Somehow, it only makes sense to begin any discussion of Osamu Tezuka with Astro-Boy. The man who cast a shadow across modern manga at least as large as the one J.R.R. Tolkien cast across modern fantasy is best known in the West for this work — even if more people remember the name "Astro-Boy" more readily than they do the name "Tezuka", and even if it's regarded largely a nostalgia item kept alive by the love and attention of a faithful few.
But on coming back to Astro-Boy decades after its first appearance in either English or Japanese, its nostalgia value is actually one of the less important things about it. With Astro-Boy, Tezuka accomplished something common to all great stories for young people: he provided them with a mythology for the world around them, a way to come to terms with the messiness and difficulty of real life by way of once-upon-a-times and happily-ever-afters.
All of the Astro-Boy manga are being restored to print in English by way of an omnibus collection series from Dark Horse, making it one of Tezuka's most accessible titles both in terms of being easy to read by all ages, and easy to get one's hands on. What's curious is how all the things about Astro-Boy that should have dated poorly — its art style, its speculations about technology and civilization, its notions about the brotherhood of all sentient beings — have only held up all the better with age. Tezuka wanted to make younger audiences aware of the way technology was, in the words of Melvin Kranzberg, neither good nor bad, but also not neutral, and Tezuka's way to explore that was by way of a post-Disney fairy tale about a boy robot: Pinocchio with machine guns in his gluteals.
Mythos for the machine-intelligence age
Tezuka did not start Astro-Boy off in 1951 with an origin story, but penned one retroactively in 1975 as a lead-in for one of the omnibus collection volumes for the series. It was, I suspect, not the style then to kick off a series with the kind of detailed setups we get now; one was simply dropped into the action, since it tended to be relatively self-contained and episodic anyway. Astro-Boy doesn't seem to have been much different; his adventures may have spanned multiple issues, but each one largely stands on its own, with the mythology of its character as generally familiar to its audience as Superman's would be to our own.
The origin story Tezuka drafted, later also featured in one of the animated adaptations of the story, plays a little like Isaac Asimov's own futurology of robotics — not in terms of the specific details, but in the way it revolves more around the ways human and robot exist in tension with each other. Astro-Boy himself was created as a replacement of sorts for the dead son of the director of the Ministry of Science, in much the same way the Pinocchio of legend was meant to substitute for the real thing. But Astro-Boy was created out of monomania, not love, and his creator cannot reconcile what he created with what he actually wanted. On his own, Astro-Boy ends up in a circus (sound familiar?) only to be liberated from that by a sympathetic scientist, and eventually becomes the kind of all-around superheroic defender of justice so common to adventure stories for young people.
People need myths, kids especially, and they need them to help make sense of the world. Not as a substitute for real wisdom, but as a way to reach real wisdom on their own. Astro-Boy does this by way of stories that are accessible on their own terms, but also clearly designed to introduce the (ostensibly young) audience to bigger things. "The Hot Dog Corps", the story that opens the first anthology, has the kind of plotting that you'd not only expect from a story aimed at a younger audience, but even feels like it was written by someone of the target age. When Pero, a dog belonging to Astro-Boy's teacher, is kidnapped, Astro-Boy investigates and finds the dog's mind has been harvested as part of a plot to create an army of obedient super-soldiers. It's goofy on the face of it, but by degrees it exposes something difficult: if Pero doesn't consider himself a dog anymore, but still has the instincts of one, what is he? (The conclusion Tezuka provides is not as sophisticated as I would have liked, unfortunately, but the journey takes us to some worthwhile places all the same.)
The problem of "what am I, really?" comes up against, even more forcefully, in "The Greatest Robot on Earth." Again, on the face of it, the story is baby-simple: Astro-Boy must face off against Pluto, a massively powerful robot designed only to face down other robots of great power and destroy them. But by degrees, something more emerges: out of their clashes, Astro-Boy and Pluto form a bond, one that has a corrosive effect on Pluto's programming and forces him to reconsider what his real priorities are. It's easy at first for Pluto to dismiss Astro-Boy's overtures by saying he's just following his programming, it's nothing personal — but over time that leaves Pluto with one less defense: if it's nothing personal, then what's stopping him from joining forces with Astro when both of them are imperiled?
