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Osamu Tezuka's "Com"
A revolution in storytelling that played out against an actual revolution.
Let me tell you a story about a revolution in illustrated storytelling that took place against the backdrop of a real revolution in the streets. It starts with manga and anime pioneer Osamu Tezuka, whose artistic journey frames the early arc of Pure Invention.
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Manga was one of Japan’s first pop cultures to re-emerge after World War II, but it didn’t look much like the manga that fans know and love today. They weren’t sold but rented, out of pay libraries.
And the style didn’t much resemble what we associate with “manga” now. A great deal of it was influenced by Western comic strips and Disney cartoons imported before the war. (If you’re interested in a deep dive about this cross-cultural pollination, the scholar Eike Exner wrote a great book about how translations of Western newspaper “funnies” directly influenced early manga artists.)
By the late Fifties, however, things started to change. A new generation of artists who’d been raised on this sort of Western inspired storytelling began to push the boundaries with edgier work. A young manga artist named Yoshihiro Tatsumi led the pack, coining a new term to set the work of himself and his peers apart from Tezuka’s mainstream: gekiga, literally “dramatic pictures.”
Gekiga was a direct reaction to Tezuka’s success and ubiquity. Tezuka specialized in sci-fi and melodrama and anthropomorphic animals. He reportedly watched Bambi more than a hundred and thirty times. He was one of the pioneers of cute kawaii character design before anyone had thought to name the style.
Gekiga offered an alternate world of grittier fantasies better suited to the times, with fiercer linework designed to appeal to older audiences who’d outgrown manga for kids. Gekiga’s not-so-secret sauce of sex, crime, and violence, seasoned with a liberal dash of left-wing politics, drew in legions of young adults, particularly those in the Sixties student protest movement. (In the West, activists marched to the beat of protest rock, but in Japan, the heartbeat of the movement was found in the pages of gekiga.)
This turn of events drove Tezuka absolutely wild. Despite his sympathies for the protesters, and the fact that he was widely feted for his talents, Tezuka was legendarily insecure about his legacy. This fueled a fierce competitive streak. In his autobiography, Tezuka wrote about asking his assistants to bring him gekiga so that he could study the competition. He grew so agitated while reading them that he paced the floor as he read — and tumbled down the stairs in his office. On two separate occasions.
But Tezuka was a rebound king. He quickly stopped sulking and launched a publication called Com in 1966. He designed this “magazine for manga elites” to showcase new talent and, not coincidentally, prove his relevance in this new era of illustrated narrative art. Com competed directly with Garo, a monthy gekiga anthology that showcased cutting-edge creators such as Sanpei Shirato’s Kamui-den, Yoshiharu Tsuge (of Neji-Shiki fame), yokai master Shigeru Mizuki, and pioneer Yoshihiro Tasumi himself. (Drawn and Quarterly has published several anthologies of Tatsumi’s work in English — they’re all great, but Abandon the Old in Tokyo is a particular favorite, as is director Eric Khoo’s biopic Tatsumi, which is on Netflix.)
Garo was catnip to dissidents and dropouts; Com was equally subversive in its own way, but almost entirely in service of comics nerds. The magazine naturally showcased the superstar Tezuka’s work, featuring Astro Boy’s smiling mug right on every cover. But it quickly shifted to more symbolic imagery, drawn by illustrators such as Makoto Wada, whose covers graced the entire 1968 run.
It is here that Tezuka’s beloved spiritual epic Hi no Tori (Phoenix) series got its start. But this was no one-man show. Com’s editors aggressively recruited new talent, encouraging amateur submissions and, in the process, helping launch the careers of many later-to-be luminaries like Leiji Matsumoto and Katsuhiro Otomo. Com also actively supported female artists who went on to become stars of the shojo manga (girls comics) world.
Com stood for many things — comics, community, communication — but one “com” it wasn’t was commercial. It folded in 1971, just five years after it began. In a sense, Tezuka had been right to worry: what is widely called manga today, both in Japan and abroad, owes far more to gekiga than it does Tezuka’s softer, Disney-inflected sensibilities. (So does anime, as can be seen in how different modern series look from those in Tezuka’s heyday.) Still, Com proved hugely influential. Its demise, says Yoshihiro Yonezawa, fueled his decision to start the Comic Market convention in 1975. Almost half a century later, Comic Market (aka Comiket) continues to thrive and grow. With a peak of more than three quarters of a million visitors (pre-pandemic), it reigns as the largest regularly held fan gathering of any kind on the planet.
Every successful media franchise is a dialog between creators and consumers, but the lines have always been blurrier in Japan than in the West. The symbiotic relationship between artists and superfans is the beating heart of Japan’s pop-cultural success story. It allowed manga and anime to flourish in Japan and around the world, transforming the global imagination in the process. You could call it a revolution in fantasy. The seeds were sown right here, in the pages of Com, born out of a rivalry between creators and fans turned creators themselves.
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