Practitioners 52: Osamu Tezuka

Kyoto station is a monolithic, grand and impressive structure, latticed with metal and steel pillars in a gun grey cathedral to industrialism and travel. It is impressive to say the least. Outside, however is a small camera stall looking out over the main entrance. On top of it is an icon as famous, if not potentially more famous and certainly more recognisable across Japan than the enormous building behind him. His name is Astroboy, and in terms of fame and influence he matches up to any celluloid mouse. Built from the premise of cheerful, less gritty story telling – Astroboy’s creator is considered the instigator of the ‘Golden Age of Manga’. The name of the man who brought hope to Japan after the Second World War through a new age in Manga is Osamu Tezuka.

Born Tezuka Osamu on November 3, 1928 Tezuka was a Japanese cartoonist, manga artist, animator, producer, activist and – at one time – medical doctor, though he never practiced medicine. Born in Osaka prefecture, he is best known as the creator of Astroboy, Kimba the White Lion and Black Jack.

He is often known as the ‘Godfather of Anime’ and enjoys the reputation as the Japanese Walt Disney. Inspired very much by his namesake, Tezuka adapted much of the western idealism of Disney to the Japanese Manga, transferring ideas seamlessly that still now permeate modern Manga. Though his creations have moved far beyond the initial inspirations that spawned them.

Starting to draw comics in his second year of elementary school, he found a bug named ‘Osamushi’ in his fifth year. Fascinated by the similarity to his own name he adopted it as a pen name. He came to realise that he could use Manga as a way to convince people to care for the world. After World War II and the devastation that Japan itself had suffered during the conflict, Tezuka created his first piece of work – at the age of 17 – Diary of Machan and Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island). These works launched the Golden Age of Manga. Their popularity and style offering people a new – and popular – way of reading Manga.

As a young boy Tezuka was very ill, his arms swelling up. The following treatment led him to want to become a doctor. He continued to draw as he studied medicine at Osaka University and obtained his medical degree. He arrived at a cross roads – familiar to almost all creatives when they try to decide which path to follow. Ahead of him a potentially lucrative career as a doctor, for which he was now almost fully qualified, or alternatively the life of a comic artist, not considered a particularly rewarding job. He turned to his mother for advice who replied “You should work doing the thing you like most of all.”

Tezuka graduated from Osaka University, having gained his Medical degree but would never practice medicine. He would however use his medical knowledge to enrich his sci-fi manga, such as Black Jack.

His creations include Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu in Japan, literally translated to “Iron-armed Atom”), Black Jack, Princess Knight, Phoenix (Hi no Tori in Japan), Kimba the White Lion, Adolf and Buddha. His “life’s work” was Phoenix — a story of life and death that he began in the 1950s and continued until his death.
In January 1965, Tezuka received a letter from Stanley Kubrick, who had watched Astro Boy and wanted to invite Tezuka to be the art director of his next movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tezuka could not afford to leave his studio for an entire year to live in England, so he refused the invitation. Though he could not work on it, he loved the movie, and would play its soundtrack at maximum volume in his studio to keep him awake during the long nights of work.

Tezuka headed the animation production studio Mushi Production (“Bug Production”), which pioneered TV animation in Japan. The name of the studio derives from one of the kanji (虫 – Japanese reading: mushi, English meaning: bug,insect) used to write his name, bringing that quiet day discovering a bug bearing his name back firmly to his present day. Robust, tenacious and built for purpose ‘Bug’ productions continued to produce innovative and fascinating projects.

Many young manga artists once lived in the apartment where Tezuka lived, Tokiwa-sō. (As the suffix -sō indicates, this was probably a small, inexpensive apartment.) The residents included Shotaro Ishinomori (Cyborg 009, Kamen Rider) ; Fujio Akatsuka (known as the Gag Manga King; also influenced by western work, namely Buster Keaton and MAD magazine); and Abiko Motou and Hiroshi Fujimoto (who worked together under the pen name Fujiko Fujio and created the long-running series Doraemon, the main character of which is officially recognised as a cultural icon of modern Japan – much like Astroboy). All these men opted to live close to the starting point of the great master. Hard to think of an equivalent today for western artists though perhaps the difference is more cultural. Never-the-less the influence of Tezuka was undeniable and clear in order to inspire these men to wish to see the same views and follow so closely in his personal path.

