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Comic horror

August 27, 2009 ・ Blog

I’ve read a couple of wonderful comics lately, Christophe Blain’s Isaac The Pirate (thanks, Aaron), and Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha (thanks, Rich).

You’ll probably be aware of Tezuka already - he’s the man that helped to kickstart manga and anime in Japan in the 50s with Astro Boy and other such fusions of Disney and earlier Japanese visual arts, like kibyōshi. Blain’s not so familiar to British shores, but he’s a stalwart of the French comic scene, having worked on the Dungeon series.

Obviously, then, these two creators are utterly different, and these comics are too. Buddha is an eight-volume epic that explores Buddha’s life, from his birth as a prince to his enlightenment and death, and as it does so, tells various stories about the people around him, from reformed bandits to clairvoyant babies. Isaac The Pirate, meanwhile, is a dark two-volume tale about an artist that takes to the seas, joining a band of pirates and meeting master thieves and thugs while he wends his way back into the arms of his beloved wife in Paris.

What they absolutely share, however, is irresistibly heady combinations of lightness of touch and unflinching gazes upon life’s cruelties. Both feature as a natural part of their courses death, torture and suffering, with characters mercilessly despatched while others act in ways that you really wish they wouldn’t.

For example, there’s a scene in Isaac The Pirate’s first volume, To Exotic Lands, in which the pirates encounter in the frozen seas of the Arctic a drifting ship with starving Swedes on-board. The events that follow are harrowing and shocking, coming as they do after a long sequence in which you develop a respect and affection for many of the crew. Isaac’s love, meanwhile, is in constant threat of being extinguished - through his death, hers, temptation or the distraction of the waves - a sombre kind of tension, given that it’s one of the only purely good things any characters have.

And for all Tezuka’s Disney doe-eyed animals, exaggerated expressions and the way he often inserts characters from his previous comics into the stories - and himself - he doesn’t hesitate to depict the other side of his world. Genocide, fathers persecuting their children, bloody revenge: his Buddha is a man forged by violence and horror. Other characters go on terrible journeys of discovery, the brutality behind the things they do only mitigated by Buddha’s teachings of forgiveness and that behind everything lies a reason.

In both comics, the humour and levity all this is contrasted against seems utterly casual. Their balance of light and dark gives them a sense of consequence and truth that so many books, films - and other comics - lack. It’s got to have something to do with their visual style, I think. Both are brilliantly expressive, Tezuka in particular spanning from beautiful and detailed panoramas to goggle-eyed cartoon exaggeration.

So, yeah, I can’t recommend these two comics enough.