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The Book Of Human Insects
posted September 15, 2011

imageCreator: Osamu Tezuka
Publishing Information: Vertical, hardcover, 376 pages, September 2011, $21.95
Ordering Numbers: 1935654209 (ISBN10); 9781935654209 (ISBN13)

That the legendary Osamu Tezuka made a bunch of batshit-crazy comics in addition to all of the all-ages, literary and effective mainstream pulp he turned out may be the most underrated revelation of the last ten years for English-language comics fans. Reading these Vertical books like Ode To Kirihito and MW is like finding out that Walt Disney rather than Ralph Bakshi made Coonskin. The bonus is that they're really, really good comics. Ode To Kirihito burns with the idiosyncratically-applied craft of a lost Sam Fuller movie, while MW turns one's expectations of a Tezuka hero into a spectacularly creepy and genuinely unsettling portrait of rottenness. Every major cultural figure with an audience as massive and respectful as Tezuka's should enjoy a similar phase to their careers.

The Book Of Human Insects combines the portrait of evil, post-World War II young person seen in MW with the oddball narrative and pacing decisions found in Ode. Young, beautiful Toshiko Tomura scales her way to cross-media artistic success by getting close to talented people, discarding them and then passing off some element of their work as her own while they're too dismayed and heartbroken to properly react. We see Tomura chew her way through a smattering of men and women before getting locked into a deeper, more subtly-played tussle with a man nearly her match -- a businessman whom she marries. Finally, we see Tomura escape and not pay for anything she's done, casually destroying on her own the one thing readers might come to think could be used against her. I suppose just reading a story like that could be repugnant to some people, but I found it weirdly enjoyable. It's not like Tezuka sugarcoats his lead's fundamental awfulness, or blatantly asks that we enjoy it as she destroys people -- even in that "hate the player/love the game" way that you saw all over pop culture in the early 1970s. It's most fascinating to me as a big ol' hate letter to the emerging Japanese post-war generation, although Tezuka includes a vile war-era criminal in the book as well.

Tezuka keeps our interest through some of the less lurid moments by making use of a variety of elegant page designs and occasionally tweaking us with subtle shifts in the style of art employed, the latter most frequently in a few panels gathered on a single page to establish a fresh scene or new location. One spread in particular (pages 158-159) shows off Tezuka's range. On the left we see a series of slaps portrayed with enough jagged rhythm and concussive force to knock the readers' eyes out of their heads. On the opposite page, a well-rendered and very still kiss leads to a curious moment of reflection and joy, followed by another, perhaps more passionate embrace. One page rocks the reader; the other sings it a lullaby. It's another sign of a great artist that they can seemingly do whatever they want and yet what they choose to do remains worthwhile.