I've barely been able to touch the internet all weekend...

*How can I make it up to you? Maybe with news that the final story of the final volume of VIZ's Golgo 13 will be the famous Bush vs. Gore Election 2000 Florida Recount adventure?

*No? Well, I can only pray that '60s live-action Astro Boy and his plastic muscles can make things right between us. The magic begins at about 1:25.

*And speaking of an upset Dr. Tezuka...


This is the new Osamu Tezuka release from Vertical, a done-in-one 584-page hardcover, priced at $24.95.

You'll know it from the usual Chip Kidd package design, although this one gets more striking the deeper you look. The dust jacket is black, white and purple, heavy on anxious, tightly-segmented graphic elements, with a good deal of space given to details from bodies. Underneath, the book's front and back covers are splashed with unbroken b&w images, symbols of horror and anger. I understand why discussion of Kidd's designs tends to focus primarily on his front covers -- that's what's meant to attract the eye to the shelf, after all -- but I appreciate the way his glistening and fleshy jacket arrangements give way to blunt, iconic materials below.

It fits the story, which sees Tezuka in full-throttle gekiga mode; English-language readers will quickly recall the similarly-toned Ode to Kirihito, released by Vertical last year. Tom Spurgeon compared that earlier work to the films of Sam Fuller, which I think is apt in more ways than one. Tezuka's early work, of course, popularized the extensive application of cinematographic techniques to the visual idiom of comics - sequences from his 1947 breakthrough New Treasure Island can seem revolutionary for their period, although they are also natural outgrowths from Tezuka's adoration of moving pictures and animated cartoons. They are like frames of film simply pasted down onto the page, with words drawn atop at appropriate moments.

Yet the later development of gekiga also had its connections to film. While Yoshihiro Tatsumi's snatches of urban grimace might be the most appropriate of the stuff to show off among high-minded connoisseurs -- provided they're in the mood for sewer babies and life-affirming bestiality (which I secretly expect from every comic I read) -- other artists of the stripe created startling genre tales that sat comfortably alongside other adult-targeted popular entertainments. Indeed, artist Takao Saito has claimed (in an interview included with Vol. 10 of VIZ's Golgo 13) that the famous Nikkatsu Company copped his stylings for their action movies, suggesting that it wasn't a one-way street gekiga was traveling on in its pursuit of "dramatic pictures" to stand apart from the Japanese comics then-mainstream.

As such, it makes some sense that Tezuka's MW comes fraught with suspense thriller machinations, lurid details, and cruel ambiguities. Serialized from 1976-78 in Shogakukan's venerable anthology Big Comic (home of the aforementioned Golgo 13), the story arrived as the gekiga essence became increasingly absorbed into the broader body of manga; actually, one can easily argue that the very fact of Tezuka's working gekiga at all symbolized the mode's mainstream assimilation, although it wouldn't necessarily go quietly. The book's dust jacket deems the work "willfully 'anti-Tezuka'," implying an effort on the artist's part to embrace an approach he'd typically fail to mix with.

In these stories, Tezuka's custom tonal blend of slapstick comedy, high melodrama and idiosyncratic philosophy is missing, and his artwork is more stolid and fussed-over, perhaps to suggest 'realism.' At times, it can seem that he's trying to stuff himself into someone else's idea of what a serious comic ought to look like, even to the point of subsuming his innate idealism into a nihilistic affection. This sort of thing wasn't exclusive to Tezuka's 'adult' works either - while the kid-targeted Apollo's Song (and even some episodes of Astro Boy) in the early '70s retained Tezuka's looser visual style, they also adopted cold and despairing perspectives on life. But what I find fascinating about these works is that Tezuka's personality -- his worldview -- always manages to somehow manifest.

Frederik L. Schodt's recent The Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolution included an excerpt from an essay by Tezuka, in which he confessed to shifting his personal aesthetic preferences to match popular tastes; from the rest of Schodt's book, it can be inferred that this was a symptom of Tezuka's unyielding desire to feel beloved by the public at large. Yet Tezuka also asserted that there were some things he'd never give up on, like his opposition to war (so, he'll do anything for love... but he won't do that). It is through this -- as well as Tezuka's uncanny command of the page -- that even stylistic digressions are undeniably his digressions.

All of this bubbles underneath the tale of MW, broadly concerned with a relationship between two men: Michio Yuki, a cunning social climber, and Iwao Garai, the most tormented Catholic priest in Asia. The pair first met back in the day when Garai was bumming around with a gang of dirty hippies, raising hell on a small island in search of utopia. What they (and the rest of the population of the island) found was death at the leaky business end of MW, an experimental gas "Nation X" had been developing for use in Vietnam, and storing on Japanese territory. From these subtle context clues, not to mention the presence of a Lieutenant General from the Nation X region of "Kentucky," and an edifying educational interlude on the history of US gas attacks in Vietnam, the careful reader can deduce that Nation X is, in actuality, Iran. The scoundrels!

Anyway, Iwao and a traveling preteen Michio, who'd been kidnapped by Iwao's gang for later ransom, are spared their doom by sheer chance. However, the gas still touched Michio, apparently burning away any trace of the boy's compassion or scruples. The Japanese government covered up the MW incident, and Michio grew up bad, caring not a whit for the commission of abduction, rape or murder; ironically, all of those crimes were things Iwao and his crew were capable of, back on the island, but Iwao became deeply remorseful after the MW incident, and devoted his life to saving dear Michio's soul, which (of course!) involved hiding his confessed sins from the law. He also became Michio's lover, and now he's wrapped around the younger man's finger as Michio's deeds become more and more brazen, yet increasingly logical in their connection to that fateful day on the island.

