Lots of manga talk.

*Happy Pestilence Dept: Naoki Urasawa fever has taken the Internet! First, Chris Butcher offered an update on Viz’s plans to finally release something by the much buzzed-about manga impresario in the US; apparently, Urasawa is blocking Viz’s release of 20th Century Boys until they’ve completely released an earlier Urasawa work they’ve also acquired the rights to, Monster, which is 18 volumes long. Even on the ‘fast track’ Viz is promising to put this release on, it looks to me like 20th Century Boys won’t be out around here until 2007.

But that’s not all! As revealed by the Comics Journal Message Board, Monster has also been picked up for film adaptation by New Line Cinema, and no less than David Cronenberg has been named in certain circles as the director. Cronenberg is currently riding high on acclaim for his current comics-to-film adaptation, A History of Violence, from the Paradox Press graphic novel by Judge Dredd creator John Wagner with art by Vince Locke. This won’t, however, be the first adaptation of an Urasawa work to appear in English; the television and Original Video Animation (OVA) anime adaptations of the Urasawa-drawn Master Keaton were released in the US across eight dvds from 2003-2004 by Geneon Entertainment.

Why, things are getting so intense that Tom Spurgeon even ran a little summary of affairs, kind of like what I’m doing now. Also from Tom: Cromartie High School live-action movie sued by baseball player William Cromartie, which sounds like a plotline that would be right at home in the manga itself. Get Freddy and the gorilla on the case!

*And in that very spirit of Urasawa-related intensity, I now present my own humble contribution:

A Very Exciting Comparison Between Naoki Urasawa’s Most Recent Manga Epic and the Osamu Tezuka Story That Inspired It.

Do note that this review involves the evaluation of what are known in the current fan parlance as ‘scanlations,’ unauthorized fan-made non-profit translations of non-English comics created through the use of image alteration software and distributed to other fans via BitTorrent or assorted website downloads. These files are removed from distribution once the proper English-language distribution rights for comics in question are obtained by a company; thus, don’t expect to see Monster or 20th Century Boys just sitting around somewhere, as they've been ‘retired.’

But other works have not yet obtained formal English-language distribution, and are fairly simple to locate.

To wit:

Pluto #1 - 19 (of ?)

Obviously by ‘#1-19’ I don’t refer to issues of a comic book, I mean chapters of an anthology-based serialization, which is the means by which many Japanese comics are released in their native environs. Pluto appears in Big Comic Original, a typically sprawling phone book of sequential art, doubtlessly armed with toilet-tissue paper quality and periodic blasts of glossy color. Pluto also sports two collected volumes thus far, English translations of which shall be the only way we’ll ever see it upon formal release in the US.

I’m getting into such release format details because I want you all to be sufficiently informed of the problems inherent in the analogy I’m about to make: Pluto is the manga equivalent of an Ultimate book. Ultimate Astro Boy. And it’s a great Ultimate book, possibly better than any of the actual Ultimate books I’ve read.

Pluto, for those of you who haven’t sussed it out from my prior posts and links on the matter, is a heavily expanded adaptation of a single storyline from manga god Osamu Tezuka’s ultra-popular little-boy robot superhero adventure series, Tetsuwan Atom, which will henceforth be referred to by its common English-language title, Astro Boy. But Pluto isn’t a straightforward adaptation at all; it expands widely on characters and situations that are barely mentioned in passing in Tezuka’s original. It replaces Tezuka’s then-signature hyperactive oil-and-water jocular tragedy aesthetic with a more (forgive me lord) ‘mature’ tone, one of contemplation, conspiracy, and emotion. With the occasional blast of Big Action, of course.

So let’s go over that. Established, popular characters? Check. Reinterpretation of a beloved, classic storyline? Check. Stretched-out presentation of the same? Check. Helmed by a popular creator of original works in his own right? Check. Updated characterizations that sometimes toy with the original creator’s personas? Check. A bigger, more contemplative/brooding/generally ‘big’ tone? Check.

Yeah, it’s an Ultimate book, at least as we know them now. It’s also a little different, in that it’s restricted to building its riffs around a single story instead of an entire classic body of work, but I think it’s a close enough comparison. It even indulges in shifting the focus of characterization to smaller players, examining the major characters’ motivations in different ways, though the enabling eyes of the B-List. The lead character here, Gesicht, almost seems like Jessica Jones to Urasawa’s Brian Michael Bendis, exploring the world of established characters from the author/reader’s unique viewpoint.

Wait. Jessica Jones isn’t an Ultimate character. And… crap, didn’t Bendis create her? Damn it, my analogy is already ruined!

