Thursday, June 28, 2012

UPDATED: The Neverending Fray: Groo vs. religious intolerance

Groo the Wanderer #9
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1985

Groo teams up with the Sage in this issue, and even manages to get one over on him, sort of. It's a goofy little story parodying nonsensical religious beliefs (along with the easily-fomented conflicts they can lead to), in which the dumb/wise pair are looking for food, but are stymied when one village won't let them eat their sacred apples, and the next won't allow butchering of their sacred pigs. Sage stops Groo from just taking what he wants, but outlines (in theoretical terms, which he should know better to use with Groo) a way to get both pigs and apples by setting the two villages against each other and reaping the spoils of the religious war. Groo decides to follow this plan, of course, leading to one of the more chaotically violent moments of the series so far, as the starving villages unleash their wrath against each other:

Ha ha, people slaughtering each other over their beliefs is hilarious! Everybody gets their comeuppance though, when it turns out that the beliefs were rooted in ancestral taboos which were there for a reason, that both the pigs and apples were poisonous (?), causing the people who ate them to get deathly sick. That includes the Sage himself, who is telling this story to some people over dinner, eating food which was purchased from Groo. I don't normally like to "spoil" the punchlines of these comics, but the last panel is pretty hilarious, with Sergio throwing in lots of comedy based on physical torment, including one guy who apparently about to experience explosive diarrhea:

That's just one example of the excellent comedy in this issue, which sees the creative team really settling into a groove, grasping Groo's character and how he interacts with those around him. There's a great example of this early on, when Sage saves Groo from a battle (one that he doesn't want to be saved from, saying "Can you not see I am enjoying myself?"):

I always like the "everybody repeats the same response to a statement" gag, and the huge cloud of dust as everyone (including the Sage's dog and Groo) flees is pretty great too. There's also a great exchange on the next page that uses Groo's stupid logic really well:

There's also a nice moment in which Groo forgets the details of his plan halfway through:

I love the faces he makes when he is trying to remember something, or figure out a "difficult" concept. And I always love scenes of him fighting, like this bit of the title page, in which his foot is sinking into a guy's chest and he's cutting the top of another guy's helmet off:

Yes, this might be the moment in which Groo's characterization fully settled into its "correct" form. Of course, he's still doing his wanderings alone at this point (with associates occasionally popping in for an issue or so), but that won't be rectified for another twenty issues.

One other thing worth commenting on is the variable level of anthropomorphism that shows up in this series. Animals can vary from unthinking beasts, to ones with expressions reacting to the goings-on around them, to using thought balloons to comment on the action, and in this issue, the "sacred" pigs even converse with each other and make gestures:

It's an odd conceit, and an interesting bit of flavor for the series. The most obvious use of this trope will occur when Rufferto joins Groo on his travels, since he regularly "talks" via thought balloons, but it's already firmly in place here, and it's interesting to see how it is used to add extra jokes to the background of scenes. There's always more stuff to notice in Sergio Aragones comics, isn't there?

Next: Skipping ahead to issue #11, we've got the return of the Minstrel, along with Arcadio (in his first appearance?), in "A Hero's Task".

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: The Sage
Hidden message(s): I still didn't find one. I don't seem to be very good at this. As revealed in issue #21, this one is ridiculous. On the ninth page of the story, taking the first letter of every word of dialogue reveals the message, "This is the hidden message. Mark and Sharman went to see "Noises Off" at the Music Center and ate at the Pacific Dining Car." I guess he never expected anyone to find this one, since it's just some random detail that Mark threw in about his life. I like the eventual format that the hidden messages settled on better.
Moral: None.
Spanish words: The villages of Marchuquera and Beniopa are named after locations in Spain.
Running jokes: Cheese dip, mendicant
Mark Evanier's job(s): Depurator (meaning: one who cleanses or purifies)
Letter column jokes: Even in this early issue, the tone of the letter column has become established. On just one page, Mark defines "mulch" three times (a joke which must have begun in one of the issues I missed, but which will persist for years to come), answers two letters composed of numbered lists of questions or requests (including one which says they should put Groo in Secret Wars II), refers to one letter in the answers to others, and plugs Cassell's Hamburgers (since Canter's Deli wouldn't give them a free meal). There's also a letter which not only jokes about not knowing what Mark does but also not knowing who he is.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

