March Manganess: PLUTO

As you may well have sussed, I've got it hot and heavy for alliteration. For that reason, I've singled out the month of March to highlight a few of the best and brightest manga titles from my ever-swaying stack. Each week I'll showcase a new Japanese comics title, be it popular or obscure, right-to-left or flip-flopped. These import digests have flooded into chain book retailers, often outnumbering the domestic fair. It isn't all nose-bleeds and sweat-drops though, and I promise you won't get slapped with any tentacles. So if you're up for something slightly different, join me in celebrating March Manganess


 

Writer and artist Naoki Urasawa is pretty big in Japan, and his Western audience is wildly vocal too. Many readers rank his 18-volume psycho-thriller Monster among their favorite series, often at the very top. It's probably going to take me a while before I can plow through all those books, but that's for another day. Right now I'm looking at a more recent project called PLUTO, a reinterpretation of the iconic Osamu Tezuka manga and anime Astro Boy. That original story is about a boy robot who flies around in his underpants, punching things adorably. Which is either enchanting or terribly creepy or both, depending on your world view. For my part, it's probably a 2:37 ratio. This modern iteration takes something of an Asimov approach, with an international ensemble of robots murdering each other (which, as you may recall, doesn't breech any of the Laws of Robotics, per se, but is still deeply unsettling). As these robots are beloved by the world at large, a Europol agent named Gesicht is dispatched to unravel the mystery. At the time of writing, the American distribution of the series is ongoing, with the 8th and final digest forthcoming from Viz.

But taking a cue from the indomitable Brian McKnight, let's start it back at one. 

The first volume of PLUTO introduces the series' central conspiracy, the disturbing serial murders of robots in a world where man and machine have coexisted peacefully for nearly a decade. The first to be destroyed is Mont Blanc, a friendly Alpine tour guide beloved not just by his countrymen, but by fans around the world. Investigators suspect a tornado and an ensuing forest fire are to blame, but the robot's elderly creator is convinced of foul play. Around the same time, a human advocate for robot rights is murdered in Germany. The remains of both victims are adorned with makeshift demonic horns, more than suggesting a link, even a mutual culprit.

Detective Gesicht investigates that second crime scene, and through a strange chain of events, ends up on a global pursuit of the Seven Great Robots of the World, those machines capable of becoming weapons of mass destruction. Not because they're suspects, but because he believes they may be targets themselves. Later in the volume, we're introduced to another of the seven called North No. 2, a robot who fought extensively in the last central Asian conflict. Retired from military service, North becomes a manservant to an angry old composer in his Scottish castle. In either storyline we learn a great deal about the cohabitation of man and machine, seeing various sides of the future world's status quo. There are many kinds of robots, and they each serve various functions within society. It's an exceptional introduction to a complex world, and a fascinating if familiar setting for a science fiction mystery. More importantly, it's so engaging that it practically demands your commitment to the series and grabbing that second volume right away. 

PLUTO is a worthy successor to the long list of speculative robot fiction, harkening to the android stories of Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick, or movies like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. It's also the latest in an even longer tradition of fables about self-aware, man-made beings. Astro Boy himself is an analog of Frankenstein's monster, or more accurately, Pinocchio. But that doesn't mean it's a mere rehash of the concept. PLUTO excels as a terrific detective story that just so happens to be set in a futuristic world with a diverse class system of sentient machines. Even by itself, the North No. 2 subplot stands as a cool fairy tale about an artist and his apprentice. Without getting too pretentious, the series asks some pretty interesting questions about what it means to have a soul or if a machine is capable of creating art. Rather than distracting from the ongoing narrative, these tangents only serve to make the story richer, the world more complex. And this is just the beginning. 

Manga is known for it's pacing. All those establishing shots of food or landscapes. What Urasawa does here is a pretty striking example of that. There are a lot of quiet moments in this book, haunting reaction shots of expressionless robots just standing still and thinking. But thinking about what? That's the chilling part. He's also great with horror. Not gothic horror, but psychological dread. There's a scene where Gesicht visits a robot who's been imprisoned for years, the last robot to have killed a human being. This character is really kind of terrifying though he never moves and has no facial expressions to convey much of anything. It speaks to our primal compulsion to imbue inanimate objects with personality. We actively seek out faces. Think of the shapes granted to Wall-E that make him so visually appealing, even cute. It all goes back to Scott McCloud's meditation on form in cartooning, and how simple, suggestive shapes and symbols can inspire emotion. It's the heart of comics.  

When I flipped the volume over, I was surprised and excited to see a pull quote from Junot Diaz, author of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a critically acclaimed novel. Sort of a literary sensation, really. It shouldn't be so surprising though, because this book has one hell of a pedigree, and even if you want to ignore the cultural impact of the original Astro Boy, it's just a damn good book on its own. 

Big ol' recommendation for this one. 

