Sunday, January 27, 2008

Monster: He's a magnet for trouble

Get it? It's a reference to the band! Damn, I'm lame; I have to explain my jokes because I'm afraid no one will get them. Anyway, I managed to do two reviews in one night! The other one besides this post is a look at The Last Musketeer over at IndiePulp. Good stuff; check it out. And then on to:

Oh yeah, there are SPOILERS within, so be forewarned.

Monster, volume 5
By Naoki Urasawa

I'm impressed by how much story Urasawa is able to pack into each volume of this series. In this installment, Tenma reaches out to a psychologist whom he went to school with, he and Deiter encounter an elderly couple, Nina/Anna tracks down one of the crooked cops that killed her adoptive parents, and Inspector Lunge uses murders committed by a copycat killer to try to draw Tenma out of hiding. That's a lot of story for one volume, but it all transpires naturally. With at least three characters that are getting regular facetime, Urasawa keeps us apprised of what is going on with each of them. He might change this pattern in future volumes, but it's working out well for now.

The first story, about Tenma and the psychologist, is a good one, focusing mostly on Dr. Gillen, a shrink who specializes in criminal psychology. When Tenma seeks him out for help finding Johan, Gillen assumes that Tenma is schizophrenic, and Johan is a split personality of his. But his investigations soon prove otherwise, leading to a tense showdown in which Tenma has to escape from the police. But the best part of Gillen's story is his work with a serial killer who turns out to have a connection to Johan. In classic Urasawa style, we get some extended scenes of Gillen interviewing the killer, and it's as tense as anything else in the series:

That's something Urasawa does so well; he'll have pages and pages of two characters having a conversation, but he'll make it tense and riveting by constantly switching viewing angles and shifting in and out of closeups. It's masterful work.

The next story, a one-chapter affair about Tenma and Deiter hitchhiking with an elderly English couple as they travel across the German countryside, is a nice character piece of the type that Urasawa also does so well. It's good to have a breather from the usual breakneck pacing, but rather than just using some filler, he sketches out some good characters and builds a nice arc that gets wrapped up in a short number of pages. And this is a pretty good one, with Tenma's good nature acting to help the couple while wondering if they're going to discover his identity and turn him in:

This is as good a time as any to mention a technique of Urasawa's that I like. As you can see in the page above, he often ends a page with the final panel (or two) bleeding all the way out to the edges of the page. It's a simple, non-showy way to make the scene seem to lead right to the next page and get the reader ready to turn the page for more. He often continues this transition on the next page, with the first panel also bleeding right to the edge, as if continued directly from the last panel (see the next image below for an example). It's simple and effective; like I say, the guy is a master.

The next story is another exciting one, as Johan's sister Nina finds out what is going on with one of the cops that killed her parents. But Urasawa throws in a little twist: at first, we only see the cop and his new family as they live a life of luxury in a big mansion. They seem like a happy family, and we don't learn his identity until almost a full chapter into the story. This gives us a chance to get to like him and his family, so when Nina shows up and we learn that he was the killer from the second volume, it's a jarring shift; we don't know whether we want him to die for his crimes or not. We also learn a bit about Johan's influence; the ex-cop has been paid off after killing the couple for Johan, and now he's living in luxury, accompanied only by a bodyguard. Of course, the bodyguard also functions as insurance, ready to take out him and the family if necessary. It's chilling stuff, and it leads to some good, tense scenes. I know I keep describing the book as "tense", so I'm sorry if I get redundant, but it's true.

Anyway, it's another good story, and the bit of Urasawa art I want to highlight here is his depiction of the bodyguard:

That's from early in the story, before we know what's going on. The thing that gets me is how creepy he appears; it's not a surprise when he turns out to be evil. Maybe it's overly obvious, but I thought it was effective, lending a creepy vibe to the story and making the ex-cop feel "wrong", then providing a satisfying feeling when everything was revealed.

Finally, we have a story centering on Inspector Lunge, the computer-like agent who is trying to track down Tenma. It's all about his investigation of a murder that turns out to be a copycat, meant to look like it was done by Johan. Lunge figures this out pretty quickly, but he doesn't arrest the real murderer, choosing instead to leak the details to the press in hopes that Tenma will show up and investigate. It's a good indication of how driven he is to succeed, sacrificing justice so he can "win" in his conflict with Tenma.

Again, it's tense and exciting stuff, and it even ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, so I suppose Urasawa didn't pack quite as much story into the volume as I'm giving him credit for. My favorite bit in the story is when Lunge is reenacting the murder and spots an important detail:

Later, Tenma investigates the scene and does the same thing:

I love the difference in their expressions when they both make the same connection and realize that Johan wasn't the killer. Also, the way Urasawa starts off with small panels as we see their actions and then opens up for a big panel to reveal the mirror is especially effective. I just love the technique on display in this series; every volume is full of this kind of storytelling effectiveness, and I just continually marvel at how well he does it. Unless I'm too caught up in the story to pay attention to that sort of thing, which also happens quite often.

So, like usual, another volume ends with me wanting more. I've already picked up the sixth volume, so I'll be reading it soon. At this rate, I'll be caught up in no time!