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Tezuka Osamu & The Rectification of Mickey

Sugoroku gameboard (1947).

The informal circulation of Disney and other American animation characters reappeared in the early postwar period, both prominently on the face of products or hiding in their insides. Quality varies. On the well-drawn side, for example, is the following sugoroku game board from 1947 featuring an array of pilfered characters, but notably an array straight from the 30s: Betty Boop, Popeye, Mickey Mouse, and Donald Duck. Further down the scale are a number of tiny “bean book” manga (reportedly distributed as prizes at festival day game stalls or sold like candy for small change) starring various characters from American animation and comics, including Little Lulu, Felix the Cat, Mutt and Jeff, Heckle and Jeckle, Mickey, and “Duck.” Most manga at this time were not made for adults, but these are physically only for people with little fingers, measuring 6 x 4.25 cm, with sixteen pages of artwork folded accordion style on fragile paper glued delicately to the covers.

Bean manga (late 40s-50s).

The Mickey volumette is titled Mickey’s Fire Brigade. His name is spelled correctly in English on the cover, but on the first page of the interior it’s “Mikkiy,” an attempt to Romanize the Japanese rendering. Even words were not free from mutilation. Similarly, Mickey has his usual rodent-like snout on the inside, while on the cover he’s pug-nosed. The story: there is an alarm at the fire station, Mickey slides down the pole and races to the scene on the back of the truck, he attaches the hose after some troubles, climbs up the ladder and into a top floor of the burning building, where he first puts out the flames on his colleague’s butt before extinguishing the building fire by sucking water through the hose and filling his body like a bloated balloon and releasing it with the odd English-language sound of “JIYN.” The story ends with his fellow firemen congratulating him on a job well done.

Mickey's Fire Brigade, bean manga (late 40s-50s).

Mickey Mouse, pocket manga (late 40s-early 50s ), cover.

Sometimes Mickey appears in postwar manga alongside old screen stars like Popeye or King Kong. Sometimes he is instead drafted into newer roles. A “pocket manga” (12.75 x 8.75 cm) from the late 40s titled simply Mickey Mouse puts Mickey and Minnie in the position of Jerry of Tom & Jerry. Published by one Katō Paper Company (Katō kami gyōsha), perhaps this booklet had a promotional function. At least it gives you a sense of how informal akahon publishing could be, that if you simply had access to one of the essential materials – in this case paper – you were primed to take advantage of the akahon boom.

The author clearly had seen the old black and white Mickey shorts. It begins with Mickey in his old vaudeville mood dancing on a piano. Minnie arrives and calls him to play together on a wonderful train she found in the toy room. Mickey cranks it up and they ride around before Minnie gets thrown off and into the mouth of cannon. It’s reminiscent of Mickey’s Choo Choo (1929).

Mickey Mouse, pocket manga (late 40s-early 50s).

Then appears the Tom character, hiding behind a corner. He tries his best to catch the mice but fails each time from their wiles. The manga ends somewhat inexplicably with the mice marching across the room carrying a flag with the insignia of crowned cat. Tom stands at attention and salutes, while Mickey and Minnie march to safety in their mouse hole.

Mickey Mouse, pocket manga (late 40s-early 50s).

Mickey Mouse, pocket manga (late 40s-early 50s), back cover.

Parts of the manga recall the old Disney shorts, and the military ending Mickey’s mobilization in manga during the 30s. On the other hand, the setting – a house with a separate playroom for kids – clearly arrived with Tom. It’s a telling substitution. Instead of Disney’s outdoors, now one gets Tom & Jerry’s animated suburban home. Mickey has been domesticated, not as he was in the color films of the mid 30s by playing the role of a human homeowner, but rather as part of a child’s playroom, ostensibly a pest but acting more like a toy that has come alive. The changes seem appropriate for the period, when the American good life of suburban living was being promoted widely through movies as well as comics like Blondie. Appropriately, the back cover of this book has an image of Donald Duck with the following instruction: “Alphabet letters are hidden in this picture. Try to find them.” This akahon aimed to capitalize on the popularity of things American. Perhaps it also wished to equip the Japanese child to consort with the Occupiers.


16 Responses to Tezuka Osamu & The Rectification of Mickey

  1. Dash Shaw says:

    More evidence to support my crackpot theory that Floyd Gottfredson is the true father of Tezuka’s comics work — Fred Patten in “Watching Anime, Reading Manga” wrote Tezuka was really into Gottfredson. Look at those Gottfredson Mickey pages next to early Tezuka! He’s clinging to the Mickey character (like in that Cartoon College cover) specifically because of Gottfredson’s work here I think… Anyway, I’m nuts — great post as always!

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  3. Fascinating stuff. The Katō Paper Company’s Mickey Mouse with Tom (of Tom and Jerry) is actually a partial redraw of John Stanley’s Tom and Jerry in Dell’s Our Gang 17 (1945), with Mickey and Minnie inserted into the Jerry and Tuffy roles.

