Divine Comics

By Yani Mentzas

In his second post for our Japan issue, Yani Mentzas talks about the divine in the work of Osamu Tezuka —Editors

In my previous post I pointed out that Osamu Tezuka—the God of Manga (manga no kamisama) and indisputably the most important figure in the history of Japanese comics—needs to be understood as being literally divine. It is only fitting and right that many of the works that issued from the godhead at its maturity are shot through with religious themes, angles, and motifs. Kamisama is, as kamisama does.

What's more striking in fact is the comparable paucity of these elements in the early oeuvre of the master who'd eventually come to employ them so deftly. We could attribute this difference to the fact that aging tends to inculcate a greater interest in spirituality, but Tezuka's mature phase began when he was in his forties, which is hardly old. The better answer has to do with intended readership; to simplify a little but not much, in his early period before 1970 Tezuka wrote for children, while he had grownups in mind after the seventies due to an immense demographic shift in manga buying.

Teen-oriented comics, both in the U.S. and Japan, typically feature characters with special powers—an obvious chance to engage some higher issues. Yet, in these works, the hero's demigod status is always merely a default expectation, a routine fantasy, a tenet as naturalized as those of dogmatic faiths. These tales' thematic explorations are surprisingly free of both conflicts and synergies with pre-existing theories of the numinous; indeed, they seem to be not just indifferent but averse to examining the resemblances between their attitudes and those of religion in its many guises. This gives them an air of not being serious, which is to be expected in juvenile entertainment.

Narrative comics can mature in two diverging ways: either by jettisoning the juvenile framework in favor of standards borrowed from realism, or by staying within the framework to analyze and foreground its themes, especially the controlling one, "that which exceeds man." My personal preference is against the former path, which leads to comics that give an impression of wanting to be art, cinema, or literature rather than comics and that indeed seem only the more shame-faced the better they are. I believe the latter is the royal road of intelligent comics in that it sees the merits of cartooning's openness to caricature, acceptance of absurdity, and unflagging curiosity about that which exceeds man.

In Japanese comics, the former path was taken by gekiga. While its resolutely realist tack seemed, and indeed was, a breakthrough, as a movement gekiga eventually devolved into a juvenile mode, narrating the routine demigod fantasies with a relatively photorealistic touch, a lot of luridness, and older protagonists. Although Tezuka incorporated the fruits of gekiga to a certain extent, he followed the latter path, producing serious manga—an oxymoron in that the Japanese word means "frivolous pictures" (as opposed to gekiga's "dramatic pictures").

Indeed the frivolousness never really went away with him. First-time readers are often taken aback by the cartoonish character designs and the prevalence of gags in what are recommended to them as serious works. Tezuka can in fact seem to be out to sabotage his own masterpieces when, say, in the medical thriller Ode to Kirihito, he has a circus performer get fried as a "human tempura," or when denizens of ancient India anachronistically refer to "Paris" and "Tokyo University" in the epic Buddha. The God of Manga is so unashamed about being an author of comics that he can embarrass the long-faced initiate. But how godly, this madness!

The overall seriousness of his work should be experienced first-hand, but the mere fact that he consciously treated religious themes and motifs within the comics form, which tends to shy away from thinking through its mythico-theological urges, should be proof. I mean not just Buddha and Phoenix, or Ode to Kirihito with its Christian motifs and Apollo's Song with its pagan reference, but also, as we shall see in our next post, Black Jack, the series my firm is now publishing, about a "surgeon with the hands of god" (as one of the many screen adaptations has it). It's too bad that a putatively propagandistic work that the teenaged Tezuka penned during World War II is not available for public consumption; I would love to see whether the Emperor—a god back then—appears in it.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the maturation of American comics happens to be associated with a work called A Contract With God—or that The Sandman series, emblematic of the medium's ability to appeal to a sophisticated readership, features outright gods as protagonists. The Watchmen, in its deployment of the transcendent Dr. Manhattan, and in its rigorous examination of those who would be as gods to men, occurs to me as yet another example of a landmark comic book that attains maturity, not by turning realist, but by foregrounding questions of the divine.

Yani Mentzas is the Editorial Director and Executive Vice President of Vertical, Inc., publisher of Osamu Tezuka's graphic novel masterpiece Black Jack

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Other posts by Yani Mentzas in this series:

Is Tezuka God?


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