Mysterious Underground Men CoverThe paper used effectively recreates the age and wear of the content, perfectly reproducing the size and look of Osamu Tezuka’s 1948 MYSTERIOUS UNDERGROUND MEN. The book, which Tezuka always considered his first “story manga,” is the second (and sadly final) book in Ryan Holmberg’s 10-Cent Manga line from PictureBox. MYSTERIOUS UNDERGROUND MEN tells the story of a young boy’s desire to realize his father’s dream of a train that goes straight through the earth, his encounter with a race of termite-like creatures which live near the earth’s core, and a hyper-intelligent rabbit who only just wants to be a real human.

In his supplementary essay, Holmberg details how the story of MYSTERIOUS UNDERGROUND MEN was shaped by Tezuka’s relationship with not only Japanese sci-fi, but American sci-fi like FLASH GORDON, and German sci-fi like DER TUNNEL. These influences are apparent on the book, because it reads as a very Eastern European sci-fi. It lacks a lot of what we would later come to expect from uniquely Japanese sci-fi, and nearly all of its characters have names (Young John, Ham Egg, et al) that were in English when the book was originally published in Japanese. The structure of the book is very Western in its presentation, relying heavily on forward-motion and conflict, something that Eastern art and narrative, traditionally, doesn’t necessarily rely on.

Tezuka, in his personal essay which is also included in this publication, makes mention of MYSTERIOUS UNDERGROUND MEN reeking of “pre-war manga,” which it certainly does—although, “reek” implies something foul, whereas its more accurate to say it feels like a pre-war manga.

Mysterious Underground Men 2-page spread

Its narrative is a little more slipshod than contemporary works such as VAGABOND, SUNNY, or BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, which isn’t an indictment, because the book isn’t bad, but, historically, manga didn’t begin its boom until approximately 1950. MYSTERIOUS UNDERGROUND MEN was one of a handful of works that kind of initiated that boom, and it feels of its time. At this point Tezuka was working within a medium that was barely figuring itself out. And really, it’s because of works like MYSTERIOUS UNDERGROUND MEN that manga developed into what it is today.

Originally, manga was something that we in the West would think more of as illustrated novels or picture books, and the Japanese didn’t really have an analogous medium to comics. This changed almost overnight after World War II, during the American occupation of Japan, when “10-Cent” American comic books flooded the country. It’s from these that Japanese artists learned their craft, with Osamu Tezuka even becoming honorary chairman of the Superman Fan Club in Japan. So it stands to reason that a book like UNDERGROUND MEN might lack the finesse and nuance of something later in Tezuka’s career when not only he had worked for years honing his craft, but the medium itself was closer to what we understand it to be today.

But that doesn’t mean that the book is itself bad. On the contrary, it’s actually quite good. Tezuka’s writing is brisk, with the story never staying still. Motion is constant, and the book reads like a taut actioner, with Tezuka quickly cutting away whenever there’s even a hint of a lull in the scene. Oddly enough, though, Mimio, the hyper-intelligent rabbit, is the only character with any substance. Young John is presented as the protagonist (while Mimio is the actual hero of the story), but he’s incredibly flat. His motivation is simple and easy to understand, which makes him an accessible character, but he doesn’t really have any depth. Similarly, Ham Egg is a very simple villain. He’s motivated by very primal things (greed), and he’s very easily understood—but, again, he lacks complexity, which is a double-edged sword. There’s not a lot of depth to the characters, but they’re very easy to empathize and/or dislike and to relate to; the story is incredibly easy to get into and to have fun with. And there’s a lot to revisit as an artistic and a historic artifact. But in and of itself, MYSTERIOUS UNDERGROUND MEN won’t leave you thinking for hours about what it was trying to say about the human condition, like maybe Tezuka’s BUDDHA, BLACK JACK, or DORORO do.

Osamu Tezuka’s art shares this interesting combination of effective/simplistic. Mysterious Underground Men interiorFrom an artistic and historical perspective, the examination of Tezuka’s art is fascinating. The effect that Walt Disney cartoons and stuff like Betty Boop had on Tezuka and the way he renders people is incalculable. The figures are rounded, bubbly, smooth, with each character clearly defined and discernible. His style here is very easy to read, and he rarely breaks from the 2 x 3 (Columns x Rows) grid. This makes it much more accessible for manga layman, who may not be as well versed in manga’s slanted, dynamic panels. The body language is communicative and Tezuka’s storytelling is direct and fluid, which makes it perfect and easy to understand/read for even the most inexperienced readers.

But MYSTERIOUS UNDERGROUND MEN is clearly a developmental work. It’s devoid of a lot of the more compelling elements of Tezuka’s style. But Tezuka’s artistic and storytelling proficiency is still apparent. His readiness to experiment and push stylistic and genre boundaries is there, and the book reads with manga’s almost-inherent briskness. It’s great to see his early work, and to see how his storytelling has evolved over time. As imperfect as it is, MYSTERIOUS UNDERGROUND MEN is undoubtedly the product that Tezuka intended—a quickly-read exploration of Western sci-fi, pushing the emotional and narrative bounds of what, at the time, was thought to be allowed in manga.

About The Author

A veteran of comics retailing, Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer whose criticism has appeared at Loser City, The Comics Alternative, Comical Musings, and Bleeding Cool. His fiction has appeared in places like Loser City, eFantasy, The Fringe Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Schlock. His writing about comics will be featured in upcoming issues of Keatinge & Del Duca's Shutter from Image Comics.