Review: Barbara

Written and Illustrated by Osamu Tezuka
Genre: Geikiga/Seinen
Publisher: Digital Manga Publishing
440 pages | $19.99 US
ISBN-13: 978-1569702826

I’m giving away a copy of this book as part of a series of holiday giveaways (check out the details here!)

Barbara has a very unique story as far as manga published in the West. The simple recap is that is it is the first volume of manga to be successfully published using Digital Manga Publishing‘s Kickstarter initiative. This has included 4 seperate Osamu Tezuka titles, with Barbara being the first, and UNICO, Astrocat, and Triton of the Sea being the others. DMP has also used Kickstarter to reprint Tezuka’s Swallowing the Earth.

Barbara is the story of Yosuke Mikura, an up-and-coming writer who, while in the tunnels of the Shinjuku station, finds a drunkard who can recite French poetry. He takes her home, and the rest of the volume are tales of the two together (and apart).

In some ways, Barbara shows the progression of Tezuka’s craft. In this comic, the beginning is rather segmented. The first five chapters might as well be short stories played with the two actors Barbara and Yosuke. Chapter six is where things start to get interesting. An old friend of Yosuke’s, an African writer, reveals to him that Barbara is a Muse who takes a suitable form to inspire artists and writers. Yosuke is originally incredulous, but things become more and more strange – and as the book progresses, the writing improves. Instead of being segmented, the story becomes continuous, and you don’t feel like you can read one or two chapters and set the book down.

While there are definite colors of “The Tales of Hoffmann” here (a muse visits and inspires an artist and has him fall in love with her), I can’t help but feel that Tezuka was also pulled into writing about an ongoing occult craze. The beginning of the book is much more classically oriented, and as it progresses, we see voodoo dolls and sacred witchcraft ceremonies. The two halves are disjointed. This doesn’t make it bad – the last section of the book is a real page-turner. But people looking for a straightforward story are likely to be disappointed.

This manga certainly falls in line with some of Tezuka’s crazier work (Swallowing the Earth being the prime example here) but isn’t quite as unrestrained, and while it is heavy handed with its discussion of art, the spirit of production, etc. it doesn’t seem to push the themes of moral decay and humanity the way that some of his other adult works have (Ayako, MW, Ode to Kirihito). Yosuke is presented as a sexual deviant in the first chapters of the book, and that theme of deviance could have been critiqued or used as theme in a fuller way, but it seems to have been abandoned for voodoo dolls and a black mass.

Overall, Barbara is fascinating and bizarre. While it isn’t as structurally sound or thematically deep as some of his other adult works, it certainly stands up as a piece of fiction. Tezuka lovers will find this an indispensable part of their collection, and casual readers can find a lot to love, provided you are ready for the crazy.

For Fans Of: Swallowing the Earth, Osamu Tezuka, The Venus of Willendorf
Final Verdict: Recommended

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