UPDATED! The Neverending Fray: Groo vs. the exploitation of resources

Groo the Wanderer #7
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1985

The Sage gets billing on the cover of this issue, but he is actually relegated to a backup story, like in the Pacific issues, so maybe that secondary feature is what is really being reintroduced. The main story here hints at some sort of commentary, with Groo falling in with some ivory poachers, then being directed toward more noble goals, and trying and failing to find an ethical way to profit. It's a bit scattered, with a kind of weak (but well illustrated) punchline, some character shortcuts like Groo being too easily swayed by a mid-fray argument (he also uses the word "rapscallion", which seems too long for his vocabulary, and he calls a guy a mendicant, which is a term usually directed at him), and the unsatisfying resolution of the bad guys just getting away and Groo just wandering off and into a search for an elephant graveyard, a second plot smooshed into the first one to pad out the story. I'm not sure if there's an environmental message, aside from "poaching is bad", but the story does seem to tend in the direction of the series' still-developing social commentary. At least there are some good jokes, like this silly elephant gag (I like the way the guy's dog laughs along with him):

Or this classic back-and-forth argument:

And I really like the way Sergio depicts this dying elephant, who, in his throes of sickness, has developed the ability to stand upright, the better to do a Redd Foxx impression:

The Sage backup is one of his usual stories, where he is pressed into service by a monarch and uses his smarts to get out of it. I do like the way this establishes him as more than just a standard wandering wise man; when he is mistaken for a doctor and brought to the palace, he decides to go along with the ruse so he can see what he can get out of it. That sort of characterization gives him a nice edge (as does his gruesome solution to the problem of "healing" the sick king), and it sets him off against Groo nicely as a wanderer with intelligence who seeks to avoid conflict. He probably provides less opportunity for humor, which is why his stories are short, but there's still plenty of good Sergio art, as in this panel, when Sage's dog helps him usher some officious royal doctors out of the king's room:

Gotta love those details; there's no end to personality in a Sergio comic.

Next: Skipping ahead to issue #9, "Pigs and Apples"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: The Sage, of course.
Hidden message(s): I didn't find any, so hopefully a helpful soul will stop by to point out what I missed.
As instructed in issue #21, taking the first letter of every bolded word in the word or thought balloons reveals the message, "Congratulations! You have found the hidden message for this issue. There is no message in the Sage story. Say, why not try an issue of The DNAgents or Crossfire? On sale everywhere!" Mark Evanier took every chance for a plug he could get.
Moral: "No one profits at the death of another (except for the mortician)."
Spanish words: None
Running jokes: "Did I err?", cheese dip, mendicant, Groo sinking boats
Mark Evanier's job(s): Transliterator, Utterer
Letter column jokes: Some of the letter writers are attempting to add to the book's humor by this point, but the really good stuff is still ahead. Mark does get in a joke about nobody knowing what he does, as well as a reference to him not getting paid, which is another regular gag. Interestingly, one of the letters mentions a letter from the fourth issue which called the series "stupid and silly", but said "I have to buy it because it's a Marvel." I always thought that story was apocryphal, a gag about "Marvel zombies" buying every Marvel comic whether they liked it or not, and a running joke in which people claimed they couldn't stop themselves from buying Groo, but apparently there was at least one letter which stated this. How about that.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Neverending Fray: The social commentary is still developing

Groo the Wanderer #5
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1985

This issue tackles a big issue of a sort, that being slavery. As dumb as Groo is, he still has a moral code, as we find out when he witnesses a slave auction and calls it inhuman (he also says it is not his concern, so he's apparently willing to comment on evil, but not fight to correct it until he is forced to). He still gets caught up in the slave trade though, accepting a job offer on a ship that is "engaged in relocation of human resources for the betterment of his majesty's agricultural concerns." But once he finds out what he is a part of, he starts to struggle with the ethical implications:

That's a pretty striking moment for Groo, who is usually only concerned with fighting and eating, and possibly earning rewards for his acts of bravery. But here he gets a bit of an emotional shake-up, which facilitates an ironic turn when the freed slaves turn out to be involved in the slave trade themselves. Man's inhumanity knows no bounds, but that's all right, since it means Groo can just kill everyone for trying to take advantage of him:

The issue is a bit of an odd one, with a little less humor than usual, what with the serious subject matter, and stretching on a few extra pages after the big "Groo slaughters everyone" scene to provide an ironic comeuppance for the slavers and one last joke about Groo sinking ships. The creative team seems like they're still figuring out the rhythms of the stories, determining what sort of things do and don't work on the fly; it's pretty interesting to see. And we always get fun scenes like this killing of a bunch of soldiers in a row:

And I like this fight that Groo has with a tribal totem:

And this sequence is pretty hilarious; just look at those shredded clothes!:

Next: I don't have issue #6, so next up is the return of the Sage in #7.

