“The artwork of the original has been produced as a mirror-image in order to conform with the English language,” reads the copyright page in Vertical’s translation of Osamu Tezuka’s massive comic-book saga Buddha, the eighth and final volume of which has just appeared. “This work of fiction contains characters and episodes that are not part of the historical record.”
Thus we begin in distortion, at two removes. The visual flipflop means that our experience is already subtly different from that of Buddha‘s original audience: Arrows fly in the wrong direction, an elephant-mounted shock troop marches west instead of east. And Tezuka’s fictional characters are integral to the story’s appeal. They interact with Buddha to such an extent that there can be no pretense to biography. Do we need to bust out the truth police?
A manga maestro perhaps best known here as the creator of Astro Boy, Tezuka (1928–1989) completed Buddha in 1987. It’s a nearly 3,000-page, decade-plus-in-the-making (and now in the U.S., $200-in-the-spending) universe of prophecy and slaughter, extreme asceticism and out-of-body experiences. He swiftly but lucidly sketches the caste system and warring kingdoms of an India millennia past, to show the circumstances informing Buddha’s everything-is-concatenated worldview.
But despite the project’s ambitious scope and themes, Tezuka isn’t interested in telling a single story, or in telling it in a single way. Awesome, wordless vistas of the natural world alternate with happily brutal onomatopoeia. (One page of a battle scene contains only the following words: Ugh?!, Whop, Krak, Pow, Blam, Whok, Sok, Slipp, Gaah!) Though Buddha is always rendered with the necessary grandeur, other figures vary wildly in style—the young Tatta (a Tezuka creation) is a dead ringer for Astro Boy. And it’s the rare narrative of faith in which most of the women go topless.
In a single volume, the anachronisms and fluctuations might annoy. But taken in toto, as an aesthetic experience (with a Proustian page count), Buddha replicates the freedom that, one imagines, a devout worshipper feels. Nothing is fixed; panels can spin into hallucination; Yoda and E.T. are briefly glimpsed; even the fourth wall falls. “To begin with, I don’t believe a word of this stupid manga!” says a skeptical monk in Volume 7. He points a finger at a bereted artist at a desk—his creator, Tezuka—who explodes, “Excuse me?!” The monk says, “Who knows, the author might be a rotten pumpkin.” In the next panel, Tezuka’s head has become the gourd in question.
The artist has conceded his reality, or at least come down to the same plane as his creation. Perhaps because the medium can seem so disposable, our defenses come down. We are more vulnerable to delight or even the minor enlightenments of art.
Jeff Lint (1928–1994) shared a birth year and, briefly, a profession with Tezuka. A prodigious if puzzling sci-fi novelist, intimate of the Beats, and occasional TV writer, Lint penned a short-lived comic-book series, The Caterer, featuring the non sequitur–generating, periodically hallucinating, enigmatically violent Jack Marsden. A facsimile of the September ’75 issue is available, featuring gnomic catchphrases (“All is equalised”), a detourned Boschian centerfold, and ambivalent fan mail (“Is Jack Marsden a saint? If not, what’s the matter with him?”). It’s an instant cult item, mysterious, useless, and deep.
Tezuka’s Buddha flourishes with fictions; Lint, Marsden’s creator, is himself a fiction. He’s the brainchild of the British SF writer Steve Aylett, whose mock biography Lint tells you more than you need to know—the ungainly apparatus to a great pop joke. Why should the mock biography fall short of the mock comic? The craziness and career of Jeff Lint mirror that of Philip K. Dick (Lint and Dick are both ’28 Chicago babies). Critically reviled, mystically inclined (“Went around blessing people—knew it was the most annoying thing he could do,” notes a friend), Lint is meant to emblematize the sci-fi writer as simultaneous cultural outcast and culture hero. But this character has already been done better, and toting better names—by Vonnegut (Kilgore Trout, inspired by Theodore Sturgeon), and by Dick himself (Horselover Fat). Myriad details prove tiresome—call it pulp twee—and sometimes capsize the conceit: Would an American writer title a memoir The Man Who Gave Birth to His Arse?
On the other hand, who cares? Printed on cheap paper, Lint has the tactile qualities of the Lintian output, the wobbly energy of a first draft. Getting miffed over this fiction might mean Aylett’s doing something right, or as Lint remarks, “Perhaps putting a byline to truth is as pointless as painting a torpedo.” Reading a book about failure that is itself a failure delivers some vertiginous satisfaction. But you wouldn’t want to do it twice.