Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Monster Mash: Please don't let this turn into a superhero comic

Monster, volume 10
By Naoki Urasawa

After the excitement of the previous volume, it's back to what passes for business as usual in this series, with characters delving into Johan's past and uncovering dark, inexplicable secrets.  They come at it kind of obliquely here though, with the action moving to Prague and centering on two new characters who probably aren't even aware of Johan.  The first is Grimmer, a reporter who is trying to lay bare all of the atrocities that were committed at 511 Kinderheim, the orphanage where Johan brainwashed all the children and caused them to go on a murderous riot (we first learned about it way back in volume 3).  He's a great character, and Urasawa smoothly introduces him such that we feel like we already know him after just a few pages.  He's a sort of goofy, good-natured, disarmingly friendly sort, completely open about his intentions and background:

We might learn some of his secrets, such as how the death of his son prompted his quest for justice, but for now, he's the type that's happy to help anyone he meets (including Dr. Tenma, whose presence in this volume is little more than a cameo), maintaining a dopey exterior even when he's doing something like pretending to be stuck in a train's passageway to block some officers' path:  

He makes a good guide for this portion of the series, as he investigates that creepy orphanage.  And this leads to some tense scenes, as Grimmer confronts a former director of 511 Kinderheim, only to discover that he seems to be continuing his research on a group of strange-seeming young boys:

But not everything is as it appears on the surface, as we find when some nasty types show up with violent intentions.  In a surprising twist, the culprit seems to be Johan's sister Nina, but that can't be right; she's not the murderous type (unless Urasawa has a reveal in the works that she is secretly in league with Johan, or is being controlled by him, but that seems unlikely and farfetched.  One thing that works so well about the series is that it seems plausible, in an action movie sort of way, and that would stretch credibility a bit too far, given what we see here).  My guess is that it's actually Johan in a wig.

Grimmer gets some great scenes though, including a nasty bit in which he ends up on the receiving end of some fingernail-clipper-based torture:

But Urasawa changes it up near the end of the volume as he switches focus to Detective Suk, a young police officer that is investigating his role-model partner's death.  As an idealistic rookie, he's up for some eye-opening experiences, as he uncovers corruption in the force that is tied to the secret police left over from the Soviet regime.  But how does Johan factor into all this, along with Nina, who also seems to be trying to work her way toward the secrets of Johan's background.  And Tenma is there lurking in the background, ready to jump in and take over the plot at some point.

It's fascinating to watch Urasawa weave these plots together, while still making time for character moments and some excellently-paced scenes of confrontations and subterfuge.  As the volume ends, Suk and Grimmer are bound together inextricably; will they survive, or will they fall to Johan's continuing rampage of terror throughout Europe?  I can't wait to read the next volume and find out.

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