Filed in Books & Media

Comic Book Buddha

The master's touchDan Zigmond

AS THE SERIES PROGRESSES, the emphasis shifts from Buddha's life to his teachings. The Eightfold Path and the Middle Way are each succinctly explained in volumes 4 and 5. "It is vulgar folly to indulge desire, and to drown in play," Siddhartha explains even before his enlightenment, "but to fall in love with suffering, and to drown in it, is just as foolish." Although the Buddha occasionally sounds a little overexcited in these pages, his later speeches introduce a lot of core Buddhist doctrine in very simple terms. "Empty your thoughts and forget even yourself," Buddha explains to a group of ascetics in volume 6. "Then your doubts and worries will disappear, you will suffer less, not more, you will even merge with nature!" The series is rarely preachy, but adults and adolescents new to Buddhism will gradually learn the basics. Interspersed throughout are some clever (and a few not-so-clever) puns and visual jokes. Even Tezuka himself makes an unexplained appearance, wearing his trademark beret.

The artwork is an intriguing mix of gorgeous Himalayan landscapes and more conventional comic book action. The books are filled with Tezuka's pioneering cinematic techniques, employing all sorts of close-ups, zooms, bridging shots, and pans, often with little or no dialogue. This makes them quick reads, despite their length. The characters themselves are drawn in what has become a fairly standard manga style, with large eyes and other exaggerated features familiar to fans of Japanese anime. Animals are treated with a particularly cartoonlike touch reminiscent of Disney. Lovers of American comic books will also find plenty of the usual graphic fight scenes, complete with the obligatory onomatopoeia of thok, krak, klak, and kapow.

In fact, despite the strong and articulate case against all killing in these books, there is a lot of bloodshed. Countless people are felled by sword, spear, or arrow, and there are a few scenes of torture and sadism (one young woman is deliberately blinded with a burning torch). None of this is particularly gory (probably in line with American comics), but there is an awful lot of it. And humans have no monopoly on suffering in these pages: one of the most heartbreaking scenes shows a lioness witnessing her cubs devoured by a snake. All this violence, plus quite a bit of partial nudity, probably makes the books inappropriate for younger children.  

Buddha is only one of several masterworks written by Tezuka. Others include the highly spiritual linked stories of Phoenix (gradually being published in English by VIZ Media) and the Second World War saga Adolf (published in English by Cadence Books in 1995). Those who enjoy Buddha will like those as well; Adolf in particular provides an interesting counterpoint to Maus, covering similar ground in a very different way and demonstrating the vast range of approaches to such a difficult subject that are possible within the comic form.

Comic books are not the ideal medium for teaching the dharma. Their swashbuckling action inevitably creates something of a mixed message about violence, and the subtlety of Buddhist practice is difficult to reduce to such short dialogues. But Osamu Tezuka nevertheless demonstrates in this great series that manga can communicate serious ideas. The books are beautifully produced in elegant (though expensive) hardcover editions that do justice to Tezuka's meticulous drawings, and the translations feel fresh and natural. As the manga authority Frederik L. Schodt writes in his treatise Dreamland Japan (Stone Bridge Press, 1996), "Tezuka was engaged in a lifelong quest to discover the meaning of life," developing a philosophy of "Tezuka humanism" that draws heavily on traditional Buddhist ethics. It's hard to imagine any reader--whether thirteen, thirty, or well beyond--not coming away moved by this captivating rendition of Buddhism's most fundamental story.  

Contributing editor Dan Zigmond lives in Menlo Park, California.

Image 2: The Buddha enters Magadha in volume 8.

Image 3: The Buddha on his deathbed in volume 8 of Tezuka's Buddha.

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