 

 


Paul Montgomery dreams of electric sheep. Find him on Twitter or contact him at paul@ifanboy.com. 

Comments

  1. Hmmm. I’ve seen the Monster anime and am working through Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys right now. I might just check out Pluto and some of his other works…

  2. Great article Paul. After reading this and hearing about it on "11’o clock". I checked it out at instock. 9 bucks. No reason not to at least check out the first volume. Think I’ll have to do that in my next trade buying batch. 

    I’m really excited to read this one. For whatever reason, I love stories about the humanity of machines. I have a fair amount of Asimov (Some read, some not) and P.K. Dick (Aagain, some read, some not) but I have a feeling if I like the first volume (i’m sure I will) I’m going to steam roll through this series. Can’t wait.  

  3. I read 1-7 in rapid succession and I completely agree.  The story is captivating and Urasawa is a master of visual storytelling. Also, Gesicht is totally Daniel Craig, right?

  4. I really enjoyed what Urasawa brought to this classic story, remixing it with some Asimov, Shirow, and PKD to heighten the atmosphere and themes that Tezuka pioneered with the Astro Boy saga.  Japanese manga continues to innovate, if not in the mechanics of comic book storytelling, at least in exploring complex themes of identity, culture, politics, and technology.  Thanks for sharing this with the iFanboy community, Paul!

  5. Excellent review, Paul.  I’ll also mention that Gesicht is himself a robot (not a spoiler, I promise; it’s revealed early on), and that — as shown on the above page with the detective and the "widow" — a great many of the robots are married and have robot children, further deepening the complexity of the world of Pluto.

    I too was turned on to Urasawa by VinceB and the 11 O’Clock Comics guys.  Pluto and 20th Century Boys (whose volumes also contain that Junot Diaz quote, BTW) are absolute must reads in my book, and I had never read a manga just two years ago.  Urasawa’s art is so subtle, yet at times very dynamic.  His characters act so clearly with their faces and bodies that the captions might not be necessary.

    Having only dipped my toe into the manga pool, I look forward to seeing what else Paul recommends… no pressure, though.  😉

  6. Ah… Pluto, how I love that story… now to think of it, I think I misplaced it on my shelf. It’s not where it’s supposed to be. =/

  7. This has been in my Amazon shopping cart for a couple of weeks now, waiting for me to decide whether or not I should get this. Very timely/creepy there, Paul.

    So is volume 1 a self-contained story? Would I enjoy volume 1 even if I lacked the ambition/bones to get the rest of the collection? Is there a lot of monologing about the nature of free-will and humanity? I used to be a huge, huge anime fan until (around 15) I just got burnt out on all introspection. I think narrative fiction works best communicating big ideas through the actual narrative, and not so much when the characters act as a mouth piece for their author.

    Not saying all anime/manga does that…or maybe it does – I wouldn’t know. I’m just saying that’s mostly what I remember from almost a decade ago.

    Basically I’m considering dipping my big toe back into the eastern pool of sequential art and story and I’m wondering if this is a good place to start.

  8. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Ottobot – It’s very much the start of a longer mystery, but even if you weren’t planning on getting all of the volumes right away, there’s still a lot to love in just this first chapter. There’s also no real monologuing. A scientist questions a robot about his dreams, but it’s really just casual conversation. Don’t worry about the overwrought allegories and psychobabble that you see in some other manga/anime. This was really well written. 

  9. Sounds awesome. Sigh. I’ll add it to the list.

  10. First off, the reference to Brian McKnight made me laugh outloud.  That isn’t common for me while reading an article or review.

     Secondly, I really like Pluto and concur with your recommendation.

  11. I always see this at my work and we have all the volumes released so far. Definitely one of the more interesting manga’s I see in that section. You won me over Paul, I will give this a try.

  12. here in Italy tomorrow will be out the #6. one of the top of my readings, i like it very much

  13. Love the idea of spending a month to explore manga.  I know the absolute bare minimum regarding it.  I’ll add this to my stack of things to read.

     Thanks, Paul.

  14. Way to go, Paul, fantastic article!!! 😀

    I’ve held off on reading "PLUTO" but can’t wait to finally dive in!!

    Is there any possibility there could be a monthly manga review feature here on iFanboy? 😀 Not that I think iFanboy is incomplete or lacking without it (iFanboy ROCKS as it is!!! :D) but surely there are more iFanboy readers who read manga in addition to everything else out over here in the States, and this "March Manganess" article was fantastic!! 

     I just finished reading the excellent "EAGLE: THE MAKING OF AN ASIAN-AMERICAN PRESIDENT" by Kaiji Kawaguchi, released here in the States by Viz, and highly recommend it to EVERYONE!!!! 😀 

  15. I’m sold. Nice article!

  16. Everything by Urasawa is great, Pluto is no different.

     Good stuff, Paul.

