Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka
Naoki Urasawa, writer/artist
Takashi Nagasaki, writer
Based on Astro Boy: The Greatest Robot on Earth by Osamu Tezuka
200 pages or so each
I was over the moon for the first three volumes of Pluto, suspense mangaka Naoki Urasawa’s Watchmen-style reimagining of a classic Astro Boy storyline–and for precisely the same reasons lots of other smart critics weren’t. I love stories about emotionally wounded men (or in this case, robots) crying over the death of puppies and children. I love stories about people paralyzed by grief and loss. I love stories about people who lay it all on the line, and lose it all, to save other people, and then how those other people handle being the reluctant beneficiaries of that sacrifice. In a word, I love melodrama. If it involves robots, so much the better. And in Pluto, I felt for the first time that Urasawa was connecting with something more than mere story.
Ultimately the series fails to fully live up to the magical magisterial melodramatic pomp of that first volume. As I found to be the case with Monster (although certainly not to that extent), Urasawa’s technique of drawing out characters’ climactic realizations and confrontations for page after page eventually dilutes their impact. In this particular case, the murder mystery at the story’s heart ends up being solved in a fashion that’s both disappointingly straightforward in terms of motive and unnecessarily, distractingly complicated in terms of execution. And since this is a super-robot story, the climax must come about through combat, ironically the one thing that Urasawa’s visual vocabulary does not enable him to portray in the most thrilling of all possible ways; particularly given the environment in which the final battle takes place, it’s difficult to get a handle on where you are, what’s going on, or what the consequences for each beat might be. Like the characters whose fate will be determined by the battle’s outcome, you just have to take it on faith that the involved parties know what they’re doing and things will come out in the end.
That said, the robots, and their surreally obtrusive appearances in Urasawa’s meticulous blend of realism and slick cartooniness, never ceased to be a joy to look at and never stopped lodging themselves in my brain. The repeated use of flashbacks to horrible events that haunt the main characters had that same effect on me. I came to care about these people/”people”–well, more like I came to be intrigued by them. I wanted to find out what happened to them to make them the way they are, and for things to work out for them, and I was frequently surprised when things went bad way before I thought they would. And in the end I appreciated the book’s blend of deep, unshakable, even scientific pessimism about human nature with an impassioned insistence that we can reject that programming if we try–in a fashion that’s a lot more convincing than the similar moral throughline in Monster, by the way. It may not stick the landing, but it’s a thing of beauty in flight.