*Phoenix Volume Two: Future — Recommended

Review by Rob Vollmar

The second volume in the Phoenix cycle finds creator Osamu Tezuka switching gears from historical fantasy to science fiction. Where volume one’s Dawn was very interested in the elements that came together to form civilization (at least the Japanese one), Future is more broad in its scope as it examines the likely causes behind its dissolution, a fate he finds inextricably linked to the destruction of humanity as a species.

“3404 AD. The Earth was rapidly dying.” Tezuka’s narrative begins thus, hanging ominously over a series of bleak landscapes, detailing the degradation above ground necessary to drive humanity underground for its terminal phase as a species. The final five million inhabitants of Earth populate five “great” cities and live in distinct monocultures carefully regulated by supercomputers. The first phase of the main narrative begins in one of these cities, Yamato.

Phoenix Volume Two: Future cover
Phoenix Volume Two: Future
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It is instructive to note that while Future was completed after Dawn, Tezuka’s art in the first half of the volume looks regressive in comparison. The stirring feats of naturalist drawings that flow from Dawn‘s historical setting can be read in context with a body of his middle period work that emphasizes illustrative over dutiful narrative drawings. Future begins in all-too-familiar territory, Tezuka’s cartoony and crowded vision of the future as defined by the emergent technologies of his own time. The conceptual self-plagiarism on display stretches, at times, to the very beginning of his career with early and more awkward works like Metropolis.

Populated by all of the Tezuka archetypal players one comes to expect from his work, the opening can seems almost like business as usual, which is odd for Tezuka in general and the Phoenix cycle in particular. But where Astro Boy is fueled by Tezuka’s curiosity about the future and what marvels it might hold for the human race, the tone here is markedly different enough to warrant re-examination of exactly how Tezuka is using that awareness of his earlier work to comment on the story that he tells. Without a miracle, sought relentlessly, not unlike the Phoenix herself in book one, human life on Earth is about to cease forever.

As in Dawn, the narrative sections of the story are partitioned by an appearance of the Phoenix. In the first, Masato Yamanobe, a young man in the Yamato Space Patrol, is forced to defy his superiors and flee the city in order to protect his girlfriend, Tamami, from execution by the state. She is not human but of a race of aliens known as the Moopie who are able to tap into human consciousness and provide vivid hallucinations that supersede reality. Her species has been declared forbidden in Yamato and Yamanobe himself had been involved in missions to exterminate them. Their flight leads them up out of the city and on to the wasted surface of the Earth in hopes of finding an observation dome before the toxins in the air and treacherous weather conditions kill them.

As the story moves, in one narrative strand, to the surface, Tezuka begins adding more detail and scope into his panels. Split between Yamato, where a world war begins to brew over Yamanobe’s escape, the Earth’s surface, and the interior of one of the aforementioned observation domes where the pair find refuge, we still find ourselves confined to more claustrophobic and technologically dominated environments than open and natural ones, however devastated.

With the mutual destruction of the great cities, the story is brought into a unity of location at the observation dome. The Phoenix appears to a famed scientist within this dome, instructing him to receive the fleeing refugees and, in her appearance, opens the second section. Tezuka reduces his players down to four, three men and one Moopie. With the law that declared the Moopie a danger to humanity made moot in the wake of civilization’s passing, Tamami becomes a commodity. The Doctor, seeking her cells to complete his experimentation into creating life; Roc, the same bureaucrat who sentenced her to death in Yamato, now wanting to take her into deep space to try his luck among the stars; and Yamanobe, who just wants his girlfriend back. But this love quadrangle doesn’t last long as the supervolcanoes erupt due to the multiple nuclear blasts and, even the observation dome is cracked, radiation poisons its inhabitants towards a slow but inevitable death.

