Friday, September 11, 2009

Swallowing the Earth

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Swallowing the Earth (DMP, 2009).

Slowly but surely, American audiences are getting a better, broader view of Osamu Tezuka's remarkable body of comics work. Over the past twelve months, Vertical has been releasing two of his well-known series, Dororo (across three volumes) and Black Jack (five of a planned seventeen available). In June, another publisher, Digital Manga Press, released their first Tezuka collection. It's an omnibus edition of Swallowing the Earth, a serial I had not known of until they announced it. It originally appeared in a fifteen-month run in the pages of Big Comic in 1968-69, and apparently marked Tezuka's first attempt at storytelling for older readers. The result is a sprawling, wild and very satisfying 500-page read.

Our principal hero in this story is a guy named Gohonmatsu Seki, a blue-collar lug who can consume his weight in liquor, and isn't happy unless he's doing so, and who has no time or patience for ladies. Twenty-five years earlier, during the war, his father and a fellow soldier named Adachigahara crossed paths with an impossibly beautiful woman called Zephyrus. When this voluptuous beauty queen shows up in Japan not having aged a day, Adachigahara, now a successful business tycoon, enlists the younger Seki to investigate her.

What Gohonmatsu uncovers is a massive international conspiracy with a number of look-alikes of Zephyrus, working from a base of operations somewhere in the South Pacific, on an island home to the ruins of the ancient civilization of Moo. The story lurches oddly from one set piece to another, incorporating everything from strange factories in the American southwest to wince-inducingly dated depictions of booga-booga natives on lost islands. Gohonmatsu, a lowbrow everyman uncomfortably thrown into the James Bond role, is incredibly out of his depth, but his adventures are so bizarre and so captivating that readers will be swept along with him.

I just had a ball reading this, and can't imagine how much fun it must have been to watch it unfold in Big Comic, when any month could bring readers a group of new characters in a new setting, wondering how it will relate to the main story. There are wild subplots and fascinating diversions and it's just incredibly easy to get completely sucked in to this story. Swallowing the Earth was not on my list of top five most wanted Tezuka comics, but I'm very glad that DMP released it, and I hope it's successful enough for them to bring us some more from his library before too long. Recommended for teens and older.

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