Power, Natsu Onoda, God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga

Power, Natsu Onoda. God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga. University of Mississippi, 2009. Print. 208 pp, 6 x 9 inches, 53 b&w illustrations, filmography, bibliography, index. $50.00 unjacketed cloth; $25.00 paper

Jeremy Stoll
Indiana University

In God of Comics, Natsu Onoda Power uses the framework of intertextuality to analyze one of the most important figures in Japanese comics and his work within the form. In the Introduction, the author points out the divide between English and Japanese-language studies of manga as pivoting on understandings of manga as either culturally unique or an evolving art. Overcoming this tension serves as the focus of Power’s analysis of Osamu Tezuka’s unique genius in the context of manga’s evolution as a form.

Power’s first step is to situate Tezuka and his works within the larger history of comics in Japan. She provides a quick yet complex history of the manga form, from the Edo period to the propaganda of World War II and the rise of mass production, noting the development of the benchmarks of the comic art form. Power provides multiple examples to argue that Tezuka can be best understood within historical context as both establishing and challenging the manga form, even as different historical moments influenced what he created.

In the third chapter, Power analyzes Tezuka’s unique style as rooted in film’s newfound popularity in early 20th century Japan. He appears as a revolutionary figure as comics shifted from children’s akahon to magazine serials and the Golden Age of Japanese comics; his unusual design choices and use of popular genres allowed him to adapt to changing trends. Power argues that Tezuka’s unique, cinematic style defined by intertextual narratives and filmic techniques created a sense of intimacy that gave him the reputation for creating the ‘first true story comics.’

In establishing story comics, Power shows how Tezuka enabled a deeper narrative experience through the use of a star system that hastened character development through a rotating cast of familiar characters that would play different roles in each story. Power describes both this and his use of repeating visual jokes in performative terms, as requiring intertextual knowledge of the artist’s repertoire. Her analysis thus shows that Tezuka created stories for an audience in a particular context, which both constrains their meaning and supports fan communities.

The 1950’s marked comics’ greater popularity in Japan, with higher pay for creators, the rise of artists’ collectives and rental shops, and the solidification of manga as long story comics. While creators shifted to serial forms and comics became more diverse and competitive, Tezuka maintained his unique style. Although, at first, his work became less popular, Power argues that he regained popularity by adapting to a changing public and thus expanding his repertoire to more mature themes.
The author then focuses in the sixth chapter on Tezuka’s work in girls’ manga, which developed in reaction to growing female audiences after WWII. She demonstrates how Tezuka in particular related comics to live theater, with quotes from him and with evidence of personal connections to this musical theater form. She argues that his work pushed girls’ comics toward stronger narratives and characters by creating a complex understanding of gender as performance through intertextual references to theater, although little evidence of his influence remains.

In Chapter 7, Power considers Tezuka’s career in animation as the creator of Japan’s first animated TV series, Astro Boy, within the context of a brief history of animated film. This chapter provides a context for his animation work, especially its collaborative nature, and demonstrates how he came to turn toward more experimental films. Power notes that Tezuka’s ability to adapt in this particular situation was not as strong, since, in the long term, he invented much of the cost-saving techniques that have led to poor quality in contemporary cartoons.

God of Comics then shifts to the history of adult comics, from suffering markets in the 1940’s and 50’s to later popularity and development into ‘true story comics.’ While Tezuka’s early work in the form diverged from his iconic style, especially the star system, it would return in his later, longer adult manga that explore familiar issues with greater subtlety. Power argues that, in these later works, Tezuka powerfully applied his ability to challenge and adapt to real-world conditions and context to make his narratives more historically and socially conscious.

In the penultimate chapter, Power performs a close analysis of Tezuka’s The Curtain Remains Blue Tonight to illustrate how this genius of the comic art form strategically drew upon historical, cultural, and political contexts to become an internationally respected artist. The epilogue then concludes the analysis by simultaneously explaining the author’s personal interest in Tezuka, due to a childhood love of his work, and reiterates comics’ intertextual power.

By situating Osamu Tezuka in context, God of Comics demonstrates that manga are both uniquely powerful and an evolving art form like any other. The book does sometimes risk losing sight of overall structure when relating multiple contexts and, at its most confusing, may read as a summary of Tezuka’s long career, admittedly a resource in itself. Further, Power sometimes uses broad generalizations about comics readership, statements that do a disservice to both her analysis and comics communities, and she fails to cite many comics scholars who have established the intertextual perspective in that field. While a stronger conclusion might have resolved these issues, Comics Studies scholars will appreciate that the final, close textual analysis does provide a strong argument for an intertextual perspective. Folklore and other scholars will appreciate Power’s application of performance theory to one creator’s repertoire, as well as the inclusion of folklore and other performances as part of manga and Tezuka’s context. Despite its flaws, God of Comics thus demonstrates the strength of intertextual analysis, both in understanding individual artists and in demonstrating the particular power and history of comic art in Japan.

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