Tezuka resolves the second section relatively quickly with two twists. First, Tamami gives up her human form that the Doctor might be able to construct Yamanobe an immortal body. Ironically, the Phoenix appears to Yamanobe and transforms him into an immortal being even as Tamami is stripped of her human form towards the same, now unnecessary, end. Within pages, everyone is dead except for Tamami, now trapped in her amorphous natural state, and Yamanobe, who is impervious to injury and, by all reckoning, immortal.

After the first two sections in safe and comfortable territory, Tezuka makes a broad stylistic leap in the third. It opens with the Phoenix’s revelation to Yamanobe that takes him on a trip of scale from the macro-cosmic to the quantum and back. With no analogous works from this period or before available in English, one is tempted to identify this as a new riff in Tezuka’s work that would resurface again in the more mystical sections of Buddha. Western readers may also feel a simpatico at work in this section (and others like later in the volume) with Steve Ditko’s work on Dr. Strange as well as more recent mystic explorations in comics like Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s The Birth Caul.

With the reduction of the cast comes one of Tezuka’s most bleak storylines ever committed to paper. Yamanobe spends an eternity on Earth as its only sentient creature until all vestiges of his former life are forgotten. With humanity and its technology destroyed, the some of the page’s focus returns to the natural landscape but, oddly, Tezuka rarely moves fully back into the deeply illustrative approach of Book One. The Earth, as it slowly regains the potential to sustain life, is drawn in a more cartoony fashion, rounded edges and irregular shapes reminding one at times of Theodore Geisel (Dr. Suess).

As the story plunges deeper and deeper into the future, the distinction between that future and the past we assumed at the story’s beginning becomes as disassociated as Yamanobe’s recollection of his former life. Life arises, complexifies, dominates, and destroys itself over yet again before Yamanobe finally fulfills his task of repopulating the Earth with humans and is, at last, allowed to rest. In fact, the volume’s end reproduces the opening of Book One, lending credence to the idea that Tezuka considered ending the cycle in this one binary circuit.

Of the various installments of the Phoenix cycle, there is none so sprawling in its scope than Future. Though it technically adheres to the pattern set by the cycle as a whole (alternating from the past to the future with each volume), Future subverts the notion of keeping track of time in a linear fashion and, uncharacteristically, attempts to answer the existential questions that are tangled in the heart of the series as a whole. For some, Tezuka’s answers to these questions may prove less evocative than the asking itself but rarely in the series is the Phoenix so forthcoming with her vision and plan for humanity within it. Taken as a whole, Future is not the most visually impressive of the Phoenix cycle and the opening may underwhelm Tezuka enthusiasts looking for something novel. But given its scope and bold twists on the plot towards the middle and end, it is definitely one of the must reads of the series and stands well both on its own and in context with the series as a whole. Highly recommended.

*Dragon Head Books 1-3 — Recommended

Review by Rob Vollmar

The first three volumes of Dragon Head represent the first long narrative segment of the series and are thematically unified enough to warrant simultaneous consideration.

Dragon Head Book 1 cover
Dragon Head Book 1
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The opening to Dragon Head is a mash-up of sorts of a classic disaster flick like The Poseidon Adventure with the heady psychological overtones of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, as three high-school students survive a train wreck that kills hundreds of their classmates only to discover that they are buried in a collapsed tunnel with little hope of rescue. Creator Minetaro Mochizuki’s ultimate success in evoking a palpable sense of dread can be traced to a number of carefully executed storytelling decisions that dominate these opening chapters.

The first volume opens with a short sequence of black pages; the first, adorned with a solitary tiny white mark; the second, totally black; and the third, featuring the faintest hint of a broken horizontal white line that travels down the page’s length, accompanied by a sound effect that suggests the dripping of water.

The following page-turn is an extreme close-up on the series’ protagonist, Teru Aoki, as he opens his eyes for the first time after the wreck. To heighten the surprise and better fill the page with his chosen image, Mochizuki rotates it 90 degrees counter-clockwise, stacking the eyes as if they were on top of one another. This careful staging places the reader squarely into the narrator’s shoes as he takes in the nightmarish images that surround him and tries to piece together his tenuous memories of what has happened.

