Thursday, September 17, 2009


Naoki Urasawa's Pluto is the best mainstream comic currently coming out. I'm using the term "mainstream" here to refer to the type of material usually popular with a wide audience, as opposed to something like, I don't know, Mat Brinkman's (also great) Multiforce. I could also have said "genre" comic, I guess. I did not want to say "manga."

Why am I leading this review off with a lot of fussing over always-tricky comics terminology? Probably because I'm not a very good writer. Buy also because I really want to put Urasawa's masterpiece in the proper context. In other words, I can't imagine how you would compare it to a comic like Multiforce, but it certainly holds its own against the best of what the American mainstream has to offer. Hell, I finally got around to reading Darwyn Cooke's much lauded The Hunter last night, right after I had finished the latest volume of Pluto and, while I enjoyed Cooke's book, of the two I preferred the Pluto volume. That might not mean much to you, but I think it's significant in that I have fairly diverse tastes in comics, and am by no means a manga "fan." To me, manga is just comics. I like the good stuff and I ignore the bad stuff. Pluto is the good stuff. The very good stuff.

I suppose the context in which Pluto is considered is so important to me because I feel like it is under appreciated by the very audience I think should be enjoying it the most: American mainstream comics fans. With Pluto, Urasawa is doing something very unique in manga but fairly common in American comics. He is taking a well known, beloved character originally intended to entertain young children (Astro Boy), and reimagining him and his adventures for a modern, older, more cynical audience. Isn't this the very approach taken by almost all mainstream comics writers? That's what Geoff Johns is doing with Green Lantern, right? Or Ed Brubaker with Captain America? Look at Marvel's "Ultimate" line. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a modern superhero comic that did NOT take this approach to one degree or another. And some of those comics are very good.

Here's the thing, though: Naoki Urasawa is a much, much better cartoonist than almost any mainstream artist or writer that I can think of. His storytelling is crystal clear, and that alone is enough to set him apart from a lot (not all) of the most popular American comics artists. Looking again at The Hunter, there were a couple of wordless or near-wordless sequences in that book that, while they looked beautiful, I had a hard time following just what was going on from panel to panel. It lacked a kind of "flow," to the point that I'm not sure I would have caught everything that was happening had I not recently read Donald Westlake's novel from which Cooke's book was adapted. Urasawa would have totally nailed those scenes. I don't think I've ever paused for even half a second trying to work out what I was seeing in an Urasawa panel, and he's drawn some pretty wild stuff, particularly in the latest volumes of Pluto. I'm pretty sure you could follow a volume of Pluto without reading the words and come out with an okay idea of what was going on. The characters' faces and the range of emotions they express are a wonder to behold.

There's a lot more that Pluto does well, things supposedly prized by mainstream comics fans. Urasawa could teach a class on "the art of the cliffhanger," for example. Also, they should really create some kind of category in the Eisner Awards for character design, so that Pluto could win it. This quality of the work is a treat for readers already familiar with Tezuka's original Astro Boy (known also as Mighty Atom). Urasawa masterfully plays with our expectations regarding when and how characters from the original manga will appear, the first appearance of Astro Boy/Atom at the end of the first volume being the best example of this. That particular sequence is hands down my favorite comics "moment" of 2009.

Christ, what else? I've hardly talked about the story. Sorry about that. It's a mystery. Someone is killing the world's most powerful robots, and it's up to one of those robots, the German police robot Gesicht, to find out who or what is responsible. Sounds pretty straightforward, but the story becomes steadily more complex as it goes along, encompassing sub-mysteries (such as Gesicht's missing memories), the origin of Atom, human/robot relations, and a talking teddy bear thrown in for good measure. Oh, and it's also something of a political allegory for the current war on terror and post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy. At the heart of the story is the philosophical question of just what it means to be human. Yes, this sort of thing has been seen in millions of comics, but, again, Urasawa simply does it better. It never becomes a cliche, or if it does, you don't notice because Urasawa is so damned good at what he does, and the mystery is so compelling.

So, yeah, I guess what frustrates me is that this comic is probably only read by manga fans and people who follow Marvel and DC aren't aware of it, or dismiss it because it's manga. Usually I don't care at all about that kind of thing, but with Pluto it's frustrating. I think competence is mistaken for mastery a lot of the time by mainstream comics fans, and a book like Pluto would be instructive. And I would think they'd really enjoy it. Maybe not, though. Maybe because they didn't grow up reading Astro Boy, it wouldn't excite them as much as a bad-ass version of Green Lantern. And that's fine too, I guess. I don't know, if you like good comics, I think you'll like Pluto.


Addendum: Naoki Urasawa's other two translated works, Monster and 20th Century Boys, are quite good as well.


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