By Osamu Tezuka. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine Big Comic. Released in North America by Digital Manga Publishing.
This is one of those mature Tezuka titles that a lot of fans had been waiting to hear about. So much so that when DMP decided to start a Kickstarter project to get enough money to license it, it was an obvious choice. And I must admit, it does seem like the sort of manga you’d like to verify you have enough money to cover costs before you publish. Unpleasant, flighty, and just plain annoying at times, Barbara is fittingly very much like its main character, a muse who is various things to various people, and ends up being an alcoholic hipster when she’s inspiring our “hero”, the writer Yosuke Mikura.
You’ll note I put the word hero in quotes. Even using the term protagonist seems wrong for Mikura, who does not really inspire much sympathy throughout this book. Right off the bat we get two chapters which show him not only abusing Barbara (he beats the crap out of her the entire book) but also has serious psychological problems, leading to hallucinations. It requires a certain amount of sang-froid to trust that Tezuka will lead you through this and tell a satisfactory story, especially as the first half of Barbara seems to be composed of mostly disconnected life scenes with Mikura and his drunken companion.
Things pick up considerably when we are introduced to Russalka, an African writer and political activist who comes to Japan for a conference. It turns out he has a past with Barbara, and was not particularly happy to see her go. This is when Mikura gets the full explanation of what Barbara is, which he stubbornly doesn’t really understand at all – at least not consciously. But they don’t really have a relationship, just occasional inspiration – as muses are to writers most of the time. When he decides to marry Barbara at one point, most readers will be groaning and going “You idiot!”. If they weren’t already.
Mikura continues to spiral downward, committing murder multiple times (even if it’s sometimes only implied) and his marriage to another woman who is genuinely real seems to only make things worse for both of then. The last third of Barbara reads like an elegiac car crash, as you watch a man who was already deeply disturbed when the book began go off the deep end. In fact, that may be a fault with the book – Mikura was *so* creepy and deluded right from the start, there’s very little surprise or sympathy in seeing him get run off the rails like that. It’s less of a tragedy and more of a “well, that’s just life.” Which, given this is the early 1970s, may have been what Tezuka was going for anyway.
The artwork is excellent, with many striking scenes. He’s especially good at depicting Mikura’s hallucinations. At one point Mikura meets a woman who looks like Barbara but insists she’s a real woman named Dolmen, and Tezuka actually manages to have her look slightly different. Sometimes the art is a bit sexualized (there is much focus on Barbara’s rear end), but that’s what you’d expect from a book about a seductive muse. And the scenes in the end in the sewers and field are fantastic action sequences.
I wouldn’t say I enjoyed Barbara the way, say, I enjoy Ranma or Sailor Moon. It can be an unpleasant experience, and its lead is loathsome much of the time. If you can get past that, however, this is a striking tale well-told, and made me curious to find out more about the Japanese literary scene of the early 1970s. And hoping that if I ever get a muse like Barbara, I don’t end up the same way. But, that’s writing for you. So fickle…