Dragon Head Book 2 cover
Dragon Head Book 2
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Much of the power of these opening volumes of the story can be attributed to Mochizuki’s nearly obsessive efforts to create a finite and believable environment for his characters to inhabit. This begins inside the train itself as Aoki explores first the car containing the dead bodies of his own class and then those beyond, all filled with corpses.

The technical aspect alone of believably rendering the inside of a wrecked commuter train is impressive enough to warrant critical attention. The relentless manner in which Mochizuki employs it, often creating long silences in the story as he visually dissects the intersection of a ruined wall and the rockslide, or the angle of the train in relation to the collapsed tunnel, shows a full command of visual storytelling techniques that include and, in some cases, transcend the influence of motion pictures.

As the players’ list expands to include a girl and another boy, some might find the lack of characterization invested into the cast somewhat disappointing. In the course of these first three volumes, the reader learns very little about them even through occasional flashbacks (bulletin: teenagers are sullen) beyond their immediate reaction to immediate circumstances. We are not invited to ponder the injustice of their situation due to the virtue of their character or the ambition of their dreams.

Dragon Head Book 3 cover
Dragon Head Book 3
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As the currency of success or failure in manga is often built on this interaction between the audience and the author, through the fictional characters, enjoying Dragon Head then depends squarely on Mochizuki’s ability to make the situations compelling beyond their emotional impact on the characters. At times, it seems like exhausting work for author and reader alike, but then so is escaping from a collapsed tunnel.

As the narrative goals of Dragon Head become dramatically more diffuse about a third of the way into book three, it is tempting to look back at the opening and admire its simplicity and effectiveness in comparison. The tension that Mochizuki is able to sustain for five hundred or so pages is without many credible peers in the contemporary English-translated manga market. While the series will never spawn plushes or panty-shot variant action-figures of its female character, it is one of the better examples of pure cartooning on the market today and manages to both entertain and edify. Highly recommended.

Hokusai: First Manga Master

Review by Rob Vollmar

Hokusai: First Manga Master is a short guided tour through the Manga of celebrated Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Originally released to wide acclaim in Japan as fifteen separate volumes over a forty-year period, the Manga is a work that defies easy classification by Western standards. It is, at once, a copious sketchbook left by one of the 19th century’s most influential artists, an encyclopedia of Japanese visual culture before Westernization, as well as the supposed precedent for one of the world’s now dominant narrative art traditions. For me, as a critic, there are lingering questions about the relationship between contemporary manga and Hokusai’s work by the same name that I hoped this book would answer, setting a high expectation on my part in finally getting to read the manga equivalent of the Rosetta Stone for the first time.

Hokusai: First Manga Master cover
Hokusai: First Manga Master
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Writer Christophe Marquet highlights an unanticipated element of the Manga’s global significance in his introduction, noting that, “although it is undoubtedly the work of a draftsman of genius, it is also the product of a collaboration with the engravers’ and printers’ guilds, which created these albums of wood engravings” (17). This is a sober reminder that, for all of experimentation focusing on the interplay between words and images that took place prior to the 19th century, the birth of comics (or manga) was dependent on certain technologies to slowly develop that could adequately reproduce a particular artist’s line and then mass produce it for public consumption.

With fifteen volumes and over four thousand images to choose from, the editorial emphasis here is on presentation over quantity. The images in this book are carefully displayed as historical documents, retaining the faded coloring implicit in the original reproduction process. The plates are grouped and commented upon thematically, reflecting Hokusai’s original encyclopedic intention for his work as a primer for visual artists in a variety of media. The writers do an excellent job of showing when and how Hokusai regularly moves the material beyond that original function, delivering stunning and, occasionally, narrative drawings that push the envelope of the production process to which his work is subject. Readers familiar with the artist’s more celebrated landscape paintings will find loads of material here worth pausing over for study.