Quite a potboiler, and I haven't even gotten into the nastier details. Like the attack dog Michio keeps around for both protection and pleasure - commiscerating with the Beast is only one of several bits of Christian lore Tezuka doles out to juice things up. Or how about the poor girl who's been in love with Father Iwao since he taught her immobile legs to walk; we're told that only a terrible psychological trauma can harm her now, so three guesses as to what happens once Michio sees someone butting in on his valuable relationship with Iwao. Tezuka even rolls out one of his non-gekiga character designs -- Mr. Mustachio! -- for a small, crucial, painful role. Poor Mr. Mustachio. More on him later.

If Ode to Kirihito was Sam Fuller in tone, MW is very much Alfred Hitchcock, peppered with references to the filmmaker's work - save for the obvious influence of I Confess, there's an airborne attack straight out of North by Northwest, and a bit of unintentional corpse abuse (linking innocent to killer, naturally!) likely inspired by Frenzy, plus all the psychosexual homoerotic tension of Strangers on a Train made bold text.

As a suspense piece, MW is perfectly ok, and sometimes outstanding. The (then-timely) airline hijacking finale in particular buzzes with tension, and even had me laughing out loud at one particularly fine plot twist. But the work is also somewhat bloated - unlike with Hitchcock's carefully tuned clockwork pictures, Tezuka had serialization to deal with, and he sometimes dishes out plot complications he never gets around to addressing, solely to keep the reader hanging for another chapter. Characters (like, say, all the female ones) hang around for a while, then kind of get brushed aside. As a result, the book feels about 150 pages overlong, and haphazardly constructed. There's even some ugly visual continuity gaffes on top of it all, like a photograph that changes from end of one chapter to the beginning of the next.

It should also be mentioned that, to modern eyes, Tezuka's treatment of homosexuality comes off as rather embarrassing, if good-intentioned in its attempt to plead the case for society's acceptance. At nearly every opportunity, gay male desire is defined in terms of a man lusting for a slight, dainty fellow, so close to feminine that he might be mistaken for a true woman - in this way, Tezuka couches homosexuality as a sort of veiled heterosexuality, and one that handily ignores the effeminate/'female' attraction to masculinity in its own equation. The only exception is a howler of a sequence set in a sex club, wherein Iwao is besieged by toga-clad men choking out Jack T. Chick-worthy lines like "Why don't you try me out?" and "How would you like to share love with me?" and "It's okay! This is a secret club!" And never mind a lesbian surprise that'll send your retinas screaming for the back of your head.

But even under all that, Tezuka's strengths rise with little trouble. For one thing, restrained or not by subject matter, at this point in the man's career he was basically incapable of producing bad-looking art. The initial half or so of book's first chapter (which you can read here) is a concise lesson in building suspense visually; you can also see how Tezuka blends caricature into his taller, 'realistic' designs - he draws great hippies. A sequence of violence in the second chapter momentarily expands into a graceful, sketchy style to emphasize movement, while other sequences veer into near-photorealism when extra documentary impact is needed. Any panel in which we get a close-up of Michio's sweaty madman face is excellent, really playing toward the work's goofy thriller heart.

And as goofy as things get, the two primary characters are afforded some interesting dimension. For example, there's actually some tension in Iwao's character as to whether he's actually gay or not; he mostly seems deeply closeted, often identifying his attraction to Michio as a compulsion (they are bound by fate!!), or even a work of black magic, with devilish Michio transforming into a woman to tempt him. But all of Iwao's attraction to women seems borne of desperation too. Tezuka provides a great pair of conflicting flashbacks, retelling a possible early encounter between the two from both Iwao's and Michio's perspectives - it's telling that Michio's seems somehow less anxious.

As for Michio himself, Tezuka gradually builds him up from a horrible, mad villain, to a veritable Bizarro Astro Boy for a hopeless, irreversibly fallen world. He's an anti-hero in the purest sense, and his grotesque deeds ultimately carry a charge of retribution against the militaristic world Tezuka can never stand, although Michio will never admit to any motivation beyond amoral boredom. But seeing corpses piled high in a population center wasn't just Michio's and Iwao's island trauma - it was Tezuka's teenage wartime experience, and the artist's most crucial twist is that he keeps us hanging as to whether or not Michio knows well of how his actions might bludgeon a society torn between old-guard politicians and pompous/thuggish radicals into substantive change. Like Hitchcock, Tezuka invites us to identify with villainy, while also presenting a conflicted moral counterpoint (Iwao) to illustrate the difficulties with society's good graces.

However, with Tezuka, there's yet another way.

Poor Mr. Mustachio. Tezuka doesn't even draw him like the other characters - his squat, doodly form looks like it stepped right out of a children's comic from 1952. He's pigheaded, conservative, trusting in the good of the status quo, and in for a world of abuse. But he's a tough old drawing, and perseveres as a self-evident element of the old Tezuka existing in a 'dark' Tezuka world. Michio may be Tezuka's fantasy of a vicious fighter for the '70s, and Iwao an avatar for 'adult' nausea, but Mustachio no less than the old Tezuka spirit, still up and around, dickless but ready to stand and fight in an idealistic way. He won't succeed in the city limits of this book, but he'll be around again for when the public taste returns to meet him.