What Was Alternative Manga? What Was Alternative Manga?

Tezuka Osamu and American Comics

This is not to deny that animation was important, or that it was not primary, in the sense of coming first. Nor is to meant to imply that Tezuka’s first contact with an American comic book occurred necessarily after the war. The practice works that Tezuka penned furiously between the spring and fall of 1945 show clearly that the reason “ten cent comics” made such an impact on the artist is that they had fallen on fallow ground.

As from his interviews and articles, so from his practice works, we know that Tezuka had been reading and copying George McManus and Milt Gross from before the end of the war. As mentioned earlier, Jiggs and Maggie appear prominently in To the Day of Victory, as Americans whose house has been destroyed by Japanese bombers. In Old Man’s Treasure Island (Oyaji no takarajima, Late Summer-Fall 1945) the oily character that would later become Ham Egg in Tezuka’s “star system” clearly shows his roots in Gross’ universe of obnoxious Americans. Both McManus and Gross, Tezuka said he read in translation, Bringing Up Father having appeared in Asahi Graph in the early-mid 1920s and He Done Her Wrong in Shin Seinen in 1937.

Milt Gross, He Done Her Wrong (1930); Tezuka Osamu, Old Man's Treasure Island (Summer-Fall 1945).

There are other segments from Tezuka’s juvenilia that suggest mystery and science fiction pulp magazine illustration, like the “batman” that threatens the heroine of Old Man’s Treasure Island in a basement cell, or the rocket ship being readied for Mars in The Ghost Man (Yūrei otoko, April – June 1945), or the Cobra Princess of the same work, a flying female robot who looks more waifish than anything I have ever seen in prewar manga, though she would look not far from home in little Japanese children’s Western-style fantasy fairy tale books of the early 20s. Might any of these have come from comic books?

Tezuka Osamu, Old Man Treasure's Island (Summer-Fall 1945); The Ghost Man (Summer 1945).

Tezuka Osamu, Old Man Treasure's Island (Summer-Fall 1945); The Ghost Man (Summer 1945); same.


As far as influences from Disney are concerned, this seems to be an era that supports the conventional belief that the source of Tezuka’s “Disney style” comes from animation. Most famous is the image of Mickey in a fighter plane in To the Day of Victory, bearing down on a Japanese child, filling him with bullets (shown at the beginning of this essay). Maybe he was watching “Mail Pilot” (1933) on his Pathé Baby. It might also be possible that he had the adaptation of Gottfredson’s strip in the Big Little Book of 1933. The dot eyes, the furrowed brow, and the gritted teeth, however, are not Gottfredson of the early 30s.

The influence of the Pathé projector is more certain for at least one scene in Old Man’s Treasure Island, in which a precocious puppy – he later talks – subdues a saw shark threatening castaways on a raft after a shipwreck. This is clearly taken from the Mickey short “The Castaway” (1931), the setting and the action, as well as the big-eyed stylization of the shark. It might have been difficult for Tezuka to copy directly from the projection. Though the machine was hand-cranked and could be slowed to any speed desired, if left in one place for too long the celluloid began to melt, as Tezuka explained in an essay from 1976. But if you own the film, there are other ways to illuminate the film’s images. Tezuka could have scrutinized them upon a windowpane in daytime. Any other kind of makeshift light table would also do.

Tezuka Osamu, Old Man's Treasure Island (Summer-Fall 1945); Disney, The Castaway (1931).

When the same puppy appears again at the end of the story, he is dressed, gesticulating, and moving just like Mickey. Notice across the three pages below how he is “animated”: as if slightly rotated counterclockwise between the fourth and fifth panels, or as if in a continuous motion from the first (top right) to the second. Why is his hand up like that in the second? Tezuka is clearly working from sort of “model sheet” that provides, not just singular iconic images of Mickey, but the character in serial poses. He is rendered in that compact non-tubular manner typical of Mickey in the era of “Mad Doctor” (1933), and tiptoes as if he might have in that very film. At the same time, he has an upright posture and a confidence of bodily expression when talking that suggests instead something later, almost like something drawn by Gottfredson from the late 30s, which is telling. On numerous occasions Japanese artists copied the early 30s strips reprinted in the Mickey Mouse Series from David McKay Publishing (1932-33). But as far as I know, unless somehow they got hold of foreign-language newspapers, they would have had no access to the later stories until the Dell editions brought in after the war. Tezuka is thought to have worked on Old Man’s Treasure Island even after the Japanese surrender, some say up to 1947, so it is possible that here we are seeing some of the very first signs of influence from the legendary “ten cent comics” of the Occupation.

Tezuka Osamu, Old Man's Treasure Island (Summer-Fall 1945).

It was perhaps the same collection of home movies and prewar books that gave shape to Little Ma, the cuddly star of Ma Chan’s Diary (Maa chan no nikkichō), Tezuka’s debut four-panel serial for the Shōkokumin Newspaper (January – March 1946). Sometimes Little Ma has four fingers, sometimes he has five, but in either case he inexplicably wears white gloves. He wears his pants high on the waist, and its button is oddly prominent. The resemblance to Mickey is not too strong, and might pass unnoticed without knowledge of Tezuka’s tastes. This was a moment – it might have been the last moment for many years – in which Tezuka could still draw independently of a full-blown “Disney style.”

Tezuka Osamu, The Diary of Little Ma (January-March 1946).

Izumi Tsuneo, Mickey Ma Chan (Zenkōsha, 1936), cover. Collection: Osaka Children's Literature Library.

