Chuck in the third panel reminds me of the little cartoon Woody Allen from that scene in "Annie Hall." Also, the last line is my favorite thing I've written ever.
Also, it's Vera Brosgol's birthday. Happy birthday, Vera!
Behind the cut is a new Overlooked Manga Festival! A warning, however: This post is extremely long with lots of scans, so those with slow connections may want to brace themselves before clicking through.
Okay, it is not cool that this is an Overlooked Manga. But it is. In America, anyway.
WHAT THE HELL PEOPLE.
It should go without saying that everyone needs to read everything by Osamu Tezuka they can get their mitts on. Dude invented manga, and he's probably the greatest comic-book creator who ever lived. He's got the innovative layouts of an Eisner, the clean line of a Herge, the total batshit insanity of a Kirby...the man's the total package. He's also incredibly fun. Phoenix is, by Tezuka's own description, his life's work: a sprawling series of interconnected stories written over the course of decades, and spanning ALL OF HUMAN HISTORY. You can't say Tezuka doesn't think big.
As I said a second ago, Phoenix is actually a series of stories. The connecting thread is the presence of the Phoenix, the immortal bird, as well as the running themes of survival and immortality. Some characters also appear repeatedly, mainly via reincarnation. In particular, there's a guy named Saruta whose lumpy nose you can expect to see a lot. The stories bounce back and forth in time: the first takes place in the distant past, the second in the distant future, the third in the slightly less distant past, and so on, with the timelines slowly converging toward the present. They never actually meet, though; the saga was probably still unfinished when Tezuka died in 1989.
Viz kind of messed up Phoenix at the start by publishing the second story, "Future," first, as a test to see how well the series would be received. Then they started reprinting the whole series from the beginning, in a different format, confusing the six people who bought "Future." So if you have a book called Phoenix: A Tale of the Future and you can't figure out where it fits into all this, there's your answer. It's Volume 2, published funny.
Nonetheless, the ongoing Viz Phoenix series is very nice. It follows a popular Japanese edition and will eventually be twelve volumes long, with the last volume devoted to early proto-Phoenix stories by Tezuka. Eight volumes are out so far.
Okay, a breakdown of the Phoenix chapters currently available.
DAWN (Viz Vol. 1)
The first chapter of Phoenix is set in Japan's distant, mostly mythological past and follows a large cast of characters over the course of many years. Much of the plot revolves around a vain sorceress-queen based on the Shinto goddess Amateratsu, and her obsession with drinking the blood of the Phoenix to gain immortality (this is a life goal that comes up a LOT over the course of Phoenix). The central protagonist is Nagi, a warrior who hunts the Phoenix.
This is pretty typical Phoenix conversation, by the way.
FUTURE (Viz Vol. 2)
Aaaand we jet from the dawn of history to the end of everything. "Future" takes place in the type of crowded, Metropolis-style future Tezuka really seems to get a kick out of drawing.
The hero is Masato, a far-future Everyman who falls in love with a "moopie," a shapeshifting alien that humans raise as perfect companions. Together they flee their sprawling city, narrowly escaping the end of the world. But the cataclysmic destruction of all life on Earth is only about the halfway point for this story, because Tezuka, I cannot stress enough, thinks big.
As far as I'm concerned, the best part of "Future" is Dr. Saruta (told you), a mad scientist who keeps trying and failing to create life, and lives in a big hidden lab full of fantastic animals floating in amniotic fluid. You know I'm a sucker for this stuff.
YAMATO (Viz Vol. 3)
Meanwhile, back in the past, people are still trying to drink the Phoenix's blood. The hero of "Yamato" just wants to save dozens of innocent people from getting buried alive in a king's tomb, but he gets sucked into the whole hunting-the-Phoenix thing along the way. Unlike almost everyone else who tries this over the course of Phoenix, however, he takes the nonviolent approach.
The exchange below is also typical Tezuka, and is one of the things that puts off some American readers. What can I say, the man goes for anachronistic metahumor. It's his way. Personally, this page cracks me up.
SPACE (Viz Vol. 3)
One of the shorter chapters, "Space" starts as a murder mystery set on a remote spaceship. The most interesting part of the story is the central passage, in which Tezuka busts out with crazy inventive visual techniques to follow the members of the ship's crew as they float through space in separate escape capsules, talking to each other over radio.
