*Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 5 — Recommended

Review by Ed Sizemore

Gesicht has been assigned to guard Adolf Haas and his family. Haas’ former colleagues have decided he’s a liability and want him dead before he can reveal too many of their secrets. But Gesicht is starting a personal crisis as buried memories begin to surface, revealing shocking details of his past.

Also in this volume, Hercules faces off against Pluto, while Uran, Professor Ochanomizu, and Professor Tenma all have to come to grips with what happened to Atom.

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 5 cover
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 5
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Volume five at its core is about robot psychology. It specifically focuses on how robots handle hate. This theme is first mentioned during Epsilon’s conversation with Hercules in volume three. Epsilon is worried that as robots grow closer to humans, robots will learn hatred. He’s scared of the consequences robot hatred will have. We also see this theme briefly alluded to in volume four, when Tenma tells Ochanomizu that emotions like sadness and frustration are needed for an artificial intelligence to truly mature.

Tenma’s statement in volume four is further significant because it offers a different definition of intelligence than is commonly held. Tenma believes that true intelligence is both cognitive and emotive. Robot law demands robots be built with suppressed emotions, thus robots are stunted intellectually. It’s obvious that even Ochanomizu doesn’t share this view, since he thinks Atom is a masterpiece. Tenma sees Atom as a failure because of his lack of emotional range. Further, I believe Tenma is echoing Urasawa’s own belief on the nature of intelligence, and I suspect we will see the rest of the series explore this idea.

Why does Tenma see emotion as fundamental to true intellectual development? In the West, we have a compartmentalized view of human nature. We see the cognitive and emotive sides of our beings as not just separate but in opposition to each other. Urasawa is offering a more holistic view of human beings. Reason and emotion are opposite sides of the same coin. Just as there is no such thing as a coin with one side, so too there is no such thing as pure cognitive intelligence. Pure rationality is simply machine processing. For cognition to have life there must be emotion. What fuels us to seek a cure for cancer? A well-constructed, logical argument about physical health? No. It’s compassion. It’s seeing people suffer and die from cancer and being moved emotionally to want no one else to endure the same fate.

So why does Epilson fear hatred? Because of its irrational nature. Robots are constructed with multiple levels of safeguards to prevent them from intentionally harming humans. Any strong emotion would bypass or override those safeguards. What happens when robot behavior truly becomes human and losses its predictability? Robots are stronger, faster, smarter, and more durable than humans. Robots have enjoyed civil rights because they are not seen as a threat to humanity. But what if humans can no longer trust robots? They’ll revoke robot civil rights. Imagine how the newly emotive robots will react to the loss of their civil rights. Epilson fears for the future of the Earth, if robots learn to hate.

This discussion brings to light the differences between cognitive maturity, emotional maturity, and experiential maturity. Robots have the reason and body of an adult. The difficulty comes when robots begin to develop emotions but have no experience to handle what they’re feeling. It’s obvious why they would be dangerous at this stage in their lives. In humans, the danger is mitigated by the fact we are physically developing as we begin to mature emotionally. Of course, you can’t program in emotional maturity the same way you can program in rationality. Assuming we’re as committed as Tenma in making robots holistic persons, the problem is how to safely develop emotional maturity in robots.

There is a great Tezuka moment in this book. One constant motif in the original Astro Boy series was robots teaching humans how to behave humanely. In this book, Gesicht has come to realize the anger buried deep inside himself. He confesses his anger to Haas and how it scares him. He asks Haas if the hatred ever disappears. Haas has let anger consume and define him all his life. Here, a robot who has a right to hate Haas and his brother is shamed by his anger and begs to be free of it. In that moment, a machine is teaching a human proper care for the soul. Haas sees his failure as a person and cries. It’s a powerful moment of redemption for both men.

Adding depth to the exploration of robot psychology is the chapter focusing on Uran. She is coping with the loss of her brother. We see her going through the same steps of grief as a human. It’s a heartbreaking chapter as we come to see how deeply she loved Atom, even if they didn’t always get along. Uran shows how emotionally complex robots really are. I love that the school principal understands this and advises the teachers to treat Uran like any other student coping with death of a family member. The last two pages are the most poignant. They also show us how amazingly perceptive and accurate her intuitions are.