  4. ryanholmberg says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    @Dash. Gottfredson certainly, working on the specifics now of what Tezuka was looking at (which I am sure anyone reading TCJ could do better and faster than I will be able to). Pretty sure he owned a copy of the Japanese edition of the Better Little Book “Mickey Mouse and the Stolen Jewels.” But also evidence that he was reading and taking from Disney Four Color titles regardless of the artist. Got a Barks & Tezuka essay in the oven (July?). Maybe I can get your eye for style on specific Tezuka images in future posts.
    @ David. Thank you for that identification. Trying to create a picture of the types of comics floating around in Japan after the war — and more generally a non-isolationist history of mid-century manga — so every little piece helps.

  5. Jeet Heer says:

    @Ryan Holmberg. Have your read John Dower’s Embracing Defeat (about post-war Japan). There’s an interesting discussion there about how the American occupying forces used comics to reshape Japanese culture.

  6. ryanholmberg says:

    I have read Dower. I will re-check, but I seem to remember that being mainly about Blondie and the “American way of life.” In addition to that kind of formal and directed importations, what I want to also try to capture is the more random, amorphous, and relatively non-ideological (or accidentally ideological) channel of the comic book-reading GI stationed in Japan during the Occupation, and also after (I have seen evidence of post-1952 Dick Sprang Batman and 3D comics in early Tatsumi Yoshihiro and Saito Takao).

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  9. Kumi Kaoru says:

    Hello, Mr. Holmberg. I’m sorry I didn’t join your lecture last Wednesday since I’m living in a town 500 km away from Tokyo. I deeply regretted I should have when I read a report about your wonderful talk in Natsume’s blog.

    >Is it significant that just the previous year, Daiei Film Co. President Nagata Masaichi had signed a personal deal with Walt Disney to be the studio’s sole licensing agent in Japan, thereby bringing to Japan the first official Mickeys in bulk in well over a decade?

    This is quoted from my humble talk last year in Natsume’s course, right? I remeber someone Gaijin boy asked me why Nagata was allowed to claim him to be the agent of Walt Disney Company for merchandising in Japan instead of claiming his company Daiei to be so. I suppose ‘personal deal’ is not an adequate term in this context. After all, he succeeded in making contracts with Disney Co *on behalf of Daiei*. the largest film studio (at least he claimed so in Hollywood) in Japan.

    I read your astounding essays in Comic Journal. Are there any plans for future translation of them into Japanese? I’m quite interested since I knew you’re going to write a studing book on Japanese comics in the future. For your information, I’m now translating a book by a former Walt Disney animator…

  10. Kumi Kaoru says:

    P.S. I heard Ono-sensei questioned one of your theories; he said it is questionable Disney comics published American domestically in 1942 has been circlated in Osaka soon after the war. I think it is very high possibility, because Tezuka had got acquainted with an American solder by chance in 1946 when he was a student in Osaka University and the GI (African American) provided the young Japanese with a pile of American comics when he found him skilful in portrait drawing. (See Tezuka’s essay _Watashi no Mozart_) Hope this helps.

  11. Sandra Battle says:

    I wanted know if this was Prof. Holmberg who taught Art History at CSI. If so, just wanted to say howdy!

  12. Lorna says:

    This is a very interesting article; it has inspired me to write my third year manga coursework on how America influenced Japanese Manga. I was wondering if anyone might be able to help me out with any further resources regarding ‘Mickey-like’ characters in early manga?

  13. Ryan Holmberg says:

    If you read Japanese, see Otsuka Eiji, Mikkii no shoshiki (2013). See also the New Treasure Island articles on TCJ by me, and my article on the same in the forthcoming Phantom Blot volume in Fantagraphics’ Gottfredson series. Beyond that, I think you will have to do some serious collecting and archival research of your own. I will hopefully be writing more on the subject down the line.

  14. Lorna says:

    Thankyou very much. I am afraid I do not speak Japanese; which does make the research a little harder. But, I will have a look at the other articles that you suggest.
    Thankyou very much for getting back to me.
    All the best!

  15. Ryan Holmberg says:

    If you don’t read Japanese, a few of Otsuka Eiji’s essays have been translated in Mechademia. Recently out, and most relevant for the present topic, is “An Unholy Alliance of Eisenstein and Disney” (Mechademia vol. 8, 2013), which I think has major flaws as far as manga history goes but will get you thinking on the subject. You might also want to look in Frederik Schodt’s Astro Boy Essays and Marc Steinberg’s Anime’s Media Mix. I also forgot to mention the two Ten Cent Manga books I did: Sugiura Shigeru’s Last of the Mohicans, and Tezuka’s The Mysterious Underground Men. There’s some “how America influenced Japanese Manga” in the Hayashi Seiichi Gold Pollen book as well.

  16. Ryan Wasson says:

    @RyanHolmberg, we spoke once before briefly about your Rockabilly Pomp Skull. I asked if you’d be willing to draw another one for me, I thought I rememebred you saying you would. Do you recall this? I do leatherwork. Please email. Thanks so much, I’ve been trying to find your contact I hope you see this!

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