Writer/Artist: Osamu Tezuka
Release Date: November 30, 2013
It really is a shame that PictureBox decided to call it quits right around the same time the art comics publisher issued this second entry in Ryan Holmberg’s Ten-Cent Manga series. Dan Nadel, the fellow in charge, always followed his own path, and his instincts have remained weird and fearless. The books he released were beautiful, even when the content was too out of left field or incomprehensible. This pretty little volume of The Mysterious Underground Men, which almost fits in a pocket and definitely fits nicely in your hand, falls into the same tradition, sporting a clever binding, two different paper colors (one mimicking the original stock), and explanatory bright red endpapers.
Initially published in 1948, The Mysterious Underground Men is a lot of things: a straightforward adventure story, a funny-animal book, a demonstration that manga can incorporate serious drama, and, paradoxically, a fun read. The hero’s name is Young John, and the introductory pages describe him as “a science whiz kid [who] invents a rocket train and conquers the center of the earth after fighting monsters and criminals.” His sidekicks are Uncle Bill and Mimio. The latter is a humanoid rabbit whose creation stands as one of the most interesting and visually-striking sections of the book. Early in the story, Mimio’s animal nature is forced out of him through surgery and electrification, which combine to domesticate and civilize him. The progression is violent, odd, and rather Disneyfied in its execution.
On that note, some consider Tezuka the Walt Disney of Japan for his influence on pop culture there, and the imagination on view here is prodigious. Our heroes fight both a villainous group of men led by a gentleman named Ham-Egg and a legion of termite soldiers commanded by their queen. The termites aim to take back the surface after being forced underground, and their method for retribution is straight-up terrorism, with bombs setting cities afire and toppling skyscrapers. One wonders how this imagery was received at the time, a mere three years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the firebombing of Tokyo and other major cities. Regardless of the intent, it adds a darker edge to what appears to be a children’s book.
The volume has some moments of cheese, but it holds up surprisingly well for being 65 years old. The action is enjoyable, the characters can be corny but are easy to root for, and the genre mixing is still fairly innovative. You can pick up The Mysterious Underground Men for 50% off right now at PictureBox’s store, along with everything else from the publisher, and it would be a shame to overlook this exotic gem of international comic history.