The work on display here is stylistically restless, though First Manga Master no doubt magnifies the contrast between volumes much in the same way a Greatest Hits album can for a musical band with a long career from which to draw. A good portion of the drawings are journalistic in their intention, realistic to the point that the production process will allow. Hokusai spends a good deal of time in this mode recreating animals, plants, tools, and, in some cases, elements of landscape. For the more evocative or fantastic images, he exaggerates form in service to the first hints of narrative expression. Occasionally, as in the much reprinted “Game of One Hundred Grimaces” plate, what begins as a simple image list begins hinting at the possibilities of a sequential visual narrative but never develops meaningful content to sustain it.

A third aspect of Hokusai’s work presented is a surprising nod to essentially Western perspective techniques as well as a number of impressive architectural drawings. While European art movements like Japonisme would lionize the Japanese for the untainted quality of their fine art tradition, the Manga clearly shows that nation’s most celebrated artist as not only curious about but in mastery of a number of Western drawing techniques some forty years before the so-called opening of Japan. Other plates, essentially schematic drawings, of handguns and cannons underscore this curiosity as a recurring theme in Hokusai’s Manga.

On the final question of whether there is enough continuity between Hokusai and Tezuka’s work to warrant the latter’s appropriation of the term manga from the former, First Manga Master falls disappointingly silent. There is little on display here to support the idea that Tezuka’s work was somehow more connected to Hokusai than, say, Popeye. Whether further evidence of that might exist in the remainder of Hokusai’s Manga not covered in this book is yet unknown (at least to me), but, based on the material displayed here, the claim for continuity between the original mang-ster, Hokusai, and the contemporary manga tradition seems less compelling than it did. That caveat aside, Hokusai: First Manga Master is a fascinating and multi-layered overview of the Manga that will yield new treasures with each subsequent reading.

*Phoenix Volume One: Dawn — Recommended

Review by Rob Vollmar

While Osamu Tezuka may have created work that was more popular (Astro Boy) or more accessible (Buddha) than his Phoenix cycle, it is the latter alone that Tezuka himself referred to as his “life work.” Consisting of twelve thematically linked but essentially self-contained stories, the Phoenix, in its entirety, is a dramatic time-elapsed photo of a master at work across different phases of his career. Its scope, stretching from the dawn of Japanese history into the far-flung future, is dizzying and demands deep reading in order to gain an adequate appreciation for the tapestry that unfolds in the thematic interplay between the individual books.

The first volume, Dawn, speculates on a series of events that would lead to the establishment of the proto-Japanese culture. Tezuka deftly blends myth and history in building the cast through which the reader will experience this tumultuous period. The story begins in a remote village, Kumaso, which sits at the foot of a smoldering volcano. This volcano is also the home of the Phoenix, an immortal bird spirit prized among humans for its ability to bestow eternal life on whosoever should drink its blood. The book opens with just such an attempt, a young hunter named Uraji whom we learn later, is hunting the Phoenix in order to restore his young bride back to good health. Paying for his failure with his life, the story passes quickly to the people of Kumaso who live simply by the ocean in a manner depicted by Tezuka as being more governed by superstition than reason.

Phoenix Volume One: Dawn cover
Phoenix Volume One: Dawn
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In less than sixty pages, though, the winds of war and cruel fortune make mincemeat of the village and only two of the residents, Uraji’s widow Minaku and his younger brother Nagi, manage to survive; both of them, prisoners in one manner or another. In Nagi’s case, he is adopted by Surata, the general who led the attack on Kumaso, in hopes that he might someday return there and slay the Phoenix for the aging queen of Yamatai, Queen Himiko. The least ambiguous villain in a piece populated by heartless bastards all around, Himiko is presented as capricious and vain, ruling over the people of Yamatai through fear and superstition. Her brother, one of many Christ figures that litter the Phoenix’s landscape, urges her to begin the transition towards a rule based on reason but her lust for power and immortality is unyielding. It is her tragic flaw, an unwillingness to adapt to changing times and, in a broader sense, accept her own mortality, which dooms Yamatai like Kumaso before it. The quest to slay the Phoenix distracts Himiko from her primary task of remaining prepared against hostile neighboring countries and her capitol is sacked by invaders.

