by Naoki Urasawa; story by Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki
published by Viz; $12.99 US
From the first color page of this volume, I’ve never seen pink look so menacing. The big-nosed Professor Ochanomizu is trying to spend his day off from the Ministry of Science at a park, but his mandatory security detail robot interrupts the respite. The professor finds a discarded dog-bot and tries to repair it, but the parts are too old and can’t be found anymore.
This first chapter is astounding in its achievement. The reader thinks they know what’s going on, that the professor is right in thinking a security detail is overkill. The world’s seven most advanced robots are being targeted for destruction, along with their creators, but no one wants to believe that they’re in that much danger. Then Urasawa twists everything with a surprise visitor with a disarming appearance.
But before that, we see the Professor’s concern and effort in trying to help a creature he has no obligations to. The work puts him back in touch with his scientific efforts from before his governmental title. The scenes humanize him quickly and introduce him as a caring person, regardless of his role and situation. This isn’t the first time character stories shed new light on the world of robots and humans living together.
That he’s not able to overcome practical matters, like the age of the robot and the lack of needed parts, keeps events feeling realistic and provides a sense of mortality, even when it comes to machines. He takes partial responsibility for it, connecting a theoretical decision to a practical, unfortunate result, echoing the bigger theme of the series plot.
And that’s only the first chapter. The meat of the book returns to the bigger question, of how robots really differ from humans once they become advanced enough. Can they kill? Might they want revenge for perceived or actual damages? Will they go beyond what’s considered acceptable to achieve their desires?
Goji, the rumored creator of the Persian robot army, threatens Ochanomizu’s grandchild in order to get Atom to face off against his tornado robot. Atom’s never seemed more real to me — Urasawa’s portrayal of him as a realistic child makes this story all the more powerful. We keep being told how advanced a robot he is, but visually, he’s an angry little boy, concerned that one of his friends is in danger.
It also makes the threat all the more over-matched. How can Atom and his sister Uran possibly defeat a robot in the form of a natural disaster, one that can create its own tsunami and bring a wall of water down on those that oppose it and its master?
More and more threads come together in this volume. Adolf (from book three) has a mission involving Gesicht (book one), who’s about to leave for a Japanese vacation with his wife. Goji (book two) makes an appearance. Uran (book three) plays more of a role. The last of the seven advanced robots, Epsilon, appears. More victims are targeted, and more plots are revealed, culminating in the appearance of Doctor Tenma (as shown on the cover), the inventor of Atom. There are plenty of events I don’t dare mention because I want readers to discover their surprise and significance for themselves.
This series has all the excitement of any cliffhanger-driven adventure series containing amazing events, but it’s the deeper theoretical concerns that make it one of the best of the year. I don’t have the words to describe how accomplished the art is in telling this story and keeping the reader involved. Another artist couldn’t explore the nature of humanity so well, because his robots wouldn’t be detailed enough in their appearance and behavior. The work is stunning and picks a huge emotional punch.
The question keeps coming up: Which is the better series, this or 20th Century Boys? I was firmly in the latter camp until reading this volume. While both are excellent, I’m beginning to think that this is the greater accomplishment.
(A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)