This book introduces Professor Tenma as a major character. In the original series, Tenma was an enigma. You could understand why he created Atom, and even why he rejected Atom, but not why he went on to treat Atom the way he did. Urasawa fleshes him out more, like he does with all of Tezuka’s characters, while preserving an air of mystery around him. The conversation between Tenma and Ochanomizu is one I’ve longed to see as an Astro Boy fan, two robotic geniuses talking shop. There’s a darkness to Tenma that unfortunately skews his vision of life. He focuses on the negative emotions and thinks they are the path for robots to reach full personhood. I’m hoping in the next volume that Ochanomizu will offer a corrective, showing Tenma that robots can mature just as fully through love. Atom and Uran are the perfect examples of this.

As always, the art is amazing. One thing that struck me in this volume was the perfect pacing of each scene. Urasawa knows exactly how many panels to dedicate to each moment to produce the needed emotional impact or dramatic effect. If there is tension between two characters, he knows whether you need one or two silent reaction shots to convey the proper friction. The last scene of Uran’s chapter is amazing because each panel is a punctuated moment. Each moment increases the emotional potential of the scene. Slowly, meticulously, Urasawa progresses the narrative to the last page, where we are hit with all that stored emotion. We feel both knocked off our feet and relieved. Then brilliantly, the last two panels provide the seamless transition to the next chapter.

I want to praise Viz for their reproduction job. In the last three volumes, there are pages that can’t have been easy or cheap to get right. Viz has spent the time and effort to make sure the book you’re holding is the same quality as the series it contains. The Viz Signature line is at a slightly higher price point, but the books are worth every penny you pay.

I have to say that volume five has been my favorite book of Pluto so far. It’s an incredibly rewarding read, both cognitively and emotionally, with multiple layers of narrative. I love how Urasawa is giving new depth to older themes while bringing in new themes to explore. It’s a book that has captivated and energized my thinking for several days. Each time I think about a particular chapter or character, I get excited by all the ideas that come flooding in for me to examine and play with. Setting the imagination on fire is the hallmark of great literature.

(A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)

Naoki Urasawa’s Monster Anime Coming to Syfy

Monster anime

One of the best manga of 2008, Naoki Urasawa’s Monster, will debut in animated form on Syfy on October 12. The former Sci-Fi Network is running “Ani-Monday“, an anime programming block. After airing on Mondays on Syfy, the episodes will re-run on Chiller (a channel focused on horror and suspense) in the following week.

The cartoon series is rated TV-MA and is promised to “remain true to the original story.” Neurosurgeon Dr. Tenma saved a child who then turned out to be the monster of the title, a cold-blooded killer with no remorse. Tenma then sets out to remedy his mistake, giving up his career and risking his life to chase the young man around the world, all while the police suspect him of the murders.

On the East Coast, two episodes will air every Monday, beginning at 11 PM. There were 74 episodes produced, which means a nine-month (or longer) run.

*Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 4 — Recommended

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.

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 4 cover
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 4
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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.)

*Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 3 — Recommended

Review by Ed Sizemore

At the end of volume two, Uran, Atom’s little sister, helped tame and recapture some loose zoo animals. This volume opens with her at police headquarters explaining how she got involved in the first place. We learn that Uran can sense strong emotional states, especially fear. A few days later, on the way to school, she senses powerful feelings of fear and confusion. She skips school to find the distressed person and help him/her. She discovers what appears to be a homeless robot suffering memory loss. He’s very disoriented and is scared to go for proper treatment. Uran visits him daily hoping to help him get well.

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 3 cover
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 3
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Adolf Haas is a German businessman who hates robots. In fact, he belongs to an underground organization, KR, which is seeking to repeal the International Robot Laws and to once again make robots slaves and property of humans. His brother was a criminal killed by the police during the commission of a crime. There is now evidence that it was a robot police officer that killed Adolf’s brother. KR hopes to use this evidence to prove the danger of unrestrained robots. Adolf is simply looking for revenge.

