(NOTE: Apologies for the quality of the images — this book is nearly 700 pages and I had to take photos of the pages with my phone like some spy. Hopefully they accurately convey how great the book is.)
To refer to Osamu Tezuka as merely the creator of Astro Boy does the same disservice as calling Will Eisner "creator of The Spirit" or Kirby "the man what drew Fantastic Four." No, there's a reason they call Tezuka "the god of comics," and it's because few creators regardless of nationality embody the medium as completely. Beyond his contributions to wider pop culture, Tezuka had a decades-long career working in a variety of genres, rarely resting on his laurels. Trail-blazing aside, he's a master of the form, akin to a Kubrick or a Kurosawa of comic book storytelling — while they have their representative work, its an injustice to pigeonhole any of them.
So, yeah — while Entertainment Weekly may identify him with his cute robot cartoon, the rest of us know him for so much more, like Message to Adolf, a sprawling World War II-era political thriller made in the early 1980s, during the last decade of his life. Originally five volumes released in the Sates by Viz Media as Adolf, Vertical has retranslated the series and repackaged it in two thick but surprisingly wieldy volumes, the first of which is already out (the second is due in November).
Message to Adolf follows a trio of men with same first name. Adolf Kaufmann is a half-Japanese, half-German boy who lives in Japan but feels out of place in his mother's homeland, and soon finds himself in Germany enrolled in a Hitler Youth Academy. His best friend, Adolf Kamil, is a Jewish boy who was born in Japan and thus has no trouble fitting in — so much that he's actually a bit of a local troublemaker. The third is Adolf Hitler — not exactly a central character, but one whose existence is central to the story. He's a global troublemaker. He's also secretly a Jew, according to the story's MacGuffin, a secret document that everybody's after because it threatens to topple Hitler's entire hate-fueled regime.
In the periphery of these characters stands Sohei Toge, a reporter who stumbles onto the document when his dissident brother is murdered for it, forcing Toge to keep the file under his protection. Now Toge's life is constantly in danger as he's hounded by authorities (including a shadowy German agent) and soon becomes a pariah wherever he goes as the bodies start piling up all around him. Dark, harrowing and full of twists and turns, Toge's scenes basically qualify as comics noir — all that's missing is the chiaroscuro. And did it mention it's harrowing? Because it's goddamn harrowing to watch a man's life fall apart, especially when your only means of making it stop is by closing the book. Which isn't an option, because Message to Adolf is a real page-turner, as people who read Dean Koontz novels might say.
However, it's odd that Toge's plight makes up the bulk of this first half of Adolf, considering his own opening narration literally identifies himself as "a secondary character." But it makes sense considering Toge is a grown-ass man from the very beginning of the story while the the Adolf boys only become old enough to start careening down their tragically divergent paths at the end of this volume. We can expect Tezuka to downplay Toge in the second half and start beefing up the amount of time we spend with the kids.
Which isn't to say that the kids have necessarily gotten short shrift thus far. Tezuka uses the kids' frequency (or lack thereof) to amazing effect. Each time we see Adolf Kaufmann he's a little less endearingly innocent, just a little more absorbed into the Nazi hate machine — and thus more conflicted about his heritage and his friendship with the other Adolf. Maybe the only challenge to watching a person's life fall apart panel by panel is watching a child grow up with the wrong ideas in his head — while we get the immediate effects on Toge's life, we can expect to see the tragic results of Adolf Kaufmann's upbringing in Volume 2.
The people at Vertical were wise to cut off Part 1 where they did, because Tezuka concludes Chapter 17 of Message to Adolf with the most painful gut punch in comics, combining the callous disregard for human life in Watchmen #12 and the bitter, line-crossing accusation that concludes the first volume of Maus — and just about topping them both. By the end of Message to Adolf Part 1, we know we can't go back from the major event that caps it off. Innocence is gone. More bodies pile up. Get depressed.
Osamu Tezuka was approaching 60 as Adolf began, but this is not the work of an enfeebled artist who pencil has dulled or a one-promising talent who now must stew in his own irrelevance. Tezuka had a startling work ethic that should put to shame put any comic artist working today, even the really, really good ones, and it's clear he kept sharp up until his death (he was working on another serialized but sadly unfinished manga called Gringo in his final years), shattering the concept of "late-period" as a pejorative term.
Tezuka's pages are dense by most mainstream American comics standards and downright byzantine compared to some of the more popular, casually breezy examples of mainstream Japanese comics that come our way, offering layouts that frequently reach unheard-of panel counts (ten panels! eleven! I think I saw twelve once!), yet delivering them with such an amazing effortlessness and clarity that they read easier than other artists' pages with a fraction of that number. Rarely does his storytelling call attention to itself, and the when it does, it offers a bit of bold, inventive experimentation that suggests the master had some tricks up his sleeve even in his old age:
And, at the top of the next page, continuing the shtick of falling in and out of consciousness:
Perhaps more shocking than Tezuka's talent is his versatility. While most artists would opt for a consistently dour, dignified approach to the subject matter, Tezuka perhaps understands the human condition far too much to stick with one oppressive mood to create the illusion of gravitas. So he's not afraid to delve into more animated flourishes with exaggerated expressions and reactions where appropriate — say, when a character receives unexpected news and reacts with an excited, unbridled joy. In a visual medium dictated by a single artist's brush strokes, Tezuka knows that he has to make a character's "performance" clear to the reader, and does so with confidence rather than fearing that he's sinking the tone of his 1200+ page epic. It goes back to that immature rejection of "cartoony" art that often permeates the mainstream American comics conversation — that preconceived notion a work is not "serious" unless it's accompanied by humorless, "realistic" art. Tezuka, inspired by the work of Walt Disney's animation studio, has no such pretensions.
It's only half the story so far, but it really doesn't matter. Even without a proper conclusion in mind, these (roughly) 640 pages contained within Message to Adolf Part 1 comprise transcendent comics, a harrowing, heartwrenching masterwork culminating decades of craft and experience to create an adult work about serious themes that never reads like a cynical grab at prestige. Message to Adolf Part 1 is more than an epic political thriller or a tragic tale of innocence lost; it's some of the purest cartooning you'll ever experience.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.