"Count Bat" in Astro Boy #18
Written and illustrated by Osamu Tezuka
Translated by Frederik L. Schodt
Lettered and retouched by Sno Cone Studios
When Osamu Tezuka was arranging his Astro Boy stories for their ultimate collection, he would occasionally draw introductions for stories. In these introductions Tezuka appears as a character who addresses the audience directly, explaining how various strips fit into continuity (not a big issue at the time they were drawn) or discussing the various political and social factors that were influencing his writing at the time. But every now and then, Tezuka's introductions are just disjointed digressions...
Tezuka then compares the level of violence in Astro Boy to the level of violence in Popeye, discusses the history of violence in manga and the popularity of horror comics, and mentions some odd facts about the historical Count Dracula. Which is a roundabout way of starting a story about space vampires.
But that opening panel stuck with me. Because Astro Boy is a very violent comic. It isn't ultraviolent - it doesn't feature buckets of blood and piles of severed limbs like Blade of the Immortal, or display a casual attitude towards murder like Crying Freeman. Stories aren't built around fight scenes, like Lone Wolf and Cub or Dragonball Z. But Astro Boy displays a casual attitude towards violence that's quite alarming when you think about it.
Consider "Count Bat." The first half of the story is nothing but violence - though to be fair, it's all initiated by the vampiric Dr. Pedan and his robot bats, and all Astro is doing is protecting his friends. The real villains of the story are revealed on in the final few pages - an alien race called the Buzubuzu, who are trying to kidnap Astro because they need a robot like him on their home planet.1 Now, I thought I saw how this was all going to end - earlier in the story, Tezuka introduced a miniature, remote-controlled version of Astro Boy. Obviously, Astro makes friends with the Buzubuzu and gives them the miniature version to take back to their homeworld. The Buzubuzu get what they want, Astro saves the Earth, and Tezuka gets rid of an annoying plot device that wasn't working out. Everyone's happy, right?
Wrong. What actually happens is this: Astro breaks into the Buzubuzu ship and exposes them to sunlight, killing them all. To say that I was appalled is to put it mildly.
In Astro's world, violence does solve problems. For every story where Astro saves the day with a clever plan or an impassioned speech, there are two more where he saves the day by beating the crap out of someone. To be fair, many American Silver Age comics have the same problem - but it's hard to imagine a comic where Superman slaughters an entire race of aliens, just because they were threatining Jimmy Olsen.2
In some respects, Astro Boy is more honest than Silver Age comics, which were forced by the Comics Code to present a world where violence has few consequences. What's worrying is not that Astro's world is filled with death and injury, but that Astro seems to be just fine with that. His villains are frequently riddled with bullets, electrocuted, or engulfed with bullets, and Astro could seem to care less. It's the culture of casual violence that Tezuka's banker is reacting to, and not the violence itself.
- If kidnapping Astro is the Buzubuzu's only goal, then they've certainly chosen a bizarre way to do it. I can understand creating a trap to lure him in, or kidnapping his friends to use as hostages, but why waste their time trying to corrupt Dr. Foola? Also, why do they need Astro? It's never adequately explained. Everything they make has a bad habit of dissolving in sunlight, which might be the reason, but then again, their spaceships seem to take the sunlight just fine. Aargh. I'm going to get a headache if I think about this any more.
- I can imagine a comic where Superman stands around and lets the aliens accidentally kill themselves, but that's not quite the same thing. Because we all know that super-speed isn't faster than cheap dramatic irony.