The simple fact is, either you get Astro Boy or you don't.
If you get him, you were probably of an age to have watched cartoons in the 1960s. And if you were watching cartoons back then and happened to see the diminutive boy robot with jet feet and the strength of "100,000 horsepower," you were probably hooked.
"It used to give me goose bumps," says Jane Kostopoulos, 42, who watched the show with her twin sister, Georgette. "It was as though he was a living thing."
Especially for Georgette: "We never missed an episode. I had a crush on him."
And who wouldn't, with that spiked hair and those big round eyes that have now become a staple of anime. Plus, he could shoot bullets out of his rear end.
"Astro Boy," one of the first anime, was the first Japanese cartoon to hit American airwaves, and like the anime of today, it had story lines that weren't exactly Disney.
"I'd be watching a couple of minutes of 'Astro Boy,' and it looked like typical run-of-the-mill cartoon action and then go off in a totally different direction," says Raymond Tucker, 43, a Web designer in Greensboro, N.C. "For kids it was totally hypnotic; it's like 'Alice in Wonderland.' "
Yet Astro Boy was also fallible. He could be wrong, and he questioned what he was and where he belonged. He faced discrimination and wondered why humans treated robots so badly. Like a metal Pinocchio, he tried to understand what it meant to be a boy. And sometimes his friends died, at least in the original version.
"He was so powerful, but he didn't always win," says Raquel Dominguez, 35, who first watched the show in Spanish in Puerto Rico. "He could make mistakes just like you and me. That makes you connect with him."
And want to be him, or at least his special friend.
When she was 4 years old, says Dominguez, who now lives in Anniston, Ala., her mother put her in front of the TV when "Astro Boy" was on. "I said, 'Momma, that's my boyfriend,' and I went to the TV and kissed it."
Meanwhile, the Kostopoulos sisters, who live in Red Hook, N.Y., liked the noise, a sort of scraping sound, that Astro Boy made when he used his feet instead of his jets. "We used to wear corduroy pants to sound like Astro Boy," Georgette says. And buy Astro Boy gum for the temporary tattoos in the package.
Now history has caught up with Astro Boy, and all those 6-year-olds who braved chilly Halloween nights in black Speedos, a belt and red boots. The story was set in the future, and the date of Astro Boy's "birth" was April 7, 2003. Which means, among the cognoscenti, birthday parties complete with screenings of the old shows and parades. In L.A., Astro Boy gets not only a birthday cake, but also a museum exhibition devoted to the anime art form he helped create.
Breaking new ground
To truly understand Astro Boy, you have to know about his creation and his creator.
Osamu Tezuka, widely consider to be the father of anime and a god of manga (comics), had a career that spanned 40 years, starting with his first published comic in 1946. A trained medical doctor who preferred drawing, Tezuka introduced Tetsuwan Atomu (Mighty Atom) as a manga character in the early 1950s. The boy robot was so popular that it became the first comic to be animated for Japanese TV. That series was dubbed and became "Astro Boy" in the United States. Although Tezuka, who died in 1989, is credited with producing more than 150,000 pages of comics, award-winning films and an estimated 800 characters, Astro Boy is by far his most famous. His second most famous in America, "Kimba, the White Lion," also was a cartoon here.
But it was Astro Boy that set the standard of what was to come, both in manga and anime. Tezuka was one of the first to use cinematic techniques such as close-ups and odd angles in his comic strips. Pictures didn't just illustrate the dialogue; they drove the action. And some unusual action it was.
In the Tezuka comic, Astro Boy is created after Tobio, the son of a scientist, is killed in a car accident. The grieving father builds a boy robot in his son's image. But when the scientist realizes the boy will never grow up, will never develop as a real child, he gets angry and abuses Astro and then sells him to a circus. Astro is rescued from the circus by a kindly professor. But he lives in a society where robots were once slaves and still face prejudice.
Astro Boy clearly resembles Pinocchio, but another source for Tezuka was a 1921 play about robots with emotions called "R.U.R." (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Czech author Karel Capek. "Tezuka read that play as a child," says Maureen Donovan, a Japanese studies associate professor at Ohio State University in Columbus. The play, she says, left a lasting mark on his imagination.
So did war. As a young adult, Tezuka witnessed bombed-out cities and people struggling to survive. "Astro Boy was created in the rubble of World War II," Donovan says.