phoenix Vol. 4

Welcome to Comics College, a semi-monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.

Today we’re looking at one of the most influential and prolific and  cartoonists in the world, a man who’s body of work reportedly encompassed more then 150,000 drawn pages in just about every genre known to man. And that doesn’t even begin to mention his pioneering work in animation. I’m speaking, of course, about Osamu Tezuka.

Why he’s important

Tezuka isn’t called the “God of Manga” in his home country of Japan because he invented the medium — it was around long before he started publishing. Nor was it solely because he created such ever-popular characters like Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, though that certainly aided in cementing his reputation, both in Japan and abroad.

Astro Boy Vol. 3

Astro Boy Vol. 3

But more than anything else, Tezuka has been given (and deserves) such a lofty title because he completely transformed and popularized the medium in a manner that was unthinkable up until then. Drawing upon film and animation, particularly the early work of Walt Disney Studios, he imbued every story with a vibrancy and seemingly effortless motion that enflamed the senses and imaginations of a post-WWII generation eager for entertainment. Manga and anime would simply not be the powerhouse publishing mediums they are today if it were not for Tezuka. Every manga volume that comes out the door, whether it shows its influence or not, owes a debt to Tezuka.

Beyond his historical importance though, Tezuka’s work remains as alive and entertaining as it was decades ago. His output is staggering: beyond the sheer number of stories he produced he was able to move from genre to genre — from children’s stories to adult fare, from heartwrenching dramas to absurd slapstick — with only the slightest of pauses to dip his brush back in the inkwell. What’s more, he was a restless experimenter, and his best work offers ideas about comics and telling stories that more Western artists should be open to incorporating.

Even with the limited amount of his work available in English, figuring out what volume to dive into first can be a bit disconcerting. So here are my suggestions:

Where to start

The best introduction to Tezuka that I can think of would be the fourth volume of his classic Phoenix saga, Karma, published by Viz. Although it does tangentially relate to the other stories in the series, this tale of a deformed killer and gifted woodcarver who repeatedly cross paths as their fortunes rise and fall is essentially a stand-alone work. It’s also the best volume in the series and one of Tezuka’s finest works period, encapsulating many of the themes he’d repeatedly explore in his comics — man’s cruelty to his fellow man, redemption and forgiveness, the endless cycle of life, and man’s place in the universe. Karma is the perfect summation of Tezuka’s work. Read it and you’ll have a pretty good sense for what lies ahead.

From there you should read

Buddha Vol. 1

Buddha Vol. 1

If you do decide to continue down the Tezuka path, the first obvious pick would be to read the remaining Phoenix volumes, in order. From there though, I’d recommend getting Buddha, Tezuka’s eight-volume, heavily fictionalized biography of the religious leader. Like Karma, it deals with a number of weight, philosophical subjects, though it’s not without humor (indeed, Tezuka’s penchant for suddenly undercutting the tension of a dramatic scene with an odd joke or a breaking of the fourth wall can cause exasperation for some Western readers). Publisher Vertical has done a lovely job translating and collecting this material, to the point where I’d strongly recommend shelling out the extra cash for the hardcover editions.

After Buddha, Vertical released the chunky one-volume Ode to Kirihito. This is one of Tezuka’s darker and decidedly odder tales, about a doctor who succumbs to a strange disease that gives him the facial features of a dog and is forced to travel the world as a pariah. It’s a brilliant work though, featuring some of Tezuka’s most stunning layouts and experimental designs.

From there it’s best to segue into some of the master’s lighter fare, like, perhaps, Astro Boy. Dark Horse has collected the entirety of Astro’s run (what Tezuka allowed to be collected at any rate) in a series of inexpensive, pocket-sized volumes. The volumes jump around in time, but it’s best to start with the early volumes and work your way through. Some of the later ones do get a bit darker in tone as Tezuka was coerced (or so he claimed) into giving Astro a slightly grittier  and more downbeat edge. If you’re just looking for one volume to sample, No. 3 may be the best, as it contains the “Greatest Robot on Earth” story, which Naoki Urasawa later adapted for his critically acclaimed Pluto series.

Further reading

Black Jack Vol. 1

Black Jack Vol. 1

Although it ends abruptly, Dororo is a thrilling, action-packed tale of a disfigured warrior attempting to win back his limbs and organs by defeating the demons that stole them. Vertical published the series in three volumes.

Vertical (which, at this point, seems to be gunning for the title of Official Tezuka Publisher in America) is also currently serializing Black Jack, Tezuka’s popular series about a wunderkind doctor, forced to practice medicine illegally and given to wearing a black cape. The up-close and detailed operations (Tezuka originally trained to be a doctor) are not for the squeamish, and like Astro Boy it’s very episodic, with Jack pulling off one fantastic operation after another. Those who can handle the occasionally bit of surgically sliced organs and flesh will find this to be a worth their time however.

Tezuka’s darkest work that’s available in English is easily MW (Vertical, again), a Hitchcock-like thriller about a ruthless serial killer and the conflicted Catholic priest who loves him and thus, can’t turn him in. Though perhaps daring in its time, its attitudes towards homosexuality, to say nothing of the fairer sex, are a bit dated and might provide a hurdle for some readers. It remains a fascinating if terribly cynical read.

If you can find it, I strongly recommend tracking down Adolf, a dramatic series set in World War II about the lives of three men bearing that name, one of them of course being Hitler. Viz published the series many years ago under their Cadence Books imprint and it’s sadly gone out of print since then. It’s a great series though, full of the high melodrama and sharp storytelling that marks the author’s best work.

Ancillary material

MW

MW

Those interested in Tezuka’s animation work should check out The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu, a new DVD from Kino that collects a lot of the master’s short films, including the stellar Legend of the Forest.

A number of books have also been written about Tezuka recently. The Art of Osamu Tezuka by Helen McCarthy is probably the best bet for the uninitiated, though The Astro Boy Essays by the great Frederik Schodt (who knew Tezuka), and God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga by Natsu Onoda Power are both good reads as well.

Avoid

There’s very little Tezuka that isn’t worth reading, but newcomers had probably best stay away from Apollo’s Song. Originally designed as a sex-ed guide for elementary school kids (no joke) it’s perhaps a bit too bizarre (a magic island where animals get it on!) and narratively disjointed for the uninitiated.

Likewise Next World, Lost World and Metropolis (all published by Dark Horse) are all good, but don’t make for good entry points. These stories represent some of Tezuka’s earliest work and probably come off a bit cuter and clumsier than many Western eyes, even those who have been manga-trained, can tolerate. Once you’ve worked your way through this list and feel comfortable with his ouevre however, I’d heartily recommend checking all of these books out.

Next month: Robert Crumb

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Comments

5 Comments

I’m very much liking this column. I just got into Tezuke through Buddha and have been looking for what i should read next. Looks like I’ll be picking up Pheonix and Ode to Kirhito.

Apollo’s Song was the first Tezuka work I read and I found it to be absolutely fantastic. It is what got me hooked on all other Tezkua I’ve read since. I’m sorry that you felt it had to be in the “avoid” column, even if just to put something there.

To each their own. As I said, I like Apollo just fine. I just think it’s one of his comparatively lesser works and I’m not sure it’s the best place for newcomers to start. Glad you liked it though and that it spurred an interest in his work. The “avoid” is more of a “don’t start here” than a “never read this.”

Those in the DC area should check out the exhibit going on at the Freer as well.

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