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Danielle Leigh’s Reading Diary — Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka vol 1-3

Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto — a retelling of Osamu Tezuka’s “The Greatest Robot on Earth” story from Astro Boy – currently stands as the best comic I’ve read in 2009.

pluto

The storyline of Pluto is deceptively simple — someone or something is killing off the seven greatest robots on earth.  In Urasawa’s version of the story, robots and humans live in something akin to harmony, but not quite.  The seven robots currently being targeted for death all appear to have one thing in common and that is they were designed to be “weapons of mass destruction.”  These greatest robots were involved in the so-called “39th Central Asian War” against a Persian dictator believed to be building his own robot weapons of mass destruction.  However, these “weapons” were never found even once his country was invaded by U.N. robot “peacekeeping forces,” and the nation suffered enormous loss of human life and property.  The war has been over for four years and now that the world seems peaceful, the robots’ talents for destruction are no longer needed, and yet because they are so powerful, it is believed they still hold the balance of the world in their hands.

Volume one of Pluto opens on two murders taking place around the same time period — one the beloved Swiss robot Mont Blanc and the other a human who was a robot rights’ activist.  The cases are clearly connected thanks to the postmortem message left by the killer, who added “horns” to the head of each body after death (which is where the title “Pluto” comes from — the killer is assigned the moniker of the Roman god of death in this work).  One thing that isn’t clear about the murders is that there appears to be evidence pointing to a potential human and / or robot culprit/s.  (Or perhaps a robot that fancies himself a human?)  However, in this world there are such things as “robot laws” that ensure robots are unable to kill humans (although they can certainly kill each other and did in astoundingly high numbers during the 39th Central Asian War).  That means we have to wonder who, in such a world, would build a robot capable of killing human beings and why would they build it?

Gesicht, one of the seven greatest robots and formerly a member of the war-time robot “peacekeeping forces,” works for Interpol and is assigned these baffling cases.  Gesicht is a great investigator, of course, with his extraordinary abilities of perception, but what is constantly surprising is that he can be surprised.  In this world a robot can adapt and change — perhaps even grow — and once built they are never static beings.  Even if built for one thing, the seven greatest robots all develop their own interests, histories and lives.  They are not merely the sum of their parts, but also the sum of their individual experiences.

In the first three volumes, more robots and humans are killed, but there never seems to be an entirely clear cut or simple motive since the robots and humans being killed are not simple beings themselves.  Urasawa’s depiction of robots is marvelously complex, as the more advanced they become, the more and more they taken on human characteristics.  I’m fascinated by Gesicht.  He looks human, can pass as human, has very human characteristics — for example, he dreams — but he is fundamentally not human.  However, each of the seven greatest robots demonstrate an extraordinary ability to explore what it means to be human.  What it means to have memories, to have nightmares, to physically and emotionally feel, to touch, and to experience.

Pluto may be a mystery, but the comic is also a touching meditation on what makes us human.  Robots are a always a reflection of humans, of course, since we are the ones that build them.  It only makes sense that they desire to take on their creators’ abilities.  However, when Atom, the robot who looks and appears like any other little boy, is told about the one robot who has known to have defied the robot laws and killed a human being, he wonders if it is not actually human to kill, as well.  Whether or not Urasawa ever attempts to answer Atom’s chilling question, he certainly isn’t afraid to raise it and build an entire comic around all the moral ambiguity it implies about the human condition.

Pluto is one of the most finely crafted comics I’ve ever read.  Reading this work is like being carried along by a great film, as there something beautifully dynamic about the flow of images and words, always building in each chapter to create an alternative world to our own that always feels authentic.  Urasawa can use a mere line or two to completely change a character’s expression, as easily he can align shading, detailed line work, and complex and varied geometric shapes to represent the futuristic cities of Pluto.  The Viz editions are quite pleasing, with color pages at the front of each volume, french flaps, and interviews and information about how Urasawa came to re-work the great Tezuka’s story at the back of each volume.

Review copy of Pluto volume 3 provided by Viz.

9 Comments

Andrew Collins

May 15, 2009 at 10:38 am

Nice review. And I’m in total agreement. This is an AMAZING manga. I can’t wait for volume 3 to come out next week. I’ve been critical of VIZ at times in the past, but I appreciate the full treatment they’re giving both Pluto and 20th Century Boys, not to mention the super nice bi-monthly schedules…

Total agreement here. Pluto and 20th Century Boy single-handedly brought me back into manga.

I love this series! I hope it gets enough support so that Viz will publish it on a timely schedule. Monster was so fantastic that I’m sold on anything Urasawa does. 20th Century Boys is very well structured too and easy to read considering how it jumps back and forth in time.

I know Pluto is based on an old Astro Boy story so I’ve been tempted to go back and find that story to read but I don’t want to spoil this series!

Yay, I’m so glad you like it. I think that reading the Astro Boy story first helps because you can really appreciate how Urasawa has improved/updated the original story and characters, and it doesn’t really spoil things, since Urasawa, while, perhaps, keeping the same fundamental structure, has added many humanizing elements to the story.

Based on your advice, I decided to pull out volume 3 of the DH collection and reread it. That was a pretty good story. I didn’t think I’d have any sympathy for Pluto but by the end, Tezuka made me a convert. I had to laugh when reading it though when I thought of Urasawa having Astro’s sister putting stickers on the current Pluto!

[...] Inspector (Kuriousity) Michelle Smith on vol. 2 of Otomen (Soliloquy in Blue) Danielle Leigh on vols. 1-3 of Pluto (Comics Should Be Good) Julie on vols. 8 and 9 of The Prince of Tennis (Manga Maniac Cafe) Connie [...]

I’m trying my damnedest to savor this series, but every new book that comes out gets devoured…instantly. Of Urasawa’s other series, which one should I start next?

Danielle Leigh

May 18, 2009 at 7:34 am

Seriously, you can’t go wrong with either 20th Century Boys or Monster. Monster is completely out now (at 18 volumes) while the first two volumes of 20th Century Boys have been released. Have at them!

However, when Atom, the robot who looks and appears like any other little boy, is told about the one robot who has known to have defied the robot laws and killed a human being, he wonders if it is not actually human to kill, as well. Whether or not Urasawa ever attempts to answer Atom’s chilling question, he certainly isn’t afraid to raise it and build an entire comic around all the moral ambiguity it implies about the human condition.

This is extremely well said. What a great review! I am glad I can read it now. :)

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