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.


  1. yes, Pluto is truly a great series. It loses a bit of steam halfway through but still keeps the overall quality.

    Which is why I'm very saddened by Billy Bat. I'm hoping this turns out to be Urasawa parodying his style, but jesus right now it makes absofuckinglutely no sense whatsoever, as if Urasawa said "fuck it I'm doing whatever". I wish I was exagerating.

  2. Pluto loses steam in the last quarter, I'd say, not the second half.

    Further, I don't think Billy Bat would work as a parody of his own style. While it has the mystery theme that Urasawa loves, the really weird and incomprehensible parts are nothing like he's done before. It's mystery in a very different style, which is why I think some people don't like it.

    Unfortunately all we can do is wait and see how it ties together. I don't know if you followed 20th Century Boys or Monster on a chapter-by-chapter basis, but keep in mind the sort of limited perspective that sort of increment leaves.

  3. I would have voted for you for best GN reviewer, but then you had to go and slag Millar...meanie! ^_^

    I voted for you! Is there any doubt? You are honestly better than Jog. Jog is awesome, I don't think anyone would question that, but you are simply better.

    As for Pluto - I *love* Pluto!! I loved the original Tezuka story and I love the remake. I'll comment more later because you reviewing Pluto is a special day of happiness!

  4. "Pluto loses steam in the last quarter, I'd say, not the second half."
    I was being general. but yes.

    "Further, I don't think Billy Bat would work as a parody of his own style. While it has the mystery theme that Urasawa loves, the really weird and incomprehensible parts are nothing like he's done before. It's mystery in a very different style, which is why I think some people don't like it."
    jesus is drawing bats in the sand

    "Unfortunately all we can do is wait and see how it ties together. I don't know if you followed 20th Century Boys or Monster on a chapter-by-chapter basis, but keep in mind the sort of limited perspective that sort of increment leaves."
    Which is why I'm still reading it. anyways I read Monster and 20thCB chapter by chapter online

    "I loved the original Tezuka story and I love the remake. "
    indeed. this is how old stories should be remade. take all the best of the original and put your own spin on it

  5. Thanks, Kenny! That's very flattering. I may blush.

    And thanks for the comments about Pluto, guys. I haven't read any of Billy Bat, although I'm sure I'll buy it whenever it's imported. The reaction is interesting though; I'm curious to read it, eventually. And I'll see if I have the same problems with the end of Pluto when I get there, but I hope not. I know that some people seemed to think Monster ended poorly, but I didn't; I loved the way Urasawa wrapped it up. So, since I want him to blow me away, I hope I disagree about Pluto too. Don't let me down, Urasawa!

  6. It'll take a good while for Billy Bat to come out stateside. Urasawa has deals with ViZ to keep his stuff from coming out concurrently (he doesn't like to "compete with himself"). the very fact we have Pluto and 20thCB is nothing short of a miracle since he wanted to hold one off till the other finished. I'd just read it online if I were you since no US companies hold the rights at the moment, so yeah, legal loophole.

    Also I loved the ending to Monster, and to some extent I liked the ending to Pluto. It's just that if you read the source material (this book -, certain characters are killed off and since Urasawa is such a huge Tezuka fan he stayed true to the original and didn't quite make the best of it (and I'm talking MAJOR deaths) and to make his whole political subplot fit in he had to change the premise of what Bora actually is. but still, it was good, just didn't blow me away.

    "Don't let me down, Urasawa!"
    just click these

  7. Yeah, I need to read the original "Greatest Robot in the World" story sometime, but I'm waiting until Pluto finishes to do so. I'll have to wait and see what happens.

    And damn, those images are nuts. Now I really want to read Billy Bat. I know it'll be years before it comes out here, but I'm willing to wait.

  8. you really should. it's very interesting to see how Urasawa takes certain characters (Gesicht only appears for all of 4 pages) and instances (again the deaths) in his own way.

    Also MJB, I ORDER you to read Happy!. It's the manga he did right before Monster, currently no companies have any intention whatsoever of licensing it, and i doubt they will.

    Anyways it's about a girl who becomes a pro Tennis player with the intent of using the prize money to pay off her brother's Yakuza debts, and if she fails she gets sold into sexual slavery. Very good work by Urasawa, has a lot of the drama we expect of him plus a lot of what makes Sports mangas fun to read.

  9. Oh yeah, Happy. That's available in scanlation, right? I used to read more of those than I do now, and I do try to avoid ones that have been/will be licensed. But that sounds like a good idea; I'll have to give it a look. Never let it be said that I don't take requests!

  10. "Never let it be said that I don't take requests!"

    you win this round Brady.

    anyways pretty much everything is in scanlation, even licensed stuff, as with everything in the internet you just need to know where to look.

  11. Pluto is one of my favorite comic series I've read this year.

    In a way, I agree that Pluto loses steam as it draws to a conclusion. But I think this is because Urasawa and Miyazaki had to stay true to the Tezuka story instead of letting their far superior (That's right, I said it) robot tale play out.

    I wish I could get more into it, but you know, spoiling it for our host doesn't seem cool.

    Also: Brando's death scene makes my chin go wibbly whenever I think of it...

  12. @dimesfornickels: I think you mean Nagasaki and not Miyazaki.

    On the subject of Happy!, beware. It's really excellent, but it's probably one of the most intensely frustrating reads because Urasawa makes the protagonist's life utter shit. It's fun to keep rooting for her, but I know some people that got turned off by the sheer amount of trolling certain characters engage in through the series (did you think Eva Heinamann of Monster was bad? You haven't seen anything).

  13. I've never read any scanlations, but I hear their English is generally weird. Is this the experience you guys have had?

    As for Pluto, I *love* the original story by Tezuka. It's amazing how much emotion he was able to draw out of what I think is more of a "cute" drawing style. His pacing was incredible and his characters were just so fleshed out.

    With Pluto, there's a few things I love about it. Urasawa's storytelling craftsmanship is amazing. Matt covered all of that. The other thing I'm loving is the exploration of the robots' emotions. That's a neat twist absent from the original. Also, Atom is just such an amazing design.

  14. Yeah, that's what I've heard about Happy. So I'm forewarned to be ready for lots of depressing stuff.

    Re: scanlations - Since they're done by amateurs, they usually don't have the polished quality of official imports, so that means the language can be kind of rough at times, but from what I've seen, they usually do a pretty good job. I actually find the translation process kind of fascinating; it's not always very easy to make sure the spirit of the text comes through in addition to the basic language. And, you know, there's grammar and punctuation and all that, but that might just be something that nitpickers like me scrutinize closely.

    As for Tezuka's emotion, I totally agree. I always find it incredible how much comes through when he's using such a deceptively simple, cartoony style. Books like Phoenix, Buddha, and Dororo are other great examples of that technique; he really was a master of the form.

  15. Scanlations, in my experience, tend to be consistently better than professional translations. Out of the sum total of scanlations, my experience is relatively limited since it's a rather gargantuan pool, but I can say that with seinen at least you get good quality for the most part.

  16. Anon: Ha! Yeah, that's right. Thanks.

    I live in Kyushu and I always mix up Miyazaki and Nagasaki for some reason... Age or something. :)

  17. scans are as good as the scanners. certain groups suck and only really exist to allow english speakers to understand the gist,

    BUT like anon said there are certain groups that are near just damn near professional. I don't even know how the do it, I mean certain chapters of mangas like Monster, berserk, etc. actually make more sense in scans.

  18. also I expect some excellent posts from you MJB when 20thCB starts to really get going. at his height Friend is on Johann level