Comics Time: Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Vols. 1-3

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Vols. 1-3

Naoki Urasawa, writer/artist

Takashi Nagasaki, writer

Based on Astro Boy: The Greatest Robot on Earth by Osamu Tezuka

Viz, 2009

200 pages each

$12.99 each

Buy them from Amazon.com

I take back everything I said about Naoki Urasawa. Well, okay, no I don’t, but everything I said about Naoki Urasawa definitely does not apply here. Finally, one of his series contains visual elements that exist for more than simply conveying the information of the story as clearly and dramatically as possible. And I didn’t think that was in the offing, by the way, since in the first few pages you get a “guy with a gun turns a corner, does a half-turn and whips the gun at the camera” sequence that struck me as an unimaginative, un-comicsy rip from the cinema. But a few pages later our straight-laced, sad robot detective Gesicht informs a robot-maid wife that her robot-cop husband has been killed in the line of duty, and Urasawa gives us a series of close-ups of the grief-stricken robot’s machine face, which, of course, never changes. And blam, I was hooked.

In Pluto, a contemporary-superhero-comics-style “reimagining” of a classic < i>Astro Boy story by Osamu Tezuka, Urasawa uses the presence of robots as embodiments of surrealism. From the bereaved wife’s static expression, to the towering North No. 2 in his judge’s robe, to sinister Brau 1589′s mangled scrap heap of a body, to a revamp of Astro Boy (aka Atom) that makes him less like a jaunty short-pantsed slugger and more like an eerie kid out of The Shining, they’re the flourish of Weird, the touches of visual poetry, that I always wanted from my limited experience with Urasawa’s work. That his line and design sensibility is otherwise such a just-the-facts affair only heightens their “thing that should not be” effect.

And they seem to have unleashed more where that came from. The series of murders that are the series’ central mystery are themselves like staged art installations, sort of like the theory that holds the Black Dahlia’s murder as a macabre Surrealist masterpiece. Elsewhere, jagged black lines emerge from transmission static as a literal representation of despair; a huge black thing slouches half-unseen through the smoke and sand of a war-ravaged Persian town, the sight of it driving a young boy mad; traumatic memories of war are represented by indistinct flurries of the violent clash of robotic limbs, or a decontextualized and repeated offer of money for bodies; a sentient teddy bear sits immobile, a puppet master at the mercy of whoever moves it around; a tiny figure is captured leaping from rooftop to rooftop in the final images recorded by a dying robot, its blurry body silhouetted against the sky.

You add all this to Urasawa’s usual page-turning panache, and suddenly what had felt like mere proficiency gains the power to haunt and to move. There are the usual resonances with and/or swipes from other genre-art touchstones: Brau 1589 is Hannibal Lecter with microprocessors, there’s an Iraq War riff as is custom with science fiction that wants to be taken seriously this decade, and the plot–super detective believes that other super beings of his acquaintance are being hunted by a serial killer so he travels around to warn them with varying degrees of success–is straight-up Watchmen Chapter One. Plus, the whole thing is an adaptation of a story about Japan’s Mickey Mouse/Superman cultural juggernaut. (“Flying boy robot in shorts” is the extent of my knowledge of Astro Boy, so what Urasawa is taking from Tezuka narratively or visually is beyond me.) But instead of coming across like button-pushing, all of this, and all the chases and clue-hunting and races against time and unsuspected reversals that are Urasawa’s thriller trademarks, now feels like ammo in the arsenal of someone taking aim at some big old-fashioned sci-fi questions about war, technology, human rights, friendship, childhood, and that old chestnut, what it means to be human. The thing that fills me with delight here is that when you look at that robot maid just standing and staring, unable to express her emotion, you get the sense that for once, this master penciller and plotter doesn’t have all the answers.

3 Responses to Comics Time: Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Vols. 1-3

  1. Jog says:

    Your experience with Urasawa is almost exactly the opposite of mine. I still like 20th Century Boys a hell of a lot, although I readily admit the themes he’s working with are still percolating… like, I wouldn’t put it on a Top Ten of Anything 2009 list, no way. But it IS a 24-book series after all, and if you’re gonna slag the guy backhandedly for a too-precise grasp of plotting I think it necessarily follows that he might be looking to the long term in developing the literary qualities of the series, i.e. the notion of adults reconciling their pop culture-infused dreams of a country’s sunnier past with their present situations.

    Pluto though… the problem there is pretty simple. I read a bunch of it a few years ago, and rereading it does Urasawa absolutely no favors. He’s wonderful at cooking that turn-the-page plotting till it boils, there’s tons of immediacy to his storytelling – and as you mention, his visual storytelling is a good bit cleverer. But once you’re over the immediate impact (and in a suspense mystery of this type, believe me, you’re gonna be over it) you realize how interfacing with Tezuka’s work brings out Urasawa’s most obnoxiously shrill melodramatics while giving him license to be really, really, really, really, really self-serious, in that he’s dealing with a beloved storyline by an architect of the form that was himself no stranger to hysterical melodrama, exclamatory politics, etc.

