The realities of one's signature.

*Manga weekend, where did the time go? Originally at a loss for other things to do today, I vowed to read the entirety (all 2000+ pages) of Hideo Yamamoto’s original Ichi the Killer - and then I found out I actually did have other things to do today. Still, it’s pretty amazing how faithful Takashi Miike’s famous film adaptation is to this material, right down to the gore set pieces; the next time you hear someone babbling about the Ichi movie and what a deranged imagination Miike has keep in mind - that’s mostly Yamamoto’s deranged mind at work.

I also got polished off the second volume of Love Roma, and there’s remarkably little to say about it - it’s still cute as a button, and there’s some great laughs, and the ever-expanding supporting cast is generally fun, but gosh has this book settled quickly into formula, with almost each story in the book structured as ‘humorous problems create tension between Hoshino and Negishi - a (possibly new) supporting cast member is involved - banter from the regular supporting cast - amusing comments (Hoshino) and punching (Negishi) - half-serious but clearly heartfelt declaration of affection.’ The end! It’s still entertaining, sure, but I’ve learned not to read too much of it at once.

Actually, one of the bigger laughs was on the back cover, with a laudatory quote from CLAMP. Not any member of CLAMP in particular, just CLAMP. Which kind of brings to mind the image of all of CLAMP’s members chanting their pull quote at once, or maybe holding a democratic vote on what will be the official language of the CLAMP declaration of affection for Love Roma. It must be like drafting legislation.

Naoki Urasawa’s Monster Vol. 1 (of 18)

Much like the other debut book in VIZ’s new ‘VIZ Signature’ line of manga, Golgo 13, this one hasn’t appeared on Diamond’s list for Direct Market release yet, though it’s been in certain chain bookstores for over a week now.

VIZ Signature. There’s already been a lot of talk over what exactly this brand intends to encompass - frankly, I see it as a pretty transparent attempt to relaunch VIZ’s old ‘Editor’s Choice’ line, thus building some extra marketing steam (these tricks don’t just work for superheroes). Which of course leads us right into the quicksand of what exactly the Editor’s Choice line was. Some have been saying that VIZ Signature is an attempt to get out some more literary manga onto US shelves - I thus hope that all listening take ‘literary’ in a broad sense, so that higher-grade suspense potboilers and ripping yarns of international intrigue will fall under the umbrella (it’s a valid use of the term), instead of expecting works of along the line of what we’d clumsily term the ‘literary novel.’ Something like The Times of Botchan will fill that latter criteria, but nobody in their right mind is going to confuse the debut books in the VIZ Signature line with anything akin. What we’re talking about is pop entertainment operating on a somewhat more sophisticated level than Naruto (and don’t go toppling into the ‘sophisticated = better’ fallacy); expecting the manga equivalent of Ulysses is only going to lead you down the path to tears.

Case in point: Naoki Urasawa’s Monster. This is quite the anticipated book; a vocal fan base having been built up via scanlations, assorted anime adaptations, and what trickles of half-Urasawa work that have made their way into the English-speaking world (hey there, Pineapple Army!), we’re now primed to enjoy the first volley of solo work from the title creator, hugely popular in his native country. Surely VIZ wouldn’t have plugged his name into the title if they weren’t counting on big things. With so much talk about Urasawa’s work having already happened (I mean, just look at my sidebar), it’s kind of easy to forget that there’s now eighteen books to put out, to sell, then over twenty more for Urasawa’s next epic. Suddenly, the reality of sales and physical releases comes smashing down. And though I haven’t read Monster (as I’ll hereafter call it for ease of typing), my reactions to the book must be colored by the true circumstances surrounding its format - those reactions are decidedly mixed.

We’ve all heard the complaints rising from the Direct Market comics culture surrounding introductory issues of pamphlet-format comics series - often, little of note seems to happen, despite the usual monetary toll having been extracted from the reader. For a while, ‘decompression’ became the buzzword for a malady robbing individual issues of their own personal impact. But as Abhay Khosla noted in his influential evaluation of Urasawa’s body of work at Comic Book Galaxy, the American comics market perhaps doesn’t have an appropriate financial system in place to allow for successful ‘decompression’ - not to mention the fact that artists often don’t release works with enough frequency to make the effect of stringing the reader along as pleasurable as one like Urasawa can do it. Even in North America, manga have it a bit easier; while there’s nothing in place to match the anthology-based serialization system of the initial publication of manga works, such comics do have the benefit of arriving in huge, inexpensive 200+ page chunks, the effect of moment-stretching often alleviated.

