by Naoki Urasawa; story by Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki
published by Viz; $12.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
** This review contains spoilers. **
Gesicht is in Japan to warn Atom that the boy robot is one of the targets of the mysterious robot killer. Also, Gesicht has decided to ask Atom’s opinion on the case so far. Atom downloads Gesicht’s memories and agrees to help as he can. Gesicht moves on to Greece where he warns Hercules that he is also a target. Hercules, like Brando, is a fighting robot. However, unlike Brando, Hercules doesn’t feel the need to emulate humans and seems to enjoy solitude.
The mysterious robot killer comes for Brando. Brando broadcasts the fight to Gesicht, Hercules, and Atom, hoping to help identity his attacker and give them data to stop the killer. In the midst of all this, Gesicht and his wife discover that they are missing memories and suspect they may have false memories implanted as a coverup.
Urasawa’s genius continues in this volume. He has done the impossible. He has improved on Tezuka’s portrayal of Astro Boy. Let me begin with the standard caveat. Tezuka’s Astro Boy is in no way a cardboard character. Over the history of the series, Tezuka crafted a wonderful character with lots of depth and complexity. Astro Boy is a robot with honest emotional responses. (He even has the ability to cry.) He is guided more by compassion and idealism than logic. Often, he is the one who has to teach humans how to behave humanely. In a sense, he is Japan’s Superman. He is the hero that embodies the best of humanity, the person we all aspire to be.
Urasawa’s Atom is Astro Boy with a new dimension added that creates even greater nuances and makes the character feel so much more real. It’s like going from a painting of the Mona Lisa to actually meeting the real woman. Urasawa brings home the great conflict at the core of Atom’s existence. He is created to look and act exactly like an eight-year-old boy, and yet he is also the most advanced robot ever built. Urasawa brings out this paradox simply by juxtaposing two scenes. In the first scene, Atom is sitting at a cafÃƒÂ© with Gesicht eating ice cream, discussing the case. He gets excited by a UFO toy he sees a kid playing with.
In the next scene, Atom is at police headquarters helping with a murder investigation. He is walking through a hologram of the crime scene and analyzing various pieces of evidence. He even examines the mutilated body of the victim. Atom is cold and detached as he states his observations and conclusion. He doesn’t flinch at any of the gruesome details. It’s storytelling and character exposition at its best. This is an aspect of Astro Boy’s character that Tezuka never really explored. (Partly because Tezuka was writing for a much younger audience and didn’t have as much freedom for such exposition. Partly because this facet of Astro Boy’s existence doesn’t seem to have interested him.) Perhaps the most amazing detail is that Urasawa is able to accomplish all this in just seventy-eight pages.
Urasawa also adds further depth to his characterization of robots in this book. After his fight with the mysterious murderer, Brando tries to communicate all his battle data to Gesicht, Hercules, and Atom. He is desperately trying to be detached and logical during his last moments. He is damaged beyond repair and knows it. He can’t keep his thoughts and feelings of his family from overwhelming him. This is no longer a robot trying to emulate a human, this is a true man/father/husband whose dying thoughts are of those he loves and will leave behind. It’s an emotionally devastating scene. After reading those pages, you simply can’t see robots as just machines anymore.
Urasawa also continues to add more layers of mystery to this series. This volume gives us further background on the events leading up the 39th Central Asian War, adding political intrigue to this murder mystery. There is mention of a mysterious robotic genius known only as Dr. Goji and hints of his work on creating a robot of mass destruction. Finally, there is Gesicht’s discovery of missing memories. I love the blend of both global and personal in these new twists. It adds to the world building of the series and gives this universe a more complete and tangible feel.
Urasawa’s character redesigns continue to impress me. He does a great job with Dr. Ochanomizu, although I do wish he have been more generous with the schnozola. I was really caught off guard seeing how Brando gets into his combat suit. It makes perfect sense when you think about it, but it’s still a shock to see. Also, Urasawa can’t resist teasing us at the end of this volume like he did with the first. The last page is our first look at Uran, Atom’s younger sister.
Urasawa’s artwork is dense; he is as meticulous with his art as he is with his storytelling. You can spend hours studying all the details given in the city backdrops and the splash panels. The art is a key factor in making this world and its characters so believable. Urasawa masterfully blends incredible line work and crosshatching with tone use. I don’t think I’ve seen any other artist use both so equally in manga. Usually, one is heavily preferred to the other. The line work really brings out the drama and emotions of the panel. The color pages are also beautifully done with their muted watercolors. I wish that Viz had reproduced all the color pages and not simply the ones at the beginning of the book.
Pluto is the most intellectually satisfying book I’ve read in years. Each time I finish a volume, I feel I’ve eaten a seven-course banquet. My mind is overstuffed with incredible ideas. I’m worried that Urasawa has ruined robot stories for me. It’s going to be hard reading Western sci-fi where authors are struggling with whether robots can actually be complete persons in their own right after reading a series that has so definitely shown they can be. I don’t make this comparison lightly, but Pluto can be ranked with the works of H.G. Wells or Isaac Asimov. Urasawa is really that groundbreaking and adept as a sci-fi author. It’s so exciting to read someone who is redefining the rules of the genre.