Reviewby Casey Brienza,
Astro Boy 1&2
In a future where humans and robots live side by side, a mad scientist named Dr. Tenma creates a robot to in the image of his dead son Tobio. But a robot can never truly replace a boy, and Tenma ends up selling him to a circus. This is where Dr. Ochanomizu finds and rescues the genius robot who will become known to the world as Astro Boy. In this volume, Astro foils a plot that would use dogs turned cyborg super-soldiers to stop lunar exploration—including Mustachio's beloved pooch Pero. Astro also helps the first robot ever elected president to secure his reign and a robot magician to outsmart a human magician that would use his tricks for ill-gotten gain. Short stories about a plant person and a racecar driver round off the volume.
Osamu Tezuka's iconic—not to mention epic—manga series Astro Boy (or Tetsuwan Atom in the original Japanese) has officially been reissued a 2-in-1 omnibus from Dark Horse. And not a moment too soon. Vertical's publication of some of Tezuka's lesser known works, such as Ode to Kirihito and MW has reignited interest in the so-called “Manga no Kamisama” (“God of Manga”), so it's nice to see the work that, for the average Japanese person, defines the man's career in a satisfying double dose of printed matter (well over four-hundred pages).
The reading experience is quite the illuminating history lesson, and a lengthy yet intellectually incisive introduction from translator Frederik L. Schodt, which reads like the Reader's Digest condensed edition of his fantastic book, The Astro Boy Essays, puts things in their proper—and most positive—perspective. Tezuka himself also annotates some of his stories, and his many curmudgeonly complaints about morality in the Japanese and American media industries that seem relevant even today are framed in a subtle Japanese rhetorical style.
Actually, historical context is important in this case; those picking up Astro Boy purely as an entertaining manga-reading experience may, while marveling at the adeptness of the artwork, be put off by the utter absence of linearity. Although there is an introduction that explains Astro's origin, it feels like a perfunctory recap of something you the reader ought to have already known. (Woe to the person who does not!) Likewise, supporting characters move in and out of the chapters at random, and you will be hard-pressed to figure out exactly how they are related to Astro or how Astro got to know them. Who the heck is Cobalt, for example? And why does he look just like Astro…?! If you do not already know the answer, do not expect one to be forthcoming in this volume.
Okay, so reading Astro Boy is a little like tuning in to a random episode of Looney Toons, where characters' personalities and objectives are one-dimensional, fixed, and invariable, and characters' lives seem to run in a never-ending loop. Even so, a reasonably open mind will find many of these stories pleasingly entertaining some fifty years after they were written. The best of the lot by far is the first, which corresponds to the entirety of volume one, about Mustachio's dog Pero. The dog is turned into a cyborg super-soldier, and the quest to bring the evildoers who made him that way to justice takes Astro from Japan to the Arctic and then all the way to the dark side of the moon! It's a fast-paced story that achieves an admirable amount of emotional depth as well—while raising pointed questions about the rights humankind ought to extend to all living things. This one is a must-read.
The stories that correspond to volume two are, alas, rather a mixed bag. The case of the robot magician Kino seems to overlap with another popular genre of Japanese manga, that of the gentleman thief, and it is solid. On the other hand, the tale of the first robot president, which like “The Hot Dog Corps” discussed above, is quite high-minded, boasts a pacifist message that is hard to take too seriously when, just a few chapters later, Astro is eager to violently—and permanently—dismantle his robot enemies. And the last chapter of the book, titled “White Planet,” comes mighty close to ruining the entire affair. About a race car driver's robot sister who sacrifices herself to become his…wait for it…race car, it reeks of unenlightened gender relations that modern readers are likely to find intolerable. Since when was it okay for a man to backhand his sister so hard she gets knocked to the ground (and not bother to apologize)? And since when would she, instead of telling him to shove it and shove off, sacrifice her life to become his car? Seems beyond the realm of believability, even in the 1960s. In Astro Boy's future, robots fight bravely for equal rights for other robots. Women, conversely, must have surrendered the battlefield unconditionally ages ago. Tezuka unintentionally undermines his own humanist message. Therefore, read Astro Boy for fun or for history—not for philosophical enlightenment packaged as classic manga.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : A
+ A hearty double dose of a manga master's iconic work.
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