Given Dawn’s setting at the dawn of the Japanese civilization, it is fitting that Tezuka would use his story to dwell on questions of ethnicity and social identity. In Kumaso, the reader is invited to see culture as an accumulation of shared behaviors. This tribal existence is made to look inferior in comparison to the Yamatai who destroy it, both in the ways of medicine, which sustains life without prejudice, and war, which eradicates it with the same equanimity. Once the story is re-established in Yamatai, though, we find characters held back by this same devotion to the supernatural over the natural and the mystical over the empirical. Yet Dawn, like every other volume in this cycle, is framed by its inclusion of the Phoenix, a supernatural being, whose continued existence supersedes the short lives of the various mortal players and ties them all together into a single continuity. While critically frustrating to parse out, these interwoven paradoxes are the heart-blood of the Phoenix series and suggest that Tezuka is more comfortable deriving meaning from irreconcilable conflict than from harmonious resolution.

Though Dawn is the opening book of the cycle, it is not the oldest of Tezuka’s work on display in Phoenix. The illustrations of nature in general and the volcano in specific in Dawn take on ever-progressing layers of detail, rivaling, in some cases, Tezuka’s awesome renditions of the Himalayas in his Buddha series. As with most of Tezuka’s middle and late period pieces, there are so many exotic visual techniques employed, it becomes tough to single one of them out for praise. After moving the story to Yamatai in the second section, he restricts most of Queen Himiko’s scenes to a stage-like frame that begs comparison to Greek theater with its soliloquies and chorus of attendants. When that two-dimensional world is intruded on by Nagi’s three-dimensional desire to put an arrow through her throat, Tezuka chooses to reconcile neither with the other but superimpose these perspectives onto one another to almost surreal effect.

Phoenix Volume Two: A Tale of the Future cover
Phoenix Volume Two:
A Tale of the Future
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Later, Tezuka decides, seemingly arbitrarily, to use the occasion of a fight scene to reverse all the light values in the scene and draw the figures, ala Alex Toth, in silhouette for dramatic rather than representational purposes. One is tempted to invent some scenario by which it had to be replicated that way (it was originally in color and he didn’t want to completely redraw it for black and white reproduction?) but even a casual appreciation of Tezuka’s many other works lead just as quickly to the notion that it just amused him to draw it that way. Whatever its intended purpose, it is but one diversion in a veritable forest of storytelling strategies that keep the reader engaged throughout.

Read specifically as an opening to the Phoenix cycle, Dawn‘s mixture of the natural and the supernatural sets the tone for all that follows ably. Even as Tezuka jerks the story in the second volume some four thousand years into the future (soberly predicting the world’s utter demise in less than years from our present), the contrast between this mytho-historical fantasy and the science fiction in the latter volume is reconciled by the recurrent symbols and themes that echo down through the series. In comparison with the other historically themed volumes, Dawn is one of the more fully-realized, with multiple narrative threads running simultaneously, often crossing and even terminating unexpectedly. I’m willing to go one step further and say that Dawn is a good place to get a general introduction to Tezuka’s more sophisticated manga. Highly recommended.

Dokebi Bride Volume 1

Review by Rob Vollmar

I’ll open this particular review by saying that I don’t care how much manga you’ve read, you’ve never, ever read one quite like Dokebi Bride. Purists might be quick to point out that, originating from Korea rather than Japan, Dokebi Bride isn’t manga at all, but manhwa. Let’s be frank here. Much of the manhwa that has been translated into English thus far can only be meaningfully differentiated from manga because it reads left-to-right naturally and the author almost always has three short names instead of two long ones. While recognizing the distinction, it’s critically defensible (at least at this point) to say that many manhwa are certainly dependent on manga as a tradition if not wholly derivative.

