Astro Boy.


Original Medium: Comic books
Published in: Captain Atom
First appeared: 1951
Creator: Osamu Tezuka
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When we think of Japanese cartoons, both manga and animé, that have stood the test of time in America, Speed Racer, Gigantor and many others come to mind. But the first is probably Astro Boy, who was not only the first Japanese import to reach this side of the …

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… Pacific — he was also among the earliest features in Japan itself to embody the aesthetic we now think of as "animé".

Astro Boy goes back to 1951, when he was created by manga man Osamu Tezuka, who went on to become Japan's premier cartoonist. Tezuka made the character (originally Tetsuwan Atomu, "Mighty Atom", no relation, in English) for the comic book Captain Atom (translated title, and no relation). He went on to appear in several comic books, including his own title.

Astro's first media spin-off was a live-action TV show, broadcast in Japan in 1959 and '60, and the second was a feature-length movie made in 1962 by stringing three episodes of the TV show together. It was in '63 that he made the transition to his most familiar medium, animation. Mushi Productions, who produced the animated version, made it the first Japanese animated show marketed overseas. It was syndicated in America, starting September 7 of that year.

Astro Boy wasn't a boy any more than The Human Torch was human, but a robot. He was made in 2003 (a half-century in the readers' future) by Dr. Tenma, a high-ranking scientific bureaucrat, to replace his son, Tomio, who had been killed in an accident. Of course the boy couldn't be replaced; so rather than keep a constant reminder around the house, Tenma sold him to Ham Egg, a circus owner who treated him about like Stromboli had treated Pinocchio in similar circumstances.

Later, he fell into the hands of Prof. Ochanomizu, successor to Tenma as head of the Ministry of Science, who put him to work as a superhero. The abilities Tenma had built into him were a lot like Superman's — super strength, super hearing, super vision, a super brain and the ability to fly (using rocket thrusters in his feet). But since he was only a robot, the public often treated him the way Marvel Comics' public later treated The X-Men.

It was his American importer, Fred Ladd (The Big World of Little Adam) who gave him the name America knows him by today. He thought invoking the idea that he was an atomic-powered robot was a little flat, so he jazzed it up. He also Americanized the other characters — Tenma became Dr. Boynton and Ochanomizu, who had a big nose, Dr. Elefun. The dead boy became Astor, and he, Astor Boynton, was said to be whom Astro Boy was named after.

In the American version, Astro Boy's voice was done by Billie Lou Watt (Ma Bagge in Courage the Cowardly Dog), who also did Astro Girl (a sister for him, built by Ochanomizu/Elefun). Elefun was played by Ray Owens (The Flash in 1960s DC Comics animation).

The show was made in black & white, a total of 193 episodes. Gold Key adapted it into a comic book. It only lasted one issue (August, 1965), but the publisher did devote an issue of the promotional give-away March of Comics to him that same year.

Astro Boy continued to maintain a presence in American toondom, but it was a low-key one. In 1980, a feature was made, titled Shin Tetsuwan Atomu. which was released in the U.S. as The New Astro Boy. In contrast, Now Comics (Green Hornet, Real Ghostbusters) called its American comic book version The Original Astro Boy. Now published 20 issues, running from September, 1987 through June, 1989.

Disney expressed an interest in making something Astro Boy-like as early as 1964, but nothing came of it. Other studios expressed interest at various times since. On April 18, 2003, he was made into a video game titled Astro Boy Tetsuwan Atomu, with Candi Milo (Nick in Jimmy Neutron) doing Astro's voice. That was accompanied by a TV series of the same name, which started January 1 of the following year. There, too, Milo did Astro's voice.

Freddie Highmore (a face actor) is scheduled to play Astro in a computer-animated version scheduled for 2009.

Since 2002, Dark Horse Comics (Hellboy, Sin City) has been publishing Astro Boy in graphic novel form. But in further contrast to the Now Comics version, which was called "Original" — this one actually is. For the first time ever, Osamu Tezuka's original Astro Boy stories are being adapted for a U.S. audience. Astro's name has been rendered as the one recognized by Americans, but Boynton and Elefun are back to being called what they were in Japan.


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Text ©2008-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Osamu Tezuka estate.