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Review of God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga

By Tof Eklund

Power, Natsu Onoda. God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga. University of Mississippi, 2009. Print.

Natsu Onoda Power’s God of Comics is intended as an introduction to Tezuka for Anglophone and especially American audiences, and is primarily concerned with Tezuka’s place in Japanese culture and his role in the development of manga in Japan. The adaptation of Tezuka into English and the American experience of Tezuka is covered, but only briefly. Tezuka’s international influence, and international influences on Tezuka are likewise minimized. In some ways, this book functions as a corrective to the ways that American manga and anime fans are likely to see Tezuka: as old-fashioned or not even properly “manga” in style; and to the different but equally flawed perspectives of American comics scholars, who might see in Tezuka only the influence of “cute” American comics and cartoons (such as those of Disney and Fleischer), or focus too much on how the “manga” of Hokusai anticipate Tezuka.

It would be incorrect, however, to consider God of Comics as “the” or even “a” Japanese take on Tezuka. Power states clearly that a book like God of Comics would have no place in contemporary Japanese manga scholarship. Power undertakes a comprehensive survey of Tezuka’s long and prolific career, whereas Japanese Tezuka scholars have ceased to write such sweeping generalizations in favor of closer analysis of a few, specific works. This comes as no surprise: that kind of close analysis and the rejection of sweeping synthetic claims tends to indicate the maturity of a field of study.

By way of comparison, the very existence of the University of Mississippi’s “Great Comics Artists Series” indicates that Anglophone comics studies lags behind Japanese manga studies. The attention drawn by survey works such as God of Comics, and other works in the series such as Annalisa Di Liddo’s Alan Moore: Comics as PerformanceFiction as Scalpel, and David Kunzle’s Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer indicate that (American) comics studies isn’t as developed a field as we might like to think. This isn’t to diminish the importance or difficulty of the survey: Power does an impressive job of containing and condensing Tezuka’s 150,000+ pages of output (six times as much as the famously prolific American artist Jack Kirby) into less than 180 pages of monograph (discounting the index), while also explaining precisely the cultural context that a Japanese publication would take for granted.

Given this massive scope, it is forgivable that Power’s book is flawed in its presentation of America’s consumption of manga, and its relationship to Tezuka. In the book’s introduction, Power describes American comics consumption, including manga, as mostly teenage male. This can most charitably be described as outdated, as manga and manga-style comics have for some time now been the largest selling type of comics in the US, and sell to a majority-female (albeit still largely teenage) audience. Disney’s influence on Tezuka is mentioned (Tezuka loved Disney films) but Fleischer Studios goes entirely unmentioned, though it may be that any influence that the Fleischers’ signature styles (big-eyed “cartoony” and “realistic” rotoscoped) had on Tezuka was secondhand.

God of Comics is at its strongest when it is focused on Japanese manga history. The term “manga” itself is more complicated than western audiences may expect, and is generally spelled differently in Japanese when used to mean “comics” than it is when referring to Japan’s line-art and printmaking traditions. Power further clarifies that the Japanese sense of “manga” is cross-cultural and international, including comics in other languages, just as the word “comics” in English does. God of Comics is a good introduction to the history of manga from a Japanese perspective, and the book’s second chapter, “Tezuka in History/History in Tezuka,” pierces the fog around Japanese comics production before and during WWII. Most interesting is how fortunate Tezuka was to make his debut shortly after the end of the war, thus avoiding the shame attached to mangakas who produced nationalist and militarist propaganda and the professional isolation of artists who quit rather than produce such material.

The American occupation imposed a regime of censorship just as strict as that of the wartime government, albeit ideologically inverted, but the only manga they paid attention to were histories and works of his historical fiction. Power observes the rise of science fiction, fantasy and horror manga, and of their mangakas, especially Tezuka, with them. Throughout God of Comics, Tezuka is presented as at the forefront of each new development in manga, from the formation of shonen (boys’) manga to his arguable creation of the genre of shojo (girls’) manga, to his reaction against the narratively darker and artistically cruder and rawer gekiga manga. Tezuka’s vexed relationship with anime, and his vexingly varied depiction of women and women’s roles each get a chapter of their own, as does an exploration of Tezuka’s “star” system.

The chapter “Stars and Jokes” on self-referentiality in Tezuka’s work, is both the most theoretical moment in this historically focused monograph, and the most troublesome in terms of its own justification. The idea of a creator (or an institution) having troupes of characters that they re-use is commonplace, but Power argues that Tezuka did something far something more subtle and metafictional. Rather than having reusable characters, Tezuka has a cast of reusable “actors” – a “star system” like that of the Hollywood studios. These actors have a consistent but not fixed appearance and can play a variety of roles, but also have a basic personality that inflects each role they play and connects their roles across different titles which have no narrative connection.

Power distinguishes this from “the more conventional stock character systems, such as Disney cartoons in which Mickey Mouse appears in various independent plots, in that each of Tezuka’s ‘stars’ has a strong ‘offstage’ identity that is independent of (though closely related to) the character he or she plays in a given episode.” (66). She notes places where Tezuka wrote about his recurring characters as actors playing different roles, and compares this to scholarship about the Hollywood star system. This interesting premise is left insufficiently explored, however, as Power is aware that these “actors” are just as fictional as the “roles” they play, but she does not explore this contradiction. Instead, the “actors” are treated as if they were unproblematically more “real” than the “roles.” One hopes that Power will follow this book up with a deeper and more careful investigation of the “star system” premise, or that others will follow up on this intriguing aspect of Tezuka’s work.

Neither the unanswered questions about the star system nor the flaws in terms of American influences and readership keep God of Comics from being an excellent presentation of Tezuka’s career, works and cultural context. Power’s conclusion, a close analysis of one of Tezuka’s more obscure works, The Curtain Remains Blue Tonight, is a call for more close readings of specific works in the mangaka‘s oeuvre. If there is any overarching flaw to the book, it is the way that it draws everything in to Tezuka, building him up as the “god of comics” the title proclaims him to be and making it seem that the entire cultural institution of Japanese manga revolves around him. This could encourage shoddy scholarship on the part of American-comics-centered scholars, who may already be inclined to treat Tezuka as the only mangaka they need to know. That God of Comics should overplay Tezuka’s importance is almost inevitable, given its broad scope (all of manga) and narrow focus (Tezuka). Anglophone comics scholarship needs Power’s book, but that book itself points to the need to develop the field past broad, laudatory surveys of the “greats,” lest we fall into the intellectually sterile practice of canonization and exclusion.

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