Frieze Seoul
Astro Boy, 2022 Oil on linen 34 × 50 inches
Astro Boy, 2022
Oil on linen 34 × 50 inches

I love Osamu Tezuka, his life, and his work, who is the great creator of Astro Boy, and is widely considered the “God of Manga”, and the “Walt Disney of Japan”.  I have taught his work and legacy for decades in fine art, comics, and film classes, as a Professor of Art at the University of Southern California (USC) where I began a Visual Narrative Art program, and before, where I was the head comics teacher and “Cartooning Coordinator” at the School of Visual Arts in NYC for 25 years, and had a class “Anime Wonderland” about the machinations, philosophy, and ideas (much of which are about gender and identity politics) that are embedded in Japanese comics (“manga”) and animation (“anime”). He has also been a major influence of my life, in his ideology of improving the world through his art and storytelling, and in his compositional and narrative strategies of his comics and animation.

Tezuka’s genius can’t be underestimated—truly he created a new language of comics that were then directly translated to a new form of limited animation—that went to influence (still) the world.  He was kind of a prophet, ideating robots, superhighways and much much more before they came into being—Stanley Kubrick wanted him to be the art director for 2001, but he was too busy with his comics and animation studio.  Tezuka personally created over 150,000 pages of comics before he died in 1988 at age 60—meaning that he was somehow able to write and render 10 comic pages for every day he was alive, since birth.  In addition to this, he created and ran an animation studio concurrently to creating comics, many of which became like storyboards for the resulting animation based on the comic, Astro Boy being the ultimate example of this.  Japanese comics or manga existed before Tezuka, but he was able to take the more primitive form that pre-existed, and extend, expand, revolutionize, and create giant machinations of new forms of word-image storytelling in the structure, compositions, “camera movement” and semiotics of comics language which influences how we see film in addition to comics today.  His storytelling skills were acute, creating pulp fictions that were fun to read, wildly creative, and always, allegorically nuanced to help make the world a better place.

Tezuka was a prodigy, brought up in a small town in Japan (that had an all-woman theater that also influenced his progressive storytelling and characters), drawing beloved insects and other aspects of nature with photorealistic expertise, even as a small child.  Growing up before and during WWII but being a great humanist, he wanted to help people by being a doctor and going to medical school, which he did, but all the while—starting from winning contests as a boy and quickly rising in the manga world—was a well-known cartoonist even while still a medical student.  After graduating, he realized he could help many more people by telling stories (to paraphrase Joseph Campbell) “that help a culture to understand itself in order for it to progress,” and with his parent’s support and with the momentum of his already published work, started creating comics full time.  

Before television in Japan, and still today, comics are beloved in Japan, perhaps from the ancient antecedents of scrolls and screens that also were compositionally narrative and telling stories.  With the breadth of many more pages in smaller digest-like books, comics, very much with Tezuka as a pioneer, could have much more cinematic possibilities for storytelling, with more kinds of panels and transitions than American (normally 22-page comics before graphic novels), and building upon Eastern, but also Western culture, Tezuka created his new kind of storytelling.  Studying Disney (he saw Bambi over 35 times!) he came up with his iconic style of rendering—like “babies”, his characters share the same kind of “big eyes, small nose and mouth” shaped heads—better for the audience to “suture into” as they can relate more to simply rendered icons that they can insert their own agency and experience.   Astro Boy (in addition to the anthropomorphic Kimba the White Lion, his next legendary creation post Astro) is his most iconic creation, like Mickey Mouse the character became synonymous with him and his company.  

Astro Boy first appeared in another form, as a cyborg literally transgendered character in Tezuka’s version of Metropolis.  Seeing only the Fritz Lang poster, he was excited to invent his own story, also dealing with class and the power of the proletariat (and one of the first comics to ever feature an anthropomorphized, sympathetic robot) Metropolis was admired and much read in Japan. The pre-Astro Boy character could change gender from female to male and back again, as part of their power, and was a gender-fluid kindred spirit to Lang’s first female robot in film.  With the success of Metropolis, Tezuka began serializing his story of his boy robot in the Shonen magazines of collected boys’ comics, and a legend was born.

