Osamu Tezuka is to Japanese manga what Will Eisner is to the American graphic novel. Both began in the trenches doing genre work, and over decades of production, expanded their focus to increasingly diverse and challenging material. I'd posit that Tezuka is even more adventurous than Eisner, moving from the simplistic adventures of a boy robot (Astro Boy) to more complex sci-fi (Phoenix), while also tackling such topics as the life and death of a dictator (the Adolf series).
And then there is BUDDHA. A multi-volume retelling of the life of the Buddha, mixing historical text with fanciful fiction for a daring exploration of a religious figure unlike anything literature, much less comic books, has ever seen.
The first volume, KAPILAVASTU, follows the travels of a monk who is searching for a boy reputed to have special abilities (he can possess the body of any animal, for one thing, though his larger role remains to be seen). When he finds the boy, Tatta, the monk realizes that he is part of the lowest of the castes -- a pariah. He also finds a village embroiled in a battle with invaders, and soon is wrapped up in the danger itself. From there, Tezuka incorporates folk tales and social commentary into what is essentially a grand adventure. In addition to Tatta, the monk also meets Chapra, a slave who attempts to improve his station by getting adopted by a marauding general, and Chapra's caring mother. Meanwhile, in the distant city of Kapilavastu, the Blessed One, Prince Siddhartha, is born.
The joy of reading BUDDHA comes from seeing a master of his craft take an intelligent, adult script and illustrate it with a traditional cartoon approach. While this is some heavy subject matter, Tezuka renders it with a light touch. Realism is shoved aside in favor of caricature, giving this ancient tale new life for a modern audience. The technique is effective no matter how it is used, be it for broad comedy, gut-wrenching emotion, or bloody violence. It's the pinnacle of what a cartoonist can do with ink.
At 400 pages, KAPILAVASTU is only the beginning of a staggering artistic journey. Though originally published in 1987, two years before the author's death, this is the first time this amazing graphic novel has been available in North America. Vertical is new to comics, but they are giving BUDDHA the treatment it deserves -- gorgeous editions with crisp reproduction and design work by noted graphic artist Chip Kidd. It's a tremendous effort, and a huge gift to the reading public.
Jamie S. Rich has edited comic books for ten years, over half of them as editor in chief at Oni Press. In 2000, he published his first novel, Cut My Hair, and is currently exploring his second. When it's done, he swears his website, confessions123.com, will make a lot more sense. In addition, he has written film and music criticism for various publications, and has worked on scripts for far more Tokyopop manga translations than he cares to count.