Also interesting in "Greatest Robot" is the way Tezuka handles a subplot involving Astro-Boy getting a horsepower upgrade so he can fight Pluto if need be. He gets it, and it almost wrecks him in the process, but it's Astro-Boy's ability to make friends out of strangers and even enemies (as per shōnen storytelling generally) that wins the day. His enhanced strength only becomes most useful when combined with Pluto's to stave off an even greater threat, not when used to simply pummel enemies into submission. Tezuka was always concerned with what the real message of a given story manifested as, not simply the one the author thought he was sending, and "Greatest Robot" shows he knew the difference between a story that just lip service to morality and one that attempted to embody it.
One testament to this particular story's impact with its original audience: Decades after its release, Master Keaton and Monster creator Naoki Urasawa created Pluto, his own striking take on the story, albeit one as far removed from the original Astro-Boy as Man of Steel was from the DC Comics Superman of the 1960s and 1970s.
Through a kid's eyes; with a grownup's soul
One attribute common to many of the greatest artists is how one can see expressions of the whole of their work within any one of their works. Kubrick's fondness for cold symmetries or the glowering human face are common through most every film he made. Tezuka had elements of his own that carried through all of his works — his stock cast of re-used characters (save for his principals, of course), or the sly fun he had with the medium (e.g., characters hitting their heads on the "roof" of a panel in surprise), or the framings and layouts that brought to mind a cinematographer at least as often as they did a cartoonist. Astro-Boy featured all of those things, and while they may not have been presented in as accomplished a way as they were in works like Phoenix or MW or Apollo's Song, they're there, and they show us how even for a "kid's comic", Tezuka applied himself thoroughly.
What matters most with the application of those techniques, though, was how well they serve the story being told. One thing Tezuka never succumbed to was mere artiness for its own sake, and a story with the directness of Astro-Boy doesn't really warrant it in the first place. Where there is such experimentation here, it's minimal, albeit well-chosen. "Once Upon a Time," a multi-chapter epic that spans most of the second omnibus volume, interleaves the usual comic-panel layout with something that could be best described as a storybook presentation. The panels feature art only; the dialogue sits alongside in a parallel panel — an approach that wasn't used in the other stories shown so far in the omnibuses. It's just enough of a break from the way the other stories are formatted to be attention-getting, but not so much so that a Scott McCloud tutorial is in order. What's more, it underscores the fact of how we're being told this particular story (see the title: "Once Upon A Time"), and in a way that's not overly mannered or obtrusive.
Every author brings to every story they create an outlook, a worldview that colors and shapes the end result. We speak of an author's "style", but that doesn't mean Hemingway's terseness versus Pynchon's quirky floridity; it means Pynchon and Hemingway (or Virginia Woolf and Anne Tyler) didn't see the world the same way. Could not have seen the world the same way, either, being as they were from what amounted to different worlds. The way Tezuka saw things in his works for children was fundamentally optimistic: good people can do good things and make the world a better place as a result. But even in works like Astro-Boy, Tezuka had to let the difficulties of the real world seep in, the same difficulties that informed his works for other age groups.
At the heart of the whole franchise is the notion that human life is irreplaceable, but the rise of things that resemble human life — robots and their kind, but also aliens — does not mean human life is worth any the less. Sometimes the container of genre gets in the way, as when Astro-Boy seems a little too eager to beat up an enemy, as per most every other adventure-themed comic aimed at young people. But on the whole, I don't find it a failing that sometimes Astro-Boy can only tack around the edges of the ambitions it takes on. I find it heartening that it tries, because the audience being addressed here needs that kind of nourishment. As do we all.