Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Monster Mash prelude: Pluto rocks my world, along with Osamu Tezuka's

Read more of my ramblings:  I reviewed Comic Book Comics #3 and Incognito #2 over at Comics Bulletin within the last few days.

Also interesting: this online comic that's all about how to do interesting stuff with online comics.  It's fairly entertaining too; kind of like a manga-esque Scott McCloud.

And: was it common knowledge that Faith Erin Hicks (of Zombies Calling and The War at Ellsmere fame) has a webcomic?  She does, it's called Ice, and it can be read here.

Now: manga:

Pluto, volume 1
By Naoki Urasawa


It seems like it might be difficult to follow in Osamu Tezuka's footsteps, until one remembers that he basically built the storytelling foundations of almost all manga that was to follow.  But while his artistic techniques made for some good ideas to copy, actually trying to redo his stories is another matter.  There have been some attempts at adapting his stories to other media, to varied results.  But when it comes to other cartoonists doing different versions of his stories, that's a different matter entirely; who would want to try to follow that act?  

Well, if there's anybody who could give it a go, it's Naoki Urasawa, a creator who seems rightfully confident in his skills.  With Pluto, he jumps on the task with enthusiasm, taking the world that Tezuka defined in his landmark Astro Boy series and filling in the street-level details that lurk in the background.  Startng with the framework of "The Greatest Robot on Earth", which is widely considered to be the best Astro Boy story (and which can be read in the third volume of Dark Horse's translation of the series), Urasawa focuses on minor characters, fleshing them out and making them feel like much more than bit players.  It's engrossing work, showing the same focus on character as Urasawa's Monster.

And that's what makes this such an incredible demonstration of great comics; Urasawa starts with a European detective named Gesicht investigating the death of Mont Blanc, a famous and beloved Swiss robot, along with the murder of a human who was involved in robot affairs, with both crime scenes bearing similar characteristics.  And while the case is interesting and puzzling, surely leading to some exciting revelations in upcoming volumes, the best stuff involves the relationships between robots and humans, and the examination of artificial intelligence.  One scene sees Gesicht reporting the death of a robot patrolman to its wife, and while she looks like something out of The Jetsons, Urasawa manages to make her reaction to the news especially poignant, given her lack of movable facial features:


Other notable bits include a meeting with an imprisoned killer robot that is reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter, and a first-chapter revelation about Gesicht that is masterfully done.  Gesicht is a great character for giving readers a viewpoint into this world, with its tenuous robot-human relations and widespread technology that brings mixed emotions to its residents.  With a killer targeting the seven most advanced robots in the world, events are occurring that bring all these tensions to the fore, and it should be fascinating to watch it play out.

A three-chapter interlude of sorts in the midst of the book displays another of Urasawa's strengths, in which he takes a break from the main narrative to flesh out some tangential characters.  Given just a small amount of space, he defines characters quickly and then plays key moments out before the readers, expertly modulating the tone and pacing for maximum emotional effect.  In this case, a reclusive blind composer named Paul Duncan gets a new robot butler named North no. 2, and they quickly end up at odds, as North, a former war-bot, wants to leave behind his violent past and learn about music, but Duncan, who doesn't trust machines, won't open up to him, treating him as little more than an appliance.  It's perfectly done, putting us inside the heads of both characters and revealing their thoughts and emotions only through their expressions and actions.  It's quite a feat, especially considering that North has a completely inexpressive visage.

And the cartooning is as excellent as Urasawa always is.  I'm especially impressed by his take on Tezuka's character designs.  His Mont Blanc looks like a robot that was designed by Tezuka, but exists in a gritty Urasawa world:



And the design for Paul Duncan seems to be a realistic version of Tezuka's Duke Red character:


Also amusing: a mention of a certain "unlicensed surgeon" who operated on Duncan as a child.  Was this in the original story, or is it a nod by Urasawa to more of Tezuka's ouvre?

It's a great opening volume in what promises to be an excellent series, full of Urasawa's trademark character development and perfectly-paced action.  It should be fascinating to see him continue to flesh out Tezuka's settings and add moments that fill in wonderfully-defined details.  I can't wait to see what happens next.