Thursday, November 25, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 295 (11/25) -- Pluto Vol. 1 by Naoki Urasawa with Takashi Nagasaki

I read a lot of mediocre manga back when I was doing my regular "Manga Friday" columns for ComicMix -- the equivalent of spending a couple of years reading third-tier Batman and Wolverine books, to put it into a Western context -- so it's good to remind myself that there's some really strong material in the manga world, even in the more commercial end of it. To continue that tenuous metaphor, Pluto is the Japanese equivalent of Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602: a reworking of classic genre material that doesn't try to take it completely out of the bounds of that genre (since that's where it works best) but which changes the entire context and creates a new, deeper story, as strong and supple as anything in the genre.

Pluto is a retelling -- a radical retelling, taking names and general outlines but not much more -- of Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy story "The Greatest Robot on Earth." [1] But Astro Boy is not at the center of this story -- in fact, we first see a Japanese boy called "Atom" on the very last page of this first volume. Instead, the main character is the European detective Gesicht: smart, perceptive, driven...and one of the "seven great robots" of the world. He's also completely human-looking -- some robots are, and some look very much like robots. The humanoform robots can only be told from humans on sight by the extraordinary stillness.

Gesicht has two difficult murder cases on his hands: the universally beloved giant Swiss forestry robot Mont Blanc has died mysteriously during a forest fire, and Bernard Lanke, the mostly detested head of a robot rights organization, was brutally murdered in his apartment. Neither case has any obvious leads or evidence -- very strangely so, in Lanke's case, leading to the assumption that no human could have been in the room to kill him -- but the cases are not clearly linked, except for the fact that both corpses were arranged with makeshift horns on their heads.

Urasawa gives Gesicht's story the first three chapters, to see both murder scenes, to start puzzling through some of the unlikelier parts of the cases, and to question the last robot that broke the no-killing-humans law, eight years before. Urasawa has the ease and vigor of a creator long used to working with large-scale stories; these are clearly early chapters in a much longer story, but there's no infodumps or other expository lumps; this world flows out smoothly behind Gesicht and the people he deals with, and Urasawa is always in utter control of the story and its telling. A strongly unified manga series is a larger story than most forms allow -- it's on a level with a multi-season TV arc, or a closely-plotted multi-book prose series -- and Urasawa is one of the masters of that length, utterly comfortable with making his chapters both sturdy building blocks in the larger story and interestingly-shaped pieces of story themselves.

That ease and mastery is even more obvious in the following chapters -- Urasawa leaves Geischt behind to focus those three chapters on the aged, blind, and cranky film composer Paul Duncan, and his new robot butler, North No. 2, in Duncan's remote Scottish castle. The reader eventually realizes that North No. 2 is one of the great robots of the world -- and what that implies -- but the story at hand is of one many stuck in his artistic work because of unpleasant memories from his youth, and how his servant helps him to work past that. It's entirely a sidebar to the main story of Pluto, but it's also completely necessary -- it shows what kind of a person North No. 2 was, instead of just dragging him out as another victim of the mysterious killer.

That killer is still entirely mysterious at the end of this volume, and the list of great robots is quickly diminishing, with much of the story left to be told. (I see that there are eight volumes already published in English, and that may not be the end.) There's still no sense of the killer's motives, let along his abilities and origin -- but Pluto is already engrossing and fascinating, and I definitely want to see more of Gesicht.

[1] Tezuka's name is in the subtitle, but he was dead long before this story was written -- his credit here is in honor of the original story, and of all of the borrowings Pluto takes from his work. Pluto was written and drawn by the acclaimed manga-ka Naoki Urasawa, best known in the US for 20th Century Boys and Monster, with co-writing assistance from his longtime collaborator Takashi Nagasaki and oversight by Tezuka's son Macoto Tezuka (himself a noted filmmaker and visual artist).

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index


Anonymous said...

Have you read any Urasawa before? Your remarks on his control over the long-form story seem to imply that since his other two major works are 18 volumes (Monster) and 24 volumes (20th Century Boys) respectively.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Anonymous: I've read some of Monster (though not all of it), and haven't seen 20th Century Boys yet.

William George said...

(I see that there are eight volumes already published in English, and that may not be the end.)

The story does indeed end at vol. 8.

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