Following the Pinocchio master narrative (and Frankenstein!), Astro Boy is born in the narrative by his scientist “father” after his real boy dies in a “flying car accident” (one of the first flying cars ever depicted!).  Quickly, however, the narcissistic father is dismayed by his spectacular boy’s failure—as a robot—not to be able to grow older or act in the more human ways of his real son.  Astro Boy is brilliant instantly, but still naïve and “young” with his abilities and ways of understanding the world.  Carrying on the gender-bending traits of his Metropolis predecessor, Astro Boy often acts like a “sissy”-sensitive, empathic, and compassionate—when he isn’t saving the world with his tremendous superhuman strength, ability to fly, x-ray and super laser vision, and shooting jet guns that come out of his behind (?!).  Astro Boy is out to save the world from other robots, but also humanities’ ability to turn on itself (and the planet).  He is a true superhero, without the tester one uber masculine traits of his Western counterparts—and prophetic for a character that could truly exist in the future with A.I. (indeed, Kubrick and Spielberg created their film with Astro Boy as their template).  Allegorically, Astro Boy as a robot with a human heart is a stand in for slavery and/or the subjugation of any oppressed peoples, but who has feelings for the world that he wants to save despite his oppression, revolting against it and winning.

Tezuka realized early on in the 60’s that he could create limited animation (8-12 frames per second, as opposed to the heretofore normal 12-24 frames per second, and reusing animation cells, rendering new elements in movement only when necessary, etc.) of his Astro Boy works and not lose much of the energy of his excellent storytelling.  The manga became like storyboards for this, and Tezuka quickly was able to establish an animation studio.  An American executive saw the cartoons in Japan, and realizing their entertainment value, was able to bring the series to the US, substituting some of the elements (having the character voiced by a male instead of female and emphasizing more of his masculine traits was included!), and renaming The Mighty Atom as he is known in Japan to Astro Boy.  The rest is history—the series was tremendously received and bore after this Kimba the White Lion (in color), and many more cartoons and features.  Although Tezuka was a genius creator, he wasn’t as great as a businessman, and although his company went bankrupt (and evolved again), Tezuka kept pushing on, creating his amazing “dark Tezuka” long form manga graphic novels, in addition to his masterpiece “Phoenix” series, and much more before he died from stomach cancer (and perhaps overwork?!).

This image is from the cover of his serialized Astro Boy story “The Hot Dog Corps”, which ran in the boys comic anthology Shonen in 1961 (and was reprinted many times, and in English, in the Dark Horse Astro Boy anthology series in Volume 1, as it was so important to his oeuvre.  Tezuka’s storytelling is amazing pulp, wildly creative—in this story, Astro Boy’s substitute father scientist/guardian/teacher Mr. Mustachio’s dog Pero is abducted by an evil Grand Duchess, whose head scientist transfer the brains of dogs into a robot army—the Hot Dog corps–Pero becoming her head henchman robot.  Astro Boy can reach Pero’s inner dog loyalty, and “wakes” him to help Astro Boy escape the Duchesses lair—but who ends up battling Astro Boy on the dark side of the moon to keep the Duchess from stealing diamonds that are hidden there.  After defeating the entire army except for Pero, his is able to convince Pero to return to Mustachio, who transfers the dog’s brain back into a robot dog avatar, and who lives “happily ever after”?!   For me, I love this image, too, as it shows the essential Astro Boy, who despite his “cute” appearance, has determination and power to help the planet and all those in need, in his lonely heroic quest for self-actualization and acceptance while saving all he can, whether they acknowledge his greatness or not. It also showcases Tezuka’s skill as an artist, both compositionally to create “subjective motion” (when the person in action is in focus, but the background is blurry, creating feelings of movement that are used now in CGI action films all the time now in the West), but also to “suture into” his character—his drawing has a life like Rembrandt, where it seems he literally brings his Pygmalion creatures to life through his love for them, the basis of all great art, comics, fine art, or otherwise.  

For me, it was extremely gratifying to “suture into” Astro Boy, too, as I was rendering, as my hero’s journey as an artist, creator, and educator emulates Tezuka (although no one can achieve his greatness), but also the character himself.  All artists in my mind are heroes, as they hopefully “wake” the populace to their own place within culture and nature with their work, and in so doing, recognize not only their own agency, but the agency of all peoples to interrelate and combat the problems and fears that bring down culture, to have people rise and productively achieve the success of their culture and worlds.  It was also great to study the nuance of both Tezuka’s art formal qualities, mixed with the reproduction qualities of the inexpensive color manga reproduction, to make a fine art oil painting that is both an homage to the master, but also to situate his work within a fine art paradigm of “high culture” to further establish Tezuka’s place amongst the giants of cultural histories (and the Astro Boy character as his own giant icon of the power of people and ingenuity of the East).  Hopefully in my painting I’ve reanimated Astro Boy within the picture plane of my own rendition, in tribute to this great character and Tezuka, the God of Manga.