Condemned to endless book reports, American kids in the Baby Boom years (Sept. 1, 1946 to 12:29pm Nov. 22, 1963) found solace in the pages of Classics Illustrated, an entire line of dulled-down comic book condensations of the Important Books that your English teacher wants you to read instead of Mickey Spillane novels or Mad paperbacks.
Osamu Tezuka’s version of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, however, isn’t your father’s Classics Illustrated, which are now safely residing in plastic bags in antique malls across America. Tezuka’s 1953 manga was first published by Osaka publisher Tokodo, the outfit behind other early Tezuka works like NEW TREASURE ISLAND, ANGEL GUNFIGHTER and his versions of PINOCCHIO and FAUST. Perhaps recalling acting in his school’s stage production of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, Tezuka extracts the key elements of Dostoyevsky’s tale of murder, morals, and class struggle, delivering a blessedly streamlined version that gives us both the crime and the punishment.
This English-language version was published in 1990 by the Japan Times, with translation by the sure hand of veteran Frederik L. “Manga Manga” Schodt. It’s a narrow softcover book with a colorful dust jacket that gives anti-hero Raskolnikov a curious blonde ‘do. The dialog and captions are in friendly hand-lettered type with translations in Japanese at the bottom of each page, lending credence to the suspicion that this is meant as an English teaching tool.
What’s the crime in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT? If you’ve ever seen Hitchcock’s ROPE you know what I’m talking about when I talk about smarty-pants intellectuals who convince themselves, after a few too many readings of Carlyle’s Great Man Theory, that they too are Special Snowflakes for whom normal rules of behavior don’t apply. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT’s Raskolnikov is one of these troublemakers, and after a particularly sad bout of poverty-enhanced over-intellectualizing, he grabs an axe and murders the local pawnbroker.
Tezuka keeps the murder off-screen (this is a manga for kids, after all) and in a subtle use of his cinematic manga skills, keeps the camera still and lets the closed door tell the story of both the murder and the oblivious painters goofing off downstairs.
Is Raskolnikov inhuman enough to commit cold-blooded murder, and sociopathic enough to rationalize it as being for the greater good? Will his sister Avdotya be forced to marry someone she can’t stand? What will become of the family of Marmeladov, who’s been killed in a hit-and-run carriage accident? And will Inspector Porfiry use his detective’s instinct to track down the real murderer?
Schodt’s translation keeps pace with Tezuka’s goofier digressions, giving us dialect, slang, and friendly nicknames for all those difficult, gigantic Russian names – Raskolnikov becomes “Roddy”, for example. Sure, this might be not quite what Dostoyevsky had in mind, but Tezuka knows that comics should be comic, a philosophy that would leaven his work even as it later went to places as dark as anything Dostoyevsky ever contemplated.
If you’re looking for a painfully accurate graphic novel version of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT -which you aren’t, but let’s just say you are for the sake of argument -- if you are, then keep looking, because this is definitely not it. Tezuka’s chopped and channeled manga brings it home in less than 150 pages, and while major plot elements are jettisoned, he still gives us the meat of the story, delivered in his friendly, fluid mid-50s style, full of ruthless revolutionaries, the predatory rich, drunks, beggars, and what may be the earliest literary appearance of the prostitute with a heart of gold.
Wracked with guilt and horror, Raskolnikov’s personal tempest goes unnoticed in the storm of history as a revolution breaks out around him in a cinematic, non-canon touch Tezuka throws in almost casually. Maybe his editor told him to wrap it up. The Japan Times edition wasn’t meant for sale outside Japan – the price is only in yen – but perhaps an enterprising manga localizer can uncover the negatives and put this classic back in print for an English-reading audience. And hurry, some of us have book reports due!