More Sensitive Killings

Naoki Urasawa’s Monster Vol. 2 (of 18)

First off, I must commend to your attention the ongoing series of medical annotations that Scott of Polite Dissent is currently producing for this book - Scott specializes in examining depictions of medical practice in pop culture, especially comics, and his site is always worth reading (especially compelling as of late was his analysis of Marvel’s recent press release regarding Chris Claremont’s health). I cannot hope to offer as detailed a guide as to the specialized areas of Monster’s content, though speaking as a genuine law student I can relay to you with confidence that this volume’s opening scene of students staring nervously down into their textbooks as their professor, his questions unanswered, declares “Will no one break this silence?” is painfully true to life, as is the bit with the unfortunately late student subsequently being put on the spot. Naturally, there are some differences in international legal education - in Germany, where the story is set, law is studied at the undergraduate level in preparation for taking the Erstes Staatsexamen, which explains why Nina is only 19 years old at the start of the book. Granted, a professor anywhere assigning a 50-page report out of the blue due to lax class participation seems kind of over-the-top, though perhaps the students we hear making the claim were exaggerating - and hey, teachers vary.

So anyway, Monster. It’s a pretty good volume we’ve got here, with writer/artist Urasawa pushing all the requisite suspense buttons in the way we’re accustomed to. Dr. Tenma is hot on the trail of the mysterious, murderous young man whose life he once saved under the scalpel - the shadowy killer has a very particular agenda in mind, and it involves a young woman attending the University of Heidelberg. Supporting characters are introduced, some of them shuffle off this mortal coil, and various faces from vol. 1 return, including the ever-entertaining BKA Inspector Lunge, a great semi-antagonist (anti-villain?). It goes without saying that Dr. Tenma’s Job-like streak of bad luck continues, with his personal safety becoming less and less certain - ironically, little of the threat comes from the entity of the title, unless that title refers to something other than a serial killer with a prince’s smile.

Oh, and there’s sentimentality. Big, greasy gobs of thick, dripping sentimentality, dolloped atop the proceedings like ice cream atop a slice of pie. Hope you like your suspense a la mode, folks, because you're gonna get an honest-to-god 26-page vignette of Dr. Tenma teaching an emotionally damaged little girl how to smile again. It's to Urasawa's credit that this stuff doesn't come off as a total plot-stopper - gratuitous emotional button pushing that it is, it's also carefully integrated into the proceeding plot, juggling more than the necessary number of character beats. Sure, we get yet more affirmation as to what a fine and healthy force Dr. Tenma is, but it's contrasted with his evolution into a more dangerous sort - he's applying his formidable skill with his hands into aiming a gun as much as working the healer's knife, and it's nicely ironic that one of the few unpunished instances of his being a good person is an almost subliminal piece of work, rising from his training to become capable of hurting people bad.

It's this deft use of motivational dissonance that keeps the book on track, at least during the initial read - you don't realize how profoundly corny some of this material is until later reflection. A lesser talent utilizing the same bag of tricks might have the reader rolling their eyes while they're supposed to be blowing through those panels, but I'm finding that Urasawa has the chops to make this stuff work so long as he keeps it relegated to the side-story character examinations that he loves so much (springing instantly to mind - the bit in Pluto with the blind composer and the robot with guns for a torso, which is actually better than any of the 'touching' bits glimpsed in Monster thus far). When such concerns dominate a good part of the story, like last volume's opening procession of wailing and emotional scourging, one can suddenly hear the gears within Urasawa's story contraptions clanging about, and that's a distraction.

But this particular volume is largely fast-reading, nearly perfect in its addictive pot-boiling suspense flavor. Scenes of itchy paranoia are beautifully executed (oh that ride in the detectives' car!), and the paths the main characters might take are tempting in the possibilities suggested. You'll want vol. 3 pretty badly once you're done with this one, and a few instances of good-hearted senior citizens forming a barricade at the hospital in support of that heavenly Dr. Tenma can't cause too loud of a groan.