Thanks to his prolific output, pioneering techniques and innovative redefinition of genres Tezuka earned himself incredible titles such as ‘the father of Manga’, ‘the god of comics’ and ‘kamisama (Japanese for spirit or natural force) of manga’.

Tezuka is known for his imaginative stories and stylized Japanese adaptations of western literature. He loved reading novels and watching films that came from the West. Tezuka’s early works included manga versions of Disney movies such as Bambi. His work, like that of other manga creators, was sometimes gritty and violent. However, he stayed away from graphic violence in some titles such as Astro Boy.

The distinctive “large eyes” style of Japanese animation was invented by Tezuka, drawing inspirations on cartoons of the time such as Betty Boop and Walt Disney’s Bambi and Mickey Mouse. His productivity is awesome in it’s scale – certainly dwarfing almost all modern artists, the Complete Manga Works of Tezuka Osamu (手塚治虫漫画全集, published in Japan) comprises some 400 volumes, over 80,000 pages; even considering this, it is not comprehensive. His complete portfolio includes over 700 manga with more than 150,000 pages. However, the vast majority of his work has never been translated from the original Japanese – which has led to a lack of fame in the west that other creators such as Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima and Katsuhiro Otomo have enjoyed.

Tezuka died of stomach cancer on February 9, 1989, at the age of 60. His death came about one month after the death of Hirohito, the Shōwa Emperor of Japan. In an afterword written by Takayuki Matsutani, president of Mushi Productions, that was published in Viz Media’s English language release of the Hi no Tori manga, it is said that his last words were, “I’m begging you, let me work!”

The city of Takarazuka, Hyōgo, where Tezuka grew up, opened a museum in his memory.
Stamps were issued in his honor in 1997. Also, beginning in 2003 the Japanese toy company Kaiyodo began manufacturing a series of figurines of Tezuka’s creations, including Princess Knight, Unico, the Phoenix, Dororo, Marvelous Melmo, Ambassador Magma and many others. To date three series of the figurines have been released. A separate Astro Boy series of figurines has also been issued, and continuing popularity for fans throughout Japan are annual Tezuka calendars with some of Tezuka’s most famous artwork.

His legacy has continued to be honored among Manga artists and animators and many artists including Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball), and Kazuki Takahashi (Yu-Gi-Oh!) have cited Tezuka an inspiration for their works.

Far reaching influences: Vampires (1966 -67 and 1968 -69) by Osamu Tezuka reveals parallel styles seen in Warner Bros and Disney, and even the later chapters of Jeff Smith's Bone.

Anywhere that the mark of modern manga and anime are found globally started with the stroke of Tezuka’s pen in post-war Japan. His intention was to spread joy. He has also spread images of science fiction worlds unimaginable in the west, although many are violent and malevolent they have moved millions and all carry the ‘wide-eyed’ innocence of Osamu Tezuka. An unknown legend in the west – he is partially responsible for almost half the design and artistic influence visible in modern comics and animation. East and West. Though these things are hard to quantify his intention to ‘spread joy’ through manga is still being achieved. Shelves and shelves of manga on every subject imaginable find their way to millions of Japanese readers every day. And every page carries a little bit of the joy Tezuka hoped for. Just a little ‘bug’ in the corner of every panel.

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Practitioners 43: Dan Abnett

Born in England (12th October 1965), Dan Abnett is  a comic book writer, novelist and full time fantasist absorbed in the world of fantasy, space and superheroes. He has directed enormous future armies into cataclysmic battles, led mighty metal robots to clang together to save the universe, assassinated space empresses and sent heroes into space in wheelchairs. He is a frequent collaborator with fellow writer Andy Lanning, and is known for his work on books for both Marvel Comics, and their UK imprint, Marvel Uk, since the 1990s, including 2000AD. He has also contributed to DC Comics titles, and his Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 novels and graphic novels for Game Workshop’s Black Library now run to several dozen titles and have sold over 1,150,000 copies as of May 2008. In 2009 he released his first original fiction novels through Angry Robot books.

