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Phoenix, Vol. 1: Dawn

Phoenix, Vol. 1: Dawn - Osamu Tezuka NOTE: This review appears on Volume 1 of a twelve-volume series, but I don't intend to review every volume seperately, so what appears below is intended to cover the entire series.About Manga"Manga" (also sometimes called "anime") refers to Japanese comics. My first contact with it was in the early 1980's, when Star Blazers (which was already about 10 years old at the time) appeared on American television. Its success in the United States helped transform manga from an esoteric corner of the comics market to a mainstream genre with a (sometimes-fanatical) global readership. As of 2008, it is a $3.6 billion/year business. Most manga has a distinctive graphic style, and a proclivity for over-the-top action, embarrassing cuteness and more overt sexuality than you tend to see in American comics. Whereas American comics dwell heavily on "superheros", manga seems to be more science fiction-themed. Of course this is just a generalization; as I'll discuss, the Phoenix series is iconoclastic in many ways.About TezukaWithout question, Phoenix author Osamu Tezuka is one of the giant names of manga. He did not invent the brand; it existed for at least a generation before him, but he was a luminary in its early days. From grade school on to adulthood, he drew and wrote his own manga, continuing even through the rigors of medical school. He probably would have continued his medical career, but his Astro Boy ,debuting in 1952- just at the end of the American occupation- met with unexpected success. In fact, it was the first time a manga series enjoyed widespread popular recognition outside the conventional childrens' audience. To his publisher, it was a life-saving windfall in a period of struggle and reconstruction after the war. Astro Boy became an early icon of the post-war Japanese consumer culture, and with his nuclear-powered heart and his rocket engine legs, he has been endlessly dissected in academic circles as an artifact of the Cold War and the emerging Space Age. When Astro Boy became the first anime television series in 1963, Tezuka took the entire industry to new heights of profitability. To give you an idea of his posthumus stature, Japanese manga publishers celebrate their achievements each year by awarding the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize. About PhoenixTezuka's oeuvre spans four decades, and without a doubt, Phoenix, is his master work. It is by any standard ambitious: a twelve-volume epic produced over the period 1956-1989, with more characters than War and Peace (probably), and more sideline stories than the Bible (possibly). Strictly speaking, it follows the immortal soul of Masato through multiple incarnations, both human and not, from 240 A.D. to 3404 A.D. The overall story spans an even broader period than that, since various plot devices (including time-travel and something like astral projection) take Masato back and forth through all of human history, as well as to the primordial void extant before the birth of our universe, and for an undefined period, he exists "outside of time" (it's complicated), where he witnesses the entire history of an alien civilization, from the origin of its species to technological advancement far beyond our current level, and ultimately to its tragic demise. If this were just the tale of a very long and interesting life, a'la My First Two Thousand Years, it would still be a remarkably imaginative story, but maybe not worth the time needed to slog through twelve 300+ page volumes. What makes Phoenix most rewarding is the development of Masato's character. The story begins with him as a most unsympathetic figure: a duplicitous and vindictive mercenary living in the Jomon period of Japanese prehistory. Through an unlikely encounter with a god-like creature, his soul enters a cycle of endless reincarnations, to both human and animal forms. Actually it's not clear whether the end of the series is the end of his lives or not, but if you're still on board by Volume 12, this ambiguity probably won't bother you. Obviously the premise poses a host of philosophical questions, but you're on your own with that... what I've stated is as much as the series tells you, and honestly, it's not important to what follows.What follows is all the chaos, drama, love, loss, and uncertainty the universe can dish out to a soul over the course of three thousand years. For quite a while, Masato flounders about, railing against capricious Fate. In one brief lifetime, he exists for exactly 15 seconds as a newly-hatched plankton, before he is eaten. That seems pretty pointless, but Tezuka lays out hints that some of this is not as random as it seems. Round about Volume 8, it slowly dawns on Masato that the universe is trying to teach him something, in a manner not entirely unlike happens in Groundhog Day. Unfortunately, Masato is not a quick learner, and hurts plenty of people/animals/aliens in the course of his travels. Even as late as the 22nd century, we find him marooned on a distant planet, shacking up with an alien ostrich-girl, who loves him, but whom he is using merely as a "sugar Mamma" because her father is the wealthy and powerful tribal leader of her species. When the hologram of his Earth girlfriend from a past lifetime shows up, (did I mention some of this is complicated?) he dumps ostrich-girl, and eventually kills her.. only to find that he was an unwitting cog in a Machiavellian scheme of revenge. The ostrich-people then kill Masato, sending him off to his next incarnation.This series is filled with A LOT of stuff like that. It can be frustrating to see Masato botching up incarnation after incarnation, but like Siddhartha, after a mere 3200 years, we leave him at the end of Volume 12 as a wise man with a mature sense of what things are important in life. Obviously, this is not standard-fare comic books we're talking about. The Phoenix series transcends its genre. It is dazzlingly creative, at times funny, at times tragic, often thought-provoking, frequently mind-blowing, and never disappointing. It rightly deserves to be regarded as literature.