    (Naturally, this begs the question of whether 20th Century Boys will hold up any better, as well as whether ‘depth’ is a necessary quality for a successful pop comic – I mean, that sounds like a given to us North American art comicsy critics, but a LOT of manga seems focused on providing top-quality surface pleasures without concern for depth’s burden, to mix a metaphor. Exploring the finer points of the critical aesthetic from an educated standpoint will be a key goal in comics analysis in the near future, I think.)

    But Tezuka did this all so much better. I notice you haven’t read much Astro Boy… the dirty secret there is that the actual comics are repetitive and super-blunt in the way that kids’ comics tend to be when they’re really stretching for resonance. But have you read a lot of Tezuka? In his better work, he marshals this totally crazed desire to entertain into weird and unsettling-in-a-good-way forms, where war atrocities exist on the same page as totally goofy slapstick and gags, all of it unified by his tremendous visual chops, which defined the form for a good fucking reason. There’s even a continuum – Phoenix cranks it all to the highest level in the service of full-blown mysticism, while the gekiga-ish works (MW, Ode to Kirihito) sort of subsume this instinct into restless interfacing with graphic technique and adult subject matter.

    Urasawa, meanwhile, just deletes all the humor and tries to revise Tezuka into something totally serious — even though part of Tezuka’s charm is that his intent is always serious, though his comics often aren’t, if you catch my drift — which, combined with his already profound fetish for emotional button pushing, results in stuff like, oh, the INNOCENT CHILDREN!!! war flashbacks or that 110,000-page sequence in vol. 1 with the war robot learning the piano but then being called back to his death in battle… just as he forged an emotional connection with that tragically cruel old man!

    And… I mean, that doesn’t make it awful or anything, it’s a slick book, I wouldn’t warn anyone against it. But I think it delving into it hurts it more than other comics… maybe even Urasawa’s other comics, which don’t have as much history to sort through on his end or ours.

  2. Thanks for pitching in at such length, man–that’s really helpful to me in terms of understanding both Urasawa and Tezuka. Chris Mautner and Tim Hodler (it could have been one or the other but I’m pretty sure it was both) made much the same point in that Inkstuds roundtable we did regarding Pluto’s melodramatics/sentimentality, something that Tim and/or Chris described as present in Monster (which I got like three or four volumes into before stopping and refuse to re-read until I own all the volumes and can read through from start to finish), but which they say 20th Century Boys largely eschews so far. (They said how/why they thought that was, but I forget.) And it definitely makes sense.

    That said, I still prefer Pluto, for a few reasons. First, I’m a sucker for melodrama, a huge huge HUGE sucker for it, as I’m sure you’re well aware. This is just much more of what I want from an immediate comics-reading experience than the suspense-alone model of up-to-this-point 20th Century Boys. (Which I found just as button-pushing in its own way, with the Shogun character, for example.) Second, all the visual stuff I mentioned.

    Third, lately I’ve been wondering if the whole “satisfying chunk” theory of a tankubon’s appeal really holds up. It’s certainly more satisfying than a monthly floppy–haven’t bought ‘em in years, generally speaking, and I’ll never go back. But for me, it’s much much less satisfying than a trade paperback collection of an American serialized comic, even a volume from an ongoing series or longer run by a set of creators–let alone a traditional “graphic novel” or a complete collection of a limited series. In all of those, you’re getting a story with a beginning, middle, and end, usually even from a superhero tpb. (You might need to buy two of those to get the whole magilla, like if you’re talking about one of those maddeningly collected DC books or a long Ed Brubaker or Matt Fraction story arc, but no more than two.) But with manga, you’re getting one-twentyfourth of a story! They’re not even designed to at least get you to a logical wrap-up, usually–like, you can’t even compare it to a season of Lost or The Sopranos or The Wire, say, where you could buy a box set and get a fairly satisfactory storytelling experience even though the characters continue on into the next season. With a tankubon, you’re usually just getting however many chapters get you up to 200 pages or so.

    Thus you get phenomena like trying to evaluate 20th Century Boys based on the five or six volumes available in a given year. And maybe that’s as much of a mistake as would be trying to review Rusty Brown now. But you can’t review an individual 20th Century Boys volume the way you can review Acme #19, or even #18. Which makes the buying experience less satisfying to me as well as the reading and reviewing experience. $12.99 24 times is a huge investment, to me at least as prohibitive as buying issue after issue of New Avengers for four bucks a pop.

    Finally, to answer your question, I’ve read zero Tezuka, which is deeply shameful and embarrassing. But I hadn’t read any Herge until this year either. I’m a shameful embarrassing person. I do have a three volumes of Black Jack that Vertical was nice enough to send me so I’ll probably start there, which I know is a very very weird thing to do. I’d love to catch up with Buddha and Phoenix, just for example, but see above…

  3. Comics Time: Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka

    Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Naoki Urasawa, writer/artist Takashi Nagasaki, writer Based on Astro Boy: The Greatest Robot on Earth by Osamu Tezuka Viz, 2009-2010 Eight volumes 200 pages or so each $12.99 each Buy them from Amazon.com I was…

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