Dokebi Bride is not devoid of manga stylisms and, more broadly, tropes of manga storytelling that have proven to be effective for pacing long-form stories. In fact, in some ways, it’s a textbook example of effective manga with an evocative setting, a rich cultural trove from which to draw story content, elaborate costuming, and well-defined characters that invite reader identification. Yet, even with all of those staples firmly in place, Dokebi Bride regularly transcends the expectation of that-which-seeks-to-entertain and delivers an urgent and complex story that defies simple description.

Dokebi Bride Volume 1 cover
Dokebi Bride Volume 1
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The opening volume of Dokebi Bride functions as a prelude to the larger story, framed elliptically to show us the heroine, Sunbi’s, peculiar childhood as a ward to her grandmother. The pair live in a dwindling fishing village where the grandmother, Okboon, had once served as shaman and is living out her final years. The circumstances by which Sunbi comes to live with her grandmother are parceled out one morsel at a time across this and subsequent volumes, but she is estranged from her father who lives in Seoul and works as a doctor.

One must credit author Marley with the precision with which she builds and executes her metaphors. Okboon, as village shaman, embodies that village and, as she reaches the end of her life, so goes the village. Or is it the opposite? In the opening chapter, “The Ritual of the Dragon Spirit,” readers are treated to a sumptuous recreation of both the rural, seaside environment and the elaborate dances and costumes that are associated with the calling of the Sea Dragon to bless the fishing season. It is also our first introduction to the dizzying set of rules and regulations that govern the petitioning of gods and spirits that eventually become the life-blood of Marley’s plots. Her depictions of nature, rich and as vital as they are to the story, are miraculously outdone by the sheer bravura of her drawings of the supernatural. It’s not just the characters who are awed by the visual presence but the reader, as well.

As many nice things as there are to say about Marley’s drawings, it is the implications of her story that linger beyond the back cover. Shamanism, the last vestige of the world’s oldest religion wherever one encounters it, stands in for the way people lived for thousands of years before science and civilization explained to them that they were going about it all wrong. As it appears that humanity’s last link to the supernatural forces attached this particular place is to be severed as Sunbi is shuttled off to Seoul to live with her father, we feel a triple sense of loss: one for her childhood as it fades away, one for the village that is destined to dissolve in the face of pressing civilization, and one for the elaborate beliefs that made people feel intimately connected to the particular place where they were born and for which they were expected to become and remain as stewards.

Marley establishes and then follows through on her symbols so effectively that volume one of Dokebi Bride feels, in its own way, perfectly self-contained. Don’t let this fool you. The genius regularly on display in this opening, heartbreaking volume is no fluke and just keeps getting better with each new layer added to the story. If pressed vigorously, I would be more inclined to compare this series to Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III’s Promethea or David Mack’s Kabuki than to anything else out there in the manga/manhwa mesocosm. If you like your comics, by whatever name, startling as opposed to just really good, Dokebi Bride is a must-read.

Genju no Seiza Books 1-3

Review by Rob Vollmar

Genju no Seiza Book 1 cover
Genju no Seiza Book 1
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Genju no Seiza is one of two Matsuri Akino manga currently being serialized in English, along with Kamen Tantei, also from TokyoPop. As in her first English-translated manga, Pet Shop of Horrors, Akino finds great success here in mining myth to generate content. This time out, it’s a mish-mash of Hindu theology and Buddhist philosophy superimposed over a juvenile power fantasy as teenaged Fuuto Kamashina discovers that he is the latest incarnation of a deposed, foreign god-king (i.e. like the Dalai Lama).

