Congratulations! You survived seven more days on this planet! You deserve a freaky Friday, where I dig into the vault and pull out some weird and forgotten book that smells like cat hair.
Osamu Tezuka’s manga, Alabaster, is a book that defies logic, heading straight for the gut. Nothing about it makes any intellectual sense, but it’s a double-barreled blast of screaming counterculture rage. Published in a boy’s weekly comics magazine, you can easily imagine nine-year-old kids eating this stuff up because its volcanic “fuck the system” warcry is so much louder than everything around it.
Serialized between December, 1970 and June, 1971, Alabaster was recently republished in two volumes as a Kickstarter project by Digital Manga Inc. and I can’t imagine that its impact on modern readers will be any less jarring. How do you process a comic in which the hero is a rapist FBI agent who thinks everyone in the world except him is hopelessly ugly, and the villain is an African-American athlete who hates the color of his skin so much that he destroys it?
James Block is a college sports star who goes to the Munich Olympics and wins six gold medals. An international sensation, he falls in love with a TV actress named Susan Ross, and the two date for a year before he proposes, at which point Susan bursts into high-pitched laughter. “Have you looked in the mirror. Did you really think I would marry you?” Humiliated, James loses his temper and grabs her arm, she screams for help, bystanders jump him, punches are thrown, and he leaps into a car. “Unfortunately,” he says, “I never learned to drive.”
Plowing into a crowd, James gets a five year sentence. In prison, he meets an inventor who, of course, has an invisibility ray back at his lab. When James gets out, he goes to the lab, finds the ray, and in a fury (“Erase me — this cursed skin and all!”) turns himself invisible. Only he can’t stand the pain and leaps out of the ray’s path at the last minute, saving his life but not before his skin becomes transparent. Now he’s a revenge-crazed pile of internal organs, blood vessels, and bones floating in mid-air. Ten pages later, he’s used the ray on Susan, killing her and turning her corpse invisible, leaving it on a pile of rocks to rot.
Going pro as a monster, James renames himself Alabaster, puts on a turtleneck, a love medallion, a pimped-out hat, and a swooping cloak, sets up HQ in a massive castle on Creep Face Island, and declares war on humanity, vowing to make the world look as ugly on the outside as it is on the inside. He recruits a young girl who’s invisible (except for her eyes) and the two of them abduct fashion models and turn random parts of their bodies invisible, steal jewels, and kidnap and murder corrupt city officials. All hypocrites, racists, and avatars of so-called beauty must die.
Opposing them is FBI agent Rock Holmes, a sunglasses-wearing dude who kicks dogs and hates ugly faces (“I hate Anglo-Saxons, Latinos, and Slavs. Naturally I despise Africans, Indians, and Arabs. The only faces I would give a passing score are those of the Greeks. I just happen to be Greek myself.”) He also likes stripping naked and humping mirrors while cooing “I am so beautiful.” After he gets the drop on the invisible girl, Ami, he loses Alabaster (who escapes by turning his house into a boat) then rapes the invisible Ami.
Things just keep getting darker from there, while never disposing of the trappings of adventure comics. Secret escape balloons, skinless ape attacks, speedboat chases, and confrontations in exploding secret lairs are paired with suicide, self-loathing, and grains of rice flicked so hard they explode human brains. It might be this radical disconnect between style and substance, as much as the lack of “likeable” characters, that caused Tezuka to write in an afterword:
“The thing I most dislike about Alabaster is its darkness. The fact that I began writing it hoping to capture that sense of grotesque and salacious adventure…was the source of my failure…I hate every character that appears in it without exception.”
In 1969, Japan was rocked by protests. 152 university campuses were in turmoil as students, often protesting administrative corruption, staged sit-ins, marches, and protests that devolved into riots as the police came down hard. By 1970, the students joined with wider protests against renewal of the Anpo Treaty, high school students barricaded their classrooms, and movies like Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (71) captured the spirit of the day as young people clashed with an older, right-wing generation that couldn’t understand what these kids had to cry about. After all, wasn’t the economy doing great?
Tezuka himself was at a low point in his career, abandoned by younger readers who considered him a safe, classic manga artist rather than a revolutionary. He was writing sex education comics and pretty much anything he could find, all of it tinged with darkness (in that same afterword he writes, “I tend to be seized by inescapable bouts of melancholy every three to four years. Whenever I release a flop or other failure, it always tends to be because I drew it when I was in one of these states.”). Monthly comics were going weekly, and Alabaster was one of Tezuka’s first weeklies. After the “failure” of Alabaster, Tezuka found new fame with his weekly manga, Black Jack, about a rogue, disfigured doctor fighting the system. Interestingly half of his face is black due to a skin graft from his best friend, an African who died while protesting nuclear power plants in Algiers. You wonder if it’s a meta-graft from James Block.
Picking an African-American protagonist for Alabaster allowed Tezuka to find a hero who wouldn’t divide his readership the way a young Japanese character would have. Footage of American civil rights protests were all over the international news and America’s resistance to integration was widely seen by young people around the world as the country’s shame. While mainstream Japanese pop culture can be deeply racist in its depictions of black characters, Japan doesn’t have an institutionalized system of discrimination against them, so to Tezuka, Alabaster was a free-floating icon, the virtuous man oppressed by society until he becomes the very monster they claimed he was. The invisible Ami is a classic rape-revenge character from film and fiction, the young woman who fights back after being sexually violated.
Neither of these are intellectually sophisticated responses to systematic oppression and discrimination, but they’re deeply felt. Alabaster is dark, it is unrelenting, but with its two victims finding common cause, and mutual strength, as outsiders fighting back against the world that sees them as less-than-human, it carries a bracing jolt of raw power. Tezuka clearly felt it too. His draftsmanship is as dynamic as ever, but full artistic mayhem is reserved for massive single- and double-page spreads of an ecstatic Ami riding a stampede of skeletal horses over civilians, of floodwaters smashing through a laboratory, of castles exploding, of skinless birds swooping down on screaming crowds. It’s a thrilling, and frightening, depiction of the forces young people and marginalized people, pushed down for far too long, unleash when they finally begin to rise.
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his most recent novel is Horrorstör, about a haunted Ikea, while My Best Friend’s Exorcism (which is like Beaches meets The Exorcist) will be out from Quirk Books on May 17th.