This volume is a change of pace. The Pluto investigation story arc is put on hold; instead, we are introduced to two new protagonists. The first is Adolf Haas. His story arc lets us see the other side of a world with robots. He dramatically experiences some of the negative impacts that the mass productions of robots create.

Adolf Haas’ father was a factory worker. When the factory became fully automated, he lost his job. The need for human physical laborers continually decreased, so he couldn’t find a new one. Adolf’s father was arrested for a petty thief by a robot police officer. The arrest and unemployment eventually drove him to suicide. Understandably, Adolf and his brother grew up hating robots.

Adolf’s story is a reminder that sometimes technological advances come with a human cost. It’s great that humans have been freed from simple manual labor, but there is a large segment of the population that makes its living from jobs like factory worker, housekeeping, construction worker, etc. It takes humans time to be reeducated with new job skills and to shift to a new economical model. This transition period won’t be kind to everyone. Some people and their families will find themselves left behind as the world marches on. It’s easy to see how the newly disenfranchised wouldn’t sing the praises of robots or see any benefits to mass-producing them.

Also, it would be foolish to think that everyone will readily accept robots as persons. To some humans, maybe most, a machine is a machine. The fact that humans designed and created robots is proof that they can’t be our equals. Robots have off switches, they have electrons running across circuit boards, they have to be programmed to work. True living creatures can’t be shut down, they have blood flowing through veins, and the moment they’re born they live and function by their own will. Artificial life is an oxymoron. It’s an insult to human dignity to say a sophisticated toaster has the same rights and should be treated with the same respect. Robots are tools and never anything more.

Because Urasawa is such an adept storyteller, Adolf and the KR aren’t moronic bigots. They are intelligent, successful men who refuse to acknowledge robots as equals. Adolf’s hatred of robots is tied to the devastation they brought to his father. His own experiences have shaded the way he looks at and evaluates robot actions. Adolf may not be a sympathetic character, but his actions are understandable. Unfortunately, not all writers take the time and effort to craft such well-thought-out villains.

It’s a testament to Urasawa’s skill as a world builder that he includes the dark side of this vision of the future. It further adds to the depth and realism of this series. Any radical change in society is going to naturally bring opponents of that change. Like Marvel’s X-Men, Urasawa is drawing from American civil rights history in shaping this subplot of the story. This becomes obvious when we see the KR dressed in the same ceremonial robes as the KKK. This natural human response allows him to create new dramatic tension and possibilities.

Uran is the other major cast addition. She has always been a foil to Atom. I’ll admit I’ve never been satisfied with Tezuka’s characterization of Uran. She comes across as impulsive and reckless. Atom always seemed to be annoyed at his sister, and he treats her like a child, rightfully so. Urasawa remolds Uran, making her a fully developed person in her own right. Her ability to sense strong emotions has shaped who she is. Uran has chosen to respond to such feelings with compassion and a desire to alleviate their suffering. She’s still impulsive, but for a good cause. She’s still a foil to Atom, but now it’s because of a fundamental difference in their approach to life. Atom is logical and formal. He is the typical eldest son. Uran is emotional and casual. In fact, she comes across as more human in her behavior than even Atom. She’s not afraid to stand up to her older brother for what she believes in. She still frustrates Atom, but he can no longer treat her like a child. Urasawa’s Uran is not only likable, but she’s admirable. That’s an amazing transformation of this character.

Urasawa’s art is as wonderful as always. I love the way he draws Uran, especially her facial expressions. You can see how bored and frustrated she is with the police questions. I’m glad these pages were in color. The emotional scenes really make this volume. Adolph’s anger at discovering his brother was killed by a robot jumps off the page. Pluto’s brief appearance is powerfully filled with raw emotion that just smacks you in the face.

