Jul 3, 2018

Osamu Tezuka’s Alabaster: Sex, Race, and Ugly Things

Osamu Tezuka despised Alabaster, some time after its creation, said he hated every character it contained. A lot like Jack Kirby pitching unproduced “what the audience wants,” it has a 70s seedyishness at odds with its author, and like produced 70s Kirby, even when the author was unhappy with having to say it, it might still be worth it to us that they did. Alabaster is pretty; even by Tezuka standards, it is a pretty comic, and that prettiness both softens the immediate blow of the ugliness of its content and makes those concerns hyperreal by the requisite and omnipresent contrast. Alabaster would be Maus if I liked Maus and if Alabaster was more freely attacking to Poles and Poland. It’s Quentin Tarantino’s Osamu Tezuka, except not as actually racist as that would be.

Sex, Race, and Ugly Things in Osamu Tezuka’s Alabaster
Travis Hedge Coke

Tezuka, despite the shortcomings of the era or of him as an artist and human being, means for Alabaster to decry something real, to stand for something genuinely worth standing up about, as well as dealing with things in a conveniently commercial fashion.

Ralph Ellison opens his Invisible Man, with as vainglorious a supervillain setting as any mad ne’erdowell could hope for. Or, any super-intelligent, driven by justice Man of Bronze, because Lex Luthor and Doc Savage are in these ways, fellows. Invisibility, an innate ability to terrify lesser men, an amazing underground lair powered by stolen electricity. The opening of Invisible Man is delightedly unapologetic, both in its explanation of what is, and in its aping and building upon the earlier The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells, wherein the invisible man in question is brilliant, daring, and virulently angry at the world.

Tezuka’s invisible man is an Olympian from Wisconsin whose marriage proposal to famed, white TV actress Susan Ross is rejected on the basis of, a) she only dated him because he was a six-time gold medalist, and b) he’s black and she’s a bigot. He also is not invisible; his skin is transparent, showing us all that lies beneath. James Block, nicknamed after his transformation, “Alabaster,” is a genius, a marvel of strength and speed, has a luciferian passion, but an almost unbelievable patience.

Man has plans. Get revenge, particularly on the woman who used him. Get hold of the actually-invisible daughter of the scientist whose technology made him revealed to the world. Form a gang of children. Teach kids to hate and kill. Dot dot dot profit. Or, dot dot dot retire to Castle Kigan.

So, not as much plans as, agendas and lashing out. He’s passionate, remember?

Ami, who is entirely invisible, has been raised alongside a young boy, as the child of a famed prosecutor, named Ozawa, a woman who believes in justice, truth, compassion, and maybe is a bit of a social climber. It is only in her teens that Ami discovers more of the truth of herself and her origins, when she is impressed into minor theft and then major theft by a delinquent from a nearby school. When she sees how destitute the boy lives, and that he willingly takes the rap for both of them, she gets involved in the clumsiest way possible, and they are both taken in by Alabaster, who will do what he can to disabuse them of ideas that people are kind, fair, good, or really all that worth living.

The lofty ideals devolve into caustic lashing out, conflicts with a sadistic FBI agent who has come to Japan pursuing Alabaster (illegally?), and even a classic and clear case of rape-revenge narrative.

Alabaster is not an enlightening work. The morality is muddled and sometimes virtually artificial. Alabaster has a tiger-striped sports car, a speedboat, and can throw peanuts or pebbles just the right way, so that if they strike a moving object it explodes, but still objects are only traditionally impacted. He talks a great game of ethics and strength, but he also recruits kids and blows up the head of a bird as part of a demonstration. He spends three years teaching kids to flick peanuts at birds to blow them up, and normalizing both super-princessy clothing and absolute nudity to the teenaged Ami.

Alabaster is not about being fair. It’s a horror comic. A crime comic. A crass comic. The criminal mastermind seems sane and promising because the local law are restrained and the foreign law, embodied by FBI Agent Rock Holmes, are racist, mirror-humping, obsessive rapists. Love is conditional and always subject to revisionary removal. Truth is faceted and the facets may be chipped. Hope is for people with no memory.

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