Osamu Tezuka: Buddha (volumes 1-3)

The GOP convention comes to town? A panel from Osamu Tezuka's 'Buddha'
Osamu Tezuka
Buddha (volumes 1-3)
Vertical, Inc.

The late Osamu Tezuka was one of the grand masters of Japanese comics. He's probably most famous as the creator of Astro Boy, but his 3,000-page graphic novel about the life of the Buddha was one of his later, more serious works, originally serialized in the '70s and revised a few years before his death in 1989. (This translation will eventually encompass eight volumes; the third has just appeared.) It can't have been easy material to turn into comics, since there's not a lot known about the early life of Prince Siddhartha Gautama (later the Buddha). And what little historical record exists isn't all that visually compelling; much of it involves, for instance, his ascetic meditation.

Tezuka's solution was to make the Buddha's biography an element of a broader story about politics and class (and caste) struggle in the India of 2,500 years ago, and to invent a bunch of original characters who could keep the plot moving and the action coming. Siddhartha, in fact, isn't born until more than halfway through the first volume, which mostly concerns a young slave who saves a general's life and a little boy who can possess animals' bodies. Kapilavastu is a lightweight adventure story (with a brutally tragic ending), but it also provides background on Indian caste stratification and the worldviews that made the Buddha's teachings revolutionary. The first half of volume three mostly concerns the childhood of the Buddha's great rival Devadatta. In Tezuka's version, he was literally raised by wolves, and it's to the cartoonist's credit that you'd never guess that wasn't part of the traditional story.

The uncredited translation of Buddha is badly flawed, alternately slangy ("This joint's cool!") and stilted ("That kid, too, is destined to be mine"). And the way Tezuka draws characters can be tough to get used to--it's far simpler and goofier than in American comics, and much less kinetic and smooth than contemporary manga.

Even so, Tezuka made his reputation not as a writer or artist but as a storyteller. Buddha flows unstoppably, juggling multiple story lines and a huge cast. The backgrounds are rendered with splendid and convincing detail, and every hundred pages or so he pulls out a gigantic set piece: a locust attack, a battle against an elephant-mounted army, an abandoned fortress in a rainstorm. The series' greatest strength, though, is its moral force--the way it sets up a complicated world in desperate need of change, and demonstrates how its hero led the way toward enlightenment.

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