Monday, May 3, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga by Natsu Onoda Power, 2009, University Press of Mississippi

Osamu Tezuka is the Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, and Harvey Pekar of Japanese comics all rolled into one. He wrote manga adaptations of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, sex-ed comics, autobiography, galaxy spanning sci-fi sagas,quotidian kitchen sink psychodramas, and historical fiction centering on Adolph Hitler, Gautama Buddha, Mozart, and the quasi-mythical Yamato clan from the annals of Japanese history. He also created the iconic characters of Astro Boy, Black Jack, the Phoenix, and a host of recognizable characters which populate his works like a reperatory theatrical company, or like the universe of familiar faces one encounters in The Simpsons. Tezuka wrote for children, teenagers, and adults. He was not the first Japanese animator, but he did break new ground in terms of technique and content with the original anime TV hit Astro Boy, and other shows such as Kimba the White Lion which is believed by some to be the inspiration for Disney's The Lion King. Tezuka created a robot child built by a traumatized scientist to replace his dead son. He told stories about serial killers and state sanctioned genocide. He crafted grim sagas of first contact between human and non-human sentients that result in all out warfare. He explored themes of reincarnation, of man's inhumanity to man, and the cyclical nature of human desires and conflicts. Tezuka's career spanned from Japan's surrender to the Allies in World War II to February 1989. He is said to have worked feverishly on numerous manga projects right up until his final weeks.

Reading over the preceding summary of Tezuka's career, I am struck by its inadequacy, its boilerplate shallowness. I have read almost everything by Osamu Tezuka currently available in English translation. I have even "read" some of his work in the original Japanese, having absolutely no ability in reading or speaking that language. I recall reading three volumes of Dororo in Japanese. I had no idea what was going on, what the characters were saying, or why they were doing what they were doing, but I was captivated by the fluidity of the imagery, the amusing grotesquerie of the demons that assaulted the heroic swordsman (who I erroneously assumed was the Dororo of the title. Later, reading the comic in English, I was surprised to find out that Dororo is the small child who accompanies Hyakkimaru, the swordsman, on his adventures) and the dynamic design of the story's protagonist. I am a fan of Tezuka, and it kills me that only a fraction of his output is available in English. It's almost enough to make me want to learn Japanese.

Non-fiction books about Osamu Tezuka's life and works are few and far between. As far as I know there is no definitive biography of Tezuka in English, and there are only a few books which could be considered critical studies of Tezuka's works available. For me, reading a non-fiction book which discusses, summarizes, and analyzes Tezuka's work is the next best thing to being able to read a new Tezuka comic in translation. This was my primary interest in seeking out and reading Power's book on Tezuka.

Power's approach to Tezuka is not biography, although she does explore the circumstances of Tezuka's life and its context in history, nor is it a comprehensive analysis of his works. A biography, even a brisk one, would be quite a lengthy undertaking, numbering in the hundreds of pages. A comprehensive study of Tezuka's complete works would run to many volumes. Power's slim volume is neither of these things. And yet it does something very useful. Within the space of about one-hundred sevety pages she explores Tezuka and his work and their relationship with Japan's post-World War II transformation and the evolution of the manga industry in the twentieth century. Power's work is not so much expansive as it is theoretical. She works out a very interesting and powerful framework for reading and analyzing Tezuka's work which both enriches and expands the reader's experience.

Each chapter in her book takes up a specific aspect of Tezuka's work: his early years as a cartoonist and the context of World War II and the Allied occupation, the influence of cinematic technique on his work, his use of humor, his pioneering efforts in the realm of girls' comics, his varied fortunes in commercial animation, his creation of an imaginary star system for his comics, and his use of intertextuality.

This last idea of intertextuality is explored in great detail in the last chapter in which Power applies the concept of intertextuality to a comic called The Curtain Remains Blue Tonight. Intertextuality is a theoretical idea that proposes that any given text, a film, a novel, a short story, a comic book, a painting, is not just the text in itself, a wholly original product of a singular author. Rather, it is the result of the author's labor and the many other texts which the author has consumed, read, absorbed. These other texts have influenced the author to a greater or lesser degree such that an author might weave into a given work self-conscious homage to other texts, or might simply be influenced on a subconscious level. The films of Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Leone are clear examples of this theory. Power analyzes The Curtain Remains Blue Tonight and shows a variety of influences from theatre, film, music, and other comics at work within Tezuka's manga. She also illustrates how Tezuka's practice of intertextuality is not mere pastiche, but rather a sophisticated form of manga practice.

Power's book is slim, but powerful. I sought it out hoping to learn more about the man, a hero in my mind, and his works which I admire. Instead I came away with a powerful new theoretical framework for engaging Tezuka and his works.

This book is, according to a blurb on the back cover, part of the University Press of Mississippi's Great Comics Artist Series. I would be most interested in seeking out other titles in this series.
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