And yet, this first book of Monster seems to defy even the power of such bulky release - it’s undeniably a 200+ page set-up. Seriously, go look up some spoiler-free summary of Monster’s overarching plot; it will describe this first volume, quite perfectly. That’s maybe not a huge surprise; there are seventeen whole books to go (the original serialization ran from 1994-2001), and maybe that makes an extra-sized introduction appropriate. But as much as I enjoy Urasawa’s work, he really does the new reader few favors here - Urasawa has always had a tendency toward brutal emotional button-pushing, ruthless manipulations of the reader’s feelings. It’s certainly visible in his (more recent) Pluto, but usually Urasawa’s special way with the page, his excellent sense of plot movement and careful attention to character manage to cover for his grosser moments of nerve plucking, or at least outweigh them in cumulative effect.

Not so here - the entire first half of this book features the very hammiest of Urasawa’s hambone melodrama, with the idealistic Dr. Tenma, a brilliant surgeon working at a bustling West German hospital in 1986, falls victim to the horrors of hospital politics. You’ll see wicked bureaucrats and political operatives so obviously and irredeemably sinister they might as well be accompanied by captions reading “VILLAINY!” as soon as they slither onto the page. You’ll know that Tenma’s fiancée, daughter of the hospital’s Head Director, is bad news as soon as you see her - she’s got a ‘bad’ face, as opposed to the ‘good’ faces of the sweet nurses that will cheer good Dr. Tenma on.

The moral problems the Doctor runs into are no more complex; he discovers that during a high-pressure operation to save the life of a celebrity, he was intentionally moved away from aiding a poor laborer by the hospital higher-ups (VILLAINY!). The now-dead man’s wife confronts him in a bout of wailing and gnashing of teeth worthy of Lillian Gish, so naturally when exactly the same situation rises a little while later, the good-hearted Doctor opts to save a wounded young boy, the apparent victim of a brutal home invasion/double murder that took his parents’ lives, over the Mayor. Naturally, this leads to much cackling and rejection by the Head Director, Dr. Tenma’s expulsion from the promotion track, his callous abandonment by his fiancée, and other awful events - just for being a good man! Villains! Villains all!

Mercifully, we then hit the halfway mark, when the mysterious killings start up, apparently knocking off everyone who’s opposed Dr. Tenma. If you happened to glance at an online plot summary or the back of the book or something, you sort of know what’s coming. But let it be said that once the book’s suspense gears start turning, Urasawa’s natural talents as an entertainment craftsman spring into action; characters almost instantly become more interesting (the lecherous, dangerously incompetent Dr. Becker turns out to be a pretty great character, and that scary BKA agent is a damn nice presence), the visuals are finally allowed to spread out into some great action (just wait for the beautifully-mounted exteriors and shadows and angles of the final chapter), and the generally interesting conspiratorial backstory of the megaplot starts to rise to the top. It’s not that there aren’t still moments of Dr. Tenma being almost comically pure of heart (and we really didn’t need multiple scenes of blissful elderly patients reminding us of how wonderful the good Doctor is), it’s just that Urasawa is able to mix his less satisfying storytelling instincts in with his more heartening ones. And that livens up the book until the end, and the big revelation which isn’t actually much of a revelation since it’s pretty obvious, and probably already spoiled for anyone who’s read anything about the book online.

Since this is, of course, an introduction.

It occurs to me that this first book of Monster forms a tidy little story all on its own. A tale of hopelessly misplaced idealism and cruel irony, with a nasty punchline at the end. The problem is, it’s not a good story; half of it’s dangerously overbaked, the irony (in taking the book as a single unit) is tortured, the twists are forced, the punchline telegraphed. Often times having the introduction to a larger work act kind of as a self-contained thing is a good choice, but all bets are off when the work isn’t up to snuff; if I say this book is an introduction, I suppose I’m really saying that the positive reader (maybe idealistic like the Doctor!) can only ever take it as an introduction, as its component pieces between the covers aren’t all that satisfying. There’s good, even great moments, but they’re not quite enough yet.

And still, Urasawa is an eminently capable talent, and there’s real potential here. The big hope of this book is that it ends much stronger than it starts, and maybe that’ll lead you hesitantly into Book 2.