But that’s fitting, because Pluto is a book about ruination. Gesicht is a robot detective from Europol, based in Dusseldorf of the European Federation, keeping the peace in Tezuka’s universe of human/robot interaction. He’s a great detective, and a greater robot; in fact, he’s one of the seven most powerful robots in the world (dear old Astro Boy being another), forged from the nigh-magical element of Zeronium. He’s also taken to ‘passing’ in human society as much as he can; he has a robot wife, though robots don’t particularly feel love for one another. He politely eats and drinks to better fit into the company of humans, though robots can’t taste and don’t need that sort of nutrition. He looks like a human, though his hand can transform into a gun, and he has super-powered senses. Plus, like most robots, he can store all of his memories onto a little card. These can be swapped with other robots, entire life experiences passed from one to another. Robots can even synch up, communicating across continents. Naturally, robots are hated by many humans.

But one robot, the charming and good-natured Montblanc, is almost universally loved, despite also being among the ultra-powerful seven. He’s a ‘good’ robot. Which makes it all the more shocking when he’s brutally killed, a calling-card mark of pointed horns left at the scene, the same mark that’s been left at the site of the murder of a human activist for robot rights, the mark of the Roman god of death, Pluto. It’s a robot behind the killings, an unknown, absurdly powerful robot who rides in as a literal tornado and lays waste to his target with horrid speed. Oh, and a robot hasn’t killed a human in decades (it’s blocked by their programming). And it soon becomes clear that Gesicht needs to crack this case quickly, as the key targets are plainly the seven, including himself.

And that’s not everything, though it’s the axis all of the events circle around. Urasawa has a habit of cutting from event to event, location to location, sometimes to entirely self-contained stories that only later fit into the larger plot. There’s a subplot involving a KKK-like robot hate group. There’s several encounters with a Hannibal Lector-style imprisoned robot, the last artificial construct to kill a human before the current case (or… hee hee… perhaps not). There’s a three-chapter interlude with a blind musician in Scotland and his robot butler that, for the most part, ignores the larger plot and concentrates on what it means to be a robot and a human in this future world. The logic of this universe isn’t perfect; I’m sure that having heard about the swapping of memory discs, many of you are wondering about the permanence of robot ‘death,’ and why new bodies simply can’t be rebuilt for the trashed. That’s never explained, and you’ll basically have to bear with it; it’s all part of the Tezuka homage, the inaccuracies and logical gaps in his child-intended work transmuted to a more obviously mature format, along with the characters and plot. And yet, some of this is effectively mined by Urasawa too; in this very interlude I refer to, the robot in question doesn’t look human at all. He sort of resembles a Luchadore, mask always in place, a cape surrounding his torso, which is later revealed to be nothing but a swarming mass of guns: this one was built for killing, and he wants to be more than that, and that's the point of it all, maybe the point of the whole work (certainly that was the point of Tezuka's work, but more on that later).

This leads to two more observations. Firstly, Urasawa is absolutely ruthless in his emotional button-pushing. The various killings in this story are overcharged with emotion and sadness; why settle for only one panel of little children wailing with sorrow when three can do? The aforementioned sequence with the robot and the blind guy is almost too perfect in its array of personal losses and man/machine poignancy (oh, the poor old man has learned that machines can create beauty too; way to conquer prejudice, man!); it’s almost like Urasawa is checking items off of an audience manipulation checklist he keeps by the drawing board. And yet, it works, largely on account of Urasawa’s visual drive, his storytelling clarity, and his touches of grace, as musical notes fill a sky of clouds and smoke as a massive fight scene occurs entirely out of the reader’s sight. Which leads me to my second observation: there’s not a lot of action so far. Sure, there’s brief flashes of Gesicht pulling out his (nyuk nyuk) handgun, or vividly abstracted shots of giant robots clashing, but the big fights, the major killings, are all out of view. Urasawa’s visual style neatly dispenses with many of the clichéd (to Western eyes) icons of the manga ‘style,’ with big eyes and sweat drops kept to a minimum, the emphasis here on weathered adult faces and oft hyper-detailed backgrounds. A few speed lines appear, when there’s action, which as I’ve said isn’t much. In a bold touch, Astro Boy has yet to use his powers at all; the focus is largely on investigation, and involvement in the personalities of the seven, as each confront themselves and their lives and pasts, much of which is buried.

