TOKYO -- Before Osamu Tezuka came along, a lot of people in Japan thought comic books were poison to the brain.
But the king of Japanese comics won them over, and through his success laid the foundations for a multi-billion-dollar industry that has turned Japan into a nation of comics fanatics.
As a tribute to his achievement, the government-sponsored National Museum of Modern Art threw a major retrospective exhibit honoring Tezuka's artistic genius a little more than a year after his death at 60.
During his 44 years of work, Tezuka drew more than 150,000 pages and created as many as 1,000 characters. His concern for human values despite adverse circumstances won him deep admiration from his countrymen.
He was also a physician with a grounding in history, religion and literature, which gave his works a sophistication never before seen in comics and, some critics lament, still too seldom seen in a genre now overly given to cheap sex and violence.
"It was virtually a miracle that someone with as much education as Tezuka should enter the comic world," says Yoshiya Soeda, a scholar of comic history at Tsukuba University. It took more than 25 years after Tezuka's debut in 1945 for another college graduate to rise in the field, he adds.
In his internationally recognized masterpiece "Phoenix," Tezuka portrays man's quest for eternal life in an opus that spans thousands of pages and 12 volumes.
The individual volumes cover settings that range from Japanese prehistory to a future where humans live in great underground cities. They are linked by the image of the the phoenix, a mythological bird whose immortality is the unattainable goal of the characters in the series.
But it wasn't only his intellectual depth and uncanny knack for coming up with a good story that drew millions of readers worldwide and inspired young Japanese to become comics artists. Tezuka was also a consummate technician who revolutionized the drawing of cartoons by adapting techniques of movie cinematography.
He would draw a man on a horse first from the front, then from above, in a zoom shot straight at the rider's face and then maybe in a low shot at the horse's galloping hoofs. Readers would be drawn in by the very speed of moving from panel to panel.
Tezuka gathered talented young assistants, and many of them, like Motoo Abiko and Shotaro Ishinomori, author of the popular "Japan, Inc. -- An Introduction to Japanese Economics," went on to become the country's leading comics artists.
"Before Tezuka, comics were meant only for gags," Abiko says. "His were totally different. There was tragedy and romance in his cartoons, and that had a big impact on me."
But the relationship was not always easy, and the competitive Tezuka sometimes tried to stifle the endeavors of his underlings when they became too successful.
Ishinomori, in an eloquent testimony to his conflicting feelings toward his mentor published after Tezuka's death, described an incident where Tezuka wrote an angry letter to a fan saying that Ishinomori's unconventional "June" was not a legitimate work of cartoon art.
"It was a shock. I was terribly hurt," Ishinomori confessed in a recent interview with the weekly magazine Aera.
"No matter what kind of hit we might create, we could never measure up to Osamu Tezuka after all. That's because he's above the clouds. Everyone, including him, recognized that. There was absolutely no need for him to be jealous."
But Tezuka's burning desire to stay on top, Soeda says, was precisely what enabled him to remain the No. 1 Japanese cartoonist from his debut until his death.
"If an editor were to mention that some young comic artist had written something even slightly interesting, Tezuka would study it fervently, and in time, would come up with something similar. His work would be better than the original. He was that sort of guy," Soeda says.
Tezuka's success, especially in animation, brought him both domestic recognition and numerous international prizes after his works, including "Astro Boy" and "Kimba the White Lion," were translated into foreign languages. But he often lacked economic sense, and one time his company, Mushi Productions, even went bankrupt.
His success spawned a golden era for Japanese comics. The postwar years saw the birth of thick comics magazines with weekly circulations in the millions.