Master Keaton Volumes 5-6
The Master Keaton series has hit its stride with these volumes, now that the title character has settled into a groove as a globe-trotting adventurer. He mentions, at times, his theory of culture development or his love of academia, but he now seems resigned to his investigation work, where his skills as a former special forces soldier come into play. Some of the stories have also gotten longer, which allows for more development of characters and plots, a welcome change.
Volume 5 opens with a particularly intriguing two-chapter tale, one that involves the Bride of Frankenstein movie and a monster mask used for murder. In “Memories of Elsa Lanchester”, an abandoned movie theater is never not creepy, and the opening silent stalking sequence is beautifully staged, of course, by artist Naoki Urasawa.
The message is to never cross, even accidentally, a professor studying the psychology of fear, because he’ll use his knowledge to really creep you out. The grounds aren’t entirely laid fairly for the twist ending, but the story is certainly a page-turner, with double-crosses among the faculty and a mysterious missing woman.
A single-chapter flashback to young Taichi tackles the racial bias and abuse a young mixed-Japanese child faced in England. Even when struggling, there are still natural beauties — in this case, the color of the ocean — to experience and knowledge to share to protect one’s life.
Additional chapters solve an assassination of an East German in the West by investigating scents; bring a thief to justice in spite of his accomplices threatening Keaton; and portray former soldiers hunting each other over drug deals and missing money. That last one has a depressing undertone of how badly war (in this case, in the Falklands) damages people, even the ones who survive.
The longest story (five chapters! almost half the book) sends Keaton to Baghdad to rescue an undercover duke being hunted by the Iraqi Army. The royal unfortunately is lacking important medicine, which forces a time limit on the mission. This adventure is set in the context of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait (1990), so it’s a bit spooky how that region of the world is still part of the news these days.
Some of these stories show their age, but others could easily be mapped to any time people resent or fear or are jealous of others (so, any time). The real appeal is how skilled Urasawa is in drawing emotion and telling comic stories through layouts and moment breakdowns and panel choices. His work is so smoothly illustrated that the reader can focus on the events and characters without ever hitting a snag in their reading. It’s cinematic, as though we’re watching the cast move before our eyes, with just the right pause to emphasize emotional moments.
Volume 6 is the first where Urasawa is credited with story as well as art. It opens with a digression, as Keaton’s father tries to help reconcile two old friends over a gambling dispute. It’s silly, showing us stubborn codgers, but then we find out it all stems from trying to save each other’s life in a wartime concentration camp. Nothing is ever purely light-hearted in this series; it’s always about laughing in the face of pending disaster.
Keaton returns in a gathering of accounting company partners. One, seeking rapid advancement, has been taking shortcuts, convinced that only the strong deserve to survive. (The firm is named “Malthus”, after the philosopher/cleric who argued the importance of keeping down the population.) Keaton is carrying around a bird in his jacket, oddly, because the cold prevents the finch from flying. It’s a muddled metaphor, but it’s a neat, weird touch that’s well-illustrated.
A Christmas story again explores the breakdown between East and West Germany and the disruption of unification. Keaton gets involved with a mafia family feud when he sees an old school friend killed by a car bomb. A then-and-now piece shows us a childhood friend who’s become “the world’s toughest detective — just like [his] idol Mike Hammer.” A high-powered executive loses everything, including his chance at love.
A more humorous piece has Keaton tailed by three schoolboy detectives. A thriller has Keaton helping an art forger, held prisoner and forced to create more works, escape. Keaton’s daughter listens to an old woman’s fifty-year-old cross-cultural love story when she tries to help recover the woman’s snatched bag.
These stories all give Keaton more of a reason to be involved than just doing a job. That’s the biggest change as this series matured — stories that are about more than surviving, but have deeper themes about how people connect and what motivates them. (The publisher provided review copies.)