I can't scan most of the really neat pages because they're two-page spreads, but trust me, it all looks pretty awesome.
KARMA (Viz Vol. 4)
Man, oh, man. If you only read one chapter of Phoenix, this is the one. An excerpt of this volume was published in Fred Schodt's book Manga! Manga!, and it was just one of countless stunning sequences. The first time I read "Karma" ("Hou-ou" in the Japanese), I started crying at the sheer beauty of the narrative storytelling--not at the story itself, but at the perfection with which the images and panels were put together. When I was flipping through it today to find pages to scan, I got choked up again, at an entirely different section. Everything you need to know about making comics is in here.
Oh, and the story is great. It follows the lives of two gifted eighth-century sculptors whose paths cross repeatedly: one a gentle Buddhist scholar, the other a deformed and bitter bandit. You learn a lot about Buddhism, and a lot about art.
Just so you know, one wall of the Viz office is decorated with a giant mural of that second page. It's very inspiring, or at least more inspiring than the big glowing Yu-Gi-Oh! panel.
RESURRECTION (Viz Vol. 5)
This is one of my favorites of the sci-fi Phoenix stories, although it doesn't really have much to do with the Phoenix, beyond a sequence in which, yes, people try to hunt her down. I half suspect it's an unrelated story that Tezuka shoehorned into the series. But it's got a full splash page of a robot lying face-down on the surface of the Moon screaming, "God! Forgive-me-for-my-sins!", and that's good enough for me.
Anyway, "Resurrection" consists of two parallel stories about robots. In one, a man is brought back from the dead via cybernetics, but develops a brain dysfunction in which he's unable to perceive other people as anything more than vague lumps of material. The one individual he recognizes as "human" is a robot, and they fall in love. In the other story, robots of the "Robita" model begin acting strangely. At last only one Robita is left, on a moonbase inhabited by a solitary creep (played, I think, by regular Tezuka "cast member" Acetylene Lamp).
All in all, pretty freaky, and the two stories dovetail nicely at the end.
NOSTALGIA (Viz Vol. 6)
Another sci-fi story, and by far the weirdest entry in the Phoenix saga to date. A young couple colonizes a distant, barren planet, but the husband is killed in an accident shortly after their son is born. By the time their seedy planetary realtor shows up to check on them, the wife has come up with a coping strategy:
Well, you know, at least she's got a plan.
Yeah, so there's a lot of cryonically-assisted incest, enough to eventually spawn an entire civilization. The Moopies (remember the Moopies? Volume 2?) show up to help. But that's only the beginning of this relentlessly odd story. Before moving on, I just want to share these two flashback pages, which have a groovy art style that doesn't show up anywhere else:
CIVIL WAR (Viz Vols. 7 and 8)
"Civil War" is one of the longest stories in Phoenix, filling nearly two volumes. To be honest, I find it a little dry compared to the other stories, although in many respects it's basically just a better version of "Dawn." Once again, people are sent hither and yon to capture the Phoenix so a vain and paranoid ruler can drink her blood. This time, the ruler is Kiyomori, who is the head of a powerful medieval clan despite his disturbing resemblance to Mister Magoo. He loves the beautiful young Obu, who is in turn the fiancee of Benta, an honest woodman pressed into service as a samurai. Benta is based on the legendary samurai Benkei, but in Tezuka's version he's a reluctant warrior who only fights because his asshole master keeps showing up and harassing him.
Also, the Phoenix is fake.
Now that I'm describing this plot, it actually sounds great. I like the twist ending, too. Plus, I enjoyed this "Being John Malkovich"-like dream sequence of Kiyomoto's:
AAAUGH! You don't want to look at that! You want to see monkeys fight!
ROBE OF FEATHERS (Viz Vol. 8)
The very short "Robe of Feathers" closes Volume 8. It's a Japanese folk tale (actually, a folk tale common to many countries) given a sci-fi twist, and the most interesting thing about it is the layout: it's presented as a stage play, with a fixed "camera" facing the stage. Which is kind of neat.
And that's Phoenix so far. Now go read it, dammit! Don't make me come up there!