Genju no Seiza Book 2 cover
Genju no Seiza Book 2
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What struck me most as I read through these three volumes again was how ideally they are paced and structured for potential anime adaptation. Akino sticks to essentially self-contained stories for the first volume, adding with each new “episode”: a new supporting character, a new power for Kamashina to discover in his moment of greatest need, and just a snippet of larger concerns that impinge momentarily on the more episodic concern of that particular chapter. When those external plot threads pile up long enough, we earn a big two-part episode and a big confrontation that resolves (albeit temporarily) the crisis. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Genju no Seiza Book 3 cover
Genju no Seiza Book 3
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Adhering to a formula, however cynical, is neither crime nor sin and if, as a reader, you enjoy what Akino does very well, chances are that you’ll like this better than most. Her stories slyly refer to a number of strains in contemporary shoujo without becoming wed to any of them. Like Pet Shop of Horrors, she fills Genju no Seiza with story after story of humans and animals interacting as peers with the resulting trove of her stunning naturalist drawings. As with any good shoujo, the costuming in this story is elaborate and meticulously rendered. While male-male relationships are rarely consummated, both Genju and Pet Shop fall somewhere between bishonen and shonen-ai with Akino frequently blurring the gender boundaries of her characters, as in “Father and Son,” when Kamishina is possessed by the spirit of a dead woman to confront her husband.

By virtue of working these particular angles so diligently, Akino turns out a number of genuinely sharp pieces. One of the best, “Partners”, closes out the second volume and is both classic Akino and a textbook example of how good, episodic writing can be meaningful in its own right. The story becomes more fixated on the “big picture” by volume three but, given the craft regularly on display here, I’m not really in hurry for this to go anywhere but onward.

Empowered Volume 1

Review by Rob Vollmar

It sucks to be a female superhero these days. Last week (the same week in fact that I picked up Empowered), I casually thumbed through two other new comic books featuring Supergirl, Supergirl #15 and Brave and the Bold #2. In the former, Supergirl discovers, the hard way, that her new boyfriend is a mouth-breathing woman-beater who also, as it turns out, is probably a psychotic stalker. Oh sure, she beat him thoroughly for his transgression, giving him a well-deserved superknee to his power-groin, but only after 16 pages of being dragged around by her hair while being instructed on the finer points of subservience. In the other, she travels through space with a Green Lantern (who can’t focus on the mission in front of him because he has to really concentrate in order not to solicit her for some good old statutory rape) only to fight gladiator-style against space-heavies but, you know, dressed like a really sexy six year old. With a lollipop.

Empowered Volume 1 cover
Empowered Volume 1
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I’m not sure if this was before or after the thing with the boyfriend but it hardly matters.

This briefest of glimpses into the murky depths of contemporary superhero continuity is not a scathing indictment of the institutionalized misogyny that pervades modern capes-and-boots comics. Adam Warren’s Empowered, on the other hand, is. It is also probably only the second great work of genius produced by a true synthesis of the comics and manga forms, the first being the first five hundred pages or so of Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest.

Empowered is composed of a continuing series of short stories that grow longer as the volume progresses, about a superheroine with less than ideal powers that diminish as her ultra-thin, body-tight costume is regularly shredded, ripped, or exploded off of her body during super-battles. This scenario, repeated in nearly every segment, not unlike Krazy Kat getting hit in the head with a brick thrown by Ignatz Mouse, usually winds up with Empowered nearly naked, bound, and ball-gagged, as she must endure, once again, the gloating of her villainous foe only to be rescued by her otherwise loathsome teammates, The SuperHomeyz.

If that synopsis seems a little repulsive, Warren treats these themes, only mildly caricatured from a holy host of superhero comics, as found art objects that merely inhabit the story rather than defining it. While his exploration and exploitation of them provides much of the ironic humor that drives Empowered, it is his warm characterization of the richly believable cast that drives the deepest nail into the coffin of superheroic cynicism. Instead of making the sum of the title character’s life an expression of this cycle of humiliation, Warren provides her with friends that offer her meaningful solace from the inhospitable superhero game. It is in this palpable sense of community that Warren draws heavily on manga themes, showing his typical sensitivity to storytelling differences between the two forms rather than aping surface details, which are drawn almost whole-cloth from the superhero genre.