While Abnett cannot claim to have kick started a character on the same scale as Judge Dredd, the ABC Warriors or Slaine in his tenure at 2000AD, he did create one of the book’s better known and longest running strips of the last decade, Sinister Dexter, following the exploits of gun sharks (hitmen) Finnigan ‘Finny’ Sinister and Ramone ‘Ray’ Dexter in the state city of Downlode, sprawled across central Europe ‘ like a hit and run victim’. Sinister Dexter is a universe apart from that of Strontium Dog and Dredd, and style supplants horror, with neat and precise detailing throughout to give it an alternative edge that readers found addictive. With more than 135 stories alone to his name, most stretching to more than one issue, Abnett is one of the most prolific of all 2000AD writers, making his lack of success at generating a  genuine globe trotting legend like Slaine or Dredd more down to bad luck than anything else.

Most likely in fact it’s lack of intent intent. Abnett’s style is pretty light, humorous and wry. His stories bound along and drag you with them. First and foremost is character, planted firmly at the heart of whatever dying star/ hive of alien warriors / dangerous street he can find. In Abnett’s universe character is secondary to event at times but only momentarily. Then, the characters bounce resolutely back into the frey and mash it up (for want of a better word). Abnett is addicted to failures. The almost-guy. Slaine and Dredd, much like Superman, Batman et al are a stall of successes. You put a criminal in his way, Dredd crushes dissent and puts them away. Slaine warp spasms, charms, wangles or shags his way out of every scenario. One of Abnett’s character steps into the frey he might as well be ready to lose an arm. Abnett’s characters are desperately, hilariously and touchingly out of their depth. This makes readers even more attached to the characters as they survive all that Abnett (and Lanning – to be featured in the following article) throw at them. Major characters are put to the sword, or in the case of perrenial space empress and Mutant headteacher beau du jour circa 1995, Empress Nerimani of the Shi’ar, who has wandered in and out of Marvel’s most prominent titles for decades, unceremoniously blown away by a sniper as part of a Darkhawk conspiracy. This, to anyone unfamiliar with the situation – is lunacy. Brilliant lunacy. You can almost see the grins on their faces as they decided it.

This was to move a nobody character, effectively unheard of since the ’90s into the foreground of an empire churning, galaxy battering epic in the guise of Marvel’s War of King’s series two years ago, in which stable, mainstay characters were supplanted, abused, annihalated, twisted and entire empires changed status. The scale of the effect on accepted rules of the wider Marvel Universe was mad, but Abnett and Lanning play with the planets and principle characters involved like so many ping pong balls. This, you suspect, was learned in the furnaces of the creative pool of 2000AD and the more blood thirsty Marvel UK. But more likely, they are just crazy bastards.

As well as a neat absurdist streak and a whithering habit of throwing humour at serious plot points (hard not to when your head tactician is a talking Raccoon but more on that later). He didn’t stop there. As well as generating Black Light, Badlands, Atavar (with Richard Elson, about the last Human alive trapped between warring alien races), Downlode Tales (an extension of the Sinister Dexter universe), Sancho Panzer (with Henry Flint, featuring the eponymous character piloting a giant tank, excellently monickered Mojo, with his brilliantly named technician, Tool), Roadkill and Wardog, Abnett scribed Judge Dredd, Durham Red and Rogue Trooper.

With Marvel UK, Abnett had runs on Death’s Head 2, The crossover Battletide, Knight’s of Pendragon (all of which he co-created) as well as The Punisher, War Machine, Nova and various X-Men titles. Over at DC he reinvented Legion of Superheroes as the Mini-series Legion Lost which was later launched as the ongoing series The Legion. As was typical of his most recent work, most of Abnett’s work was written with Andy Lanning. From this they derived their moniker DnA. For Dark Horse comic Abnett was responsible for Planet of the Apes: Blood Lines as well as knocking out Lords of Misrule and Hypersonic. Many UK readers will know his work however primarily on the 40,000 Warhammer series, including the Gaunt’s Ghost, Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies, and more recently as part of the Horus Heresy, the SF best-selling Horus Rising, Legion and Prospero Burns. Frankly, these titles are unfamiliar to us here at the Bunker however clearly Abnett has brought his strong character and situation writing to bear on the battlefields of 40K, no doubt, injecting personalities that prove engaging in ferocious battle. He’s dabbled in comic books for 4ok’s black library imprint; producing Damnation Crusade, Lone Wolf, Inquisitor Ascendent and Titan. Again no doubt with the same results, given the number of titles.