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: None. Since ships are involved, I expected Captain Ahax to show up, but I guess he hasn't been introduced yet. I wonder when his first appearance is?
Hidden message(s): Aw nuts, even though they're supposed to be showing up by this point, I didn't find any. Found it, thanks to prompting from commenter Brian Smith: as can be seen in the image above, the sound effects form an acrostic, with the first letter of each word spelling out "Tom Luth", the series' colorist. I haven't gone back to look at the issue, but I expect other sound effects throughout form the names of the other members of the creative team. I should've been looking for this, given last issue's basis for the hidden message, but I think I missed it because I've trained myself throughout the years of reading Groo comics to look for variations on "this is the hidden message" written somewhere in the margins of panels. I obviously need to broaden my scope of search.
Moral: "Freedom is not an individual effort. Yours comes only when you grant others theirs."
Spanish words: None, although the character name Macotela sounds Spanish (but isn't, as far as I can tell).
Running jokes: Groo is offered all the cheese dip he can eat to work on the ship, and his tendency to sink ships is mentioned, and even though it has barely been established, already gets upended. Also, this isn't a joke, but it's the first issue in which I've noticed the little skull on Groo's belt:

Mark Evanier's job(s): Dialogist
Letter column jokes: The style of the letter column seems to still be forming as of this issue, simply printing a bunch of complimentary letters with a note from Mark at the end, although one person seems to have picked up the joke of not knowing what Mark does on the comic. The letters all talk about the first issue, so maybe I didn't miss anything by not having any of the first four actual issues. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Neverending Fray: And so the mulching begins

Groo the Wanderer #4
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1985

This issue is a bit lighter on the social commentary than the last one, although it does have a bit of a message about the treatment of women in society, which is a nice turnaround from the rape joke of the first issue. Groo stumbles across a village whose women are being abducted (via airship, which is a nice fantasy touch) and ends up traveling across the land, "training" the men of the villages to function as a rescue force, but eventually making a solitary assault on a mountaintop castle where it turns out handsome, toga-wearing men have brought the women to live lives of luxury and relaxation. Groo, of course, "rescues" them anyway, incurring their wrath when they are brought back to their families, who expect them to do all the work of farming, child-raising, housekeeping, etc. It's pretty amusing, but the story itself is kind of scattered, never exploring why the women are being kidnapped (is it a movement of women's liberation? Are they being placed in a harem for a different sort of exploitation? We never find out), and splitting its focus between repeated gags about the men being helpless without their wives, Groo's Seven Samurai-esque training consisting entirely of him beating everyone up, and Groo trying to chase down the airship, then spending most of the time in the castle on a joke in which some guards come up with an elaborate escape plan that they don't think anyone could actually pull off, only to see Groo charge in and follow their instructions to the letter (which seems to be a bit of a complex task for him, but we're still early on in the series). It's all amusing enough, but it's one of the rare Groo stories which prompts speculation as to what might have been done to make it better.

There's plenty to enjoy though, including the repeated gag of lots of word balloons filling panels as more and more characters chime in when hectoring Groo:

And lots of good visual details, including (on just this one page) all the bandages that Groo's trainees sport, the disarray that piles up without the women to do all the work, and more of Groo's awful table manners:

And there's some great slapstick humor when Groo chases the airship, with this gravity/orientation gag being my favorite:

There's always something to savor in a Groo comic, even when the story is less than perfect. I'll take it.

