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Astro Boy

by Mark Peres

April 5,2006

Just over 43 years ago, a gritty, gray animated series made its debut on television and changed the world of animation. Astro Boy flew into our lives – or at least the lives of some of us – and fought the good fight against the forces of evil. Astro Boy was the first televised series with a continuing story line in the genre now called anime – a style of animation originating in Japan with distinctive character and styling that has come to sweep the world of animation.

The virtues of Astro Boy came to mind as I considered the case of Harry Taylor, the Charlottean who took it upon himself to say a few words to the President of the United States.

Let’s begin with Astro Boy. In 1951, with nuclear fallout still in the air, Osamu Tezuka, a wildly prolific graphic novelist and filmmaker, began a manga comic series entitled “Tetsuwan Atomu” or “Mighty Atom” (literally “Iron-Arm Atom”). The series was among the first comics called “manga” – which are pulp comics that developed from a mixture of Japanese wood-block art and Western styles of drawing, and took its current form shortly after World War II. Following the dislocation of the War, Tetsuwan Atomu enjoyed near unrivaled popularity as an inexpensive pulp comic throughout Japan.

Tetsuwan Atomu is the story of a scientist, Dr. Tenma, who creates a super child-robot to replace the son he lost. When the scientist, to his sorrow, realizes the robot can never grow, he sells him to a circus. There, Professor Ochanomizu, the new Head of the Ministry of Science, rescues him and serves as his surrogate father. The Professor treats Tetsuwan with warmth and kindness, and soon realizes that Tetsuwan was gifted with super powers and a soul. Most importantly, Tetsuwan is selfless and compassionate, and in the face of much evil and destruction in the land, never becomes angry or holds a grudge.

Astro Boy is the American title for the series. In 1963, the manga story of the humble yet gifted robot orphan launched anime as we now know it when it was adapted into a black and white television series when it first broadcast in Japan and later that year on WPIX-TV in New York. Many of the stories deal with the relationship between humans and robots and the metaphor of economic power and racial discrimination. Caught between human emotions and his robotic powers, Astro Boy is considered so seminal that along with the Mars Pathfinder and Hal 9000, he was among the first inductees in the Carnegie Melon Robot Hall of Fame.

Now let’s consider Mr. Taylor. When President Bush made his most recent visit to Charlotte, he took questions from the audience. To his credit, the President did not limit the audience to the party faithful. Mr. Taylor, who is neither a robot nor an orphan, displayed what many consider a superhuman trait in these days of celebrity worship: he stood up to power. He expressed disappointment in the administration – in the loss of civil rights and the erosion of our standing in the world – and he had the gumption (some say the rudeness) to say so directly to our Commander-in-Chief.

Predictably, Mr. Taylor was taken to task for being so impolite (“my God, he must be from New Jersey”). Those citizens who were offended that someone would challenge the President publicly also praised the President for his disarming response – as if charm and manners – and not candor and competence – is what counts most. Others praised Mr. Taylor for noticing evil and destruction in our land, and without anger or a grudge, informing the President that we can do better.

There is something of Astro Boy in Mr. Taylor. Standing there with a microphone in his hands, a solitary citizen armed with courage and the power of words, he took flight into space…“rocket high, through the sky.” He did so with a resolute optimism for a nation in need of new hopes and dreams. What more can we ask of any citizen or superhero?

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