Saturday, March 5, 2011

Tomo Book No. 47

Depending on who you ask, the �golden age� of American comics starts somewhere in the late 1930s and ends anywhere from the Korean War to the Kennedy inauguration. Straitjacketed by this America-centric comic book collectors mindset, it�s tough to categorize Japanese comics from the same period. Is there a Golden Age of manga? Is there a Bob Overstreet-san categorizing faded Shonen Magazines and dusty stacks of tankubon, grading each according to condition and scarcity and injury-to-the-eye-motif
covers? God I hope not.

It�s this lack of raw data � raw data in a language I can read, anyways � that makes uncovering this kind of mid-Showa period manga (hah, here I am, categorizing away) so thrilling. What is this? Where did it come from, who was tracing Tezuka characters when they drew it, and what was it doing in an estate sale in Marietta GA in the mid 1980s? That�s where I found it, casually placed on an antique dresser next to a O.E.S. New Testament.

Number 47 in the �Tomo Book� series, this particular volume is titled �THE VANISHING WORLD� (forgive my rough translation) and features 4 stories of rockets, robots, Martian flying saucers, atom bomb tests, jet pilots romancing jungle girls, and general science fictional adventure; the Japanese equivalent of the Tom Swift sci-fi juveniles that American ten year olds were devouring at the time.

The artwork is generally pretty crude. You can get away with faking the cartoony Tezuka style once or twice but eventually the lack of structure or perspective, the weak crosshatching, the general ineptitude of the artwork (inside front cover signed �Yasuhiro Kozako�) shows through. And this is 1955: Tezuka was right in the middle of one of his most productive periods, Ishinomori was just getting into his Shonen Magazine groove, Tatsumi was moving beyond current styles and percolating the ideas that would, in a couple of years, emerge as "gekiga". Our Tomo Book No. 47 is an anachronism, even for 1955. Still, the breakneck pacing manages to brute-force the stories right through the weaknesses of the illustration, and the blue ink gives the entire production a reassuring elementary-school handout atmosphere.

Sometimes you meet robots on Mars;

And then sometimes the robots turn out to be beautiful girls. Life's like that.

Budding manga geniuses aside, most comic books everywhere are pretty much like �The Vanishing World� here � crude lowest-common-denominator distractions for children barely able to read. Impulse purchases for those who are barely old enough to have enough pocket money to learn what an impulse purchase is. Fifty years on, its value as a cultural artifact may outweigh its utility as an adventure story for children. But that�s OK. Rest easy, Tomo Book No. 47.