I’m also still amazed at the amount of detail Urasawa puts into his backgrounds. They really give his art a sense of solidity and reality. The mansion where the KR meet is an incredible architectural structure. His cityscapes are some of my favorite eye candy. It’s a testament to his creativity that with each volume there is always a new backdrop that stops me in my tracks. I find myself just staring at the panel, soaking in all the marvelous details.

I also want to commend Viz on a beautiful printing job. There are some pages in here that had to be particularly difficult to get right. It’s essential to one part of the story that the pages have a particular feature. Viz does it flawlessly and creates the effect that Urasawa wants when the reader get to that section. Well done and thanks, Viz.

I will say this volume can be a little disconcerting to read. I think it’s the Uran section that causes this reaction. We are given a lot new information that doesn’t fit with anything we know so far. I trust Urasawa enough to feel that what’s revealed will play an important role in the volumes to come. I also think that once we see how this section fits into the overall story structure, these are chapters you’ll go back and reread so insights can be better understood.

At this point, I don’t know what more I can say to recommend this series to readers. Anyone who values well-written, meticulously executed comics of any genre or format should be reading this series. Urasawa is a master of the craft and will be remembered in the same breath as his idol, Tezuka.

P.S. See if you can catch the reference to Jungle Emperor Leo in this volume. Urasawa really rewards Tezuka fans who pay attention to details.

*Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 2 — Recommended

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.

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 2 cover
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 2
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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 café 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.

*Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 1 — Recommended

Review by Ed Sizemore

Gesicht is a robot and a detective for Europol. He’s been assigned to investigate three bizarre murders. The first is Mont Blanc, an internationally beloved Swiss robot, who was brutally slain while helping to control a forest fire. A few days later, North No. 2, a formidable military robot turned butler, is also destroyed. Then there is the murder of the human Bernard Lanke, a robot rights activist. Evidence at each crime scene connects the three deaths, but who, or what, is behind them and the motive for these homicides is still a deep mystery.


Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 1 cover
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Book 1
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Much like Isaac Asimov did in the West, Osamu Tezuka’s writings, especially Astro Boy, established the foundation for robot stories in Japan. What’s unique to Tezuka’s vision of robots is how early he introduced the concept of robot rights. However, his stories usually took place on a national, international, or galactic scale. Tezuka rarely focused on what everyday life would be like in a world where humans and robots lived as equals. From the 1950s on, various manga authors have explored the idea that robots are people and what that would mean on a more personal level. Naoki Urasawa has injected these 50+ years of robot exploration back into Tezuka’s original universe. If Tezuka laid the foundation, then Urasawa has come along and built a house upon it.

Urasawa’s Pluto series is loosely based on the Astro Boy story ”The Greatest Robot on Earth”, serialized in Shonen magazine between June 1964 and January 1965. You can find the English translation of this story in volume three of Dark Horse’s Astro Boy series.

The World of Pluto

Let me start by saying that this series is completely accessible to any reader. You don’t need to have read any of Tezuka’s works to enjoy Pluto. However, for fans of Tezuka, like myself, there is an added pleasure of seeing one master of the manga medium interpret another. And I confess to geeking out trying to imagine how Urasawa will draw such odd-looking Astro Boy regulars as Dr. Ochanomizu (he’s the one with a nose as big as his head).

Urasawa takes us deep inside a world where robots are considered persons with full legal and civil rights. He does it so simply; we follow Gesicht in his day-to-day investigation of the murder cases. As Gesicht goes about his inquires we discover that robots get married, go on vacations, go to the doctor for annual physicals, are permitted to adopt human children, etc. It’s fascinating to see robots and humans interacting as equals. To see a world where robots are treated as ordinary citizens and just another part of the population. It’s a vision of robots we don’t see really see here in the West.

The closest example I can think of is Star Trek: The Next Generation. In that TV show, Data is a robot and a member of the crew. However, we are constantly reminded that Data is not human, from the way he looks, the way he speaks, the way he acts, and the fact that fellow crew members always seem to make reference to his robotic nature in almost all conversations with, or about, him. Data is treated more as a science oddity and a social experiment than a real person.

