Tezuka Osamu Outwits the Phantom Blot: The Case of New Treasure Island cont’d

Given the prominence of “cinematic techniques” as a theme in manga historiography, one is urged to ask the following. How indebted was Gottfredson to the movies or animation?

Like Carl Barks and Jack Hannah (the artists of Pirate Gold), Gottfredson was also an ex-animator. While joining the Disney Studio in late 1929 on the strength of the cartooning he had done for dailies and trade journals in his hometown of Salt Lake City, he was hired as an inbetweener. But this job seems to have lasted just four months. When the acting artists on the Mickey Mouse comic strip quit, Gottfredson was asked to pinch-hit. “By now I had become very interested in animation,” said the artist to comics historian Thomas Andrae, “and told Walt I’d rather stay in it. So Walt asked me to take over the strip for two weeks until he found another artist to do it. Nothing further was ever said about it, and I continued to draw the Mickey daily for 45 years – until my retirement in October 1975.”

Left: New Treasure Island (1946-47). Right: Floyd Gottfredson, Mickey Mouse Outwits the Phantom Blot (Dell, 1941).

How does Gottfredson’s animation experience bear upon the present inquiry? Certainly he renders the car and Mickey’s movements on principles of squash, stretch, and follow-through. Critic Ōtsuka Eiji once pointed out that the landscape in the second panel of New Treasure Island is curved in a manner typical of backgrounds in Disney animation. It is also so in the corresponding “Stickleville – Here I come!” panel in The Phantom Blot. When it comes to the specific issue of “cinematic techniques,” by the late 30s the language of cinematic camera work and editing techniques had become common in American cartooning, and the uses to which they are put in The Phantom Blot do not strike me as exceptional. What's special about Gottfredson's drawing is how he animates bodies from within, not how he frames them from without.

If, in contrast, Gottfredson’s “camera work” looks novel in New Treasure Island, it is not so much because such techniques themselves were new in Japanese comics – that they predate the Occupation has been repeatedly demonstrated in recent manga studies – but rather because of their peculiar framing within the traditional 1x3 grid, whereas in previous manga “cinematic” breakdowns generally called for subdividing the standard horizontal rectangle into smaller, sometimes irregular quadrilaterals. If one champion of New Treasure Island described the opening pages as “widescreen,” it is due to this effect: the placement of cinematic action in an older non-cinematic template. One can easily imagine how this combination might appeal to a former animator like Sakai. He has here, with the aid of American comics, been able to “storyboard” a sequence he could only dream of animating because of the difficulties of rendering movement at oblique angles. What declares “animation” more than the pseudo-storyboard, however, is the frontal driving scene – which appears nowhere in The Phantom Blot, as it does not appear anywhere in Tezuka’s wartime work. It signifies that the artist regards Gottfredson’s artwork in relationship, not to cinema, but to animation. I think Sakai was more likely to make this association.

A fair deal of Gottfredson’s voluminous output was available in Japan, first via the David McKay Company editions of the 30s, and then via Dell’s repackaging as comic books beginning in the early 40s, imported via the Occupation. There is a bizarre and rich history to be told (another day) of the Mouseman’s impact on Japanese comics in the early and mid 1930s. Tezuka is on record for having read as a child the finest of the derivative works: Shaka Bontarō’s Mickey’s Show (Mikkii no katsuyaku, 1934). But it seems that even late in life, while professing admiration for Gottfredson’s artwork, Tezuka did not make the connection between the Mickey manga he had read as a kid and the artist he admired as a middle-aged veteran. It is also unclear to what extent he knew that he had copied Gottfredson’s work during the Occupation, pulling for example from “Island in the Sky” (1936-37; Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, 1940) in Streamline Case (Ryūsenkei jiken, 1948) and – a coincidence? – from The Phantom Blot in New World Lulu (Shin sekai ruruu, 1950-52).

Left: Floyd Gottfredson, Mickey Mouse Outwits the Phantom Blot (Dell, 1941). Right: Tezuka Osamu, New World Lulu (1950-52).

He certainly could not have known at the time whose legacy he was inheriting, for Gottfredson’s name was not made public until the late 1960s. Did he realize it in retrospect? Did he later recognize that Gottfredson’s work also underwrote the opening pages of New Treasure Island? Was he even aware while creating New Treasure Island of the general fact that Disney comics underwrote many of its key sequences?

How could he not have been?

Consider that not only in general composition, panel sequencing, and basic motifs does New Treasure Island follow The Phantom Blot, but also in the smallest details of how the car is stylized (slightly older in model, interestingly, another sign of an older mind), how the landscape is shaped, how the house in the background of the third panel is constructed, and how Pete’s body moves. For the artwork to have ended up like this, Disney-fied down to the stroke, it is very likely that Gottfredson was referenced at all stages of drawing: basic breakdown, pencils, and inks. Which is to say, however one decides to hair-split the drawing credits, both Sakai and Tezuka must have been looking at The Phantom Blot.

Also consider that, while there’s debate about who drew New Treasure Island itself, consensus is that Sakai drew the book’s cover. Nishigami Haruo and Osaka Tokio both state this was the case. Even a basic familiarity with the two artists’ styles indicates Sakai’s hand. Since this cover was inspired by that of Pirate Gold, as I argued last time, would it be too much to assume that at the very least Sakai had a hand in introducing other Disney comics into New Treasure Island? And if he introduced them, then probably issued at least direction to Tezuka in how exploit the economy and design of Disney comics to improve upon his cinematic 1x3 experiments? He had directed and drawn a number of animated films after all.

Old guard and the upstart split in the end. Tezuka vowed in March 1947 never to speak to Sakai again after disagreement over copyright and royalties. But as artists they shared much: an interest in animation, an interest in American comic books, and – as expressed on the first pages of New Treasure Island – interest in how the two might go together.

In numerous articles and interviews, Tezuka was exacting about what movie, what prewar American cartoonist, what prewar manga book he got this or that idea for manga in the late 40s and 50s. This giant of cartooning also had an elephant’s memory.

How could he have forgotten this?