Review by Frank Plowright
It’s difficult to name another comic creator to stand alongside Osamu Tezuka when it comes to work over such a broad variety of genres. Possibly Jack Kirby, although that’s a shaky proposition. The difference is that Kirby constantly looked to the stars, and was limited by an industry that demanded the fantastic. If Tezuka wanted to write about a company owner who spends his weekends begging on a bridge and the strange romance that develops from it, there was a place for him to do it.
The fourteen stories collected in Under the Air were produced between 1968 and 1970, with their sophistication the only connection between material swerving all over the place. There’s a Western, a couple of unusual crime stories opening the selection, a tragic supernatural piece, psychological horror, a bizarre SF love story and much more. At the heart of each is a person facing a decision or a crisis. Should Steve confront Yeller McCloud, the sureshot who killed his father twenty years previously? What would a racist do on learning his heart donor was black? Should Tezuka himself turn a blind eye to his mate’s perverted habits?
Incest, unrequited love, redemption and events like plummeting from a great height feature, and although the sequencing is clever, that it’s arranged to highlight themes does Tezuka a disservice. The sequencing suggests repeatedly falling back on the same devices, whereas the reverse is true. He’s prodigiously imaginative, and it’s a rare story where the reader will predict the outcome, even in cases where Tezuka uses technology that was new at the time, but is now commonplace. Even discounting the variety of genres into which Tezuka drops these stories, his approach differs from story to story. Some are more whimsical, with asides to readers, and others are starkly atmospheric.
An early story about an escaped convict exemplifies Tezuka’s skill at establishing a mood, an immense effort put into introducing the location and its unique conditions. The sample page is essentially comic exaggeration, yet that story later takes a switch into some dark areas. Tezuka will draw an incredibly realistic, office block, helicopter or boat, but his own goofy caricature is also seen in a couple of stories, one of those featuring some remarkable architecture.
There is an apology for some attitudes being of their time, and it’s needed for contradictory matters like racist caricatures appearing in a story about the stupidity of racism, noting a house not being clean because the wife is ill, and making fun of plain looking women. There’s also a contradiction to Tezuka’s afterword referencing the content as being for young adults, yet most US editors of young adult material would have a different view given the themes, frequent nudity and the shopping in of couple of topless sex pictures.
So, for adults then, but a remarkably diverse collection of unpredictable entertainments produced by a master, and an absolute bargain at the cover price of $15.95.