In the world of Pluto, being a robot isn’t what makes you special anymore. Robots are common and a part of the general population. One great example of how deeply humans have accepted robots as full members of society is the global reaction to Mont Blanc’s murder. People hold vigils in his honor and weep at his loss. It’s the same mourning given someone like Mother Teresa or John Lennon.

Urasawa’s Characters

Gesicht is an intriguing character. Although a robot, he feels stress and is in danger of suffering burnout from the pressures of his job. He looks and comes across as a man in his forties who’s been doing police work for too long. There’s a weariness that comes through in the way he carries himself. He’s seen too many evil deeds and it’s beginning to wear on his soul. Yet, he’s still able to maintain a deep sense of kindness and compassion. As this description demonstrates, you don’t thing of Gesicht in terms of being a machine, but as a person. Urasawa has crafted a complex character that makes believable the idea that robots are just like us humans.

For three chapters, Urasawa breaks from Gesicht and his investigation to focus on North No. 2 and the events leading up to his murder. North is a military robot who has grown sick of the battlefield and so decides to become a butler. Paul Duncan is a retired, famous, movie score composer who lives as a recluse trying to create his final masterpiece. Duncan is a crotchety old man who goes through robot butlers like changing his underwear. I can’t help but get a sense that the employment agency sent North as a last ditch effort to find someone that could put up with Duncan.

Urasawa’s skill as a storyteller is truly manifested in these chapters. Duncan is blind and refuses to get artificial eyes. His blindness transcends just his physical sight. It serves as a metaphor for him as a person. He’s blind to the truth about his past, blind to the truth about his mother, and blind to idea that silicon can harbor a soul just as well as carbon. North serves as the one who metaphorically opens his eyes to what he has refused to see. It takes a robot to show a human how to be a whole person. (This is a theme that runs through Tezuka’s Astro Boy stories also.)

These are emotionally powerful chapters as North slowly, and suffering much verbal abuse, wins over Duncan. North is patient and kind. Duncan is self-absorbed and bitter. He initially rewards North’s compassion with bile. North asks to learn the piano and Duncan says machines can’t make real music. It’s only when Duncan learns that North is haunted by nightmares of his military days that he begins to see how petty his own ‘suffering’ has been. Slowly, he sees North as a person and they become friends. These chapters serve as a microcosm to show how humanity initially resisted seeing robots as persons, but eventually can’t deny the truth standing so obviously before them.

Art Style

Urasawa uses a very realistic style of art for this book. This is a significant departure from Tezuka’s style. Mont Blanc and North No. 2 are based on Tezuka’s original designs, but Urasawa removes the cartoony aspects so that they look like robots that actually might exist in our own world. Gesicht and later Atom (Astro Boy’s actual name in Tezuka’s manga) are completely redesigned to look like real humans.

Urasawa continues to impress me with the maturity of his visual style. He knows how to let the images speak for themselves. There is an amazing scene where Gesicht informs a robot wife her robot husband is dead. The top half of the page ends with him saying, “I’m sorry, but I have some bad news…” The bottom half of the page is just silent reaction shots. You don’t need dialogue or narration to feel the sadness and awkwardness. I love the fact that Urasawa has such faith in power of pictures to communicate what can’t be spoken and faith in his audience to understand the emotions and meaning behind these panels.

The last panel of the book is a splash page of Atom. For Tezuka fans, this will come as something of a shock, since Urasawa makes him look just like a nine-year-old boy. As I reflected on this image and the future events of the storyline, I was a little disturbed. First, it made me realize how much Tezuka’s cartoony style allows the audience to distance themselves from the full impact of what is happening in his books. Atom gets into a lot of knock-down, drag-out fights and at times gets seriously damaged. Since Tezuka’s Atom doesn’t look that realistic, it’s easy to let this slide without any thought. However, seeing Urasawa’s Atom engaged in such fights and suffering the same damage is going to be difficult. A boy with his face all scuffed and his arm hanging on by only a few wires isn’t going to be as easy to stomach or dismiss. It makes me a little apprehensive about the images in the later volumes of this series.

