[SPOILERS below! You probably don't want to read this if you haven't read this volume and everything preceding it.]
Monster, volume 13
By Naoki Urasawa
Holy moley, can this comic get intense. After the events of the last volume, which saw Dr. Tenma captured byt the police, he's been extradited to Germany and is about to stand trial for the murders that Johan committed (not all of them, no sir, just the ones from way back in volume 1). That's an interesting enough development, but legal action isn't really the style of this series (Phoenix Wright it ain't), so intrigue quickly abounds when Tenma's ex-fiancee Eva enters the picture. As we learned in volume 6, she witnessed the murder of one Adolph Junkers, and can thus prove Johan's existence, and therefore Tenma's innocence. But she's not going to cooperate, since she's still holding a grudge agains him for ruining her life. No, she wants him to rot in jail for what he did to her. She makes for a loud, obnoxious figure in the story (any actress playing her in an adaptation would have to be willing to go well over the top), stumbling around drunkenly and berating old acquaintances that she happens upon.
At the same time, Tenma ends up with a crusading lawyer named Fritz Verdeman, who is hired by a consortium of all the people he's helped over the years. Like most all characters in this series, both major and minor, he has a backstory that defines his character in a way that allwas readers to quickly get to know and understand him: his father was wrongly accused of being a spy in Communist East Germany, and he was sent to prison, only to be proved innocent years after his death. So Verdeman has dedicated his life to fighting for those who are unfairly accused.
But Verdeman also has a partner in Tenma's defense, and we don't learn his identity at first, a sure sign that he's not only somebody we would recognize, but probably also a person with sinister intent. Sure enough, it turns out to be Johan's creepy henchman (called Mr. Baul here, although that's probably a fake name), who seemingly died in the library fire in volume 9. Not having seen his body, I suspected he might turn up again at some point, and here he is, mocking Tenma and voicing his intent to murder Eva. That's right, he's actually planning to make sure Tenma is found innocent, since Johan apparently has plans for him, or at least wants to help him in return for saving his life. But those plans don't include Eva, so he's going to get rid of her. Or maybe he's just crazy and wants to kill her for fun.
Whatever the case, this sets off several chapters of three-way psychological gamesmanship, as Tenma decides to confess to the murders in an attempt to save Eva, Eva decides to testify on Tenma's behalf in an apparent recognition of his virtue, and "Baul" continues with his murderous plans. So that mean's it's time for an escape, of course! Tenma ends up teaming up with a fellow prisoner who is reknowned for multiple prison breaks (he's another character that gets quickly fleshed out with a brief backstory), and the race to save Eva is on. We'll have to wait until the next volume to see what happens though; Urasawa is certainly a master of the cliffhanger.
That's some pretty damn exciting stuff just in that plotline, with tense conversations and confrontations, characters overhearing bits of information and reacting in various fashions, flashbacks to previous events (some that we've seen before and some that we haven't) that come at moments of realization or actualization, and some split-second decision-making. And there's a lot more going on here as well, including Lunge's continued investigation into Johan's past. He has apparently finally become convinced of Johan's existence (he previously believed that Johan was a separate personality of Tenma's), and he's researching that freaky picture book, with some surprising findings, including a letter that reveals obsessive madness with a nice Frank Miller-esque touch:
There's also a nice scene in which Tenma shows how he's been agonizing over the decision he made to save Johan, wondering if it was the right thing to do and whether it proved the philosophy of non-equality that he doesn't want to believe in:
And there's plenty more; this is a volume that's packed full of material, demonstrating Urasawa's excellent storytelling. He can give us a series of tense, fast-reading showdowns, compellingly explanatory backstories and flashbacks, and interesting character explorations, knowing exactly when to switch modes for maximum effect. And the art is just gorgeous, as always; check out the way he draws Eva's dress in this scene, with it's intricate pattern and fabric that drapes realistically:
He also utilizes an interesting flashback transition twice in this volume, showing a panel in which a character is remembering by filling it with fine vertical lines:
It's almost like a camera paning quickly downward, and it's especially effective on that page, since it, along with the wide gap between that panel and the one to its left, draws the eye downward, when it should be going to the left. It's a bit of visual confusion that disarms the reader, creating an uneasy feeling that perfectly fits Tenma's confrontation with "Baul". The same effect works really well when Eva flashes back to the night she saw Johan, with the vertical lines mirroring the rain that was falling:
And if you want an especially unsettling flashback, check out this moment when Eva recognizes that Baul has been in her room, remembering him from their previous encounter:
I had either forgotten that they slept together, or didn't realize it in the first place, but those panels of her memories are especially unsettling, mixing their gross imagery with skewed angles and a lack of panel borders to convey a jumble of feelings, none of them good. It's a very effective technique.
But I wouldn't have expected any less from Urasawa, and I'm sure he's got plenty more up his sleeve. On to the next book, and may my heart never slow down!