  17. Pluto was my favorite book in 2009.  Great rec.

  18. I’ve been reading this since Book 1.  It is brilliant, argubaly better than Urasawa’s Monster.  I even went so far as to download Astro Boy The Greatest Robot In The World (Pt. 1 & 2).  How Pluto has ben adapted from Tezuka’s original story is fantastic.  If you love thrillers, this is perhaps one of the best stories currently being published.

  19. Finally someone here took note of this awesome story. Nice job Paul.

  20. First time poster 🙂 Love the work you guys are doing at ifanboy!

    Great review of Pluto Paul! I am very happy to see this series acknowledged & praised on ifanboy. Urasawa’s work is a perfect doorway to Manga for readers who don’t know where to start. I am originally from France, where Urasawa has been published since 2001, and his work certainly bridged some of the gap between Euro-centric comic readers and Manga readers. In addition, Pluto is a relatively short series – Vol. 8 is the final volume (it came out in Japan in June 2009) – Urasawa is actually on Vol. 3 of a newseries "Billy Bat" about a cartoonist (Mangaka) that looks great.

    The aspect of Pluto that I find fascinating is that it is a retelling of a previous work by Osamu Tezuka that had a deep impact on Urasawa as a young manga fan in the 60’s. This a very unusual thing in manga publishing  – most mangas start from scratch and manga publishers don’t licence characters to reinveted by other generation of artists that much like it is common in the US. In that respect Urasawa’s work is very similar to what Bendis has been doing on Ultimate Spiderman – even in their choices of expanding on scenes or ideas that are told in a much more compact way in the original. I strongly encourage people to read the original 90-page story plublished by Dark Horse in the 3rd volume of Astro boy as "The Greatest Robot on Earth". The parallel Tezuka/Lee/Dikto is also clear considering they impact they had on comic book history in their respective countries.

    The last point I would make is that Urasawa with this book is showing how childhood experiences impact our adult life – and that is the central theme of 20th Century Boys (The 24 vol. series he completed before Pluto) – He is creatively coming full-circle on the theme and applying it.

    One last thing Urasawa is not "pretty big" in Japan – he is HUGE  – 😉 riding the trains in Tokyo you can see banners advertising his new series, not to mention the anime and movie adaptations – the guy is a manga-star!

    Go read Pluto!!

     

     

     

  21. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Hanpansu – Glad you liked the review! Also, thanks for posting. You mentioned you’re originally from France, and it seems like you’ve spent some time in Tokyo as well. It’d be great to get your perspective in our community discussions since you’ve probably experienced much more of the global comic scene than most. Keep us honest!  

    Yeah, saying Urasawa is "pretty big in Japan" was definitely an understatement. The more I read about him, the more I realize just how huge his fanbase really is. 

    I’ve only just started up with PLUTO, but as I mentioned, I am absolutely loving it. I’ll definitely be reading more of Urasawa, and I hope to check out "Billy Bat" when it makes it to the US. Look for my first impressions of 20th Century Boys later this month!  

  22. @Paul:  A 20th Century Boys review coming soon, you say?  W00T!

    @Hanpansu:  Maybe not my place as an infrequent poster myself, but WELCOME!  Glad to hear your perspective, esp. as a ‘citizen of the world.’  I’ve never read Astro Boy or seen the animes, so I came into Pluto cold, but obviously I love it, too.  Thanks for the info on Billy Bat (wonder when the English translation will be coming…) and especially for the news (to me, anyway) that 20th Century Boys is a 24 volume series!!!  After some thought, I’ve decided that the excitement over the length, and presumably depth, of the series outweighs the disappointment that it may well be… lemme see, about 6 volumes a year, volume 7 just out… it may well be late 2012 before the story is resolved. 

  23. Great article, Paul. Reminded me to search my library catalogue again for any titles by Naoki Urasawa and they finally had the first volumes of Monster, 20th Century Boys and Pluto available. I grabbed them and I’m really excited to read them.

  24. @ Paul & Doofenschmirtz – thank you for the nice welcome 🙂 

    Just to clarify "20th Century boys" runs 22 volumes + 2 Volumes concluding the  saga under the title "21st Century Boys" – It’s a shame that it took so long for Viz to publish 20CB in the USA, but Urasawa is very picky with the translation of his titles – although there is strong interest,  he refuses to have is pre-Monster (Happy!, Yawara & Master Keaton) work translated & published in France. 🙁

    For those of you interested in Urasawa’s artwork I posted an excerpt from a sumptuous  career-spanning Art Book in Japan last year: http://s876.photobucket.com/albums/ab323/zignou/Urasawa/?albumview=slideshow

    It is available on amazon Japan: http://www.amazon.co.jp/gp/product/4091990134/ref=ox_ya_oh_product

    Pricey but well worth it 🙂  

  25. Just put a request in for the first PLUTO volume. I’m looking forward to checking it out.

  26. Monster was great. Can’t wait to read this.