There’s a lot of secrets here, a lot of connections between the seven. A lot of politics too, and the politics of this work will perhaps become a focal point of interest for US readers. Once upon a time, the robots joined forces to participate in a questionable war. King Darius XIV, dictator of Persia, had been accused by the United States of Thracia of hoarding robots capable of mass destruction. The United Nations sent a weapons inspection team (Astro Boy’s creator among them) into Persia to search, but nothing was found. Nonplussed, President Alexander of the United States opted to invade Persia anyway, and six out of the seven most powerful robots entered the battle as a means of keeping up appearances, the UN having already been prodded by the US into prohibiting the production of robots above a certain power level (the lone holdout was thereafter pilloried by media and robot alike for opposing the war). Much robot-on-robot and human-on-human slaughter ensued. Piles of robot corpses were uncovered, veritable killing fields, but nothing of mass destruction. And now, something has risen to kill them all, and the secrets go straight up to the White House, and into the corridors of Europol itself.

See? There’s plenty of politics, just like those superhero comics we all love to complain about. Those who don’t like the idea of political comment in sci-fi/fantasy will probably want to stay away from this title. I find the politics of the book to be fascinating; there’s a nice split between the characters as to whether or not The War was ultimately worth it - it seems that Persia’s transition to democracy is going rather smoothly. However, regardless of their feelings on The War itself, pretty much nobody likes the United States (er, the United States of Thracia, of course, ha ha). I have to give Urasawa’s art some major credit here; he’s extremely good at crafting caricatures of political leaders that manage to be distinctly different from, say, George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein, but retain enough essence of the true public figures that we obviously get what Urasawa is talking about. He even nails the repetitive, buzzword loaded style of Bush’s televised speeches, which is pretty damn impressive for a non-English speaker (though some of this might also be due to sweetening by translator Stephen Paul).

It’s a strong, challenging work of genre homage. It has confidence in its storytelling and power in its style. Just to revive my stretched-to-breaking analogy for a moment, many have wondered exactly how much impact the Ultimate books could have on readers who don’t know much about the characters. Well Pluto is quite similar in approach to those Marvel must-haves, and I promise you that you don’t need to know your Astro Boy to get into this. You’ll be waiting for new episodes, just as I am, as if it‘s purely its own work.

But, also like the Ultimate books, there is something to be said for being familiar with the source material. And look at what’s available in English:

Astro Boy Vol. 3 (of 23)

Containing The Greatest Robot on Earth, the story which Pluto is based on. Dark Horse put this out as part of their extensive Astro Boy reprint project, translated by the much-respected Frederik L. Schodt, and presented out of chronological order. This story is from 1964-1965 (a back-up short hails from 1958), and Tezuka offers a special in-story introduction, suggesting that Dark Horse took its source from a revised version of the collected manga (or maybe Tezuka inserted this sequence in the story’s very first collection - I don’t know). Tezuka mentions that this is one of the most popular Astro Boy stories ever, which neatly explains why it would be so extensively revised in the future; I expect that many readers of Pluto are familiar with the basic plot, in the same way that many American comics readers are familiar with the fate of Gwen Stacey, or the Fantastic Four’s encounters with Doctor Doom. In such spirit, I will now blow pretty much all of the surprises that await readers of Pluto and Pluto only, provided that Urasawa doesn’t make major alterations to the story’s structure.


The Greatest Robot on Earth is vintage Tezuka, loaded with his common concerns, his desire for peace and justice, and his constant mashing of slapstick humor and broad pathos. It’s also quite an impressively deep work, and it’s frankly astonishing how much of Pluto’s subtext has been taken from the Tezuka original nearly unchanged. There’s alterations, yes. Pluto is the name of the rampaging, killing robot, and he’s a constant visible and chatty presence (in Urasawa's work, he's barely even been seen thus far). He’s been programmed to destroy the seven most powerful robots in the world by his evil deposed Sultan master, who wants pretty much nothing beyond ownership of the most powerful robot of them all. Pluto kills because that’s all there is to it; it's in his design. The opening slaughter of Mont Blanc (two words in this version) is just as distressing in Tezuka’s version, perhaps more so because Tezuka refuses to linger on the fall-out; Mont Blanc is a wholly good robot, and he dies because he’s run into someone who’s powerful and doesn’t care. That’s all there is to it.

Well, no. Actually that’s not all. About halfway through, it becomes apparent that Tezuka intends the story as an allegory for militarism, with robots of all nations fighting because they feel pride, or because they’re ordered to by their masters, literal programming standing in for nationalistic or ideological indoctrination. Even those who don’t want to fight, must. The robots are set up as soldiers, sent off to do war at the behest of the power-hungry, but all they ever kill is other robots (soldiers). Indeed, they literally cannot kill humans, so their creators are conveniently out of danger. Sure, there’s good people like Astro Boy’s creator, who uses himself as a human shield to prevent some violence (re-casting him as a UN weapons inspector was a stroke of genius on Urasawa‘s part), but he can’t do it all the time. Meanwhile, Astro Boy, vastly more proactive in this incarnation and prone to fighting with Pluto, feels some serious angst about powering himself up to one million horsepower, a pat metaphor for armament, the ‘going nuclear’ of robots. Many feel that Astro Boy will lose his mind with such power, that robots shouldn’t be so powerful.

