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Comics & Games Retailer

The Ascension of Astro Boy

By Oliver Chin

March, 2002

Retro is in nowadays. However nostalgia is not just a longing for a simpler past or a craving for the innocent joys of childhood. Today it is a key ingredient for marketers’ success. The powerful magnet that attracts fans’ hearts also tugs on their pocketbooks. To satisfy this wistful craving, companies have trolled the far reaches of forgotten archives to unearth, dust off and re-license classics to a new generation of fans. Anime and manga are no strangers to this time-honored tradition.

The latest in the series of resurrected heroes is none other than Astro Boy, the golden child of the "god of manga" Osamu Tezuka. Over his legendary career, Tezuka spawned a host of influential characters. Choosing a cartoonist’s life over that of being a doctor, he created the rogue surgeon Black Jack, who routinely defied the conventions of the medical and cultural establishment. Living in a society rebuilding from the wake of World War II, he produced the dizzying historiography Adoph which interwove the life of the century’s most infamous dictator with those of two young men from East and West. After his death in 1989, his dear Jungle Emperor Leo (e.g. Kimba the White Lion) was plagiarized by Disney’s The Lion King; an underhanded compliment to the man known as Japan’s "Walt Disney."

But perhaps none of his creations was so beloved by Western viewers as this tiny robotic kid. Astro Boy briefly graced America’s monochrome TV screens in 1963 but left an indelible impression upon the collective memory of youngsters nationwide. Now simultaneously, Dark Horse is publishing of the comics’ English translation and Manga Entertainment is releasing the animated series in color.


Originally penned in 1952, Mighty Atom tells the futuristic tale of how a scientist, driven by his son’s death, manufactures a mechanical boy. But is this metal shell capable of holding a true human heart? Through a twist of fate, the abandoned child escapes the perverse life of a side-show circus. Find a happy home with another Doctor who nurtures his superhuman abilities, Astro Boy proceeds to fulfill his mission to protect and enlighten mankind.

As Dark Horse’s Shawna Ervin-Gore notes "long before Steven Spielberg brought a similar story to big screen last year with A.I.", Tezuka was ahead of his time in many ways. Beneath the guise of pleasant Pinocchio-like wrapping, he packs an emotional payload. Manga’s Danielle Garnier states that the story is aimed at both parents and children and underscores "the triumph of kindness, compassion and selflessness in the face of discrimination and human prejudice."

On the manga front, Dark Horse is producing the 22 volume series in size somewhat larger and thicker than the successful digests of Lone Wolf and Cub. Doing the translation is Frederick Schodt, who according to Erwin-Gore "befriended and worked with Tezuka during the 70s and 80s and often served as Tezuka's translator during the creator's trips to North America."

Rockets Red Glare

Back in 1983, Tezuka Productions colorized and corrected the original 51 episode TV series, and recently began advance licensing of Western merchandise to seed the marketplace with Astro Boy’s cute countenance. Now starting on April 30, 2002, Manga will sell the first three VHS volumes ($19.95 each, five episodes, 150 minutes). Manga General Manager Mike Egan cites, "With a long nine volume series like this, we felt that releasing three volumes every three months would be the best way to launch the series to retail and to the public" and they do plan to produce a multi-volume DVD set in 2004.

The timing is right, for as Egan summarizes, "There is also a renewed interest on the works of Osamu Tezuka right now because of the great new anime feature Metropolis and the upcoming Astro Boy computer animated feature film." Schedule for 2004, Sony, Jim Henson Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and director Eric Leighton (Disney’s CGI feature Dinosaur) will bring an adaptation of Astro Boy to the silver screen.

Indeed the spotlight on Tezuka’s has been turned on recently by the theatrical release of Metropolis. Based upon his 1949 comics of the same name, the movie focuses on a multi-layered urban beehive where children, androids, and scientists again mix with technological disputes, political intrigue, and ethical dilemmas. Lushly animated but hampered with a confusing script (written by Katsuhiro Otomo of Akira fame), the film ultimately raises the question of how life is inextricably intertwined with death. But even more, it posits how the act of creation is a serious responsibility that requires the careful consideration of the consequences of both.

The Orbital Fly By

Post-modern American entertainment seems to have twenty-year cycles. When kids become influential adults, they now beg, borrow, and steal from what impressed them growing up. The self-referential nature of comics institutionalizes this trend to the extent of becoming a system almost closed to outsiders. Likewise anime and manga are addicted to recycling their past to the point of producing derivative offspring, too inbred to stand on their own.

In the case of Astro Boy, his ironclad character almost resists this trend. As an icon of the idealism of youth, he is drawn in an inimitable style that can be colorized by rose-tinted glasses but not completely corrupted by consumer cynicism. As a standard bearer for an innovative and original thinker, he represents a combination of influences too sophisticated welded together to be easily diluted or ripped apart.

Given the recent attention paid to the mastery of Tezuka, one may wonder whether all this is overdue or simply overdone. But as these print and moving "retrospectives" indicate, one should just thank their lucky stars that Astro Boy has come our way again.

(For more information, visit http://ja-f.tezuka.co.jp/ and www.astro-boy.net)


Comics Buyer's Guide is the USA's longest running magazine about comic books. Every month it features new comic reviews, nostalgic retroviews, interviews and a price guide. Oliver Chin reviews anime, manga, movies, videos, graphic novels, comics, and books.

Comics & Games Retailer provides news to comic and games retailers about practical how-to tips on selling comics and keeping up with industry and market trends. Monthly issues include Oliver Chin's column "Going Global" and other articles that give a national overview of the market.