Next: "Slavers"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: None
Hidden message(s): Ah, here's where the trend started! The first letters of the captions in the opening panels of the issue spell out "GROO":

And the "message" continues throughout the issue to complete the title of the book. Now I'll really have to be watching for these.
Moral: "Remember that what is good for the goose may not be good for the gender." Wordplay!
Spanish words: None
Running jokes: Here's where the big one starts, in the scene in which the men are complaining about not having their wives around to do all the work, with a word balloon from off-panel saying "Who will mulch?" And thus begins the longest-running of the series' gags, one that was beaten into the ground from the start, even repeated over and over in this very issue. Somebody mentions mulch at every opportunity, including on the last page, with "Mulch Groo!" being one of the myriad threats shouted by the teeming mass of women chasing our "hero" off the page. This is one of those gags that could seem tiresome, but just gets funnier and funnier through sheer repetition, and it's one that the series continues to milk even through its current appearances. We'll have to see how it affects Conan the Barbarian in the upcoming Groo vs. Conan series...
Mark Evanier's job(s): Synoptist
Letter column jokes: In the afterword of The Groo Adventurer, Mark Evanier laments making mulch a running joke, noting that the Groo team didn't learn from the results of their cheese dip joke, which led to people constantly giving or sending them cheese dip. Given this precedent, he obviously didn't consider the possibilities of making a gag out of mulch, and sure enough, readers started sending them baggies of fertilizer. Joke's on them, ha ha. That doesn't stop him from employing his oft-used definition, which would appear in dozens of future issues of Groo: "Mulching is a process of inbred fertilization which employs certain decomposed organic materials--including, but not limited to animal sediment--to blanket an area in which vegetation is desired. The procedure enriches the soil for stimulated plant development while, at the same time, preventing erosion and decreasing the evaporation of moisture from the ground." (Please note: a certain somebody has ensured that this definition is the one used on Wikipedia). Evanier claims that they quit making mulch jokes, but that obviously didn't stick, since they're still doing them. Which is for the better; nonsensical, insular gags are the best ones, at least for nerds.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Neverending Fray: The social commentary has begun

Groo the Wanderer #3
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1985

This issue is an early example of the series' social commentary, although it's more about basic human nature than any sort of modern issue. That aspect of humanity here is tribalism, the tendency of people to cluster in groups and build up antipathy for other groups, for whatever reason. Through his general cluelessness, Groo stumbles into one of these conflicts, between two societies or tribes, and bounces back and forth between them, always managing to ally himself with the wrong group at the wrong time, before setting off a long-simmering war and causing the usual death and destruction. It's a great example of the creative team's ability to set up a situation and wring out every possible comedic eventuality. First Groo wears a medallion identifying him with one side, incurring the wrath of the other when he wanders into their village, then he discards it just in time to happen across the border into the medallion-wearers' land, then, after recovering the medallion, returns to the outpost only to discover that it has been conquered by the medallion-free. Each new situation is another chance for frustration, and it highlights the basic absurdity of the whole conflict, the way the arbitrary membership in one group or another brings blind acceptance or hatred for no real reason.

And in the big finale, Groo wanders into a town which has been living under a peaceful truce between the societies for fifty years, and manages to set off the powder keg of smoldering hatred through a typical ignorant blunder, leading to one of the most chaotic scenes the series has seen yet:

Usually these scenes are filled with violence either caused by Groo or directed toward him, but here he's left standing confused while it all happens behind him, and it's a marvel of crazy detail, with people throwing each other through windows, tearing hair out, using chairs and tables as weapons, punching each other in the face, throttling one another, just going nuts in an orgy of mindless anger. It's beautiful.

While we're on the subject of details, I like the opening panel of the issue, which throws in a quick joke at Groo's expense:

The caption describes the people's suffering, but it's all there in the image, and I especially like the guy working with a broken leg and the dog helping to hold up the wagon. And poor Groo just wants to help, but he can't even approach them without getting yelled at contemptuously by the sorriest of poor bastards. He's definitely the lowest of the low.

Finally, this issue is also notable for being one of the first ones (or maybe the first one altogether) to end with a moral, which would become a regular series tradition. I like this one a lot: "No matter who you may be, there is always someone who is a little worse because he thinks he is a little better." The series might not have needed its messages spelled out so explicitly, but it makes for a great way to cap off an issue.

