BY AARON BLOCK
2012, Vertical Inc.
Filed Under: Graphic Novels
I picked up part one of Vertical, Inc.’s reissue of Osamu Tezuka’s Message to Adolf solely because of its striking, disconcerting presentation. A bright orange close-up of Adolf Hitler’s face takes up the entire front cover, and the title, bright yellow across a lime green spine, is written in what I believe to be High German font (font nerds, please correct me). The garish, pop art design promises irony, even as the actual images suggest a more sincerely terrible read.
In fact it’s neither. Manga godfather Tezuka seems to grab at genres and narrative styles and bundle them together, such that his tale is a conspiracy thriller, soap opera, coming of age story, history essay, and slapstick comedy all at once.
Set in Germany and Japan during the build-up to World War II, Message to Adolf: Part One follows three characters wrestling with the threat of Nazism, and the impending war, and reaching different conclusions. Sohei Toge, a Japanese journalist covering the Berlin Olympics, is drawn into a political mystery when his brother Isao, a student, is murdered. Toge believes Isao was killed by the Nazis to cover up information he’d tried to pass on to his older brother, and his search for the truth leads him into conflict with Nazi officials, Japanese police, gangsters, and an underground resistance movement.
Meanwhile, in Kobe, Japan, the son of the Nazi-affiliated German ambassador befriends the son of a Jewish expat baker, both of them named Adolf. Their friendship confounds and threatens the city’s political and social structures, and later gets tested when the younger Adolf’s father sends him to a Hitler Youth school in Germany. All of this is further complicated by Toge’s return to the city, and the violence that follows in his wake as the authorities seek to silence evidence that could bring down the Third Reich.
And that’s only the first half. Message to Adolf is a pocket saga in which multiple storylines intersect and intertwine, with a plot that takes the characters across Germany and Japan but never loses the intimacy and tension of a more modest drama. Tezuka achieves this by spending the most time with Toge and his nearly constant physical trials. His pain and confusion are constant, and the desire to see his loyalty and faith finally rewarded drove my reading. That isn’t to say that the two Adolfs aren’t relatable, but their relative naïveté and the historical context makes anything but an ironic reading difficult (at least until the final pages of Part One, when the younger Adolf makes a tragic decision.)
I suspect the intimate grandeur of Message to Adolf is also a result of the medium. Compared to western comics, manga pages are dense, filled with smaller panels that depict more of the scene, including details that are typically left to the reader to fill in. This should slow the reading to a crawl, but because many of the panels are silent snapshots of movement or emotion the pace is brisk, matching Toge’s breathless search to avenge his brother, and the relentless pursuit of the authorities. And the extra time spent in each scene means more opportunities to get close to the characters.
At the same time, the conventions of manga (suspended time, exaggerated expressions, etc.) all call attention to the medium in a way that Western comics don’t, effectively distancing the reader from the story. And Tezuka’s genre splicing only draws further attention to the text, particularly it’s authorship. Occasionally chapters will open with broad, precise, objective landscapes and sober historical narration, then shift suddenly into the more limber and expressive storytelling. And Toge becomes involved in a series of romances that are never satisfyingly resolved because they inevitably lead to violence and pursuit. Even as these shifts make the story more interesting, they also serve to remind the reader of its unreality, and the circumstances of its creation.
I don’t believe that self-awareness is specific to Message to Adolf so much as it’s central to how manga works. The stories are less about individual characters and plots than about a community, or describing a period of time, and so the text opens up to allow for as much of that detail as possible. Also, because they read so quickly (Message to Adolf is a chunky 648 pages, but you could finish it in a few sittings) manga absorb and integrate subplots, comic diversions, and whatever else simply to flesh out the narrative. Nor do I think it’s a distraction, or a detriment to the text. I found Message to Adolf compelling, and am eager to get the second volume and find out what happens.
More literally, I actually found Message to Adolf while browsing the manga section of Crescent City Comics in New Orleans because I’d made a resolution to expand my comics reading, and try things I wouldn’t ordinarily read. Before this my experience with manga was limited to a few excerpts in comics anthologies, and pseudo-manga like Scott Pilgrim. I suspect Tezuka, the genre’s most celebrated figure, is probably a degree or two more compelling than the stuff teenagers read in marathon aisle-clogging sessions in bookstores, but maybe not. I’m closer to finding out, at least.
Similar reads: literally anything by Osamu Tezuka, including Astro Boy, Princess Knight, and many others; Zot! by Scott McCloud