Put this together with writing two Doctor Who audio dramas – the Harvest and Nocturne – as well as Torchwood: Everyone says hello for BBC Audio as well as two novels based on the respective series: The Story of Martha and Torchwood: Border Princes, and it’s clear that Abnett is a significant bedrock in British Science Fiction. With this grounding in space and time hopping adventurers it’s perhaps unsurprising that Abnett (and Lanning) have found such a secure home in Marvel’s cosmic titles.

But prior to that they developed the sharp edge of DC’s Wildstorm Imprint, The Authority, spawning storylines in which Earth is attacked by God himself back to feed on what was a primordial soup and understandably narked at discovering a Human populated, verdant planet where he left his pantry. It’s not til you see an interdimensional, sentient supership entering God’s pores and detonating its brain with the power of the previous century that you understand the lunacy of Abnett and Lanning. Magnificent space operas be damned, God assassinations by chain smoking blondes is the remit here. In many ways that is Abnett and Lanning’s genius. Lighter than Millar’s follow up too as perhaps would be expected.

At the heart of incredibly massive events, the collapse of star spanning empires or the decimation of a city block there is the average, the easily recognisable. The character’s written by them carry the easily recognisable traits of normal people. No matter what you throw at these characters, they remain people first and superheroes second. After joining Guardians of the Galaxy, as part of Marvel’s Cosmic Imprint Jack Flag can’t stand ‘space stuff’ even as he fights tentacled beasts from the far side of an interdimensional fracture or trying to survive a Negative Zone prison breakout in a wheelchair. Jack Flag is another fringe character unrecognisable outside of Captain America comics until he was crippled by the Thunderbolts under Osborne. He came out of nowhere, went downhill and sent to a prison in a backlot of the Marvel Universe and instantly became irresistable to Abnett and Lanning (I’m not calling them DnA – I’m just not).

It’s Guardians that represents the hybrid brain of Abnett and Lanning. Led by the permanently down trodden Star-lord and a Raccoon, Guardians of the Galaxy represents exceptional gung-ho space adventure and dead pan tongue in cheek humour at it’s own expense. Most of the characters are as unhappy to be there as you’d expect to be if you were faced by an interstellar absolutist faith that feeds on the beliefs of others and kills anyone who steps in their way. The members of the team are an eclectic batch (when alive); including a psychic titan lesbian, a master assassin, a talking tree king and a man from 1000 years in the future witha  Captain America shield. These characters should struggle to blend but at the hands of Abnett and Lanning the many parts become a much more satisfying hole. Not a mispelling.

Abnett is a veteran chef of plot line and character, always incorporating the right blend to create satisfying and engaging storylines. A man of specific interests, he is most at home (with Andy Lanning) dealing with situations of bewildering scale and yet manages to draw you in to the minutae of characters caught in these events. A master of scale and plotting, Abnett can handle a charge on an alien world or two characters grabbing a drink (provided it descends into a bar room brawl inspired by an quadreped alien with telescopic glasses on. As 9 Billion lives are threatened and an imprisoned Moondragon (character), pregnant with a spore from a cancerous universe where life won allowing disease to thrive is about to give birth amongst a militant fundamentalist cosmic church, Star Lord jumps out and shouts ‘ Hi, I’m Starlord! I’d wave but my hands are full of guns.’ Don’t know if that was Lanning, don’t know if that was Abnett but Abnett was in the room and that is good enough for me.

Regarding the talking Raccoon – you’ll have to wait ’til we do Lanning. I got worried I wasn’t going to leave anything for his article next week….