Arm fall off boy

May 5, 2008

One of the perils of reading classic comics is what I’d term the Grandpa Love Factor. By that I mean that everyone loves Grandpa because he’s Grandpa. We wouldn’t be where we are without him, and he was in The War, and he made sure his five children all went to college, and if he smells a little funny and repeats the same stories over and over again and accuses you of “backsass” when you ask him if he knows not to put a metal pie plate in the microwave, even when he’s about to do exactly that, well, he’s Grandpa, and by all that’s good and true, you will love him, because there is a special place in hell for the kind of ingrate that doesn’t.

I’m not saying that there are legions of creators who are viewed primarily through the prism of the Grandpa Love Factor, but I do wonder sometimes. Because when reading a classic comic by a creator widely acknowledged as a pioneer in the medium, the merest hint that I’m appreciating the context of the comic more than the comic itself makes me feel horribly guilty. (“Oh, no! I don’t love Grandpa, and I’m going to hell for it!”)

So I would once again like to express my appreciation for Osamu Tezuka, because I love reading his comics even more than I love the context of those comics. Because in addition to having been created by an undisputed master and trailblazer, I find them uncategorically, un-ironically entertaining.

I’m not going to say Dororo, recently released by Vertical, is the best example of Tezuka’s work available in English, and who knows where it ranks in his complete body of work, but it’s certainly a page-turner. It’s about a young man, Hyakkimaru, on a quest to get his body back. His power-hungry father sold the boy to demons before Hyakkimaru was even born, and only the intervention of a kindly doctor keeps the creepy, shapeless infant from death.

The doctor helps Hyakkimaru compensate for his shortcomings, and the lad sets off in search of his missing parts. Along the way, he meets a thieving urchin named Dororo who sets his sights on the valuable sword Hyakkimaru conceals under his prosthetic arm. Dororo is an imp and a brat, but he and Hyakkimaru form one of those oddball partnerships that crop up so often in fiction of every variety. This one stems at least partly from the fact that both have unbearably painful personal histories, so it’s a bit more persuasive than the average.

But Tezuka’s work is always more persuasive than average. His protagonists fall into a standard shônen quest rhythm, protecting the innocent from demonic machinations as they further their own goals, squabbling and bonding along the way. The landscape they inhabit has been ravaged by war, which heightens the suspicions of the people they encounter. The architecture may be familiar – varied perils result in incremental victories – but the tone is decidedly on the grim side. This isn’t the kind of bloodless action romp you might expect; the body count is shockingly high, and Tezuka doesn’t flinch from showing you what happens when someone swings a blade around. The heroes’ beneficiaries are more likely to respond with anxiety and ingratitude than a hot meal and a place to recover after their trials.

If that sounds like Tezuka’s abandoned his humanistic bent here, don’t worry. It’s hard to blame his townspeople for their failings of hospitality, given the deprivations they’ve endured. Hunger, violence, uncertainty, and a bunch of other war-driven ills have left them in survival mode, and neither Hyakkimaru nor Dororo inspire confidence or comfort.

Diverting as the big, bombastic moments are, they aren’t the be-all and end-all of Dororo. There are bits of low comedy that provide respite from the literal and figurative bloodletting. They’re in scale, generally driven by Dororo’s utter unwillingness to back down from any opposition. At the same time, that quality puts Dororo in genuine peril; scary, bad things aren’t just a feature of his past. One of the most striking things about the book is that no one feels safe, in spite of the familiarity of the plot mechanics. It’s that uncertainty – not entirely knowing how something’s going to turn out – that makes Tezuka’s work so readable and alive for me.

Grandpa Tezuka smells like lemon basil and tells embarrassing (but not creepy) stories about your Mom and always gives me five dollars and tells me to spend it on something useless. I love Grandpa Tezuka.

(Review based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)