Friday, June 13, 2008

Swingin' Sixties Edition, with Tezuka and Kirby

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews of Dororo (Vertical, 2008) and Essential Thor volume 2 (Marvel, 2005).

Dororo was first published over twelve months in the pages of Shonen Sunday from 1967-68. The strip didn't reach a proper concluding episode by the time its creator, Osamu Tezuka, wrapped up his one-year commitment and went off to do other things, but it inspired a successful cartoon adaptation and was recently made into a live-action film. Vertical released the first English edition of the comic in April.

I can't give this quite the emphatic recommendation that I had hoped to. That's not to say this wonderful story by Tezuka is at all bad; it concerns a swordsman named Hyakkimaru and his associate, a young little thief calling himself Dororo, who travel through a strange, timelost medieval Japan on a quest to slay 48 demons. Because of a deal made by his evil father, Hyakkimaru was born a misshapen, helpless thing without a face, organs or limbs, kept alive by magic and willpower, and given prosthetics by the kindly doctor who raised him. The death of each demon restores one of the body parts he was born without. It's an odd mix of allegory and adventure fiction.

For the most part, I enjoyed the book tremendously, and was pleased to see another mad appearance of the "face tumors" that the great Tezuka would also use in an installment of Black Jack, although played a little differently here.

Unfortunately though, the translator's periodic use of modern slang and phrases which weren't in use when this serial was first published forty years ago really takes the reader out of the story. I think this is fantastic and can't wait for more collections - there are apparently just two more to come, completing the original serial - but I also can't help but believe that this was just one edit away from being truly perfect. It also makes me worry whether Vertical's translation of Black Jack will be accurate.

This, on the other hand, this I can recommend completely.

As a kid, I didn't have much interest in the late 70s Thor. It felt old-fashioned and wordy. Now, adult reasoning tells us that proper Lee and Kirby Thor from the 60s must be good stuff, because, you know, it's Stan Lee and Jack Kirby but their Thor comic is perhaps overshadowed by the period's other, more merchandised material, and it was rarely reprinted. So I'd never actually seen the real stuff before now. I was advised to start with the second collection, as it took a dozen or so issues for the team to find their feet. But if what's in the first book is even half as good as what's in the second, I'll concede that this is even better than the duo's Fantastic Four at its peak.

Holy anna, I can't tell you how fun this book was. It is a complete blast from cover to cover, one great big serial of wildly over-the-top mayhem. There's one sequence where some armed robbers burst in to a restaurant where Hercules is trying to eat, and he beats the hell out of most of them, chases the others outside, and incapacitates their getaway car by hurling a street lamp at the tires and separating the car's undercarriage from the rest of it.

Best of all is Thor himself, who's certainly old-fashioned and wordy, but man, nobody trash-talks like this guy. Even when Odin the All-Father gets annoyed at him for some familial slight and saps half his strength, he still tells his opponents in no uncertain terms just how unbelievable a beatdown they're about to suffer, and then delivers.

The artwork is uniformly amazing from cover to cover. It's certainly true that Kirby's work would have been better served with Joe Sinnott or Dick Ayers on inks than Vince Colletta, but I was never taken out of the reading experience because of sloppy linework or shortcuts. Whether it's the grandeur of Asgard or the deck of some spaceship in the "Black Galaxy," there's always something completely amazing to catch your attention, and surprises galore. I was familiar with Ego, the Living Planet from the 1980s Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, but its first appearance is still completely eye-popping.

Neatly, each issue of Thor teamed a 16-page lead story set in the contemporary Marvel Universe with an ongoing 5-page serial called Tales of Asgard, in which Thor and his warrior pals have an earlier set of adventures. It's in these that we meet this enormous, overweight braggart called Volstagg. I remember as a kid thinking this guy was the stupidest thing in comics, but in Lee and Kirby's hands, he's actually completely hilarious.

There are currently three Essential collections of Thor - 500-ish pages for $17 - with a fourth on the way next year which should, if I understand it, wrap up the Lee and Kirby days. I've got book three on order at my local comic shop, and so should you. The best superhero book of the sixties? Quite possibly!

(Originally posted June 13, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

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