For all this meta-textual hoo-rah supposedly in play, Empowered is neither labored nor shrill. In fact, it’s one of the most laugh-out-loud-funny works I’ve read in years. Warren’s writing, even when blended in with the sensibility of other artists handling the illustration, as with recent projects from Marvel like Livewires or Iron Man: Hypervelocity, is stylish and recognizable. Empowered is a playful but incisive reminder that, when given the forum to write and draw his own work, Adam Warren may have many compatriots in the Ameri-manga experiment, but not many peers. Breathtaking and utterly singular.

Ode to Kirihito

Review by Rob Vollmar

Ode to Kirihito is a massive (800 pgs+) single volume collection of what could only be termed a medical thriller written by the sometimes-God-sometimes-Godfather of manga, Osamu Tezuka. As indicated in his biography on the inside back flap, Tezuka completed his studies to become a doctor before abandoning medicine in favor of a career creating manga. Doctors and medicine in general are, not surprisingly, a recurring theme in most of Tezuka’s work whether by virtue of Astro Boy‘s preponderance of robot scientists (many of whom regularly create and modify mechanical life), Buddha, who is often presented as something of a doctor/mystic, or even Black Jack, a later Tezuka drama about, of all things, a rogue surgeon with a disfigured face and a heart of gold.

Ode to Kirihito cover
Ode to Kirihito
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For all its commonalities with these other works, Kirihito is a different kind of story as it regularly wanders away from its title character to deal more directly with an inexplicable ailment that Kirihito studies and, ultimately, contracts, called Monmow Disease. The ode then is to Kirhito’s quest to reclaim his humanity in spite of the dog-like appearance that Monmow survivors must endure by exposing the truth about the disease and those who would seek to profit from it to the world.

There is so much to like about Kirihito, before even addressing the story and whatever shortcomings it may have, as to make the act of criticizing it seem almost superfluous to the work itself. If one is hunting for pure cartooning mastery at work, seemingly any Tezuka work (certainly all those available in English) will more than ably meet the minimum standard for genius by whatever standard it is measured. This period in the early 1970s is a fruitful one for Tezuka artistically as he begins to infuse his stories with a new level of breathtaking illustrative detail that the incredible demand for content during his butter years drawing Astro Boy never allowed.

When applied to a compelling story (as in the case of Buddha), Tezuka regularly exhibits sustained periods of first-rate storytelling that may well be without peer among his contemporaries in any tradition. Despite its many laudable qualities, though, Kirihito falls shy of this kind of superlative description due to perceptible weaknesses in the story itself. He seems a little out of his element, trying to create a believable world populated by mostly vile people where, by virtue of his determination, a just man finally gets what is due to him. His characterization of female characters in particular thuds flatly against the restraints of this world he creates.

More damning is the frequent use of coincidence to bring the plot around to where you know it’s going, some three hundred pages before it gets there. This sense of expectation is more forgivable when brought about by a clearly articulated motivation of a major character by virtue of their actions but too often in Kirihito, Tezuka goes back to more primitive devices that don’t deliver the same sense of satisfaction.

There is some truth to the idea that Tezuka, on his worst day, is inherently better than 99.99% of the work from any tradition that one might stumble upon. In this sense, Ode to Kirihito represents a much-welcomed addition to the miniscule fraction of Tezuka’s work currently available in English. It’s not, by far, the least compelling work in that group and features the incentive bonus of being a self-contained work available in one smartly-designed volume. But in comparison with even the totality of that limited pool, Kirihito lands cleanly below the high mark established by Buddha and the Phoenix cycle in that it clarifies some issues about Tezuka’s transition into this later phase of his career but demonstrates very little that is new about his work as a whole.

An online preview is available.




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