Saturday, March 03, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #62: Pluto, Vols. 1 & 2 by Naoki Urasawa with Takashi Nagaskai

When I read a book, I care a lot more about who did it than I do about who owns it. (Since I read a lot of comics, I run up against the other kind of reader a lot -- Marvel Zombies and DC Shambling Hordes and Image Ghouls and the lot.) And, since I've worked in publishing, I know the names on a book cover don't necessarily reflect who actually did that work -- but the book itself can usually tell you, if you know where to look.

(Example: books by famous people without a listed co-author almost inevitably credit someone effusively in the acknowledgements as "helping to clean up my mess" or "brought order to my chaos." That is the person who actually wrote all of the words in the book, including that credit.)

So I'm not surprised that this manga series has the official title Pluto: Urasawa X Tezuka, or that it credits Osamu Tezuka (dead more than a decade before this was even an idea) equally with Naoki Urasawa, who actually came up with the story and drew all of the pages. Urasawa did co-write with his longtime collaborator Takashi Nagasaki, and Tezuka's son Macoto Tezka did some not-well-defined kibitzing (and who knows how many art assistants Urasawa had), but this story is primarily Urasawa's work. So that's how I'm going to refer to it, and how I do think of it: Pluto by Urasawa.

It does have a Tezuka connection, since it's a re-imagining of an Astro Boy/Mighty Atom story from the early 1960s ("The Greatest Robot on Earth") and was published beginning on the in-universe "birthday" of Astro Boy. But Pluto is no more a collaboration with Tezuka than a modern retelling of Hamlet is a collaboration with Shakespeare. Pluto was collected in eight volumes: I read the first two of them recently.

The world is near-future, or perhaps alternate present. Technology is more or less as it is today, except for intelligent robots. Some are humanoform, some are bipedal but clearly war machines, some can change bodies quickly and easily. There was some kind of civil-rights struggle in the recent past, but that's basically over: robots are equal to humans, and work alongside them all over the world. And there are seven "Great Robots of the World" -- better than their peers in some way Urasawa doesn't really explain in these volumes. But they are better, and known to be better. And the world has agreed never to make any more of them, presumably out of fear that humans will be replaced by them.

(Robots show no sign of replacing people otherwise; they seem to be a minority, and it's unclear how they are created. My best guess is that they're all one-offs, each uniquely created for a specific purpose, and assembly-line construction just doesn't work for robots for some reason we'll never know. But we do learn of one who was a beat police officer, so this explanation is only barely plausible.)

One of those Great Robots has just been murdered: Mont Blanc, a giant Swiss firefighter, killed in the middle of a violent, quick-moving fire. Investigating the murder is Gesicht, a police detective for Europol who is also one of the Seven. Gesicht is also investigating the murder of a European robot-rights activist, whose death scene was staged similarly to that of Mont Blanc. He quickly realizes there is a serial killer at work: attacking the Great Robots and their defenders.

That killer has strength and agility impossible in any human, and leaves no physical traces at the crime scenes. But robots cannot harm humans -- as far as anyone knows, only one robot ever was able to break that programming, and he's a broken, half-dead thing in prison. So the killer is impossible either way -- something unknown, one way or the other.

This is the kind of mystery where the detective has no serious clues or leads, and is reduced to warning the killer's possible victims and chasing after the mysterious killer. So Gesicht goes to see the other Great Robots -- he misses North No. 2, a war machine, but does see and warn two wrestlers (Turkish and Greek) and Atom, the Japanese boy robot in the Astro Boy role here. As of the end of the second volume, one of the Great Robots is still unknown -- presumably, readers of Tezuka already know who that will be. (And, equally presumably, they don't mind the utter lack of women among Great Robots, since this was originally a 1960s story for Japanese children.)

Urasawa builds an ominous atmosphere early, full of swirling confusion and danger, mimicking the whirlwind that the killer hides in to attack his victims. (I say "his" without knowing -- but Urasawa is rewriting a '60s story, so I'm comfortable with my assumption.) Urasawa's art is on the solid, realistic side of manga, with a strong story-telling flair. And his plotting and dialogue is equally strong: this is my first Urasawa story, but it's easy to see why he's considered a major creator.

I don't know the original Astro Boy story at all, so that lack is no problem. Pluto stands on its own, with only some wonkiness in the world-building pegging it as a structure built on someone else's foundation.

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