I’ve been planning a series of articles about the all-time greats of the medium for a while. I was planning to focus on living greats, but with Sequart doing this Manga Week it seemed like the perfect time to talk about Osamu Tezuka.
Osamu Tezuka is known as the Godfather of Manga, and for good reason. Tezuka almost singlehandedly invented, and even perfected, the visual language that still dominates Manga. Tezuka popularized things like subjective motion (those background speed-lines manga artists love so much), montages, changes in the art’s realism, symbolic panels, experimental panel shapes and layouts, and more. The man was a genius. No two ways about it. Tezuka so shaped Japanese comics that many populate talented artists can feel like parodies of Tezuka’s style. Imagine if western comics were still using Jack Kirby’s heavy, physical motion lines and collage almost universally and you’ have some idea of Tezuka’s influence.
But, as extraordinary as his influence has been, that is not why Tezuka makes the list. (The reasons he’s so extraordinary might be why he’s been so influential though.) He’s on this list because his mastery of the craft is just that – a mastery. Despite the spontaneous quality of Tezuka’s line work (Frank Miller can also be described this way, which really reveals it to be nothing more than a polite way of saying sloppy and rushed) each and every panel Tezuka draws in surgically designed. He knows which panel should cut where, and whether it should be a cut, a puncture, a bone-saw, or a drill, if you’ll forgive the clumsy metaphor. Tezuka (like Miller at his peak) harnesses his spontaneity to create something wonderfully mobile. Panel to panel transitions feel like a blink of the eye, images bleed into one another without being blindingly fast. This allows for a fantastic baseline and Tezuka exploits it until his comics read like a cardiograph (back to medical terms, this fixation may become clear in the near future).
Osamu Tezuka creates these wonderful pages by constantly changing and experimenting (it’s the exact opposite of how Naoki Urasawa works). Constantly isn’t just a turn-of-phrase either, Tezuka rarely goes a page without trying something new. He’ll use wildly experimental page layouts, draw his characters twice as cartoony or twice as realistic, he’ll use strange symbolic panels, he’ll use emotionally charged montage, he’ll leak symbolism all over a page, and do it all without sacrificing clarity. Don’t be confused by the latter part of that sentence though, frequently out of context Tezuka pages seem like gibberish, but in context each his clear as day (with the possible exception of some of the stranger symbolic panels). Osamu Tezuka will show a character going insane in any number of ways – a page of spiralling floating heads with a shockingly clear reading order, suddenly distorting the perspective behind the character, rendering the character in a disturbingly realistic manner, showing the characters world literally explode and distort, replacing the characters face with tribal art in a panel or two, and even just drawing panels with slightly uneasy camera angles. If you weren’t already impressed you should know that all those examples are from one book – Ode to Kirihito. Hell they’re all the same character.
Nothing is Perfect, What’s Wrong With Tezuka?
Osamu Tezuka is, admittedly, not without his problems. Sometimes race and gender issues bubble to the surface in his work, and despite his intents, it’s not always comfortable. That’s not to say Tezuka is racist or sexist, in fact he’s written many a strong female character, and Ode to Kirihito has many an anti-racist scene. That being said he’s not the deftest of hands when it comes to these issues, for every Princess Knight there’s something like The Book of Human Insects that desperately needs another, less despicable, female character. A lot of these flaws may be more indicative of the culture Tezuka’s from, but that’s a far larger issue for someone else to cover. The other thing that might lesson your enjoyment of Tezuka is simple – his comics are vastly more enjoyable if you can admire the choices he’s making. As with any wild formalist experiment Tezuka’s work is improved by a decent understanding of the form. That being said those who can’t understand the choices will still be affected by them. They’re that good.
Wait, What Genre Did he Work in?
Osamu Tezuka is arguably best remembered for a children’s comic about a robot-boy ( a comic that spawned a TV series (Tezuka was an animator too) that Stanley Kubrick was so impressed with Tezuka was offered a job designing things for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but conflicting schedules prevented this). Despite being best known for Astro Boy Tezuka’s career has spawned an amazing variety of genres. He wrote medical dramas about what it means to be human, a scientifically plausible (if you believe on ESP etc) retelling of the Buddha’s life, horror comics, psychologically charged mystery and suspense comics, samurai comics, adventure comics aimed at girls, adventure comics aimed at boys, sexually driven suspense stories (actually a lot of his books fall under this category, after all this is the same man who became the first person to animate a sex scene between a human and a crocodile (alligator?)), and more. This is the career of an artist through and through. Osamu Tezuka’s books are so weird that they have more in common with western indie offerings than the few high-aiming artists as popular as Tezuka was in his time.
Yeah I know the titles all felt like a reader addressing me and now it’s reversed but just go with it. Osamu Tezuka is an insanely talented master of the comic book form. Few manage to experiment as much as he does while still consistently telling a conventionally gripping story. Tezuka isn’t weird for weird’s sake; each crazy thing he tries has one or eight strong reasons behind it. He influenced is stronger and longer lasting that almost any other comic artist that comes to mind. Any fans of the medium need to read Tezuka. It’s hard to over-exaggerate how great his works are.