Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Monster Mash: The real monster is inside us all. It's called "lymph"

I don't know what that means, but here are some links to distract you from that:

Look at this page of a Paul Pope comic for some French parody anthology or something. Now I want the whole story.

Jim Rugg has some sketches for an upcoming, as-yet-unannounced graphic novel. I'll be looking out for that one.

I thought this Daniel Clowes interview was really good reading.

In inter-blog inside joke news, I found this drawing by Tim Callahan to be hilarious.

And if you want to read stuff I wrote elsewhere, I reviewed Agents of Atlas #3 and Dark Reign: Fantastic Four #2 at Comics Bulletin.

Okay, here's the real content. I didn't think I would be getting to it until tomorrow or so, but once I started reading it, I couldn't stop. SPOILERS ahead, but you could probably guess that, given that this is the final volume:

Monster, volume 18
By Naoki Urasawa



And so it ends. I had heard that the finale of this series was somewhat unsatisfying, as manga endings can often be, but I didn't find it to be anything of the sort. With the setup from the previous volume, in which most of the characters were plunged into an orgy of violence in a closed-off location with no escape, there's an incredible sense of urgency, as Tenma, Lunge, Grimmer, Franz Bonaparta, Nina, Dr. Gillen, and some locals do what they can to fend off their attackers and save as many innocent bystanders as possible. This leads to some amazing action scenes and violence that often comes out of nowhere. And at the same time, we get the final revelations about Bonaparta, Johan, and Nina, seamlessly worked into the exciting narrative. Everything rushes to a conclusion, with characters reaching the end of their arcs and backstory filled in, completing Urasawa's vast tapestry with a few final, masterful brushstrokes.

And what brushstrokes! There's constant excitement on nearly every page, with scenes like Grimmer's last stand against the bad guys beseiging the hotel where he and some others are holed up, or Lunge fully committing himself to the fight. Lunge might be my favorite character in the series, and he gets a doozy of a send-off this volume, with several memorable scenes, including the moment when he comes face-to-face with Tenma, declares his vacation over, and heads off to do his job as a policeman and bring the bad guys to justice:



And just look at how badass he looks striding off into the rain to complete his mission:



That's some excellent character work there, with the posture and facial expression giving him a determination that we can't help but believe. And it's not an empty gesture either; he ends up having an intense, violent fight with Roberto that brings out the most intriguing, dramatic aspects of both characters and really leaves you gasping as you frantically turn the pages:



And that's just one character; in addition, Grimmer gets a great exit from the series, calling back to his "Magnificent Steiner" personality that popped up in past volumes when he was pushed to the breaking point. But that doesn't happen this time; he's gained control of himself, and he won't let the programming he received as a child shape him anymore. He's out for juThis leads to a rather poignant final moment, given what we've seen of the character previously:



And we also get some nice reveals courtesy of Nina, who finally recovers all of her memories, learning what happened with Bonaparta and her mother. Urasawa gives us some highly effective scenes of her freaking out over Bonaparta's paintings of her and Johan, including one page that works wonderfully, depicting her memory of their mother as floating behind everything, informing everything that happened since they were torn from her:



That's some great work by Urasawa, as is this image of Nina collapsing to her knees:



The way he depicts the motion is so natural, with the wet hair flying upward, the clothes settling around her, and the motion of the body seeming so fluid. Urasawa is a great storyteller, but he's an amazing artist as well.

And then there's the final confrontation between Johan and Tenma, with most of the other characters thrown in for good measure. It's a perfect payoff to everything preceding it, and an amazingly dramatic scene, with Tenma trying to muster the will to end things, and all the other characters acting on their own impulses. But it all comes down to that expected confrontation, with the repeated imagery that is no less chilling than it's ever been, even though it's come to be expected:



And then, suddenly, it's over, and everyone is left to recover. We do get to skip ahead and see what becomes of all the surviving characters, and it's optimistic and positive, but with a tinge of regret and questions about what exactly it all meant. And then there's a wonderfully ominous, ambiguous ending that might leave some unsatisfied but left the perfect taste in my mouth.

But what does it all mean? The question has surfaced here and there throughout the series, as if the characters were trying to discern their place in the world as all the chaos raged around them. Ultimately, it comes down to life vs. death; we learn here that Johan simply couldn't deal with the uncertainty and unfairness that death brings into the world, and by taking the view that nothing matters, since we'll all die anyway, he went to the extreme reaches of that sentiment, casually murdering whomever he felt like and attempting to control people to enact his capricious, unpredictable desires. And when we learn where it all came from, it's a simple, yet frightening revelation. Is there a little Johan in all of us, who wants to rage against the unfairness of the world? What if all it took to turn us into a killer (or worse, an easily-manipulated shell of a person) was some conditioning to remove any troublesome emotion? It's a scary thought.

On the other side of the coin, there's Tenma, and his continued philosophy of life. As a doctor, he's dedicated to preserving life and combating death's grim pursuit, and he does that not just through medicine, but through encouragement and personal connection. We saw in volume 13 that his patients over the years came to love him, not just because of his life-saving abilities, but because he was friendly and approachable, willing to speak frankly to them and encourage them to not let their illnesses beat them. And we've seen that attitude time and again over the course of the series, as he helps people that he meets, trying to better the world through his respect for his fellow man. Some might have found him to be too goody-goody, but that positivity was a necessary contrast to Johan's darkness. And it's why he makes the decision he does at the end of the volume; even at the end of this long quest of his, he can't deny his true nature as a life-giver, and that's Johan's true defeat.

So there it is: good vs. evil. Light vs. darkness. Life vs. death. That's a gross, gross oversimplification of the series, but that's what it comes down to. The world may be a complex place, but sometimes the way we approach it can be simple, with the question being: do we let our eventual death defeat us long before it gets here, or do we make the most of the time we have? What's your choice going to be?
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Eh, I hope that wasn't too sappy of an ending. Man, what a great series. I'll probably have one more post to kind of wrap things up, so watch for that in the next day or two. And while I'm talking, thanks to anybody who read this series of posts and offered support, to Viz for sending me a good portion of the volumes for review, and to Urasawa for blowing my mind with his excellence.