Monday, January 9, 2012

The Book of Human Insects

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Book of Human Insects (Vertical, 2011).

The household budget crunch of 2011 meant that I had to curtail my purchases of Vertical's growing library of Osamu Tezuka comics, but that publisher sent a representative to Anime Weekend Atlanta, and I'd have been remiss in leaving without a copy of their most recent release at the time: a hardcover collection of the quite obscure Book of Human Insects. Originally serialized in 1970-71 in the pages of Play, this story didn't even merit a mention in Helen McCarthy's delightful The Art of Osamu Tezuka, which helps shine a light on how badly a complete, extensive and annotated English language resource and bibliography is needed.

So I had the pleasure of reading this story without any background whatever, not knowing what to expect. Sadly, I can't provide even one of my half-baked reviews without giving you good readers at least a hint of what you might find in this volume. The story begins with a young writer, Toshiko Tomura, enjoying the accolades and awards for her debut novel, The Book of Human Insects, following very short and very successful careers as a designer and an actress, leaving behind a wake of very bitter and angry men toasting her celebrity from the depths of their obscurity or ruin. But the suicide of another young, hopeful writer suggests that there might be more to Tomura than anyone suspects, one of bold, superhuman plagiarism and predatory, bizarre sexuality, including a deeply strange relationship with a statue...

Some reviewers have compared this to Tezuka's 1968 serial Swallowing the Earth, which is also available in English through the publisher DMP. There are certainly some similarities. Both serials are set in the present day and are political-minded thrillers with only elements of fantasy grounding their character-driven plots. Tezuka, throughout most of the 1960s, had masterminded several family-friendly, plot-driven series with television or film adaptations in mind, and one reason that most of his 1970s work is comparatively obscure to American readers is that he made a deliberate effort to engage with older audiences through work that is, on the one hand more challenging and more adult, but also much shorter and never intended to provide the fodder for TV cartoon series and merchandising. American audiences, who came to know Tezuka via his TV cartoon series and merchandising, were unfamiliar with works like Swallowing, and the earlier Vertical releases Apollo's Song and MW until very recently.

The investigation into Tomura's past, and focus about what she will do next, takes a remarkable detour in the third chapter, when she finds herself involved in a world of high-finance boardroom intrigue. Shortly after her new position, one of the men from her past resurfaces and things take a really weird turn. Her actions don't leave the character in any way sympathetic, but it remains a tight and fascinating read because her game is so astonishing. My questions about how she's able to pull off her plotting are not really answered as fully as I thought Tezuka was going for, but they don't really need to be, either. It's not that sort of story.

The artwork is, as ever, utterly amazing, with one very curious exception. Tezuka and his studio used his distinctive character styles to create a realistic, solid world. There are no artistic shortcuts or cheats, and the places in his stories look real, and lived-in, and breathe like no other environment in comics. Rugs, pillows, jail cells, tower blocks, everything feels solid, with an attention to detail that nobody else in the medium ever quite matched. The characters stay on-model, without the frequent trope in Japanese comics of changing shape or form to indicate high emotion. But then Tomura disrobes - the script finds reason for her to on several occasions - and she turns into the least erotic being in comics. She is wildly off-model, all graceless, soaring curves, with hips like a horse and a torso six feet long. I thought this a very neat touch, Tezuka drawing attention to the character's nudity by making her, naked, every bit as inhuman and alien as her actions. I never claimed that this was a beautiful or life-affirming story; there's far too great a body count for that.

I wish that I was better able, financially, to support Vertical's commitment to releasing Tezuka in English. I know that there's more coming; the first of two volumes of his popular 1960s Princess Knight is out now, and the early '80s Adolf is coming in two volumes later this year. Still no news about the much-requested Ambassador Magma, Barbara or Vampire, but maybe if all you good readers go order The Book of Human Insects, they'll reward us with some good news for 2013. How about it, guys? This book is recommended for older readers.

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