I am woefully ignorant of the history of manga. Mostly because I’ve got my hands full just living in the present; there are so many books being published right! now! I don’t have time to go back and read all the things that inform the things being published right now. I try to at least dip into the older stuff, though, so I can get a sense of where Japanese comics are coming from and maybe pick out the influences of artists I read now. Naturally, for areas of particular interest to me like Boys’ Love, I do more than just dip into the older stuff (perhaps you have been joining me on my journey through the classic Kaze to Ki no Uta?), but for the rest of it? No time. And if I’m being completely honest, not so much interest either. I do not care about Ashita no Joe. I’m sorry.
In fact, if we are making awkward/defiant confessions, let me tell you something else: The only Osamu Tezuka I have ever read is the first couple of volumes of Astro Boy (aka Tetsuwan Atom). They were okay. Much like I understand that the Beatles were deeply influential in the history of pop music, even though I do not want to listen to any of their songs ever, I realize that the depth of Tezuka’s influence on manga cannot be overstated, but I am not that interested in reading his work. Not when there are so many other things out there that I am way more interested in reading.
So it was with curiosity and a certain wariness that I accepted Volumes 1 and 2 of Garo/Com Manga Meisakusen (Manga Masterpiece Collection) from a comics enabler I know. I always love getting new books to read, and books are basically the best gift you can give anyone, but I wondered if reading the history of dudes in manga was really something that was going to engage me. And it is basically dudes here. Volume 1 features exactly zero ladies, while Volume 2 brings that sad count up to three. Out of twelve. And the first book has ten artists, so basically, they just added a couple women without getting rid of any of the guys. I get so bored of noticing things like this. Or rather I get so bored that these things are around for me to notice. Just try! Try to balance your collections! (Although two of the women in Volume 2 are Fumiko Okada and Kuniko Tsurita, sweet treats I recently discovered, so you know, that’s exciting. They are at least recognized as manga master-y enough to join the ranks in the second collection.) (Why couldn’t just one of them be in the first collection? Sigh.) (Okay, okay, I’m done ranting about this.)
Clearly, I went into reading this with some misgivings about the whole venture. And my grumpiness about the terrible, terrible ratio of manbits to ladyparts stands, but I am starting to reconsider my position on reading up on manga history. There is some great stuff in this collection, which I guess should come as no surprise given that the Garo of the title is the classic alternative manga magazine spearheaded by Sanpei Shirato, and Com is the manga magazine started by Osamu Tezuka to publish the stories he wanted to write.
The first third of the collection is taken up with what appears to be the first volume of the lengthy, lengthy classic Kamui Den by Sanpei Shirato, and (since we’re being honest here) I was kind of dreading it. At a glance, it looked pretty dense and boring, and I admit (honesty!) I considered skipping it to get to the first chapter of Tezuka’s Pheonix which follows it. In the spirit of discovery, though, I decided to forge onward, placating myself with the thought that I could just skim it.
But classics are classics for a reason, I guess, because I found myself pretty engrossed in the origins of the mighty working-class ninja. Plus you know I love the social justice themes Shirato depicts with old-timey feudal Japan standing in for the tumultuous sixties. The most fascinating parts were actually Shirato’s explanations of the social systems in place at the time. I usually dislike samurai or feudal period manga because I have no framework to hang the whole thing on. (Plus, everyone uses ye olde timey Japanese, which is not so understandable to a non-native speaker who has not studied in ye olden tymes.) But Shirato’s detailed overviews of the systems he references allowed me to really get into the story without wondering what this taxation system was all about anyway. I even found myself thinking I should check the whole series out the next time I’m in Japan.
I had more of a mixed reaction to Phoenix. The cutesy cartoon animals getting engulfed in a wave of lava while comically trying to escape was weird and hard to figure out how to read. And the little anachronisms also did not sit well with me. Primitive people talking about movie theaters is just plain weird and I can’t figure out why they would be in the text at all. To lighten things up? To play around? These kinds of moments just seemed so deeply out of place that I couldn’t resolve them.
Other stories in the collection fortunately stick closer to their eras and don’t force me to wonder where cave people are getting tin cans from. Shigeru Mizuki’s Fuku no Kami (God of Happiness) is a fairly straightforward look at his own sudden popularity. The broke and desperate Mizuki character takes on a new assistant in the hopes of producing more work and thus making more money, and suddenly, he is getting requests left and right from magazines with names like “Shonen Macaroni” to publish works with titles like “Nakaba no Hetaro” (the original Japanese title for Mizuki’s most famous work being “Hakaba no Kitaro”).
Gekiga favourite and super sweetheart Yoshihiro Tatsumi has “Sasori” in here, published in The Pushman in English, a story about a man who puts a scorpion in his wife’s purse. (There’s other stuff too.) And Yoshiharu Tsuge’s “Chiko” is one of the few stories of his that I’ve read that does not involve violent sexual aggression toward women, so that’s nice. Instead, the protagonist is not so nice to his wife’s pet bird. Oh.
My favourite might be Leiji Matsumoto’s “Ghost World”, if only for the cover page. But the story itself is great sci-fi: a primitive man and woman encounter an advanced race of bug people who are going extinct, but cannot believe that their place as the dominant lifeform on the planet will be taken over by these meatsacks.
The book is also peppered with ads from issues of Com and Garo from the era, essays by manga artists, including pieces by Shirato and Tezuka, plus several pages at the end explaining the idea behind the collection and the importance and background of each of the stories. It is pretty thorough. A good place to start learning about two seminal magazines and just what the big deal was anyway. (Even if you are a history-lazy person like me)