Last week I started re-reading one of my favourite comic series ever. It’s a manga by Naoki Urasawa called Pluto and is based on the characters and world of Astro Boy created by Osamu Tezuka.
First time I read Pluto it was while I was waiting for a new volume of Urasawa’s other series 20th Century Boys. I was so into that series that I just needed more of his work. In hind site, with both series long over I think I can safely say that while I enjoyed the experience and mystery of 20th Century Boys more, Pluto is the objectively better series. 20th Century Boys is great and reading that series gave me the same feeling I got reading Y: The Last Man and watching Lost. The only problem with it is that it is very long and I think there is at least a handful of volumes in the back half that could trimmed down or cut out. Pluto doesn’t suffer from that, it is a tight eight volume series and moves very fast while still feeling like a meaty story.
I’ve never read any Astro Boy but I know my comic book history so am aware of its importance to the medium. I’m not really interested in reading any either as I loved Pluto so much that it has become the definitive vision of the characters for me.
In this view of the not too distant future humans live along side super advanced robots who live regular lives. They have jobs, family, feelings. For all intense and purposes they’re know different than the human population with the exception of heightened senses, strength, intelligence and other typical robot attributes. They have similar if not equal rights as humans but are all programmed with an inability to cause physical harm to them.
The main plot of Pluto is a murder mystery. Someone or something is hunting and killing the most powerful robots in the world and Europol Detective Gesight is trying to track them down. The first volume plays out a lot like a typical mystery story with elements of a noir thriller. Gesight is following leads and investigating the case while the bad guy always seems to be one step ahead. Along the way Gesight discovers he is more involved than just being the cop assigned to the case and everything begins to get a lot more personal. We often have asides to the other very powerful robots around the world and after the first time or two of chapters like this you begin to dread them as you become attached to the new characters only for them to be killed off shortly after.
That is part of the genius of the story telling as at the very end of volume one we meet Atom (Astro Boy) who is a robot who appears as an adorable young boy. You’re instantly in fear for him because he is a beacon of light and positivity which is a stark contrast to Gesight who is very stoic and you get the feeling that he’s seen a lot of horrible shit in his line of work.
Having never read any of Tezuka’s original Astro Boy I can’t comment on what is taken directly from that series but there are definite themes prevalent throughout a lot of Urasawa’s works. I’ve read most of the stuff of his that has been translated into English and you can tell that despite being from and living in Japan that he has spent a lot of time around the world, Germany in particular. His series are rarely set solely in Japan and a lot more global spanning than a lot of other manga.
The comparison I made to Y: The Last Man extends beyond the feeling a got form reading 20th Century Boys. Urasawa and Brian K Vaughan have a lot of similar story telling quirks; they are great at setting up characters in a fascinating world that is surrounded by mystery. They use that mystery as a backdrop to tell really personal stories. The problem that some people have with them both is that when they have series’ that go long they get frustrated at not getting answers to lingering questions. With a couple of series that I won’t name for fear of giving spoilers, by the time they get to the end any conclusion to the overall story that is given feels unsatisfying. I understand that criticism but don’t agree with it. I say the same thing in defence of Lost when people moan about that ending poorly; these stories are about the characters and not necessarily the situation. The situations and circumstances are there as a means for the creator to tell the personal character stories they are trying to tell. Thats not the case for every story, but it seems to be the way these creators work.
I may be biased because I’ve enjoyed his works and it may just be the format they are published in in the US/UK but Uraswas series’ always have a prestige presentation to them and it feels like an event when he releases something new.
It’s been at least five or six years since I read the series and I’m really enjoying reading it again. I know where it is going and remember big moments but I feel like I’m picking up on a lot of the nuance and deeper themes in the story way more this time round. I’m also taking my time going through, reading a chapter or two in bed at night, instead of just devouring entire volumes in one hit and being done with the series in a couple of weeks.
I really think that Pluto transcends not just manga for comic book readers who foolishly look at that format derogatorily but also for anyone who enjoys reading a good mystery story. I would encourage anyone to give it a go, even if they’ve never read any comics before.
Go read something, and come back tomorrow to read more from me!