Last of the Mohicans: Ten-Cent Manga Series volume 1

Freely adapted from the novel by James Fenimore Cooper by Shigeru Sugiura, edited & translated by Ryan Holmberg (PictureBox)
ISBN: 978-0-985195-6-6

Those of us in the know tend to believe that Japanese comics began with Osamu Tezuka in the years following the end of World War II – and indeed in most ways that assessment is reasonable.

However, as the superbly informative article bolstering this superb and timely translation attests, there has been a thriving manga business operating in Japan since the 1930s, and one of its greatest proponents was artist and author Shigeru Sugiura.

This superb black and white hardback volume re-presents one of his greatest triumphs as the initial volume in a proposed series of “Ten-Cent Manga” collections translated and edited by Ryan Holmberg which will highlight lost works displaying not simply indigenous Japanese virtuosity but also the influence of cross-cultural contact and pollination with other countries such as America.

In his erudite and lavishly illustrated essay and appreciation ‘Shigeru Sugiura and his Mohicans’ Holmberg describes in fascinating and forensic detail the origins of the project, the state of play in Japan pre-and-post WWII and the absorbing life and career of an artist who began as a jobbing strip cartoonist yet elevated himself to the status of Psychedelic, Surrealist Pop Art icon – one utterly addicted to American movies and comicbooks.

The treatise is fully supported by documentary excerpts from the 1950s magazines and strips Sugiura scrupulously homaged and swiped from: Jesse Marsh’s Tarzan, Alex Toth’s Johnny Thunder, and particularly Fred Ray’s Tomahawk being the most common amongst a wealth of graphic treasures synthesised and transformed into something fresh, vibrant and, most crucially, relevant to the entertainment-starved kids of occupied Japan.

Also included is an article by the artist himself, written in 1988 and describing his life-long passion for and debt of influence to American cinema – most especially ‘Silent Movies’

However, although scholarly and revelatory, the text portions of this delightful tome pale beside the sheer exuberant energy and B-movie bravura of James Fenimore Cooper’s text…

Shigeru Sugiura (1908-2000) studied painting before becoming an art assistant to comics pioneer Suihō Tagawa. By 1933 he was creating his own strips for the gags and boys’ own adventure style comics that proliferated prior to the war. He returned to the industry when hostilities ended, producing more of the same but now influenced far more by the ubiquitous comicbooks of the occupying G.I.s than the silent Westerns and baggy-pants comedies he had voraciously consumed in his youth.

His blended comedy/action stories for children achieved great success throughout the 1950s, based on well known characters such as the ninja Sasuke Sarutobi or Chinese classics like Journey to the West, and he adapted modern themes like wrestling, science fiction and even Gojira/Godzilla to his fun-filled weekly pages in a most prolific and influential career.

…And Westerns; he did lots of rootin’ tootin’ shoot ‘em up cowboy stories…

He very loosely adapted Last of the Mohicans in 1953 (when it was already a very familiar tale to Japanese readers) for Omoshiro Manga Bunko – a line of books presenting world classics of literature in comics form – albeit not exactly in any form recognisable to literary purists…

He retired in 1958 but returned in 1970, reworking old stories and creating new pieces from the fresh perspective of a fine artist, not a mere mangaka earning a precarious living.

In 1973 he was already refining and releasing his classic tales for paperback reprints when he was approached by Shōbunsha to update another. The 1953 Mohicans became the latest re-released tale, slyly reworked as a wry pastiche which kick-started Sugiura’s second career as a darling of the newborn adult manga market…

One word of warning: This is not your teacher’s Last of the Mohicans, any more than The Shining resembles Stephen King’s actual novel or the way the musical South Pacific could be logically derived from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific – or indeed how anything Alan Moore wrote could be found in films like From Hell or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Sugiura’s updated 1973-74 iteration forms the majority of this chronicle; a fast-paced story of non-stop adventure, greed, pride, tragedy and whacky humour where both the heroic frontiersman Leatherstocking and noble savage Chingachgook are re-imagined as bold young lads in bad times, their desperate quest punctuated with weirdly clashing moments of slapstick, creative anachronism, cross-cultural in-jokes and plain outright peculiarity…

It all works impossibly well, beginning with the introduction of Hawkeye, ‘La Carabine Kid’: a young but doughty colonial scout and spy for the British.

The Empire is at war with the French for possession of the New World, and the Kid and his companions have suffered many reverses at the brutal hands of the Mingos – a tribe allied to France and responsible for reducing the mighty Mohicans to two survivors; Chief Chinga and his son Uncas

The plot thickens when the Mingo Chief and his manic son Magua threaten to abduct Cora and Alice, daughters of British Colonel Munro, in an attempt to force the soldier to surrender his command East Fort to the French.

After a savage assault, Hawkeye, the Mohicans and dashing Major Duncan decide to escort the girls to the safety of Fort Henry, with the hostiles close behind…

En route they pick up itinerant preacher Father Gamut, before fighting their way on through wilderness and repeated Mingo attacks, always one step ahead of ‘Magua’s Pursuit’.

The struggle is not one-sided. The wily fugitives manage to blow up a French fort and even link up with a war party of Delas who subsequently reduce the ravening Mingos to scattered remnants – but not before the pursuers succeeding in carrying off ‘The Abducted Sisters’

The scene is set for the heroes to rescue the girls and end Magua’s threat forever – but the showdown is costly and there is a high price to pay in ‘The Sad Ending’

Sheer graphic escapism, spectacular storytelling and a truly different view of a time-honoured masterpiece make this an unmissable treat for all lovers of world comics.

This book is printed in ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format.

© 2013 the Estate of Shigeru Sugiura. Translation and essay © 2013 Ryan Holmberg. All rights reserved.
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: An ideal present for comics connoisseurs… 8/10