So here's the thing. Tezuka's BARBARA is by far one of the manga legend's most bizarre, surreal, evocative, and subjective works ever published. The title is an at times chaotic swirling of social ills -- characters dally in the black arts, drugs and alcohol enable the common man, artists thrive on just being adequate, and politicians (and their daughters) only have eyes for the camera. BARBARA may focus its narrative on one Yousuke Mikura and the "drunken, foul-smelling hippie chick" named Barbara, but the greater scope of this manga story encompasses what it means to suffer as an artist, how/why this suffering manifests itself in self-destructive ways, and whether it is ever possible (necessary?) to alleviate this suffering at all.
Mikura is a brilliant novelist, but he is a man of many vices: substance abuse and debauchery chief among them. Whenever the man is in a rut (or, interestingly enough, whenever he convinces himself that his works-in-progress just don't fly), he descends into a surreal madness whereby sex and violence dutifully ameliorate his creative "block." Barbara is an unknown. She drinks constantly, never bathes, speaks and behaves with a masculine capriciousness (here, the cultural context is important), and yet.... she can quote French poetry from memory, can recognize almost any work of fine art or literary art of centuries past, and is more honest with herself, sitting beneath a dirty pillar in the Shinjuku train station than the thousands of drones middling about her put together.
Why do the lives of these characters intersect? That's difficult to say. Tezuka doesn't often give us the "why," but merely contrives believable circumstances in which the characters must discern if said intersection is worth pursuing, worth building into something meaningful. Barbara is a beautiful and artistic woman. She is also Mikura's sheath and his muse, protecting him from himself, bringing him back from the cliff and preventing the man from losing his sanity when he should be focused on his writing. Mikura, meanwhile, becomes a little too dependent on Barbara, and forces himself to investigate her dark and mysterious past, ultimately trying to break away the identity of the woman he knows now from the identity of the woman he fears he doesn't know. Does Barbara want that clean break? Does Mikura himself need a clean break? Do either of them deserve it?
BARBARA is a product of its time, as illustrated in the excellent forward by manga scholar Fred Schodt. This means that the comic's various elements of racism, sexism, weighty domestic violence, ethnocentrism, and more are exactly what they are -- debilitating social ills, sometimes celebrated, sometimes held as suspect. Nowadays, we presume the reader is adult and mature enough to understand this.
All in all, BARBARA provides an exquisite look inside the mind of a man (Mikura) who is slowly going insane, knows it, and is trying his utmost to fight back, if only to be lulled back into his sins one chapter after another. This is a must-read for Tezuka enthusiasts. This is also a must-read for artists and creative types, who have any affinity for manga whatsoever. Many chapters of BARBARA dissect the heart of the artist/creator with such guiltless precision, you're moved to tears. Other times, Mikura will disgust you, and you'll have no remorse for the sorrow he causes for himself and others.
On the production end, it's unknown of Digital Manga will pursue another printing or two for this project, given its origin as a crowd-funded endeavor. But hopefully this book will get into more hands sooner rather than later. There are a few pages toward the end that I'm pretty sure were oriented incorrectly (i.e., reading left-to-right, instead of right-to-left), but three or four out of 440 isn't a deal breaker in my experience.