Next: "World Without Women!"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: None
Hidden message(s): Still none...
Spanish words: The warring tribes are called the Hetitas and the Melenitas, which, according to Google, mean "Hittites" and "little manes", respectively. Those don't seem to have any significance, but I like to see what random Spanish words are used, so I'm going to start tracking those too.
Running jokes: None, really, unless you count some of Groo's phrases, like "Groo does what Groo does best!" or "Remember! When Groo deals with you, you have been dealt with!" Those are more examples of Groo's verbal cadences than jokes though.
Mark Evanier's job(s): Explanator
Letter column jokes: Mark Evanier's prologue in The Groo Adventurer says that "there is absolutely nothing of interest" to say about this issue.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Pamphleteering: Mind control, mad science, and monsters, oh my

Mind MGMT #1
By Matt Kindt
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Matt Kindt has a talent for weaving fascinating, complex stories and giving them a hook that grabs the reader right away, even if they're still getting an idea of what exactly is going on. At the end of this issue, that's where I am, not sure of the complete stakes or scope of the story here, but impressed by the ideas and very interested to see what Kindt has in store. This issue has violence, weird dreams, a decades-spanning history of some sort of secret mind control agency, an ongoing plot that's causing random amnesia, and supernatural bad guys chasing the protagonists across the globe. Kindt comes up with a full package here, including strips that detail backstory on the inside covers, secret codes hidden throughout the issue (or so he claims; I'm too dumb to figure any of them out), and fake ads on the back cover. It's exciting work, kind of a last gasp of the dying single-issue comics format, and given Kindt's past work (especially the excellent Super Spy), I'm highly anticipating what's coming up in the future. I hope he hasn't mind controlled me to say that...

The Manhattan Projects #3
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Nick Pitarra
Published by Image Comics

High concept stories can get tiresome pretty quickly, especially when there's little to them beyond whatever elements are combined in the title. Why bother with something like Cowboys vs. Aliens or Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (or any of the "it's like this one thing you like, with another thing added!" concepts currently littering pop culture), when whatever imagery the jammed-together concepts bring to mind are likely to be as entertaining as the actual result. Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra's The Manhattan Projects seems like it might suffer from such conceptual wankery ("It's the scientists who created the atomic bomb, but they're, like, mad scientists!"), but there's more going on than just fooling around with recognizable characters and concepts; instead, Hickman is weaving a fascinatingly insane alternate history, in which the Bomb is just one of the products of the science-based and supernatural research the great minds are developing, and the members of the team themselves are all somewhat nuts. Robert Oppenheimer, having been replaced by his murderous, schizophrenic twin, is a standout, but the aloof, smarter-than-thou Richard Feynman is good too, as is the bizarrely-transformed Harry Daghlian, and the treatment of Albert Einstein as a somewhat dangerous shut-in who sits in sealed quarters contemplating an (alien?) artifact in between dispensing cryptic bits of wisdom is one that should be fun to see explored.

Hickman keeps a definite sense of humor about all the weirdness going on, and he throws in at least one good setpiece per issue, with this third installment seeing a crazy Masonic ritual involving Harry Truman and some high-tech shenanigans based around FDR's corpse, along with a finale that delivers on the expectations of the title. Nick Pitarra, who recently worked with Hickman on the time-travel comic The Red Wing, is a great choice for the art, bringing a detailed, Geof Darrow-esque sensibility while including plenty of expression to the characters' faces and coming up with some truly memorable images.

Hickman is obviously having lots of fun here, playing around with recognizable figures and events and adding all sorts of fantastical wackiness on top of them, creating a wonderfully strange world that could stand to be explored for a long time to come, and allowing for decades worth of stories and ideas. I expect it will be tons of fun to see how it plays out.

The Secret History of D.B. Cooper #3
By Brian Churilla
Published by Oni Press

Is this another high-concept story? Probably not, unless that concept is "famous hijacker meets psychic warfare". It's more of an expansion on a notorious unsolved mystery, filling in a possible history of a character who is known for disappearing without a trace. Amusingly, that history involves work for the CIA as an assassin who kills by entering an astral plane and battling monsters while accompanied by a talking teddy bear. Hey, why not? If nothing else, that setup provides Brian Churilla a multitude of opportunities to depict all sorts of weird beasties like a huge flying worm, a giant flayed creature with an eyeball protruding from its gaping maw, and an obese, ponderous-breasted figure that moves via inverted locomotion. That monster design is the definite highlight of the series, making it worth reading just to see what sort of crazy shit Churilla will come up with next. The Commie-fighting intrigue is a bonus, and given that we have at least a good idea where it's all going, watching the way Churilla gets there will be quite enjoyable, methinks.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

