House of 1000 Manga Unico
by Shaenon K. Garrity,
Kickstarter can be a powerful force for good or evil, and not everyone agrees on which is which. When professional companies and Hollywood stars started to use the crowdfunding site to raise money for projects, many observers worried that it would destroy Kickstarter's indie sensibility and undermine its core purpose of helping individual creators in real need of startup funds.
Personally, I welcome all Kickstarters that aren't trying to sell me a damn wallet, and I'm especially happy when publishers use it to put out books that are great but wouldn't have a chance in hell of reaching bookstores otherwise. The publishing industry is rough right now, and I've been in the manga business long enough to know how hard it is to sell anything that's too old, too smart, or just too weird for the manga mainstream. As far as I'm concerned, few causes are more noble than the dissemination of freaky manga.
What I'm saying is that I fully support DMP's decision to use Kickstarter to fund a series of lesser-known manga titles by the legend of legends, Osamu Tezuka. After successfully funding two of Tezuka's experimental 1970s adult manga, Barbara and Swallowing the Earth, DMP asked for $20,500 to publish his aggressively non-adult 1976 shojo manga Unico. The campaign received over twice that amount, allowing the publisher to put out two additional Tezuka kiddie manga, Atomcat and Triton of the Sea as well. Thank you, DMP and Kickstarter backers. You go right on kicking.
Not only did the Kickstarter windfall allow DMP to publish Unico, a manga that shouldn't have trouble finding a young audience but probably does anyway, it was able to release it in a fat, gorgeous, full-color edition. Unico was first published in color for the Sanrio magazine Lyrica, and its glowing pastels are essential to its charm. Its weird, weird charm. This may be the strangest work by Tezuka I've read, and I just got finished reading The Mysterious Underground Men, where a human-rabbit hybrid struggles for social acceptance while fighting an army of termite people from the Earth's core.
It doesn't seem like it should be so strange, is the thing. The premise wouldn't be out of place in a cloying children's picture book: a cute baby unicorn travels through history, using the magic of love to help people (who are also cute) with their personal problems. That much is perfectly in line with the Sanrio style. Okay, the preface explains that Unico is traveling through history because his owner, Princess Psyche, attracted the wrath of the goddess Venus by being too beautiful, inspiring Venus to kidnap her beloved pet and send him hurtling through time and space, and maybe that's a little complicated as far as backstories go. Also, for some reason he gets mind-wiped after every adventure. But still. Baby unicorn. Love magic. Cute stuff.
Then you get into the stories themselves, and Tezuka, being Tezuka, cannot stop having ideas. Weird ideas. Sometimes Unico lands in a fairly coherent fairy-tale narrative, helping some kind, sickly peasant girl. Other times he's in the future, fighting a sapient robotic factory that wants to take a girl who appears to be about six years old as its bride. Or chatting with two talking rats in clothes who look like they got thrown off the set of Disney's Cinderella for looking too seedy and are constantly giving birth to litters of baby rats. Or visiting the land of the fairies to dance in soap bubbles. Or shrinking to miniature size to infiltrate an anthill and retrieve a magic feather. Or…wait, this all happens in the same story. And there are seven others in the book.
The loose premise gives Tezuka free reign to draw whatever he wants, flipping between history, fantasy, science fiction, and odd little metaphysical jaunts. It's kind of a low-impact warmup for Phoenix, his unfinished time-hopping masterpiece (although Tezuka started Phoenix well before Unico). In the course of his travels Unico meets a thief living on the streets of Imperial Russia, a baby sphinx who gets on the wrong side of the fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream, a solitary demon living in a ruin at the far end of time, and on and on through one completely different setting after another.
If someone loves or helps Unico, he has the power to do literally anything for that person (or cat, or demon, or whatever), so there's no limit to what Tezuka can draw. Unico can also grow wings, change from a baby unicorn to an adult, and make his horn grow in faintly disturbing ways. At one point he extends and retracts it to use it as a grappling hook. One would think that Unico's omnipotence would make the stories too safe and predictable—unicorn magic can solve any crisis, at least in theory—but if there's one thing Tezuka isn't, it's predictable.
The flyaway plots get frustrating to follow, but lord, is this a good-looking manga. Tezuka's color work is marvelous, and his cute Sanrio-friendly artwork looks like a comic-book version of the prettiest Disney movie never made. The images go outside the panels and bleed off the page, like the art is too powerful to be contained by mere panel borders. And everything is adorable, from little black kittens to herds of buffalo, from beautiful princesses to robot drones, from gods to demons. It looks like a fun manga to draw. The manga ended after two volumes, easily contained within one fat DMP edition, but Tezuka revived the character for a series of Unico animated films in the 1980s, elevating him to one of the stalwarts of the artist's stable.
DMP continues to run Tezuka Kickstarters, recently funding the space cowboy series Captain Ken. According to the Captain Ken Kickstarter page, “Our mission is to publish as many of Tezuka's unknown titles as possible in English and (hopefully in the near future) other languages.” It may be my bias toward bizarre old manga simmering up yet again, but I couldn't imagine a more noble mission statement. As noble as a stately blue unicorn flying over a faintly phallic jelly mountain with a passel of baby unicorns clinging to his magically enlarged horn, racing to escape faun-like creatures called “replicorns” who kidnap baby unicorns for laughs, which you have to admit is pretty darn noble.
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