Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pluto: Robots dying makes me sad

Elsewhere: Over the last couple days, I reviewed Models, Inc. #1 and Modern Masters: Kyle Baker (which isn't up yet, but should be later today)(EDIT on 10/5: if anybody notices, which is unlikely, the review is finally up) at Comics Bulletin. Since I'm not exactly posting up a storm around these parts or anything...

Self-promotion: You might have noticed the Book Blogger Appreciation Week link over on the sidebar, and I put that up there because I've been nominated for an award in the "Best Graphic Novel Review Blog" category. You can go and vote for me if you like, but since I'm up against Jog, I definitely don't expect to win. Maybe I should start mudslinging; I heard he tried to get Tim Vigil to illustrate an Owly spin-off once. That's just wrong. Doesn't competition bring out the best in us?

One link: This "Friendly Dictators" set of trading cards from 1989 illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz is really cool. Informative too.

Pluto, volume 2-3
By Naoki Urasawa

Strangely and embarrassingly, I don't know if I have too much to say about these two volumes of the series, at least beyond what I said about the first one. It continues to be very good, envisioning a realistic world populated by humans and robots, with various social forces pushing against one another as the increasing sophistication of artificial intelligence presents the problems of human obsolescence and robot servitude. It's pretty classic science fiction, and Naoki Urasawa, working from Osamu Tezuka's lead, pulls it off with panache, making everything work seamlessly. He's got several plot threads working at once, including a classic mystery about who is killing robots and pro-robot humans, the introduction of all the various "World's Greatest Robots", flashbacks to the war that seemed to affect everyone so profoundly, a Klan-style group (right down to the robes and hoods) of influential anti-robot conspirators, some indications that something sinister happened to Gesicht in the past, and the continuing involvement of Atom (a.k.a. Astro Boy) and his sister Uran in all this business. It's compelling, page-turning stuff, and it's as much of a pleasure to watch Urasawa work as ever, but I just don't feel that I have much to analyze in the way of plot movement.

But I do like to point out what I like about Urasawa's storytelling and art, so this might get image-heavy with examples. Be forewarned.

I've mentioned before how impressed I am with the way Urasawa can introduce and establish characterization very quickly and effectively, but volume 3 here sees him go the other way, with a character showing up and elements of his motivation and backstory being doled out slowly, for maximum effect. At first, he seems like a normal husband and father, but as we watch him pick up his brother's body, which had been held for three years due to the involvement in a robot case, we learn that he is actually a hard-core member of the anti-robot society. And only then do we learn some of his history and why he hates robots; his emotions become understandable, even if we don't necessarily agree with him. It's effective work, stretched out over several chapters, and his pursuit of revenge against Gesicht for the possible (actually, it seems quite probable at this point) murder of his brother should continue to make for a high-stakes spectacle. And by the way, he has the unsubtle name of Adolf, but we don't learn that until well after his motivation has been established. Urasawa is such a manipulator.

There's also plenty of nail-biting action, as the great robots continue to be attacked and destroyed, and other than some brief glimpses, Urasawa keeps the attacker off-panel for the most part for maximum mystery. But as good as that stuff is, the scenes in between the battles really make them all worthwhile, as we go back and forth on the humanity and alien nature of the robots. Atom tries his best to understand human emotion, which seems strange, but he also weeps after accessing Gesicht's memories. When the mighty Brando is killed, he transmits happy memories of his family to the other robots, but is interrupted by a strange signal that Atom seems to understand as painful robot emotion, but is unable to explain to a human. And then that gets immediately followed up by Gesicht's creepy nightmares, in which Atom's face in his memory is replaced by that of killer robot Brau 1589:

Even the appearance of the robots seems comfortingly human, until they do something freakishly robotic like remove their head to switch bodies:

Urasawa constantly keeps readers on their toes, making the robots seem friendly and still unnerving, often at the same time.

He does plenty of other work that wonderfully fills out the world too, like a scene in which Adolf drives away from his home, which appears to be a peaceful European villa:

Only for the next page to pull back and reveal that it was actually on the top of a skyscraper, surrounded by sci-fi buildings and arching roadways:

It's a way to subtly incorporate the conflict between human and robot, the old, simple world and new, complex technology, into the very scenery.

And Urasawa does plenty of other amazing things with the artwork as well, including a series of scenes in which Uran takes care of a robot she found (who might be the eponymous killer, but seems harmless, looking like a human hobo) as a sort of pet, discovering that he has painted what seems to be a series of abstract marks on a wall:

As she helps him explore his confused emotions about his powers, which seem to be able to create life as well as destroy it, he adds to his artwork, and the reveal of the final work is stunning, with a surprise inclusion of color in the middle of the chapter.

And finally, the way Urasawa plays with Tezuka's story and art is fascinating and delightful, whether he's modifying Tezuka's characters to match his style, coming up with his own versions of Inspector Tawashi:

Or Professor Ochanomizu (a.k.a. Dr. Elefun):

Coming up with variations on Tezuka's psychedelics:

Or even using his own version of Tezuka's "star system", as in this character who looks a lot like a similar creepy fellow in 20th Century Boys:

It's masterful work, never boring and always gorgeous to look at. I can't get enough of Urasawa's work, and seeing what he'll do with Tezuka's story next is one of the most highly-anticipated comics experiences that I'm eagerly awaiting.