Who is Astro Boy for? Osamu Tezuka, in his day, would have straightforwardly replied ‘for children’. But Dark Horse Comics’ edition, running to a monumental twenty-three volumes, will have a trickier time navigating the market. The kids of Tezuka’s age are all grown up and the kids of today are used to more sophisticated fare. Dark Horse’s paperback, with its tiny, kiddie-unfriendly script and panels presumably wants to appeal to those craving nostalgia rather than those hunting for an after-school action fix.
Some might understandably assume the rudimentary art to be the biggest put-off; it offers Disney-inspired bulbous hands and feet, dinner plate eyes and sparse environmental detail. But Tezuka’s style also has a vivacity and expressiveness that lends itself to easy comprehension. Granted, Astro Boy is not pretty, but from my usual comic book diet of hard-boiled realism and cynical brutality, its whimsical concepts constitute a light, refreshing pause.
After settling into the style, however, readers might be jarred by the slapdash nature of the stories. Tezuka may be the god of manga but he wrote (sometimes to his own frustration) for an audience interested chiefly in thrills. He caters to that with a morally upright, armed-to-the-teeth boy hero and theatrical baddies full of grandiose ploys, that still lose because they could not see through a feeble disguise. For comedy, quaint puns pepper the dialogue (Mr. Mustachio to evil Deadcross: ‘Flashy outfit, but if I have my way, you’ll be a Deadcross.’), as do corny wordplays (‘It’s Professor Noh Uno!’ / ‘Know you know who?!’) and sexist quips (‘Sultan! It’s an emergency!’ / ‘What happened, woman? Some soup boil over?’).
The manga nevertheless offers concrete joys if one reads between the panels. Primarily, Astro Boy has a wondrous talent for turning complex political themes into digestible fables. Take the story ‘His Highness Deadcross’ in volume two about Rag the first robot president; hugely popular with the voters but under constant threat from human factions who don’t take to his kind (anyone not thinking of Barack Obama at this point is presumably reading this review from a cave). Although packed with adventure and gratuitous action scenes, Astro Boy takes the time to make valuable assertions about race relations and the horrors of prejudice.
Another point of interest for the curious is the meta-referencing woven into the narrative as asides (‘He’s half crushed, sir’ / ‘Not to worry. It’s a comic strip after all.’) or introductory sketches in which Tezuka depicts himself discussing his work. He uses these insertions to expand on important themes, explain the origins of the story, or even confront inconsistencies in the art. Having Tezuka break the literary barrier between us and him by acting as a guide to the story is a flattering experience and reveals how much our understanding and appreciation of his work mattered to him.
If I had to pick one pressing reason to read Astro Boy, however, it would be for ‘The Greatest Robot on Earth’ story in volume three, the inspiration for Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto. It bubbles with nuance and goes much further than the other tales so far in highlighting the tragedy of the robots as they become slaves not just to the human will, but the human ego. When Astro asks his would-be assassin, the robot Pluto, ‘But why do you have to fight me?’ the other responds, ‘Why? Because that’s what I was designed to do.’ With this exchange, Tezuka situates the root of world conflict not within the robots who perpetrate violence, but the selfish and irrational lusts of the humans who created them to fight. Especially notable (for shounen) is the extensive role of pacifist robot Epsilon, who grapples with being perceived a coward when he considers staying alive for his adopted children more important than duelling for a meaningless title of ‘Greatest Robot on Earth’.
Comic books have evolved significantly since Tezuka’s era, making it hard to market Astro Boy at the same age range today. Luckily, Astro Boy manages to stop short of totally patronising an older audience, who might pay for its historical significance. Its juvenile adventures look rudimentary and struggle to convince, but as a metaphor for social ills and human suffering, and as the historical foundation for all things manga and anime, it remains timelessly intriguing.