Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Monster Mash: There's more than one kind of puppet

Linkery: Here's the official theme song of James Kochalka's Superfuckers, with animation!

Monster, volume 14
By Naoki Urasawa

Wow, there's a lot going on in this volume (which I suspect will be true for every remaining book in the series).  First off, we learn a key secret involving Tenma's lawyer Verdeman, and then almost immediately jump to Nina and Deiter in Prague, as they locate the Red Rose Mansion, which causes Nina's memories to come rushing back to her, although only in fragments, revealing some horrific images of murder.  It's freaky stuff that only seems to get more harrowing as details continue to be slowly revealed.  And at the same time, we see that Johan has also recovered his memories, making his transition to his "monstrous form" complete.  And along with the twins' continued awakening, we get to see some of their mysterious past, including that fateful night in which young Nina (or Anna, as she was known at the time) shot Johan in the head (waaay back in volume 1), kicking off the entire epic struggle, at least as we've seen it; it seems that it's been going on for much longer.  But those scenes of the kids are some creepy stuff, especially a moment that calls back to Tenma's confrontation with Johan in volume 9:

It's impossible to tell what's going on with Johan (then or now), where these ideas came from, what they mean, or what actually happened during all these mysterious events, but the hope remains that we will eventually learn more and get to a point where we feel like we can at least slightly understand what occurred and what made Johan this way.  But in the meantime, it's incredibly unsettling to see him act like a robotic follower of some undefinable philosophy of superiority that also leads to both suicidal and murderous impulses.

This volume also sees the return of two characters that readers (myself, for example) may barely even remember: General Wolf, and The Baby, both last seen in volume 4.  They were both involved in some sort of neo-Nazi organization; the former is revealed to be the man who found Johan and Anna when they fled from Czechoslovakia to East Germany, and the latter is working for a man who has a strange interest in Tenma's ex-fiancee Eva.  Everything is connected, apparently, which we're learning as more and more of the dense web of connections in the series become apparent.

And Urasawa continues to demonstrate excellent storytelling skills, including some deft upending of expectations.  One of the best fragments of the volume involves Nina being cared for by Mr. Lipsky, a street puppeteer who seems to have some issues relating to people, to say the least.  Soon after his introduction, he is revealed to have an obsession with Franz Bonaparta, the author of the weird children's book that is behind a lot of the mysteries of the series, so it stands to reason that he's got a connection to the whole affair.  And sure enough, in the same chapter where we first meet him, we learn that he was a student of Bonaparta's at the Red Rose Mansion.  Urasawa doesn't even bother drawing out the mystery behind him, confirming the suspicion that an odd-seeming character in this series is going to be connected to the master plot.  Except, just when reader is feeling safe, he then goes to reveal that there's even more to the character.  It's a bit of double misdirection; there's definitely more than one trick up his sleeve.

Then, in later chapters, he uses a flash-forward structure, a trick that hasn't seen much use in the series so far.  We see a wounded man being rushed to a doctor, and find that he has a relationship of some sort with Tenma, but we don't know what.  Then we see flashbacks to him approaching Eva and acting as her bodyguard/escort at the behest of a mysterious man with unstated intentions.  It's already a somewhat tense setup, since we know that Eva is being targeted by Johan's underling Roberto (or Baul, or whatever his real name is), who is sure to show up again at some point.  But while their interactions are kind of lighthearted, with him expressing a distaste with jobs involving women, and her insisting that he dress nice and use good table manners when accompanying her to parties, the spectre of violence is hanging over their heads.  We'll have to wait until the next volume to see what exactly is going to happen, but it's going to be tense and exciting getting there.

And as always, in addition to the great pacing and plotting, Urasawa's art continues to impress.  In the scene where we first meet Mr. Lipsky, we see his puppet before we get a look at him, only to learn that he has no audience:

That panel of the puppet looking down the way at the more popular performer is a nice way of demonstrating the situation before we even see Lipsky's sorry face.  And along with a later scene, in which he seems to be interacting with a puppet that he has fashioned in the image of Nina, the scene is an indication that he relates to his creations better than to real people, and that he can express himself better through them than on his own.

Every page of this series is filled with this kind of detailed storytelling, a perfect combination of words and art to make for a gripping, encompassing story that doesn't disappoint.  Each subsequent just cements Urasawa in the pantheon of great comics creators; he's amazing, and it's just a treat to watch him do his thing.  I'm ready to rush into the next volume, but I'm starting to feel like I'm going to be sorry when it's over.