A New Must-Read

Pluto is a fascinating read. I was completely drawn into the world that Urasawa created in this book. Like his 20th Century Boys, this series is written by an adult for adult readers. Those of us with more than a couple of decades of experience will be able to identify with the characters and their reactions. Science fiction fans will find plenty of interesting ideas to mull over. Urasawa has quickly become one of my favorite authors; in fact, all of his books are now on my must-read list. I’m definitely going to read Monster as I’m waiting for new volumes of Pluto to come out.

(This review is based on a galley of the book provided by the publisher.)

*Naoki Urasawa’s Monster Book 18 — Recommended

This final volume of the series continues the same high quality established by the first book.

Naoki Urasawas Monster Book 18 cover
Naoki Urasawa’s Monster Book 18
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Some have expressed concern over the ending, but I don’t see why. The character art of Dr. Tenma over this series reminded me of Angel‘s Wesley — a quiet, bookish man with a terrific life path laid out for himself who finds himself, only because he seeks to do what’s right, transformed into a kind of taciturn vigilante. The friends he makes along the way try to save him, but ultimately, he has to make his own decision of what he’s willing to do and sacrifice.

The series kept me engrossed throughout — I read the whole thing in a weekend, just because I kept needing to know what happened next. The art is clear, easy-to-read, and cinematic in its staging. The characters (except the Johan of the title) seem like real people, which makes the outcome even more heart-breaking in some ways.

I think I’ll take away longest the philosophy of the nameless reporter:

Humans are supposed to think that food is delicious. They’re supposed to look forward to a picnic on their day off. They’re supposed to enjoy a good beer after a hard day’s work.

It’s a fine summation of the physical pleasures of living, that meaning comes from the small enjoyments. It’s also a welcome counterpart to the bigger, life-and-death struggles of the plot, keeping this ethical debate enjoyable.

I’d recommend this series to almost any reader interested in manga that combines action, suspense, thoughtful character development, and excellently crafted art.

*Naoki Urasawa’s Monster Book 1 — Recommended

In Monster, Naoki Urasawa turns the usual expectation of good and evil on its head.

Dr. Tenma is a brilliant Japanese surgeon working in Germany. He’s a rising star due to his skills, and he’s engaged to the daughter of the chief of the hospital. She’s got his advancement all planned out so she can be the wife of a rich and powerful man. He’s got bigger concerns, though — his risky operation on an opera star brought the chief and the hospital plenty of favorable media attention, but he should have helped a construction worker who was brought in first.

Naoki Urasawa's Monster Book 1 cover
Naoki Urasawa’s Monster Book 1
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These meaty concepts, dealing with the moral dangers of chasing fame and weighing the values of different lives, would be sufficient for a book of their own, but they’re only part of the prologue to the main story in this ambitious series. And that’s where the author’s switch occurs.

Burdened by the results of the earlier choice, even though it wasn’t his to make, Tenma ignores the chief’s direction to work on the mayor, choosing instead to save the life of a little boy, victim of a gunshot wound. The reader thinks “ah, that’s the moral of the story” and settles in for a comfortable read, reaffirming standard ethics.

However, Tenma’s decision ruins his life, and his morals are cold comfort as everything he thought he could rely on is abruptly stripped away from him. Worst yet, he might have been wrong. Not all little boys are innocent. Some are monsters that would have been better off left to die.

The clear, quietly shaded art presents the story directly, never getting in the way of the horrors it subtly portrays. The fiance’s cruel rejection and Tenma’s crushed soul, to name only two examples, are simply shown in single panels that sum up all of the emotional weight of the powerful moments. It’s a deceptively easy read.

With a series of unsolved murders and a bulldog investigator, the material is as exciting as an action movie, but with an added element of thought-provoking ethical debate. Doctors make life-or-death decisions regularly as part of their jobs, but few (at least in this story) are willing to confront what that actually means. A series of medical annotations of the series have been posted.




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