But, like in Urasawa’s work, Astro Boy is a peace-loving sort, determined to find the good in everyone. Indeed, you can almost see Astro Boy’s role in Urasawa’s work as the presence of Tezuka himself, striving for peace and love at all costs. Tezuka notes in his introduction that “…I couldn’t bear to make Pluto a completely evil robot,” and Pluto accordingly becomes moved by Astro Boy’s kindness, and the spunk of his sister Uran (Urasawa cleverly pays homage to her “scaredy-cat” taunts in his own work). Pluto then strives to reform himself.

And fails. Completely.

Every robot dies in this story except for Astro Boy, his sister, and one other character. Yes, Gesicht dies too (here he’s known as Gerhardt), along with all of the seven, save for Our Hero. Pluto eventually becomes entangled with Bora, an ultra-powerful robot created by a rogue scientist (I strongly suspect this character will eventually be cast by Urasawa as a modern terrorist, though likely in the V For Vendetta semi-sympathetic mold), and he tries to do all that he can to save the day: kill. And he dies, and Bora dies, but it’s important that none of the humans die. Indeed, one might be annoyed that the wicked Sultan gets off more-or-less scot-free; this is Tezuka’s point, though. The powerful don’t pay for their actions, even when violence is turned toward justice; only soldiers and civilians die in the end. Lots of them.

A moody message for what’s essentially a story for kids. The necessities of kid comics even leads Tezuka into a bit of hypocracy; he mentions that “Lots of readers excitedly followed the battles,” and surely there’s enough of that. No off-panel artiness here; we’ve got joint-crunching fights galore. Which Tezuka then spins around and condemns, though the entertainment content of his story pretty much depends on the violence. It seems inherently contradictory, though likely mandated by the realities of the market; one can see, though, why Urasawa might approach the same message in a less direct way, to avoid such a sense of patent contradiction.

But it looks great, Tezuka already approaching the artistic highs he’d reach only five years later with Phoenix. It’s utterly turbo-charged melodrama ripping through a city of fights and comedy. One doesn’t sense the emotional manipulations of Urasawa’s version of the story, because Tezuka is simply too damned direct; you’ll laugh when a character trips, you’ll cry when Pluto asks Uran to be his friend, and you’ll cry a little more as Astro Boy surveys the final scene of carnage and declares “…I still believe robots will all become friends someday and never, ever fight each other again…” Because that’s just how Tezuka is. That's what he wants and you'll know it.

When will they sit in judgment of the humans who created temporary life, out of a limitless lust for power and control, and then destroyed it?” So asks Tezuka in his introduction. The hope is mixed with guilt, with a feeling of reckoning, with an understanding of the cruelties behind childhood beat-’em-up icons. This needs no modern update to be brought to the fore, it was there all the time already.

Back to Pluto for a sec

So what does this mean for the future of Urasawa’s work? It looks to be about halfway complete, judging from its progress in comparison with the original. Frankly, I’m almost hoping that he never characterizes Pluto (though there’s already subtle hints of the sympathetic robot that Tezuka crafted), that Astro Boy never uses his powers (though I can’t imagine how the political-minded Urasawa could resist the whole ‘power-up’ motif), and that the story just ends with Gesicht’s death, with nothing left resolved, save for thematic strands to be tied up to give the reader a sense of completion. This will take guts, and I’m not sure how Urasawa’s audience will react. But I’m kind of hoping he goes for it.

Ah, more likely he’ll just keep Gesicht alive until the end; he’s certainly played around which the action so far, keeping Astro Boy out of the fights when Tezuka would just let him charge in. More interesting, however, is the characterization of the threat. The giant rogue robot, Bora, is what the US was looking for in Iraq (er, Persia) before they invaded. And it seems like there’s some sort of gigantic power behind Not President Bush. Perhaps Urasawa is looking to replace one power, the deposed ruler, with the deposers in the context of the story. Maybe the US is behind it all, acting as stand-ins for Tezuka’s power-lusty dictator. And maybe that’ll hurt Pluto’s chances for a US (that’s the United States of America, now, not those mean Thracians) release.

Who knows? Maybe Urasawa will start mixing things up even more as the storyline progresses. No matter what he does, I want to see how he handles Tezuka’s big picture, since he’s obviously interested in moving the robots-as-soldiers metaphor into high gear. Let’s see how far he goes.

I definitely want to see.