UPDATED: The Neverending Fray: Groo vs. an imaginary beastie

Groo the Wanderer #2
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1985

This issue picks up where the last one left off, with Groo about to kill the Minstrel for insulting him. But the troubador (a word which Groo uses, which seems like a few too many syllables for him) convinces the Wanderer to let him tag along and sing his praises, which immediately gets them thrown in jail after they wander merrily through a royal funeral procession. This somehow gets them sent on a quest to slay a dragon called the Mocosa (which is Spanish for "punk" or "delinquent", making for one of the first times the series used Sergio's native language to comment on the story), but end up finding something unexpected and causing the expected disaster.

It's a funny story, with lots of the expected details, the foremost of which is the depiction of the villain, who Sergio patterned after his MAD compatriot Al Jaffee, down to the way his name is spelled out in the curls of his hair:

Also notable: the continued decrease in violence, or at least the goriness that comes with it. This isn't a detriment though; Sergio uses this as an excuse for more physical comedy, as when Groo grabs this guy by the lower jaw:

And Mark gets to include plenty of verbal comedy in the Minstrel's rhymes, especially in this bit, which has one of those classic interruptions just before a swear word is about to be uttered:

The comic seems to be settling into its rhythms at this point, with the smaller particularities of Groo's character and his world being established. We'll see how much of that setup is fully in place by the end of the four issues contained in the collection that I have. As expected, I'm highly enjoying this look back. More to come!

Next: "The Medallion"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Minstrel
Hidden message(s): Still none? Am I ever going to find any?
Running jokes: Cheese dip, "Did I Err?", one of the first appearances of Groo's terrible table manners. There's also a page-long bit in which Groo tries to make a decision, a joke which would be refined and made funnier in later issues:

Mark Evanier's job(s): Cryptanalyst
Letter column jokes: Since I don't have the actual issue, I don't know, but in the intro to The Groo Adventurer, Mark contributes this pretty good joke: "By the way: If you folks should ever happen to meet Al Jaffee, try folding the right side of his body over this left side. Makes him look like a totally different person.) UPDATE: In the issue itself, the letter column page corrects some of the last issue's facts about Sergio, including another mention of Canter's Delicatessen (since Mark is hoping to get free food). This also lets Mark make another joke about what Sergio looks like with his moustache shaved off, and he later asks people not to send in cheese dip samples or request sketches. A letter writer makes a comment about what Mark does, and another one defines "mendicant".

Thanks to reader Nicholas Doyle for sending me this issue, simply out of the kindness of his heart.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Princess Knight: Not the most feminist girls' comic, but still a lot of fun

Princess Knight, volume 1-2
By Osamu Tezuka
Published by Vertical

This series ended up being a bit different from what I was expecting, which was a Robin Hood-esque tale of the central character posing as a man and fighting evil while hiding as a princess. Instead, it's one of the most freewheeling, anything-can-happen comics I've read from manga master Osamu Tezuka (which is saying something), with a plot that starts from the silly supernatural contrivance of a princess being born with the heart of both a boy and a girl due to a mixup in heaven, and then proceeding from there in any direction that struck Tezuka's fancy. First, Sapphire poses as a prince so she can eventually take the throne (the laws of her kingdom only allow for male rulers), but is exposed and sent to prison early on, then escapes, falls in love with Prince Franz Charming from the neighboring kingdom, and has a crazy series of adventures that involve witches, magic, pirates, demons, swordfights, amnesia, treason, multiple assassination attempts, constant cross-dressing and warping of gender identification, people being turned to stone, gods and goddesses, and a literal battle of the sexes. It's totally nuts, with the reader never knowing where it will go next, but always entertained by Tezuka's cartoony energy and his mixture of goofy humor and poignant drama.

