Monday, August 31, 2009

Manga Mondays - Pluto Vol 1 and 20th Century Boys Vol 1

Recently, I've been reading more and more manga and, as such, I'm starting a new weekly column here at The Weekly Crisis called, you guessed it, Manga Mondays, where I will be reviewing one or two manga volumes. I hope you enjoy it.

One of the first manga I tried out was Monster by Naoki Urasawa. I enjoyed the first volume, but the fact that I knew there were 17 other volumes to read for that series was fairly off putting since I was getting so many other comics already. Eventually, I heard of two new series from Urasawa that were finally being released in North America - Pluto and 20th Century Boys. Wanting to read more work from Urasawa, I picked up the first volume for each series. Hit the jump to see what I thought about each.

Written by Naoki Urasawa, Osamu Tezuka, and Takashi Nagasaki
Art by Naoki Urasawa
Adaption By Jared Cook and Frederick L. Schodt

Pluto is a reworking of the Astro Boy story, The Greatest Robot On Earth. I haven't read, or watched, any thing Astro Boy related so the comparisons are lost on me, but I still enjoyed the story, which works very well on its own.

Pluto stars Gesicht, an investigative robot that works for Europol and is one of the seven most advanced robots in the world. He is eventually called in on two cases with an eerie connection. The first is the murder of the famous and popular robot, Mont Blanc, and the other is the murder of the Robot Laws activist, Bernard Lanke - both victims had objects embedded in their heads to make it look like they had horns.

The only possible suspect in both cases was a robot, which shouldn't be possible due to the Robot Laws. After tracking down some leads, Gesicht learns of a plot to kill the seven most advanced robots in the world, which sets up the main plot of the book. Although Urasawa establishes the main plot for the series in this volume, it focuses more on introducing other characters and setting up subplots.

The main character, Gesicht, is a little on the bland side, personality wise, though he is still a decent protagonist. He isn't completely uninteresting, it's just he doesn't have any strong personality traits or quirks that make him stand out. He's a decent character otherwise.

There are also a couple of supporting characters introduced throughout and you can get a good feel for their personalities in a few pages. The two most important ones are Brando, another of the seven robots being targeted, and Brau 1589, the only robot known to have killed a human. Urasawa does a good job of using them to move the plot forward while still fleshing them out as characters.

Overall, the story is pretty average and mostly introductory, but is still satisfactory since it's by Urasawa, who is a good plotter. The story has good flow and featuers several revelations throughout as well. One out of place thing about the story was a three chapter side story about North No. 2, another one of the seven robots being targeted, and the old, blind musician he is a servant to. It's good and is a compelling character study and Urasawa does some wonderful work on developing how robots act and feel in the world of Pluto. North No.2 is a good character and Urasawa gets a lot done with him in only three chapters, but it doesn't really seem to have anything to do with the rest of the book. Of course, it could come into play later, but as it stands, it's really only tangential to the main plot, so it seems weird that Urasawa devotes almost half of the book to it.

I still like Urasawa's art as much as I did in Monster. Again, a lot of it's strength's have to do with his layouts and the way he frames sequences. His character work is again, still great and he does a good job of bringing the characters to life. The one thing I found weak about his art were the designs for the robots, though I don't know if that's because of him sticking with something similar to Tezuka's style or not.

Verdict - Must Read. Despite the low key introduction, the first volume of Pluto is still a compelling read with an interesting plot and cast that also lays the ground work for future stories.

Written by Naoki Urasawa
Art by Naoki Urasawa
Adaptation by Akemi Wegmuller

20th Century Boys is a conspiracy thriller about the end of the world. The story revolves around Kenji, a convenience store owner who lives in Tokyo who takes care of his niece since his sister left her in the care of her mother and him.

One day, the police come to Kenji's convenience store asking about a customer who has gone missing. After going to the customer's house, Kenji discovers a mysterious symbol that he believes he has seen before. After a couple more strange incidents, Kenji realizes that he is somehow connected to the mysterious symbol and is determined to find out how.

As I've mentioned before, Urasawa is a wonderful plotter and, in this series, his skills are perfect in that regard. What makes the story work as a suspense story is the fact that Urasawa cuts back and forth between different eras. Kenji's connection to the mysterious symbol is from his childhood and, even though the story nominally takes place in the present, a lot of the important details of the story take place in the past.

Urasawa does a wonderful job of introducing a plot point or clue in one era and then expanding on it in another. He uses it perfectly to build up the suspence and tension. For example, he kind of a teases a resolution at the beginning of the book, yet doesn't really give anything vital way and it only adds to the story since it helps to build reader interest in what happened. Another great thing he does is that even though something will be used to illuminate part of a mystery at point in time, Urasawa never gives anything completely away and leaves plenty of room for further development later. Although this could make the story feel like a jumbled mess, Urasawa does not allow that to happen. Despite the fact that the story jumps around a lot, it always feels like a natural progression.

Another thing that could make the story a mess is the large cast, but, again, that does not happen. Urasawa does a good job of handling the various characters, both main and supporting, and introducing them only when the story requires them to be introduced, which does not force him to rush character development. He also uses the time jumping aspect of the story to help develop the characters as well. He uses the childhood scenes to both establish the characters personalities and, with some of them, contrast that with how they are in the present. There is also a nice diversity to the cast's personality which allow them to stand out when they are together.

Like always, Urasawa's art is enjoyable and gets the job done. His panels and layouts are still great and really help to improve the story. The character work is also fantastic and it's pretty easy to tell which character is which even though they story switches between their childhood's and the present, where they are adults. He manages to have their faces keep their same basic qualities, which is what makes them identifiable, but manages to make them look older as adults while keeping those same qualities. Again, like always, he manages to make them very emotive as well and manages to convey a good amount through their facial expressions. Though they play only a little part of the story at this point, I did like his designs for the non-real world aspects of the book. Again, they are barely there, but I do like them, especially the mysterious symbol that plays such a large part of the story.

Verdict - Must Read. An engrossing conspiracy with a wonderful and dynamic cast that is masterfully produced and should appeal to anyone.

Curious about these two manga? Pick up Pluto Vol 1 and/or 20th Century Boys Vol 1, The Prophet from and help support the Weekly Crisis!

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Flip The Page said...

Holy crap an excuse to put my manga hat on!

Naoki Urasawa is generally accepted as the deepest seinen writer and his current series (Billy Bat) is making some sizable waves. I'm not big on 20th Century Boys, but then it just feels like it's missing that special something that his other works like Monster have.

[/manga hat]

Anonymous said...

I hate to sound like a ass, but North No. 2 does come into play later.

Thanks for reviewing this though. I absolutely adore Urasawa, and I love how he's getting a much larger presence in American market these days.

Melissa said...

I'm not much of a manga reader, myself, but I loved Monster and I'm really looking forward to reading Pluto.

Eric Rupe said...

Anonymous - Yeah, that's what I guessed but I didn't know for sure.

Anonymous said...

you DO realize that 20th Century boys is more volumes than Monster ... right?

go back and read Monster .... the volumes shouldn't intimidate you.

all 3 titles are amazing reads. Pluto is currently my favourite but that probably because i finished Monster a few months ago.

Eric Rupe said...

Anonymous - While 20th Century Boys may be longer overall, there are only 4 volumes out in America vs the 18 for Monster, making it easy to collect. Monster is something that I'll buy in chucks when I get some extra money. It's the same thing I do with America series, like with Powers by Bendis. I'll buy the trades a couple at a time when I some extra money instead of, say, buying one a month instead of getting some trade that was recently released.

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