One thing that makes the matter of Tezuka and his Disney sources difficult for this early period is the existence of domestically produced Mickeys from the 1930s. One could read and copy Mickey without ever having seen an official Disney book. Tezuka said that he read a number of these, liking especially Shaka Bontarō’s Mickey’s Show (Mikkii no katsuyaku, 1934), which I introduced in my akahon Mickey essay a couple of months ago. I think it possible that Little Ma was also based on such Mickey manga, for there is a little book from 1936 from the kamishibai publisher Zenkōsha titled surprisingly enough Mickey Maa Chan. The only difference in their names is that Tezuka’s Maa is written with a “ma” and a long sign, while “Little Ma Mickey” is written with a “ma” and an “a.” In addition to the near identity of their names is the similarity of their graphic stylizations. Tezuka’s Little Ma has always struck me as being too compact and too cute, and his contour lines too thick, to be described accurately as “Disney style.” But with Little Mickey Ma, Tezuka’s association of Mickey motifs with fat-lined kindergarten characterization makes more sense. “Disney style” does not mean only “Disney Studio style.”

I said that these were probably the last months that Tezuka could still be free of a full-blown Disney style. If the Little Mickey Ma connection is legit, it seems possible that these were also the last months that he relied on unofficial Disney images as models for that style. What changed things – what directed Tezuka away from random motifs and towards an entire graphic storytelling system, away from copies and towards originals, away from Japanese Mickeys and towards American ones – were the media flows of the Occupation. Tezuka might have had the will and the skill to “master” Disney. But without the many comic books brought into Japan by American military men after the war, he would not have had the material resources to make that dream a reality.



13 Responses to Tezuka Osamu and American Comics

  1. KUMI Kaoru says:

    _Tezuka Osamu Monogatari_, the manga biography by Tezuka Productions serialized soon after his death in 1989 includes the charming episode of ‘Opera Joe.’ BTW can I ask you when your book is supposed to be published? To be translated? I’d like to know.

  2. ryanholmberg says:

    (For anyone stealing at look at this, Kumi Kaoru is an anime scholar who has written an excellent book on Miyazaki in Japanese and translated Fred Ladd’s book on Astroboy)

    Kumi-san. We met at Gakushuin last year when you gave a talk about Tezuka and merchandising. If you read this, please give me a call in Tokyo: 03-3906-6101.

    Hopefully the book will be done this time next year. It all depends on how helpful the TCJ group is. Otherwise I am on my own with the American material.

    By the way, have you published your work on Nagata Masaichi and Disney? I will probably be writing something that overlaps this fall and would love to read and build upon whatever you have published.

  3. Jonas says:

    Interesting article. I’m reading the McCarty book about Tezuka right now. Interesting stuff, but a long read. I hope to finish it one day :)

  4. Great post. I’m fascinated by the continuity between American and Japanese comics traditions, especially since the flow of influence appears to have reversed in recent years. BTW Allan Holtz’ reference work on American newspaper comics has been released by the U of M Press. Might be useful to your work.

  5. KUMI Kaoru says:

    Hello, Ryan. Ohisashiburi desu ne! Yes, I remember a gaijin who asked me why Disney allowed Nagata, president of the Japanese big movie studio Daiei, to sign his own name, not the name of Daiei, on the contract to exclusively distribute Disney movies in Japan in 1949. (Anyway, Disney believed him as Nagata is on behalf of/the CEO of Daiei as well as an acquaintance of General MacCarthur) I should have mentioned some other episodes of one-man and charismatic film creators/executives like Nishizaki, creator of _Yamato_.

    I can provide you with some useful written matelial including interview articles with executives who used to work for/with the early Disney Japan, if you want. Can you write me your e-mail address? I believe you know mine already because I filled in my own one on this comment page.

    BTW I once tried to compare the first version of Tezuka’s Shin-Takarajima to the revised one in ’80’s. That was why I got excited with your insightful study on the early Tezuka. I wish I had attended your wondeful lecture! Chikusho kuyashii zo!

  6. ryanholmberg says:

    That’s a good book (It’s McCarthy I believe). Probably better than anything similar even in Japanese.

  7. Pingback: MangaBlog — Quick Wednesday manga links

  8. LWV says:

    Great article! Sometimes it feels like there’s an unlimited amount of Tezuka sitting untranslated so it’s cool to have things like this to help fill him out.

    ” Only really writer Ōtsuka Eiji has taken the Occupation context as a primary one”
    Is that the same Ōtsuka Eiji who wrote M.P.D Psycho ? I think I found the essay you’re referencing (from Mechademia?); do you know if he’s written more on comics?

  9. ryanholmberg says:

    I would guess that not 10 percent of Tezuka’s output is available in English. But what is published is much of the best.

    Otsuka has written quite a bit on otaku, shojo, manga, anime, etc. Very influential in Japan. I believe more of his work is being published in future editions of Mechademia.

  10. George says:

    Hello Ryan,
    the saw shark incident plays out in the opening episode of “Jungle Emperor Leo” anime. Not sure if it occurs in the manga. The same episode also features cats that are a clear hybrid of the Cheshire Cat from Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” and Lucifer from “Cinderella.”
    Great column. Looking forward to the book.

  11. Pingback: The God of Manga: Osamu Tezuka | ENGL388

  12. Byel Gould says:

    Thanks for providing such a detailed bio about the artist’s background. It’s amazing that Tezuka himself was also subject under influence of American military and the culture they had brought along with.

  13. D. Wolfe says:

    Little Ma (both early and late styles) could possibly have been influenced by Columbia’s “Scrappy” character.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *