Osamu Tezuka may still be most famous outside Japan for creating Astro Boy, but his thrillers are his best work. The Book of Human Insects was one of the first graphic novels he wrote specifically for an adult audience, and it marks the point at which he first hit the sweet -spot of graphic story-telling for which he’s rightly revered.
The book revolves around a cruel femme fatale, a loner out to take whatever she can from the world. She’s a mimic and a thief, latching herself on to successful people – both men and women – and bleeding them dry of talent, inspiration, and sometimes even their actual work.
She starts in a drama company as a lowly assistant, but is soon absorbing the talent and skills of leading ladies and directors alike, effectively becoming more youthful and beautiful versions of them. She moves through a range of professions, discarding the husks of the people she’s used behind her as she goes.
She’s a complex, multi-faceted character. Tezuka characterises her as a remorseless, relentless bitch, but there’s another side to her, too. In a secret hide-away she’s built a shrine to her lost childhood, including a wax model of her ageing mother. There she retreats to babyhood, surrounded by childish trappings, even still sucking on the breast of her waxwork mother for comfort.
The men she uses think they’re strong and successful, but are no match for her charm, seduction, cunning and the moral vacuum in which she lives. Her innocent looks lead them to believe they can take advantage, but she steers them every step of the way.
It makes for a good thriller. It may not rank up with Tezuka’s best – MW and Ode to Kirihito are even better than this. But Tezuka bubbling under is still worth sampling if you like reading about beautiful women with hearts as black as the night.