Tuesday, December 4, 2012


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 Barbara (DMP, 2012).

A few years ago, my friend Helen McCarthy was giving a presentation, and told an audience that we should all urge Vertical Publishing to put together an American reprint of Osamu Tezuka's weird, surreal and violent 1972 serial Barbara. Since Helen knows what she's talking about, I turned right around to a fellow from Vertical and asked him to reprint Barbara. And Ambassador Magma; that, too.

Vertical is one of my favorite publishing houses in the world, but while all of their many Tezuka reprints have brought them lots of attention and love, they probably have not planned on translating and repackaging every single thing that Tezuka wrote and drew over his fifty-year career. Nevertheless, I made sure to mention Barbara to them, and Ambassador Magma, whenever the opportunity presented itself.

A couple of years went by, during which Vertical did not do anything that I kept pestering them to, but licensing other Tezuka comics instead. Meanwhile, another company, good people with the horrible name "Digital Manga Publishing," used Kickstarter to fund a second printing of their release of another Tezuka serial, Swallowing the Earth. The experiment was so successful that they tried crowdsourcing the funds for a small run of Barbara. Well, that got my attention.

I picked up their release of Barbara from a dealer at Anime Weekend Atlanta a couple of months ago. It's a nicely-sized book, 440 pages along with a detailed introductory essay by Frederick Schodt, who's been writing about Japanese comics and cartoons for a good few decades, and who can put this very odd and very striking serial into perspective. It's one of many from the early seventies where Tezuka was, on the one hand, planning and preparing some comics and the attendant cartoon adaptations and merchandising for a mass audience, and other stories in smaller circulation anthology magazines that targeted adult readers.

So this is the story of a novelist named Yousuke Mikura who is slowly losing his mind, questioning the reality around him, so obsessed with questions about the value of the art that he's creating and that all of the craftsmen, painters, and writers who preceded him had designed that he is beginning to suffer from very dangerous hallucinations. He stumbles across this vulgar, alcoholic hippie bum named Barbara in a subway station and invites her home. Barbara seems, at times, to be there to defend Mikura from his delusions, but, at other times, to bring more chaos and turmoil into his life. Some days, she is inspiring him like a muse, and other days, she is destroying his life like a supernatural force.

It's very much a story for adults, but also very much a story of its time. The level of domestic violence in this book is - even accepting that Mikura and Barbara are out of control drunks who have big issues with reality - completely shocking. The nudity is also a real surprise. There were pretty strict limits in Japan at the time about what an artist could draw in a commercial publication, and Tezuka used angles and perspective to make certain scenes appear more explicit than they actually are. The artwork is stunning throughout, with very curious choices in character design. Mikura doesn't look like a standard Tezuka leading man, but more like a lump of granite with sunglasses, and Barbara, stumpy and stumbling, with eyes that see everything, is hardly a heroine type.

The story goes in completely wild directions, but little of it can be trusted. We seem to get an explanation for Barbara's otherworldly influence on the proceedings, but it's not from a very reliable source. As fortune tellers and witches and even one of Tezuka's fellow comic artists offer the protagonists their take on what's going on, the answers are still murky. It's a mean, strange ride with an unforgettable climax.

I mentioned the curious nature of the book's American publication above because it has meant that, apart from sparking a brief controversy between a few Big Name Fans about the morality in publishers taking pre-orders through Kickstarter, this book received a very small print run and is slightly harder to find than would be ideal. Some Amazon sellers are offering it through that service, although Amazon itself has already sold out of their stock. Independent stores might also have difficulty sourcing it. Digital Manga Publishing has proceeded with this business model, and I understand that they plan a spring release for Unico and a summer release for Triton, two other Tezuka serials. For what it's worth, I genuinely don't care where the upfront money comes from if it means more Tezuka in print in English. I really, really don't.

So. About Ambassador Magma, people...

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