Friday, June 5, 2009

Reprint This! Ambassador Magma

Reprint This! is a periodic feature where I talk about some out-of-print comic book gems that are not available in collected form for readers to enjoy. This is hoping to let rights owners know that, yes, readers are out here, and we'd like to buy the things we can't get at this time!

Despite such an enormous variety of books available these days, and genuine efforts to present the material in reasonably-priced, archival volumes, there are still countless fabulous series from the US, Britain and Japan which are overdue for new editions. I've selected several titles which should be on bookshelves, but at this time are not.

Obviously, the Japanese artist Osamu Tezuka is a big favorite here at Reprint This! headquarters, and the good folks over at Vertical have done a lot in the last year or so to increase his presence on English-language bookshelves, adding his classic series Dororo and Black Jack to their lineup. This is really just scratching the surface of all the wild array of comics he worked on over his forty-year career. One missing gem is AMBASSADOR MAGMA, a terrific comic in which humanity gets caught in the middle of a war between a galactic conqueror and his army of dinosaur-like monsters, and a kindly wizard and his trio of super-powered robots.

Ambassador Magma's central characters were the Murakami family, news reporter Atsushi, his wife Tomoko and his son Mamoru. In the first episode of the comic, the villainous Goa transports their home back to prehistoric Earth in a demonstration of his power, demanding that Murakami tell the world to surrender or be destroyed. Young Mamoru snaps pictures of Goa before he returns them to the present day. As he's developing the photo, a rocket lands outside and transforms into a fifty-foot robot called Magma, who takes Mamoru and the camera to a remote volcano. There, the wizard Earth confirms that his old enemy Goa has returned and enlists the Murakamis as his new allies.

The series is remarkably fun wish-fulfillment for kids, particularly when Earth creates a new "boy robot" called Gam in Mamoru's image as a surrogate son for Magma and his wife Mol. Gam is just about the greatest best friend character in all of comics: a super-powered buddy who can turn into a rocket and take you anywhere, and then beat up legions of evil henchmen with his magma-fueled super strength. In each of Ambassador Magma's first two lengthy comic storylines, the heroes confront alien duplicates along with an array of terrifying giant monsters as Goa crafts new plans for his conquest of our planet.

Ambassador Magma first ran in the monthly magazine Shonen Gaho from May of 1965 until February 1967, by which time a well-remembered live-action TV series was running. After Tezuka concluded his work on the comic, his studio continued it for another six months, along with a companion tie-in feature (six-page illustrated episode recaps, apparently) that ran for a year in the pages of Shonen King. The TV show, known in the US as The Space Giants, is a downright terrific program. It beat the better-known Ultraman to the air by about a week, and made the most of its shoestring budget by telling its stories in four-part serial format so that they wouldn't have to build so many sets and monster costumes. This resulted in stories that have aged very well, with believable characters and downright fascinating imagery. If Ultraman was Japan's Thunderbirds, low on plot but high on spectacle and explosions, then the TV Ambassador Magma was its Doctor Who, where intricate storylines and character development made for a far more rewarding experience. When The Space Giants finally got a decent run in American syndication more than a decade after it finished in Japan, it gained a huge audience of kids who would have sold their younger brothers for some merchandising, but practically nothing was available back then, least of all the original comics.

In fact, the program seems to be caught up in one of those interminable trademark disputes between a company which has no visible intention of making any money from it, other than suing anybody else who tries, and people who've made efforts to obtain a license to make comics with the better-known American name on it. This probably shouldn't impact any potential English-language release of the original comics, which should be called by the original title anyway and not get embroiled in the squabble over trademark, but it's a real shame that the characters have faded from the public view since nobody other than us nostalgists have seen the gang except in passing for better than twenty years.

Many, many moons ago, I did some research into the production of the TV series and my job would have been a lot easier had SciFi Japan been around. There's a terrific guide written by Bob Johnson on their site now which focusses more on the program, but also has some background about the comic and the various configurations of the reprints available in Japan. I'm of the opinion that the whole series could easily be collected into a pair of large-format volumes, and they'd make a great companion to Vertical's Black Jack books. So how about it, guys? Then you could get started on Jungle Emperor and Vampire and Cyborg Big X and Princess Knight and Amazing Three and...

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