This series, which originally came out in 1953, is known as the starting point for manga for girls, but while it has a great female lead, it's not exactly a masterwork of feminist progressivism. The problematic elements start with the main character, who is brave and strong not due to her basic nature, but because she was accidentally given a boy's heart. This could have simply been a conceit to get the story started, but there are multiple points in which, through various plot contrivances, the boy heart is taken from her, and she becomes weak and unable to stand up for herself. It's kind of embarrassing, even if it does give Tezuka some chances to play with the ideas he created, like when she loses her girl heart and becomes a rude, brash fellow who spurns any offers of aid, or when her boy heart is given to the imbecilic, childlike puppet ruler who was placed on her throne, transforming him into a brave, honorable ruler. There is a definite push and pull between ideas of feminism (the law forbidding women to sit on the throne is repeatedly called misogynistic) and conformity to gender norms, with the latter even tainting some of the big moments of female empowerment, such as when the women of Sapphire's kingdom band behind her and stand up to the army to protect her from the duke who has taken over the throne and wants to have her executed for treason (it's a long story); unfortunately, this act of rebellion is seen as less of a threat than an inconvenience, since the men will now have to do all the cooking and the laundry. But most troubling is probably Sapphire's inability to solve her own problems; while she is strong and decisive, always taking positive actions to reach her goals, she is regularly reduced to the role of damsel in distress, with others fighting to control her destiny in her stead. It's frustrating, since Tezuka has created such a great character, but then regularly sidelines her to let others fight her battles for her. It's an unfortunate relic of the times in which the series was created, especially since the surroundings are so lively and innovative that it seems ahead of its time.

Luckily, even though the gender-based material is often troublesome, it can mostly be ignored in favor of everything else. The plot is incredibly enjoyable, never sitting still in one setting or conflict for long, but constantly rushing on to the next idea, whether it's a witch named Madame Hell scheming to steal Sapphire's girl heart in order to turn her obnoxious daughter into a lady worthy of marrying Prince Franz, a pirate captain aiding Sapphire and falling in love with her, Prince Franz being in love with Sapphire's alter ego "the flaxen-haired maiden" and considering Sapphire an enemy due to various misunderstandings, Sapphire being turned into a swan that Prince Franz still finds strangely familiar, or any number of other ridiculous twists, none of which seem out of place, since Tezuka establishes early on that anything can happen, and probably will. This unpredictability extends to the tone of the book itself, which can swerve unexpectedly from exciting action to slapstick humor to touching drama, leaving the reader believing that Sapphire will end up all right in the end, but ready to accept any new dangerous attacks or wacky situations that get thrown at her.

The wild, kinetic energy of Tezuka's art is already on display here, even in this earlier work (although it was apparently reworked and re-serialized in 1963, so this edition reflects some updates to his style since the original publication), with art full of cute, cartoony animals, rushing speed lines, dramatic angles, and nifty costume design. One definite treat is his depiction of swordfights, in which the blades move so fast that we see multiple images at once:

There are also some gorgeous fairy tale settings like castles, forests, and cottages, many of them filled with all manner of magical mayhem:

The various fantasy creatures are pretty great too, like this dragon (which seems to be a notable example of Tezuka's Disney influence):

Or the crazy collection of ghouls that attend a supernatural wedding:

It's also interesting to see some of the early shojo manga motifs being introduced, like the saucer eyes of Sapphire and some of the other female characters, or the flowers that occasionally fill the backgrounds or form the borders of panels:

It's a lovely comic, and while it's a bit too of its time to be an unimpeachable classic, it's still a wonderful read, full of adventure, romance, comedy, excellent art, weird Tezuka flourishes, and complete and utter unpredictability that keeps one turning pages up until the end, never sure what is in store for the Princess, but always ready to find out along with her. Nobody could make comics like Tezuka, but he broke enough ground and inspired enough people that we're all richer for the fact that so many keep trying to meet the standard that he set.

Hyoutan-Tsugi watch:

I didn't spot the little bugger for much of the first volume, which made me wonder if he was more of a later tic of Tezuka's, but he started showing up pretty regularly in the back half of the series, whether as a guest at the demon wedding (hiding behind the king's cape):

A visualization of insulting dialogue:

A pirate ship figurehead:

Or just chilling with some animals:

Other Tezuka characters make cameos here and there, like Mr. Mustachio:

Dr. Ochanomizu and Inspector Tawashi:

This weird little guy (his name is Spider, according to Wikipedia, and his catchphrase is "At yer service!"):

And even Tezuka himself (in the upper left corner of this panel), also attending the evil wedding: