Welcome to Comic Book G-Forces, a bi-weekly column that serves as a hybrid of new and republished criticism from comic book writer Christopher M. Jones. Readers should expect a forcefulness and interrogation applied to the works of acclaimed authors that some may feel are beyond criticism.
First up on the block is Swallowing the Earth by Osamu Tezuka.
There’s a discussion everyone has, be it with others or themselves, whenever they encounter something from a bygone age that isn’t to their taste: does this actually suck, or is it simply “a product of its time?” The problem with this question is that if you even have to ask, you already know that the answer is the former. You don’t get scores of people burdening Cool Hand Luke or Jane Eyre or New Order with that line of questioning because it simply isn’t necessary: those things are Good, and it isn’t necessary for them to use the era in which they were produced as a shield against criticism, even if they may be marked by said eras in various ways.
The validity of this question is cast even further into doubt when applied to the work of someone who is generally accepted to be a Master of their craft, like Jack Kirby or Steve Reich or Jane Austen. Maybe one can respect the craftsmanship of a Master even if their work is not good, per se, but is that ever really a satisfactory way to think about art? And furthermore, doesn’t this place these artists on a pedestal even they probably wouldn’t appreciate? Aren’t you allowed an off day even if you’re a champion of your craft? Maybe even especially?
I bring this up because Digital Manga Publishing’s translation of Osamu Tezuka’s Swallowing the Earth begins with a disclaimer that is at once catty and portentous when read in a certain light, a paragraph stating that Tezuka’s use of racist caricature was a product of its time and that Tezuka, I quote, “probably would have appreciated the more politically correct sensibilities of the modern age.” This set the tone for my entire experience with the story: banging my head against a substandard work even as it snidely half-apologized to me for being so very, very terrible. Spoilers for a 50 year old comic you likely won’t read anyway will follow.
Swallowing the Earth is a comic about the machinations of seven women to annihilate the global patriarchy by attacking human civilization at its roots, as revenge for how men made the life of their gorgeous demigoddess mother Zephyrus miserable. This convoluted plan of theirs involves the invention of an all-purpose facial reconfiguration substance called Dermatoid Z, a gold manufacturing scheme concocted to devalue the entire earth’s currency, and a solemn vow not to fall in love with a man for any reason (needless to say that fucking said men is, predictably, par for the course). The wrench in the works is Gohonmatsu Seki, a cretinous Bigfoot of a man who drinks constantly and has no sexual feelings towards women, thereby making him (apparently) the prime candidate to foil a dastardly plot which essentially boils down to Too Much Money + Titty = Armageddon.
Tezuka does this great thing in his comics where he makes female characters get raped and then die pointlessly a few pages later, his preferred method of execution being to have them fling themselves out of buildings during trauma-induced delirium. This curious narrative habit of his occurs at least twice in Swallowing the Earth, once during the aforementioned Window Lunge Olympics and once when a woman steps out of a car and is machine-gunned to death by a confused ambuscade. Tezuka spends a bizarre amount of time fixating on the woman’s carcass considering what a minor character she is; one can practically sense his pen tonguing the bullet wounds.
I abruptly brought up this unnerving fixation of Tezuka’s because I feel it must be pointed out that this is a comic largely dealing with feminine views and concerns, being executed by someone who is prone to downright maniacal derailments into sexism. While his misogyny is not as overtly grotesque as that of his contemporary mangaka Kazuo Koike (writer of Lone Wolf & Cub, Samurai Executioner and Crying Freeman), it feels like there is a similar mindset at play regarding female characters as ragdolls to be abused and discarded at the author’s whim. At every turn he addresses patriarchy in manners ranging from ineffectual to dismissive to deranged, occasionally empathetic to its detractors but never in a way that seems healthy or well-considered.
This is exemplified no better than in protagonist Gohonmatsu. If you can imagine a joke with the punchline “boy, this guy sure drinks a lot of alcohol,” then repeat that same joke on every page in which this character appears—and he is the main character, and there are 500 pages—you will have entirely comprehended the magnitudes which exist within Gohonmatsu Seki. Witlessly blundering from one scenario to the other whilst every woman from savage tropical natives to literal goddesses fall in love with him for no narratively coherent reason, he is perhaps the most unlikable and one-note character I have ever had the displeasure of suffering through a comic adventure with.
What I’m getting at is that, from the perspective of pure story, there is not one redeeming quality about Swallowing the Earth. It is boring, overwrought, vacant trash. Osamu Tezuka ostensibly structured the story like a symphony, titling chapters in terms of intermezzos and minuets and the like, and that could have been interesting in a different comic. But in a comic this long, with characters this broad and a story this ineptly produced, it’s like having Ingmar Bergman direct a 6 hour Adam Sandler comedy: a drain on everyone’s time which insults every conceivable audience member and misuses every talent available.
But then there’s that God damn problem of Mastery in the Face of Shititude. Osamu Tezuka simply could not draw a bad looking comic if he put his mind to it. Page layouts are fluid, simple, unique without grandiosity; the way he depicts sex, sometimes as two silhouettes in a field of negative space and sometimes as a miasma of psychedelic stripes and shades convulsing into one another, is outright mesmerizing. Despite Gohonmatsu’s lack of worth as a character, it’s always a pleasure to watch him throw a punch, to witness the whole comic slide into an E.C. Segaresque slugfest at the drop of a hat. Even when this comic is at its stupidest—and good God is it at its stupidest very, very often—it’s never bad to look at, never a slog to read. For all its myriad failures as a story, Swallowing the Earth is very much an excellent comic, in that its baseline visual storytelling values are impossible to find error with. Every page reminds you that there’s good reason Tezuka is known for having almost single-handedly created the visual grammar of manga.
Yet ultimately what is the value of distinguishing between Bad Work and Well Made Bad Work? Why bother to praise the flavor of a soufflé cooked on top of a rat’s nest? It’s no great loss for culture if a master turned out bad work every now and again; there’s no real need to protect a dead genius from their flaws. Osamu Tezuka left us a body of work that close to 100% of the human population will never be able to match in terms of quality and innovation. Why subscribe to the theory of creative monolith? Let the old man suck in peace. He’s earned it.